William James "Faith" Essay
Excerpt from "The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher", by Jane Roberts
Faith is both active and passive. it acts as a stimulant at one time, as a tranquilizer
at another. Its action in the body promotes exactly those biological changes
necessary to ensure health and vitality so that the pulses may be quickened or
slowed, the hormones activated or quieted. Faith elicits the most specific biological
responses by inciting a general overall sense of optimism, safety, and freedom.
It therefore returns the individual, for whatever time, to that prime condition
for growth, curiosity, and adventure in which he was immersed as a child.
That condition is blessedly free in that it does not acknowledge impediments.
Woe to any poor infant freshly thrust into the world who was not equipped with
natural faith, for it would instantly be stopped before it began, appalled at
the infinite manipulations necessary for its locomotion, dismayed and in despair
at its chances of growing to full stature were its own small size and vulnerability
not superseded by an inner certainty of triumph and the willingness to accept challenge.
In faith's eyes, then, impediments vanish, not because a person is suddenly struck
by a fool's stupidity that blinds him to them, but because they disappear in
the light of his newfound sense of ease, freedom and certainty. He is simply
no longer afraid. His cowardliness is gone. He comes into his true estate.
Like a weary traveler after resting, he takes up his knapsack once again and
goes cheerfully ahead, his steps lighter, covering twice the ground in the same
time that he did before and wondering, perhaps, what imagined terrors had previously
made the journey so frightening. Indeed, his earlier psychological reality may
now be meaningless to him: how could he have worried so about robbers on the
way, or the possibility that he might not find lodging, or grown weak thinking
about the approaching hill so that its height grew in multiplied stages?
Yet what is it that our traveler can find to have faith in? He might well feel
that science and religion have each betrayed him. He may not for the life of
him be able to believe in a conventional personified God, white beard flowing
in the clouds above and blessed finger pointing out heavenly directions. In
fact, on ever seeing such an apparition, our modern man might fall into an instant
faint, certain that the psychologist's demon, schizophrenia, had descended upon
him. For the voice that once was considered the utterance of God speaking through
mortals has become the most dreadful of self-deluding monologues, and if God
spoke to a modern Moses through the branches of a bush and then set fire to it,
our prophet would first call a psychologist and then the fire department.
So our traveler cannot call out for God's assistance in the old ways and may
furthermore be rather embarrassed about the impulse to do so. If he sneaks side-glances
upward at a particularly majestic cloud, he does not let himself know the reasons
for his actions. If he cries out-silently-despite himself, "Oh, God," just as
he is about to fall, and then does not fall but finds his feet unaccountably
steadied, he smiles, shakes his head, and thanks the nature of coincidence.
For psychology has made him afraid of religious feeling. His intellect has allowed
him to see through religion's gaudy carnivals and dreary morality plays alike.
So he thanks coincidence for his delivery and goes his way. A traveler in an
accidental universe needs coincidence on his side indeed, for it is coincidence
that dictates which tree lightning will hit and which it will avoid; so it is
very important that our traveler, running for shelter in a storm, know which
side his coincidence is buttered on.
Religions offer frosted confections of packaged faith sold along the highway
by robed vendors. Across the way, white-gowned scientists hand out good plain
doctrines-the new bread and butter for the masses-and disdain the faith makers'
honeyed stores. But our traveler finds that neither nourishment greatly nourishes,
and as he consumes the various offerings, his hunger grows rather than diminishes.
Nor is our hypothetical traveler alone. He is surrounded by parades of his fellows,
whether he would have it so or not. There are bandwagons, banners, armies, shimmering
floats. The strutting, dancing, limping, laughing, old and young, all find themselves
jostling mental elbows, beliefs, faiths, doubts. Many stride in rhythm. Others
like our traveler stop, lose pace, spend too much time in one stall or another
sampling the wares, gorging themselves on every available packaged theory only
again to find themselves hungrier than before.
So faith seems an impossibility, for if religion, science and philosophy all
fail, then where will our poor fellow put his faith, if indeed any remnants linger?
In despair and desperation the scientist may turn to religion, the priest to
science, the emotional man to reason or the intellectual to sentiment. The sportsman
may suddenly plunge into learned periodicals, the scholar discover the ball court,
the nun turn harlot, and the prostitute lower her skirts decorously and become
morality's model. But in the end, such efforts usually bring only a desperate
false optimism, a fake faith that must defend itself against implied threats
until nothing seems worthy of faith and it seems to have no justification.
What, then, should our traveler do? For it certainly seems that he is on a highway
shared with others on a journey with no apparent purpose toward an end that is
at best inglorious.
