The Varieties of Religious Experience HTML version

Lecture 3. The Reality Of The Unseen
Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms
possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that
our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this
adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. I wish during this hour to call your
attention to some of the psychological peculiarities of such an attitude as this, or belief in
an object which we cannot see. All our attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional, as well as
religious, are due to the "objects" of our consciousness, the things which we believe to
exist, whether really or ideally, along with ourselves. Such objects may be present to our
senses, or they may be present only to our thought. In either case they elicit from us a
REACTION; and the reaction due to things of thought is notoriously in many cases as
strong as that due to sensible presences. It may be even stronger. The memory of an insult
may make us angrier than the insult did when we received it. We are frequently more
ashamed of our blunders afterwards than we were at the moment of making them; and in
general our whole higher prudential and moral life is based on the fact that material
sensations actually present may have a weaker influence on our action than ideas of
remoter facts.
The more concrete objects of most men's religion, the deities whom they worship, are
known to them only in idea. It has been vouchsafed, for example, to very few Christian
believers to have had a sensible vision of their Saviour; though enough appearances of
this sort are on record, by way of miraculous exception, to merit our attention later. The
whole force of the Christian religion, therefore, so far as belief in the divine personages
determines the prevalent attitude of the believer, is in general exerted by the
instrumentality of pure ideas, of which nothing in the individual's past experience directly
serves as a model.
But in addition to these ideas of the more concrete religious objects, religion is full of
abstract objects which prove to have an equal power. God's attributes as such, his
holiness, his justice, his mercy, his absoluteness, his infinity, his omniscience, his tri-
unity, the various mysteries of the redemptive process, the operation of the sacraments,
etc., have proved fertile wells of inspiring meditation for Christian believers.[21] We
shall see later that the absence of definite sensible images is positively insisted on by the
mystical authorities in all religions as the sine qua non of a successful orison, or
contemplation of the higher divine truths. Such contemplations are expected (and
abundantly verify the expectation, as we shall also see) to influence the believer's
subsequent attitude very powerfully for good.
[21] Example: "I have had much comfort lately in meditating on the passages which
show the personality of the Holy Ghost, and his distinctness from the Father and the Son.
It is a subject that requires searching into to find out, but, when realized, gives one so
much more true and lively a sense of the fullness of the Godhead, and its work in us and
to us, than when only thinking of the Spirit in its effect on us." Augustus Hare:
Memorials, i. 244, Maria Hare to Lucy H. Hare.