In thinking about phenomenology and religion, I am assailed by a host of questions to which I do not have answers. Most important, for me, is the question of the relationship between the phenomenological method articulated by Edmund Husserl, grounded on the epoche and the transcendental reduction, the procedures by means of which he hopes to avoid both Kantian idealism and psychologism, and the phenomenological existentialism of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. In what sense is Being and Time phenomenological? How far does it follow Husserl methodologically, method being, on my understanding, the central feature of Husserl’s project? And what role does Heidegger’s work on the phenomenology of religious experience play in his deployment and transformation of Husserl’s procedures?

A number of concerns animate these questions, the most immediately pertinent to the study of religion having to do with my sense that phenomenology in its Husserlian mode has difficulty attending to the inter and intrapersonal nature of human experience so central to religious life. Although Husserl turns to these questions in his late work, and Heidegger insists that Dasein is always a Mitsein, a being with, it is hard to find a space between Dasein and the Volk within his work. These are very general claims and ones the detailed articulation of which in Husserl and Heidegger requires expertise I lack. But I think something useful can be demonstrated about the potential limits of phenomenology as a method—and the potential strengths of other kinds of descriptive analysis—by looking at William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, perhaps the closest thing to an American phenomenology available to us.

James was not concerned about charges of psychologism. Taught and deeply learned in the German traditions so important for Husserl, it would be useful to understand why James is willing to think philosophically with psychology and Husserl is not. But one danger of James’s psychologism and the mode of philosophical analysis to which it leads him is clear from the outset of Varieties: he insists that what is valuable and important about religion is its interiority. What I will show in the following is the ways in which, because James relies on narrative accounts of religious experience for his articulation of the phenomenon, this putative interiority is challenged within his own lectures. The embodied and communal nature of religious experience, alongside its particularity, is impossible to avoid when one reads James carefully and, to use what has become a cliché but is still profoundly useful, against the grain of his own pronouncements.

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In seeking to circumscribe his topic for the 1901 Gifford Lectures, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, James makes a distinction between institutional and personal religion. He defines religion, at least for the purposes of his own explorations, as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they might consider divine.” Yet Varieties works in large part through examples. When we look to the very long extracts James cites throughout the lectures, we find clearly displayed the complex interactions between public forms of worship and putatively instantaneous or spontaneous religious experiences.

James’s claims to the contrary, external actions—preaching, exhortation, hymn singing, scripture reading, conversation—play a vital role in internal experience. I will give one example: Stephen H. Bradley, who records his conversion as it took place on November 2, 1829. It appears to be a solitary experience of the divine. James quotes at length, even as he edits, his material in Lecture IX, “Conversion.” Bradley describes himself, alone in his room, with an intensely beating heart:

My heart increased in its beating, which soon convinced me that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it had on me. I began to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense of unworthiness as I never felt before. I could not very well help speaking out, which I did, and said, Lord, I do not deserve this happiness, or words to that effect, while there was a stream (resembling air in feeling) came into my mouth and heart in a more sensible manner than that of drinking anything, which continued, as near as I could judge, five minutes or more, which appeared to be the cause of such a palpitation of heart. It took complete possession of my soul, and I am certain that I desired the Lord, while in the midst of it, not to give me any more happiness, for it seemed as if I could not contain what I had got. My heart seemed as if it would burst, but it did not stop until I felt as if I was unutterably full of the love and grace of God.

This is an extract from James’s extract of Bradley’s report. It suggests an intense, immediate, and almost unnamable experience of the Holy Spirit and through the Spirit, of God’s love and grace. There is no sign here of anything mediating between Bradley’s soul and God. Even the externality of the body, while affected by the experience, is not at its core. Instead, the palpitations of the heart that are the first signs something extraordinary is happening to Bradley are generated by “a stream” of something resembling air, “more sensible” than drink and yet, it seems, irreducible to any such materiality. Presumably the stream of the Holy Spirit entering Bradley’s soul, it has material effects without itself being bodily.

But this is not all there is to Bradley’s story, either as Bradley himself presents it or as James recounts it. The infusion of the Holy Spirit is preceded and followed by events that point to the importance of external structures and practices to Bradley’s conversion. The day before and the day of his “true” conversion, he listened to a Methodist preacher:

He spoke of the ushering in of the day of general judgment; and he set it forth in such a solemn and terrible manner as I never heard before. The scene of that day appeared to be taking place, and so awakened were all the powers of my mind that, like Felix, I trembled involuntarily on the bench where I was sitting, though I felt nothing at heart. The next evening I went to hear him again. He took his text from Revelation: ‘And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God.’ And he represented the terrors of that day in such a manner that it appeared as if it would melt the heart of stone. When he finished his discourse, an old gentleman turned to me and said, ‘This is what I call preaching.’ I thought the same; but my feelings were still unmoved by what he said, and I did not enjoy religion but I believe he did.

