“Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord”

This opening line from the Battle Hymn of the Republic popped into mind recently, summoning up the recollection of a remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, published just over a century ago. Trained as a physician, James took a position lecturing in physiology at Harvard and then began teaching in the relatively new field of psychology, establishing the first psychology laboratory in America in 1876. Always enthusiastic about philosophy, he turned his professional interest in that direction in 1897.

Based on a series of lectures that he gave in Edinburgh, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) weaves together psychology, philosophy, and the history of religion through a pragmatic exploration of first-person descriptions of encounters with the divine, a word that James does not use, being a scientist who throughout confesses no personal familiarity with such experiences. He is at pains to avoid what he calls “medical materialism,” which would reduce all such unusual experiences to one or another form of brain pathology, and shows the utmost respect towards the rich human record of testimony to them.

I will quote from two:

“I was alone upon the seashore…and…was impelled to kneel down, this time before the illimitable ocean symbol of the Infinite. I felt that I prayed as I had never prayed before and knew now what prayer really is: to return from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is, to kneel down as one that passes away, and to rise up as one imperishable. Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world-encircling harmony. It was as if the chorus of all the great who had ever lived were about me. I felt myself one with them, and it appeared as if I heard their greeting: ‘Thou too belongest to the company of those who overcome.’” (Malwida von Meysenbug, Memoirs of an Idealist, 1869)(p. 395)

“…there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life the; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true.” (Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness, 1901) (p. 398)

Julia Ward Howe may not have had such experiences in mind when she awoke in the night with the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic forming in her mind in 1861, but the first line certainly expresses something of them and also gives a fresh meaning to the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32), often used as the final song of a religious service (and the words of Simeon after seeing the baby Jesus in the temple, in the King James Version):

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Lucid Waking

 “Once Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Tzu. But he didn’t know if he was Chung Tzu who had dreamt he […] Continue reading →

Memento Mori

 Many years ago, I ordered a human skull through the mail, ostensibly to study the anatomy of the vascular and nervous systems reflected in its architecture. The cranial nerves exit from the brain to the organs of the head through the various foramina or bony passageways, while arteries enter the brain in the opposite direction. […] Continue reading →

The Sun

 Of all the symbols of transcendence, at once the most evident and universal is the sun. With a power and brilliance capable of permanently blinding any eye that dares to gaze directly at its disc, even at a distance of 93 million miles and through a thick atmosphere, Earth’s local star is awesome to behold […] Continue reading →

“There is no there there.”

 This was famously said by Gertrude Stein in reference to her hometown of Oakland, California. The obvious take on the phrase is that Oakland, compared to her more exotic and stimulating later stomping grounds in Paris, France, was “nowheresville.” Although she probably wished to convey this literal meaning, the ever oracular and exceedingly clever Stein […] Continue reading →

Sabbath

 Oliver Sacks, in a wonderful essay last year for the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Sabbath” (worth reading here), quotes his cousin and Nobel Prize winner in economics Robert John Aumann: “The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of […] Continue reading →

Sophia

 Sophia Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης or in Latin letters Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs. The modern Phi Beta Kappa Society translates this motto of the society as “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Any student of ancient Greek (or philosophy, for that matter) might well wonder at what is being […] Continue reading →

Moses and the Burning Bush

 What is the author of this story telling us? Moses was a fugitive tending sheep in the desert when he had the vision of the burning bush and heard the Lord speaking to him of a mission that he must undertake. Believing that he was only a limited individual, “Moses hid his face; for he […] Continue reading →

The Unseen Hand

 A glance upwards from the floor of a Gothic cathedral raises the question: How were the arched ribs and masonry vaulting placed there, hundreds of feet above the ground? For most of these medieval structures, we don’t know the exact answer and can only speculate about the elaborate scaffoldings that must have supported the unfinished […] Continue reading →