William James: Mortification

I don’t know if anybody else has this, but whenever something bad happens in my life, I get a bit obsessed with all the different theologies and religious strategies and such that are put forth as coping mechanisms. There’s the thing about how we should be happy in our suffering, because our suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ – as, for instance, in Romans 8: “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” There’s the people who say that we should receive our suffering with equanimity (ie Calvin), there’s the people who say that we have to lean on God, and take our strength from Him – you know, I’ve heard sermons where people stand up and say Yes, life was hard, and I ran out of strength, and I was totally exhausted, and then God gave me strength to continue! Which, you know – great? I dunno – I’m fascinated by all the back and forth in this arena, even though I’ve never found any of it personally comforting. I think, in part, I’m not certain whether it’s meant to be essentially psychological, so that you just have to find the trick that works for your brain, or whether it’s essentially spiritual, so that you have to find the correct theological way of thinking about suffering and just use that.

Partly I guess it’s also an exercise in trying to understand the believers who came before us. I want to know more about what they’ve done, why they’ve done it, and whether or not their actions are of any use to us today. I try to be pretty open-minded, try to give everyone a fair go – even when I disagree with someone, I’ll try and give their idea a proper hearing before offering criticism. But there’s one group of believers that I honestly just don’t understand. I can’t see any value in what they’re doing. It’s dumb and bad and I hate it. I’m talking, of course, about mortification.

  • The text: The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • The author: William James, late 19th century psychologist
  • Notes: This book is made up of a series of lectures delivered in 1901, in Edinburgh.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using the Penguin Classics edition, but you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.

So William James talks about mortification in a couple of places in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and he sort of agrees with me: that is, he suggests that it’s actually not possible for most people today to understand the thinking behind it. If you’re not familiar, mortification is when people go around causing themselves physical pain as a sort of religious practice. You might see it with flagellation, where people whip themselves – that’s probably the most familiar example. But it’s not a punishment for sin, per se; in the stuff I’ve read, it’s more presented as a way to subdue the body and its desires. You torment your body into a state of submission so that you can focus on the spiritual realm. Some of this stuff is quite graphic – I’ll spare you the details, but there are three pages here of some fuckwit who’s gone and tortured himself – it’s all spikes and nails and shit – and – you know, frankly, fuck that guy. He was a fucking idiot, and he definitely didn’t need to spend his time literally torturing himself. (It’s in lectures 11-13, on Saintliness, if you’re the morbid type – or just google Henry Suso.)

James is a little more generous than me, though – he doesn’t say that mortification is a great idea, but he takes a broad view and suggests that maybe our culture is at a point where we just can’t understand it any more:

“A strange moral transformation has within the past century swept over our Western world. We no longer think that we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity. It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically.”

That’s interesting, isn’t it – the idea that society has come to the point where pain isn’t considered part of normal life. That’s quite encouraging. I’ve mentioned this before, but these lectures were given in 1901: historically, we know that the First World War was just around the corner. That might initially seem like a counter-example – can we really say that the world had moved on from pain and suffering with that in mind? But what’s important about WW1 from our perspective is less that it happened, and more how people thought about it. WW1 resulted in some of the great anti-war poetry – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon – all those great poets who were at the front, and went ‘oh, this is fucked,’ and wrote poems about it. That’s the stuff that resonated with the public coming out of WW1. Nobody was happy about it. To my mind, more than anything, the reaction to the war proves James’s point. Physical anguish was no longer seen as a normal, acceptable part of the deal. People shouldn’t have to go through stuff like that. In one of his most famous poems, Wilfred Owen quotes an old heroic motto from Horace (“It is both sweet and proper to die for one’s country”), and describes it as a flat lie: rather, he says, if you could see the men gassed and dying in the war,

“and watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

That’s not the voice of a man suffering with equanimity. He’s not impressed. He doesn’t think it’s right that he experienced such things, and he doesn’t think you should go round telling kids that pain and death for your country is a good thing. Maybe there’s something in what James is saying. Maybe we’re just not at a place, culturally, where we can understand such a cavalier approach to pain. James suggests that “The way in which our ancestors looked upon pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course portion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement. We wonder that any human beings could have been so callous.” Thus, he says, mortification in the church has largely come to a halt. “A believer who flagellates or macerates himself today arouses more wonder and fear than emulation.”

Here’s the question, then. Is my inability to understand these people a sign of cultural difference? Or were they just objectively wrong? Were their self-torments displeasing to God, such that they really had wasted a lot of effort and suffering on nothing? Personally, I would like it if that was the case. I would like it if those actions were relics of a barbarous time that we have thankfully passed beyond. It’d be nice if we could confidently say that we’re enlightened now, and that we have a better attitude towards pain, and that the mortification guys are just fuckwits that we don’t have to worry about. But if their way of thinking is unimaginable to us, surely that’s because our imagination on this issue is constrained by our cultural context. And why should the culture of our time be considered better than the culture of theirs? Can we make an argument in that direction without relying on cultural assumptions that are peculiar to us? To be clear, I personally would make that argument. I do think that mortification is stupid. I don’t think you should go around torturing yourself. I’m aware that my belief is informed by my cultural context – and yet I’m not willing to surrender the idea that it’s also true. And where does that leave us with regard to William James? Well, our belief clearly is dependent on things other than pure unvarnished truth. He’s right on that front. We obviously haven’t just had the divine wisdom of God beamed unproblematically into our heads. There are distortions along the way. Mortification was a mistake belonging to a particular period in time. And, if people in the past could make mistakes owing to their cultural context, then so can we today. Can our faith still have spiritual value if it’s riddled with mistakes? I dunno. What would you say is the spiritual value of mortification?

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