“Once Born”

As noted by one online writer, “Hyperthymia may be what William James had in mind when he discussed the “once-born” in Varieties of Religious Experience, with their child-like cheerful openness, acceptance, and affirmation of existence.”

Wall Street Journal excerpt

Published in 1902, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” consists largely of case studies of different kinds of believers responding to different needs and natures. The varieties, ranging from the familiar to the mystical, the saintly and even the neurotic, belong “to the personal branch” of religion rather than the institutional. The common denominator is a sense of the “divine presence,” the “supreme reality,” “something larger than ourselves,” the “higher part of the universe” identified as God. For the pragmatist—or “radical empiricist,” as James described himself—this is theology enough. “God is real since he produces real effects.”

Even more provocative than this personal, permissive view of religion is the theme that appears in the middle of the book and puts the whole of it in a different light. James quoted the English writer Francis Newman: “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” The once-born, in James’s words, “see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate, but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.” They are not self-righteous, but they are romantic and complacent, because they make little of sin and suffering, of human imperfection and the “disordered world of man.” Theirs is the religion of the “healthy-minded.” Accompanying the advance of “so-called” liberalism in Christianity, it represents a victory over the old “morbid,” “hell-fire theology.” So far from dwelling on the sinfulness and depravity of man, the once-born belittle sin, deny eternal punishment and insist upon the dignity rather than the depravity of man. “They look at the continual preoccupation of the old-fashioned Christian with the salvation of his soul as something sickly and reprehensible rather than admirable.”

The twice-born, by contrast—the “sick souls” and “morbid-minded”—are all too aware of the existence of evil, indeed, of the “experience of evil as something essential.” Where the once-born look upon the “children of wrath” as “unmanly and diseased,” the twice-born look upon the “healthy-minded” as “unspeakably blind and shallow.”

On first reading, James would seem to weigh the argument in favor of the once-born. Surely “healthy” is more desirable than “sickly,” “dignity” more commendable than “depravity,” and a “liberal” theology more enlightened than a “hell-fire” one. James deliberately chose such harsh words to put the issue in its boldest terms, to express the true irony of the human condition. It is not long, however, before he intervenes in the quarrel unequivocally on the side of the twice-born: “It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience.” Healthy-mindedness is simply 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.”

In a chapter with the promising title “The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification,” James suggested some reconciliation between the once-born and twice-born. Human beings, we are reminded, exhibit varieties and mixtures of each outlook. Yet the duality remains. Happiness of a sort is not denied to the twice-born; nor is religious peace. But theirs is a complicated happiness and peace, not to be achieved by an algebraic calculation of pluses and minuses. The real world is a “double-storied mystery” in which the pluses and minuses, good and evil, are inextricable and ineradicable. It is this world that the twice-born inhabits and understands. Toward the end of “Varieties,” James observed, “the outlook upon life of the twice-born—holding as it does more of the element of evil in solution—is the wider and completer.”

Critics may well object that a religion based upon a will to believe can justify any kind of belief, however eccentric or even mischievous, and may question the viability of a faith independent of institutions, dogmas and rituals. But they cannot deny the fact that something like a will to believe is the motivating force for many people who are distrustful of those institutions and skeptical of those dogmas and rituals but who nevertheless feel a spiritual need and seek a faith responsive to their personal needs and passions. There is no doubt that James counted himself among the twice-born and experienced such a will to believe. As if testifying to his own faith, James wrote in his notes as he prepared the lectures that became “Varieties”: “A man’s religion is the deepest and wisest thing in his life.”

“A man’s religion”—but also a man’s irreligion, James might have said. For the varieties of irreligion reflect the same once-born/twice-born dichotomy as the varieties of religion. The “New Atheists” easily fall into the category of the once-born, being as monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism. “Neo-Atheists,” on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism and eager to import into secular society some of the enduring “goods” of traditional religions. Thus, they exhibit more of the character of the twice-born. So too, current varieties of will-to-believers are of both types. “New Age” disciples, rejecting traditional religion and aspiring to personal fulfillment and universal harmony, belong to the once-born. “Born-again” Christians, though, are of a mixed variety—twice-born in their acute recognition of sin, which prompts some to return to traditional churches with their rituals and dogmas, while others, like the once-born New-Agers, seek refuge in transitory non-dogmatic, non-ritualistic churches or mega-churches.

