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Saturday, May 29, 1999

The ontological imagination.

In his pioneering study of the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-1902), William James argues that religious experience originates in subconscious or subliminal experience and therefore constitutes a topic for psychological study. He also argues that religious experience invariably involves a claim that exceeds what psychology can confirm or deny. Psychologists recognize that religious people feel themselves to be in contact with higher powers that energize their lives — but religious people also believe that these same higher powers operate in the world outside of them. As James puts it, the religious person "becomes conscious that this higher part [of the self] is coterminous and continuous with a more of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him" (498-499). A consistent feature of religious experience is the conviction that the personal experience is not entirely subjective, but touches on the nature of reality itself. James describes the "More" as a continuation of the person's conscious life into his unconscious or subliminal life, where it may actually also continue beyond the individual's life into a mystical or supernatural region (506).

This formulation of the nature of religious experience tries to accommodate both the science of psychology (which studies only the relationship of the conscious life with the unconscious life) and the discipline of theology (which studies the relationship of the individual life to the supernatural). by delineating the common boundary of each discipline and by providing them with a common point of access to individual experience. James's more interesting proposal, however, involves his discussion of the nature of personal experience itself. James contends that personal experience, including religious experience, involves a "sense of reality" that may actually produce rather than simply validate facts. The "ontological imagination" generates new facts in personal experience that may bear fruit for living, thereby generating new facts in the world. In this way, according to James, religion may yield truths available to critical and public investigation. Religious experience, by involving human beings in a compelling realization of ultimate ideals, puts us "in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard" (491-492).

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Posted by Philocrites, May 29, 1999, at 05:00 PM

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