First of all, he can begin to think and feel for himself He can start with his
present position: he is, after all, alive on a highway going somewhere; he is
in motion. He can decide to throw away all theories that tell him not to trust
his own intuitions, sentiments, or reasonings, and thusly begin to examine himself
in a manner not possible earlier.
If indeed existence is accidental, he can see that it has some remarkably orderly
characteristics. Each person grows from an infant upward, for example, just
as if the entire affair were planned. Moreover, our traveler can note that during
all of his musings and bewildering mental footwork. his body continues to keep
him alive and reasonably comfortable; it sweats when too warm and continues as
normal functions as if it had some intimate information denied to him. So he
begins to look at his own equipment, which is after all personal, living-not
the body but his body-and it seems to know where it is going whether he does or not.
Besides this, as he sleeps along the roadside our traveler is frequently awakened
by strange dreams, like mental campfires blazing with the warmest comfort amid
the frozen forest of his fears. He snaps awake, heats himself, and stares into
the fire's circle where, lo and behold, dazzling images leap. Then he questions:
is he sleeping or awake? For the dream images may speak to him or show with
immense clarity scenes from his own past. But when the affair is over, he wonders.
The dreams often seem to suggest that he move in certain directions or make
alterations in his plans.
Hesitantly he tries following those suggestions, covering his path with appropriate
rationalizations. For if the directions are wrong, they at least offer some
recommendations not tried before; and they are after all, his own directions.
For a while he may assign any correct or positive results to coincidence. But
coincidence, it appears, is more dependable than it used to be.
His body, though weary, trudges on and he notices its dependability where before
he harrassed it for not going faster, or worried that it would not keep up with
the others. A second wind seems to come upon him, and sometimes a third or a
fourth. Every once and a while from nowhere he is filled with a new buoyancy,
an additional energy, a sudden exhilaration and enthusiasm-so is faith born again
in a man, by leaps and bounds as he begins to trust his own nature and the terms
of his private existence.
Our traveler finally notices that when he trusts himself and his nature, he feels
strange stirrings pull and tug at his consciousness; urgings to do this or that,
to go faster or slower as if, like a fine racehorse, he had been too nervous
and sensitive before and now, suddenly, felt upon his back a new rider who knew
what he was doing, looked ahead and prepared him for any barriers, nudged him
safely aside, and overall considerably bettered his performance.
Further experience reveals, however, that horse and rider are one, or body and
soul together. Where before one seemed to pull against the other, now both are
smoothly synchronized, and instead of dreading an unknown journey our traveler
is now filled with excitement and zest, knowing that nature works with him and
not against him.
Furthermore, those odd rustlings of consciousness seem to move him beyond the
known track, and sometimes his awareness feels continuous with all of nature
itself. His motions become so easy, transparent, and effortless that he begins
to understand something else: his consciousness is not riding astride his animal
nature as it seemed to for a while, but instead his consciousness is continuous
throughout his body and extends into the rest of nature as well.
Our traveler sees that he is not on a journey or in a race, but involved in a
course of action, and he may dimly sense a grandstand and hear voices that shout
down encouragement and suggestions. He realizes the grandstand is symbolic;
yet when he imagines that he senses it, the suggestions and hints become clearer
arid louder-directed, it seems, to him alone. Nor is this assistance limited
On occasion, caught in a mood of disappointment or weariness, he shouts out mentally
for help. Remarkably enough, he is provided with an otherwise inexplicable boon:
sudden energy or health or the solution to a problem. And he is almost certain
that this assistance comes from outside of the normal course of events.
Perhaps for an instant his consciousness leaps beyond itself, climbing in quick
ascent above the track of the road to that higher dimension. Its superior position
allows him dizzy visions of vastness never glimpsed before, and he feels himself
on the track and above it at once, in the course of events and outside it at
the same time. More than that, however, he senses an extraordinary, super-natural
Nature in which his own existence is safely couched, and a course of events of
giant-sized proportions out of which ordinary events emerge.
None of this is really that simple, of course, and our traveler is not always
exuberant, but he is overall less fearful and more daring. For if a man's most
private dreams can bear messages that point him in the right direction, if his
hunches can sometimes prove valuable in the objective world, then there seems
to be something of a saving nature in his own subjective reality, a power that
occasionally at least lifts him above his mistakes.
