Friday, October 29, 2010

The Heart of Volition

I mentioned recently how excited I was about finding out what William James has to say on the diseases of the will.  James has not disappointed!  His view is interesting, helpful, compatible with the Bible, and -- as a result -- inspiring.  This later portion of the chapter on will strikes me as the heart of the whole book.

The will involves the positive and the negative: desires and inhibitions.  A healthy will balances these according to custom and wisdom, whereas a diseased will finds one or the other dominant.  James outlines two main diseases (or categories of disease) of the will: the explosive will and the obstructed will.  The first he sometimes calls "unchecked passion"; the second he once calls "sloth."  The first phrase reminds me of Biblical passages such as this in Titus: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world."  Of course,"sloth" carries Christian connotations because of its place as one of the seven deadly sins.

The Bible teaches us that knowing a law raises in us the temptation to break it: the story of the garden teaches it, and Paul's letters repeat the observation.  Our lives confirm this principle, and every episode of I Love Lucy depends on its truth.  James tells the story of a student who had a morbid, irrational temptation to throw himself out a window as a fellow student had done in order to commit suicide.  "Being a Catholic, he told his director, who said, 'All right! if you must, you must,' and added, 'Go ahead and do it,' thereby instantly quenching his desire.  This director," James says, "knew how to minister to a mind diseased."  He also knew, I think, Romans 7:7-8.

The "heart of our inquiry into volition," James says, is the understanding that effort of the will means "to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind."  Reading this reminds me of Paul saying, "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind," and "Remember the gospel by which you are saved, if you hold it fast."  Pay attention, says James, to the right things, even though your mind with its instincts and habits (the flesh, Biblically speaking?) keeps wanting to pay attention to the wrong things.  Very similarly, Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

James again: "What constitutes the difficulty, for a man laboring under an unwise passion, of acting as if the passion were unwise?  Certainly there is no physical difficulty.  It is as easy physically to avoid a fight as to begin one, to pocket one's money as to squander it on one's cupidities, to walk away from them as towards a coquette's door.  The difficulty is mental."  So, he says, we must make the effort to keep the wise end in mind at the expense of the unwise temptation that constantly begs for attention.  "Set your minds on things that are above," enjoins the Apostle, "not on things that are on earth."

James says that reasonable ideas will win over others ("Come, let us reason together," says the LORD through Isaiah) if we let them take hold, but first we have to give them a hearing.  "Passion's cue is always and everywhere to prevent their still small voice from being heard at all."  His wording invokes one Biblical phrase and makes me think of others -- of Solomon's Wisdom, for instance, crying in the streets and lamenting that no one listens.

Now, I'm not saying that the good Christian life is just a feat of psychology.  For one thing, I know the effort to keep the good, the just, the true, the wise, the beautiful at the center of my mind's attention requires the power of the Holy Spirit.  But I am saying that the old formula I learned as a kid, that Christianity is a matter of the heart and not the head, is a lot like saying that one half of the scissors is the important half.  The heart of the matter may be a matter of the heart, but just as the Son and Holy Spirit agree and work together for good, so must my mind and will.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent entry! I enjoyed reading it without interruption--by me or anyone else.