James, William. “Varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature.”
At the turn of the last century James studied the varieties of religious experiences. He looked especially at peak religious experiences and to the founders of religions and their closest disciples and fervent followers. He focused upon those whose faith and religious encounters became the predominant force in their life and religious experiences are found in their more highly evolved and perfect forms, in those persons most accomplished in the religious life.
He deliberately stayed away from the rank and file of your average religious adherent:
“I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life.”
Nor was he interested in a person whose religion was a kind of submission or resignation.
A person like the following:
“I am so far resigned to my lot that I feel small pain at the thought of having to part from what has been called the pleasant habit of existence, the sweet fable of life. I would not care to live my wasted life over again, and so to prolong my span. Strange to say, I have but little wish to be younger. I submit with a chill at my heart. I humbly submit because it is the Divine Will, and my appointed destiny. I dread the increase of infirmities that will make me a burden to those around me, those dear to me. No! let me slip away as quietly and comfortably as I can. Let the end come, if peace come with it.
“I do not know that there is a great deal to be said for this world, or our sojourn here upon it; but it has pleased God so to place us, and it must please me also. I ask you, what is human life? Is not it a maimed happiness—care and weariness, weariness and care, with the baseless expectation, the strange cozenage of a brighter to-morrow? At best it is but a froward child, that must be played with and humored, to keep it quiet till it falls asleep, and then the care is over.”
This may be a religious sentiment but for James there was not a lot to be gained by studying it further.
No, for James religious experience that is worthy of study is that where one may seem a little extreme. It is that associated with what may seem to the more conventional a wreck-less way to live and more prone to the excessive.
He found the most important examples of religious sentiment worthy of study and with something of value to teach in people like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and a number of their most ardent followers.
If you want to know what qualifies as authentic religious experience, James would argue, you have to go to those founders and champions of religious sentiment.
“We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather. … such individuals are ‘geniuses’ in the religious line;”
When looking for a definition of religion, James did not go to the ether and seek out the psychedelic.
No, his definition was quite earthy.
“All is not vanity in this Universe, whatever the appearances may suggest.”
For William James this phrase is a good definition of what the word religion means and what the best champions of religious sentiment impart.
And we find it expressed clearly in today’s reading from Genesis about Abram, later to be named Abraham.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Abram is the father of faith and the originator of a revolutionary religious idea – monotheism. There is one God. Not just an evolution of religious thought but a revolution in religious thought. We and much of the basis of our culture and institutions are shaped by it.
Even our great neighbour to the South states an oath to ‘one nation under God.’
The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads:
“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
What does it mean? What may it mean?
All is not vanity. There is purpose and meaning and even promise.
2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
It gets very basic! Abram the man encountering God, maker and creator of it all, says, What will you give me?!
God brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
There would be many twists and turns, ups and downs, in the carrying out of this promise, but it would be the guiding of Abram’s life. His faith in the promise would rename him – Abraham, Father of a multitude of nations. Today some 3 billion people acknowledge Abraham as their spiritual ancestor – a man who lived 3800 years ago.
For the Jewish faith, God’s promise and reward was not heavily tied to the afterlife. It was in this life that one experienced God’s blessings and God’s purpose for the individual and the community.
This world focus and that promise to Abraham characterize and sustain the Jewish people to this day. After 2000 years in exile, scattered all over the world, the Jewish tie to the promised land has remain a source of purpose and destiny.
Using James’ definition of religion, the Jewish people are exemplary in all is not vanity even if the evidence points to the contrary.
So from all of this I would encourage us to see our religious life as a grounding in purpose and meaning.
Look to the stars and see your name written there.
No matter your age or stage. You matter and your life matters. You are here for a purpose and therefore count your days and make them count.
The other Old Testament reading we could have read today is from Isaiah.
To the definition of religion that life has purpose and meaning, we must add justice, compassion, and mercy.
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Understand our life as having purpose and meaning and the building of just societies and we will be worthy examples of biblical religion.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;
The Gospel reading today is telling us that we are to live this life with confidence and not with fear. We are to live liberally and not covetously.
We can’t live a religious life built on a mentality of insecurity and scarcity.
Too often religion puts us into little safe harbours of dos and don’ts, of shoulds and shouldn’ts.
Our God is too small. Our purpose too little.
Our founder, Christ himself, says to us:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;”
I am reminded again of Abram’s question. ‘O Lord, you have asked me to leave all. What will you give me?’
Look at the stars, God said.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
This is kind of where the rubber meets the road.
Can we trust that this life has purpose and meaning and we are here to make our mark?
Will we see ourselves in good hands and with an eternal destiny?
Can we give enough to truly make a difference, confident that all is not vanity but that even the littlest act of kindness reaches heaven?
Ronald Reagan often referred to the United States as a shining city set on a hill.
Mario Cuomo speaking at the Democratic Convention in 1984 agreed that it was a shining city on a hill but not everyone shared in its glow.
There are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show, Cuomo said. It is more a tale of two cities.
Hillary Clinton wrote a book called it takes a village to raise a child. We are all in it together.
Abraham Lincoln said:
Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.
I think Lincoln was onto something very profound. It echoes Isaiah and all the prophets.
We could say God is watching. God is concerned.
Our barns may be full but we are not rich toward God and we have no way to take it with us. Being rich toward God would be to empty the barns and give it to those in need.
Bill Gates is doing just that. We don’t need to have the resources of Bill Gates to make a difference.
Anyways, the principle is fulfilled in giving a glass of water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, time to the sick, lonely, and imprisoned.
On the spiritual level, it is not ending up with one’s name in the hall of fame. Fine if that is the case. Rather it is living with purpose and meaning that your existence comes from and returns to God, who above all else measures your love for God by your love for neighbour, especially the vulnerable, poor, and oppressed.
There was a palace right beside Bethlehem. Christ was not born there but in a lowly stable.
There was the court of the high priest in Jerusalem and a temple of great glory. The Incarnate God was condemned in the court of the high priest and gave his life for the sins of the world not in the temple but on hill outside the city. Irony of ironies.
As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us this morning, there is a better country. This is a foretaste of it only. Our challenge is to not mistaken it for the real one and that we invest in the one where there is no rust or decay.