It has been said that Henry James wrote his novels as philosophical treatises while his brother William wrote his philosophical works as novels. This 1902 publication is justifiably considered as one of the 20th century’s most influential books on psychology and spirituality.
James considers the feelings, actions and experiences of individuals, insofar as they understand themselves to be in a relationship with whatever they consuider the divine. It is thus about the religion of everyday life and has nothing to do with churches and dogma.
He writes objectively about a wide spectrum of religious experiences and quotes from the autobiographical writings of famous mystics from many traditions and of people like Whitman, Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, Tolstoy and many others. No religions are compared, only the experiences of the individual, and his arguments are well-reasoned.
In his own words: “Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or thought. When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary. If you wish to grasp its essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements.”
This book is a treasure trove of insights and collected wisdom that simultaneously serves as a trenchant plea for religious tolerance. And yes, it does sometimes read like a gripping novel, especially the chapters on the religion of healthy-mindedness, the sick soul, and mysticism.
The reader should be patient though. Although it is not a difficult text to grasp, every sentence is loaded with so much meaning that one has to return regularly to previous paragraphs in order to fully understand and process the arguments and insights. A thorough, patient study of the text will richly reward the reader.
An even more rewarding experience can be had by studying Richard Maurice Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness” and Stephan A. Hoeller’s “The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead” at the same time. These three classic works complement one another in a most marvelous way.