He begins to take greater notice of coincidences, and it dawns upon him that
they are isolated instances of a different kind of order, partially invisible,
representing intersections, perhaps, of that sensed higher dimension and the
physical one. He suspects that, concentrating upon such instances, he might
discover that they represent those vaster patterns of action that connect him
with his symbolic grandstand and with the audience that sometimes cheers him on.
And if one dream can be meaningful, illuminated with good intent, how can the
universe-the road, himself, and the other travelers-be accidental, arising from
nothing for no reason, and advancing into nothing? Testing, he calls out to
the grandstand. Muses, imaginative personages, or projected images mirroring
some magic disorder of the soul-still, he feels a response, a lessening of anxiety,
an exuberance of heart.
But what strikes him most is his feeling that someone or something in the universe
is cheering him on, that some kind of power exists outside of his present course
of events, and when he calls upon it, that power can insert itself into the world,
transform his reality to some extent by working through nature itself.
In his zest to find some answers, our traveler begins to ignore all of the authorities
with whom he has already wasted so much time. As he does so, he notices things
that before seemed trivial o.- beside the point of his concerns. A squirrel
might dart through the treetops nearby, for example, gathering nuts to put away
for his winter store. Our traveler marvels that blind instinct sees the next
season's snow so well in the midst of the day's balmy weather, and if our traveler
has a spark of lively emotion still left within him, he is struck by a marvelous
humor at this and other such incidents.
For accidentally winter will come once again, following the orange leaves of
autumn with perfect progression. Accidentally the birds will begin their migrations
with miracle-like timing. The animals will thicken their coats for the cold
spell, without reading weather reports. And without needing to take counsel
with himself, the traveler knows that his own blood will thicken. The human
body, unfurred, will take inner procedures against the approaching cold, conserving
its own heat. And despite all he has heard to the contrary, he is in a flash
convinced of the universe's good intent, his rightful place in it, and he senses
his existence and the world's rising from another source that is both within
and outside the natural framework.
How could he earlier have believed in religion's sinful self, tales of a vengeful
God, or in science's mechanical and accidental universe? The rift between intuition
and intellect is closed; they are united, their attraction one to the other is
consummated and their differences forgotten. All the rustlings and stirrings
of nature now seem to find response within his own feelings.
He knows that he and the universe are united yet separate, that some extra-natural
force is both within the world and apart from it at once, and the wedding of
intellect and emotion brings an offspring of greatest consequence: the birth
of a faith that is indeed a twin to the first faith with which our traveler was
once endowed. This faith, however, is faith-with-knowledge, where the infant's
faith need not contend with the world's ways in the same manner as the adult
indubitably must. This faith, like the second or third or even fourth wind of
the runner, is even more exuberant, for it exists despite a knowledge of the
world's ordinary course and of the impediments thrown up by ignorance or error.
The same material world surrounds our traveler now as in his previous torments.
He is still walking along the road surrounded by his fellows, and on either
side stretch the vendors of various doctrines. The street is lined with shops.
universities, and churches. Yet what catches his notice are the simple, unauthoritative
events that delighted his childhood: the direct enjoyment and experience of his
body and mind, his trust in their achievements, the constant liveliness of the
animals, and the entire cooperative commerce of the natural world.
That natural world and his own subjective experience within it shout with multitudinous
voices that its existence and his cannot be accidental but share in a concern,
a good intent, that is everywhere apparent. And that faith promotes in our traveler
exactly the conditions needed for his support. Food does not miraculously appear
out of the air for him-a table spread with a banquet-but he knows as surely how
to provide for himself as the squirrel does, and he realizes this truth and no
longer need worry. He simply follows the dictates of his nature, trusting that
the same power that set him upon the road-mind and body in one living package
is no less kindly disposed toward him than it is to the world's other living creatures.
In that moment of trust, he and his experience are transformed. Looking around,
he can see glimpses of that trust trying to rouse itself in the religions and
sciences alike, but he understands that for all of their merits institutions
can speak only generally to any given individual, and that each man's life involves
him in a direct confrontation with the universe in which he must ultimately trust
both his own nature and the unknown source from which it springs. That greater
source makes itself known through the living person in his living and his dying,
and speaks directly through his own nature. Only that truth can illuminate and
make sense of the facts of the known world. It is ultimately impossible to trust
God and distrust the self, or vice versa.
Such a faith is not blind, however, for experience will prove it to be more factual
than any mathematical formula. It will be demonstrated through the beneficial
changes it brings in a person's life, for faith not only promotes health, vitality,
and understanding, but a kind of accomplishment that produces a general overall
transformation, bringing to flower abilities and characteristics of the most
heroic nature that previously had lain latent and unused.