Here we see an external practice—preaching, which is, of course, a central aspect of institutional religion—providing the conditions that lead to Bradley’s experience of the Holy Spirit. Although Bradley’s heart is not melted during the sermon, other hearts are. Revivalist meetings of the sort Bradley describes were rife with men, women, and children overcome by the Spirit during the meeting itself. (One of the great figures in the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney, not only describes such scenes but also gives preachers instructions on how best to bring them about in his Lectures on Revivals of Religion.)

Moreover, even in his putative solitude, during which the Holy Spirit entered him as he was alone at his home, the experience calls him back to a vital aspect of the communal life of Christianity:

In the mean time while thus exercised, a thought arose in my mind, what can it mean? and all at once, as if to answer it, my memory became exceedingly clear, and it appeared to me as if the New Testament was placed open before me, eighth chapter of Romans, and as light as if some candle lighted was held for me to read the 26th and 27th verses of that chapter, and I read these words: ‘The Spirit helpeth our infirmities with groanings which cannot be uttered.’

Bradley’s account stands in a very ancient Christian tradition in which the Bible is the “means of grace” through which the apt word is spoken to a soul groaning in agony over its sinfulness. Bradley’s words point, moreover, to the absolute centrality of scripture to the form of Christian life to which he is called. As Bradley himself tells us, this moment occurs at a point in his life in which he had long been reading and studying scripture, both alone and in community.

Arising the next morning, surety of his conversion requires public action. First he checks Romans 8 to verify that what he had seen the night before was in fact the proper passage. Only then does he tell his parents. Far from an afterthought, this too is a vital aspect of his experience. Bradley does not speak of his conversion simply as something that had happened on the previous evening. Instead, he speaks out of and in a transformed state: “I then told my parents of it, and told them that I thought that they must see that when I spoke, that it was not my own voice, for it appeared so to me.” Although Bradley does not claim apostolic authority, he does understand his transformation in the spirit as giving him a new—and public—voice, leading him to go out after breakfast to converse with neighbors on religion and to pray publicly. He also feels called on to publish the story of his conversion in the year after its occurrence, a witness to God’s presence in the face of deism and atheism.

James follows the long extract from Bradley’s pamphlet with an account of the psychology of conversion, in which James explicitly argues that what appears absolutely spontaneous is often the result of factors long at work in a person’s life, even if only subliminally or subconsciously. Yet even here James emphasizes interiority, inwardness, and privacy. Conversion ultimately involves a surrender to forces outside of one’s conscious control. “But since . . . the crisis described,” James writes,

is the throwing of our conscious selves upon the mercy of powers which, whatever they may be, are more ideal than we are actually, and make for our redemption, you see why self-surrender has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning-point of the religious life, so far as the religious life is spiritual and no affair of outer works and ritual and sacraments. One may say that the whole development of Christianity in inwardness has consisted in little more than the greater and greater emphasis attached to this crisis of self-surrender.

James’s emphasis on interiority both describes something vital about the way Protestant Christians understand their experience and at the same time renounces, ignores, and radically reconfigures the larger contexts they–and he himself–provide for that experience. He performs, then, the move I worry about with claims to a more rigorous phenomenological method, one that calls on the philosopher to bracket her analysis of a phenomenon not only from her own biases, attitudes, and interests, but also from the framing context of its emergence. The resulting account is denuded of its connections to the larger world in which the phenomenon itself is made possible.

Husserl and Heidegger provide generalizable—they would say formalizable, but I think that overstates the specificity and rigor of their claims—accounts of specifically human phenomena, accounts that are often descriptively and prescriptively powerful. Yet the call to generalize, while useful in its Heideggerian version insofar as it also demands a refusal to universalize, is called into question if one attends to the specificities of context and of embodied existence to which these particular thinkers and, arguably, their method, refuse to attend: gender, race, age, ability, and class are most immediately salient, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

This does not mean that we ought not to generalize. But can we generalize in ways that attend to the specificities of embodied existence and communities of experience? To do this work, I think that philosophy works best alongside of, thinking with—rather than about—modes of thought, imagination, and practice more congenial to the particular, most pointedly for me literature and history. (Anthropology is another obvious candidate.) James, with his strong literary imagination and commitment to the details of psychic life, cannot write about religion without appealing to a wide array of literary and religious texts. He thereby leaves tracks for us to follow that make clear how inter and intrapersonal religious life is.