If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my self-study in psychology has taken me some very interesting places. Self-actualization. Creativity, perception, mysticism. Various topics in humanistic and existential psychotherapy. Religion, too, has been a part of these discussions; although, I admit, I’ve never been particularly interested in religion as a course of study. And so I spent a long time ignoring it. Or avoiding it. Thinking it superfluous to my more serious studies in being and becoming.
The irony here, I am learning, is that religion is probably where I should have been looking all along. Not in the sense of institutionalized religion, divine, or revelatory experiences, but in the connections between religion and personality. Or, more specifically, in what it means to have a religious disposition. What both A. H. Maslow and William James describe in uncannily similar terms as a kind of reverence for life. An orientation to the world which is not just harmonious, but energizing, grateful, soulful, and associated with living according to the highest values and virtues. Indeed, for both James and Maslow, the development of a religious disposition is a kind of ultimate in development. Self-actualization or becoming.
But this is really nothing new. And the impetus for this post has nothing to do with rehashing Maslow’s thoughts on religion and self-actualization. (I’ve done that a few too many times methinks.) Rather, I’d like to move in a different direction, one that was inspired by my reading of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (extremely highly recommended) and present an alternative interpretation of what it means to have a religious disposition.
I am going to suggest something now which may be completely wrong and for which I have no evidence beyond my own speculation and the validity of my inner experiences. And it is this: our religious attitudes precede, or provide the foundation for, our other personality traits. They are primary, which, means our personalities may very well be hierarchical. Like I said, I could be wrong. But my intuition tells me there is at least a kernel of truth in what I just wrote.
The thought came to me this morning as I was reading James over coffee. He sets out to define religious attitude as an orientation toward an underlying universal order or primal truth. He doesn’t abandon the concept of divine encounter, but he expands it to suggest, I think, that being able to sense ourselves as part of a greater whole–whether that whole is defined as nature, God, the cosmos, etc.–is enough to constitute a religious attitude, or disposition. He takes great pains to distinguish situational behavior, or what amount to peripheral-type personality traits, from total attitudes, which are, by his definition, religious:
To get at [total attitudes] you must go beyond the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large. – William James
My instinctive reaction to this passage and the lengthier discussion that follows: to keep replacing the word total with primary. So I stopped myself and reflected on this idea for awhile. Is it enough to say that our foundational beliefs shape our personality? Or that the unconscious is made up of archetypes (which James seems to indicate here), which shape our personality? Or—as my gut seems to be telling me—is there a core, or primary, set of personality traits, which then results in the development of secondary traits? For example, are the Big Five, possibly, made up of secondary traits? Is it possible there is a series of measurable attitudes that precede them or even cause them? It is, indeed, one thing to suggest that people who hold a religious attitude toward life are more likely to be conscientious and agreeable (I am making this up for the sake of example.), but it’s another to suggest that conscientiousness and agreeableness likely proceed from that attitude, itself made up measurable characteristics.
I hadn’t thought of this before. But my own experience tells me—and very significantly—that it’s possible to develop a religious attitude over time, and in so doing, to watch our other, more peripheral attitudes change as our core orientation changes.
Interestingly, James suggests the same about emotions. Religious-type emotions, for him, have a solemnity, a heft, which is neither positive nor negative, though he seems to suggest they emanate from somewhere deeper. That they’re totalizing, soulful, or core, experiences. I have to ask myself again, is the development of a religious attitude toward life tantamount to a kind of self-actualization or becoming? Or is there something of a religious attitude that precedes all of this and makes the highest levels of being attainable for some people? (I have no doubt perception plays a very large role here, as well.)
At the moment, I’m apt to suggest the latter. This is a question to which I would very much like an answer.