William James – voices

Here is an excerpt from William James’ book Lecture XI of The Varieties of Religious Experience which quotes from Edwin Starbuck, who did much research into the psychology of religion. The context of this passage is the effect of religious experience on behaviour, particularly its ability to effect sudden and permanent cures of addictive behaviour. He cites two examples of people hearing the ‘voice of God’ and subsequently turning from destructive behaviour. He links such cures with the effect hypnosis can have on addiction, and concludes that if the grace of God is working it probably works through this subliminal (unconscious) pathway.

A good way to approach an essay on voices would then be not to try and deal with them only in isolation, but consider them, as James did, in the light of their effect on conversion. This gives you much wider scope to talk about psychological influences, and bring in far more of The Varieties.

“Here is an analogous case from Starbuck’s manuscript collection:

“I went into the old Adelphi Theatre, where there was a Holiness meeting,… and I began saying, ‘Lord, Lord, I must have this blessing.’ Then what was to me an audible voice said: ‘Are you willing to give up everything to the Lord?’ and question after question kept coming up, to all of which I said: ‘Yes, Lord; yes, Lord!’ until this came: ‘Why do you not accept it now?’ and I said: ‘I do, Lord.’- I felt no particular joy, only a trust. Just then the meeting closed, and, as I went out on the street, I met a gentleman smoking a fine cigar, and a cloud of smoke came into my face, and I took a long, deep breath of it, and praise the Lord, all my appetite for it was gone. Then as I walked along the street, passing saloons where the fumes of liquor came out, I found that all my taste and longing for that accursed stuff was gone. Glory to God!… [But] for ten or eleven long years [after that] I was in the wilderness with its ups and downs. My appetite for liquor never came back.”

The classic case of Colonel Gardiner is that of a man cured of sexual temptation in a single hour. To Mr. Spears the colonel said, “I was effectually cured of all inclination to that sin I was so strongly addicted to that I thought nothing but shooting me through the head could have cured me of it; and all desire and inclination to it was removed, as entirely as if I had been a sucking child; nor did the temptation return to this day.” Mr. Webster’s words on the same subject are these: “One thing I have heard the colonel frequently say, that he was much addicted to impurity before his acquaintance with religion; but that, so soon as he was enlightened from above, he felt the power of the Holy Ghost changing his nature so wonderfully that his sanctification in this respect seemed more remarkable than in any other.” *

* Doddridge’s Life of Colonel James Gardiner, London Religious Tract Society, pp. 23-32.

Such rapid abolition of ancient impulses and propensities reminds us so strongly of what has been observed as the result of hypnotic suggestion that it is difficult not to believe that subliminal influences play the decisive part in these abrupt changes of heart, just as they do in hypnotism. * Suggestive therapeutics abound in records of cure, after a few sittings, of inveterate bad habits with which the patient, left to ordinary moral and physical influences, had struggled in vain. Both drunkenness and sexual vice have been cured in this way, action through the subliminal seeming thus in many individuals to have the prerogative of inducing relatively stable change. If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door, then. But just how anything operates in this region is still unexplained, and we shall do well now to say good-by to the process of transformation altogether,- leaving it, if you like, a good deal of a psychological or theological mystery,- and to turn our attention to the fruits of the religious condition, no matter in what way they may have been produced. *(2)

* Here, for example, is a case, from Starbuck’s book, in which a ‘sensory automatism’ brought about quickly what prayers and resolves had been unable to effect. The subject is a woman. She writes:

“When I was about forty I tried to quit smoking, but the desire was on me, and had me in its power. I cried and prayed and promised God to quit, but could not. I had smoked for fifteen years. When I was fifty. three, as I sat by the fire one day smoking, a voice came to me. I did not hear it with my ears, but more as a dream or sort of double think. It said, ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ At once I replied, ‘Will you take the desire away?’ But it only kept saying: ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ Then I got up, laid my pipe on the mantel-shelf, and never smoked again or had any desire to. The desire was gone as though I had never known it or touched tobacco. The sight of others smoking and the smell of smoke never gave me the least wish to touch it again.” The Psychology of Religion, p. 142.

*(2) Professor Starbuck expresses the radical destruction of old influences physiologically, as a cutting off of the connection between higher and lower cerebral centres. “This condition,” he says, “in which the association-centres connected with the spiritual life are cut off from the lower, is often reflected in the way correspondents describe their experiences…. For example: ‘Temptations from without still assail me, but there is nothing within to respond to them.’ The ego [here] is wholly identified with the higher centres, whose quality of feeling is that of withinness. Another of the respondents says: ‘Since then, although Satan tempts me, there is as it were a wall of brass around me, so that his darts cannot touch me.'”- Unquestionably, functional exclusions of this sort must occur in the cerebral organ. But on the side accessible to introspection, their causal condition is nothing but the degree of spiritual excitement, getting at last so high and strong as to be sovereign; and it must be frankly confessed that we do not know just why or how such sovereignty comes about in one person and not in another. We can only give our imagination a certain delusive help by mechanical analogies.

If we should conceive, for example, that the human mind, with its different possibilities of equilibrium, might be like a many-sided solid with different surfaces on which it could lie flat, we might liken mental revolutions to the spatial revolutions of such a body. As it is pried up, say by a lever, from a position in which it lies on surface A, for instance, it will linger for a time unstably halfway up, and if the lever cease to urge it, it will tumble back or ‘relapse’ under the continued poll of gravity. But if at last it rotate far enough for its centre of gravity to pass beyond surface A altogether, the body will fall over, on surface B, say, and abide there permanently. The pulls of gravity towards A have vanished, and may now be disregarded. The polyhedron has become immune against farther attraction from their direction.

In this figure of speech the lever may correspond to the emotional influence making for a new life, and the initial pull of gravity to the ancient drawbacks and inhibitions. So long as the emotional influence fails to reach a certain pitch of efficacy, the changes it produces are unstable, and the man relapses into his original attitude. But when a certain intensity is attained by the new emotion, a critical point is passed, and there then ensues an irreversible revolution, equivalent to the production of a new nature.

The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness. * The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced. “

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