I am reading The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a classic that I come across all the time in my reading of books on spirituality. It is a book one would find on a required book list for a college course. In other words, it is tedious to read. But it is well worth the tedium.
I am learning a lot and there is much for me to comment on. James gives a whole chapter (or lecture) on conversion. He gives many examples of what this looks like in people’s experience. But in the end, he is not impressed by showiness and drama. He finds it more worthy to talk about the fruits or after effects of conversion.
He names three characteristics of those who have had a true conversion experience:
- “A loss of worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even thought the outer conditions should remain the same.”
- “…the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid…and often…the solution is more or less unutterable in words.”
- “…the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. ‘An appearance of newness beatifies every object…This sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without is one of the commonest entries in conversion records.”
What is particularly interesting is that James says that these experiences don’t necessarily have a religious language to them. There are those whose lives have been turned around independently of any religion. They might use terms like higher power or universe as an object of their trust, if there is an object at all.
I know a lot of people who have had this kind of experience and their way of explaining what happened to them varies depending on their religious or non-religious views. I don’t question a person’s sincerity when I see the above characteristics in their lives. I notice that these people will often go through dark times but this initial state seems to form a new foundation and to carry them through those times in a way that they formerly floundered. The terms I hear about this state is “serenity” or “inner peace”, a gift that all would want to have.