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.