Sunday, September 11, 2011


by Scott Bradley

Finally, I am reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have wanted to for a long time, and having recently seen him quoted in a positive light by authors of different religious persuasions, resolved to buy and read it.

At James' invitation (in his prologue), I have jumped to the end of his nearly 500 page study to discover what are his own religious sentiments. And in doing so, I have encountered his idea of over-belief. Over-belief is one's interpretive explanation of his or her religious experience.

James believed that religious experience originates in the subconscious. By the subconscious he does not mean a shallow, deterministic pool of motivations (as one of our time might construe it), but as that 'so-much-more' of ourselves of which we are only vaguely aware. For this subconscious experience to be made part of our conscious experience, he believed, it must be clothed in some form of explanatory belief system, an over-belief.

I wonder. I see in myself this very habit. But is it necessary? Maybe so. Yet, in knowing that it is so, in realizing that I am explaining what cannot be explained, am I not in some way transcending my over-belief? At the very least, being aware of the interpretive, and thus relative, nature of over-belief, enables one to escape the trap of being a true-believer. Belief is thus made a tool, a fish-trap, an upaya — the truth of the experience is not in the belief about it, but in the experience itself. Belief is disposable; it is not the essential. It is simply the baggie in which I carry my sandwich.

I should probably note that James did not believe that since religious experience originates in the subconscious, this obviates the possibility of an external source for the experience, but only that it is in the 'so-much-more' of us that that source moves us. My own over-belief, as you know, is that to propose such an active Mover, would be to over over-believe. And this matters for me, not because it is a 'wrong' view, but because it puts an obstruction in the path of not-knowing. And not-knowing lets Mystery be Mystery and requires that the heart only relate to it as such, and that, by way of surrender in trust.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

1 comment:

  1. It is the doctrine of Not-Knowing "a firm belief" and an obstruction to your life's path?


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