I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up here on some earlier discussion about attitudes and their relationship with distressing NDEs, so I jumped when the ideal opening came along a few days ago.  Today’s post, which introduces our reopened discussion, comes from one of my favorite blog authors, with help from William James and Sigmund Freud. My comments will come along next week, and I’ll be looking forward to yours both now and then. (And as usual, if you don’t care for God-talk, just plunge in anyway; this time it’s only in the title, because William James put it there.)

Richard Beck, PhD is an experimental psychologist, author of two books, the mind behind the surprising and enlightening blog Experimental Theology, and in his day job chair of the Psychology Department of Abilene Christian University. He is emphatically not what most people expect. What follows is reposted here with his gracious permission.

The Two Families of God

by Richard Beck 

If you are a regular reader you know I’m a huge fan of the American psychologist and philosopher William James. In fact, James’s most famous work–The Varieties of Religious Experience–plays a key role in my most recent book, The Authenticity of Faith.

The part of The Varieties that captivated me so many years ago is James’s descriptions of what he calls “the two families of God”–two distinct religious experiences James called the “healthy-minded” and “sick soul” experiences.

James begins his analysis in The Varieties with the healthy-minded experience. According to James the healthy-minded believer is positive and optimistic, willfully even intentionally so. The healthy-minded believer actively ignores or represses experiences that are morbid, dark or disturbing. As James describes it: “[W]e give the name of healthy-mindedness to the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good.”

James goes on to distinguish between two different origins of healthy-mindedness. The first is a dispositional, trait-like healthy-mindedness, an optimism and positive affectivity that is rooted in a person’s innate psychological wiring–the sort of congenial good-cheer many people seem to have. By contrast, there is also a more decisional sort of healthy-mindedness, an active choice to see the world as good where, according to James, a person “deliberately excludes evil from [the] field of vision.” This isn’t as easy as it sounds. As James notes, an extreme healthy-minded stance may be “a difficult feat to perform for one who is intellectually sincere with himself and honest about facts.”

Why, then, do people indulge in this experience? According to James, people might opt for healthy-mindedness because it is an “instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance.” James summarizes how this works:

[Healthy-minded] religion directs [the believer] to settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them, by ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist.

According to James this tendency toward “deliberately minimizing evil” can become almost delusional where “in some individuals optimism can become quasi-pathological.” James suggests that healthy-mindedness can appear to be “a kind of congenital anesthesia.”

In contrast to the experience of healthy-mindedness James goes on in The Varieties to describe the second of the “two families of God”–the experience of the sick soul.

If the healthy-minded experience is typified by a “blindness” that seeks to minimize evil, the sick soul is a religious type involved in “maximizing evil.” According to James, the sick soul is driven “by the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.” Sick souls are those “who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil.” Consequently, sick souls are “fated to suffer from [evil’s] presence.”

Of great interest to me in The Authenticity of Faith, James describes the sick soul as being very preoccupied with death awareness. According to James the sick soul lives with a regular awareness of death, that at the “back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all encompassing blackness.” In light of this death awareness the sick soul knows that “all natural happiness thus seems infected with a contradiction” because “the breath of the sepulcher surrounds it.”

For James, this death awareness seems to be a key difference between the healthy-minded and the sick soul:

Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.

The sick soul does not seem to be engaged in a denial of death, to use Ernest Becker’s phrase. And because of this, despite the apparent “sickness” of the sick soul, James suggests that the experience of the sick soul provides a “profounder view” of life. More, the sick soul confers a degree of resiliency in the face of tragedy, setback and pain. Critical to the argument I make in The Authenticity of Faith is James’s summary assessment comparing the two types:

The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work…But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.