/End Wall Street Journal excerpt

The Once-Born and the Twice-Born

The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness
“God has two families of children on this earth,” says Francis W. Newman, (The Soul; its Sorrows and its Aspirations, 3rd edition, 1852, pp. 89, 91.) “the once-born and the twice-born,” and the once-born he describes as follows: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure. The same characters generally have no metaphysical tendencies: they do not look back into themselves. Hence they are not distressed by their own imperfections: yet it would be absurd to call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves at all. This childlike quality of their nature makes the opening of religion very happy to them: for they no more shrink from God, than a child from an emperor, before whom the parent trembles: in fact, they have no vivid conception of any of the qualities in which the severer Majesty of God consists.(1I once heard a lady describe the pleasure it gave her to think the she “could always cuddle up to God.”) He is to them the impersonation of Kindness and Beauty. They read his character, not in the disordered world of man, but in romantic and harmonious nature. Of human sin they know perhaps little in their own hearts and not very much in the world; and human suffering does but melt them to tenderness. Thus, when they approach God, no inward disturbance ensues; and without being as yet spiritual, they have a certain complacency and perhaps romantic sense of excitement in their simple worship.”

Expression of the once born type consciousness
“I observe, with profound regret, the religious struggles which come into many biographies, as if almost essential to the formation of the hero. I ought to speak of these, to say that any man has an advantage, not to be estimated, who is born, as I was, into a family where the religion is simple and rational; who is trained in the theory of such a religion, so that he never knows, for an hour, what these religious or irreligious struggles are. I always knew God loved me, and I was always grateful to him for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell him so, and was always glad to receive his suggestions to me. . . . I can remember perfectly that when I was coming to manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the time had a deal to say about the young men and maidens who were facing the ‘problem of life.’ I had no idea whatever what the problem of life was. To live with all my might seemed to me easy; to learn where there was so much to learn seemed pleasant and almost of course; to lend a hand, if one had a chance, natural; and if one did this, why, he enjoyed life because he could not help it, and without proving to himself that he ought to enjoy it. . . . A child who is early taught that he is God’s child, that he may live and move and have his being in God, and that he has, therefore, infinite strength at hand for the conquering of any difficulty, will take life more easily, and probably will make more of it, than one who is told that he is born the child of wrath and wholly incapable of good.” (1 Starbuck: Psychology of Religion, pp. 305, 306.)

One can but recognize in such writers as these the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe. In some individuals optimism may become quasi-pathological. The capacity for even a transient sadness or a momentary humility seems cut off from them as by a kind of congenital anaesthesia.2

In the fully evolved Revivalism of Great Britain and America we have, so to speak, the codified and stereotyped procedure to which this way of thinking has led. In spite of the unquestionable fact that saints of the once-born type exist, that there may be a gradual growth in holiness without a cataclysm; in spite of the obvious leakage (as one may say) of much mere natural goodness into the scheme of salvation; revivalism has always assumed that only its own type of religious experience can be perfect; you must first be nailed on the cross of natural despair and agony, and then in the twinkling of an eye be miraculously released.

It is natural that those who personally have such an experience should carry away a feeling of being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often, heard lights, seen or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomena occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an higher power had flooded in and taken possession. Moreover the sense of renovation, safety, cleanness, rightness, can be so marvelous and jubilant as well to one’s belief in a radically new substantial nature.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature; Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902 (Google eBook)


  • Happiness is man’s chief concern 78
  • Once born and twice born characters 80
  • Walt Whitman 84
  • Mixed nature of Greek feeling 86
  • Systematic healthy mindedness 87
  • Its reasonableness 88
  • Liberal Christianity shows it 91
  • Optimism as encouraged by Popular Science 92
  • The Mind cure movement 94
  • Its creed 97
  • Cases 102
  • Its doctrine of evil 106
  • Its analogy to Lutheran theology 108
  • Salvation by relaxation 109
  • Its methods suggestion 112
  • meditation 115
  • recollection 116
  • verification 118
  • Diversity of possible schemes of adaptation to the universe 122
  • APPENDIX: Two mind cure cases 123


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