Opinion: Finding Meaning

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By Skip Hellewell

Variety in Laguna

William James, a 19th-century intellectual considered the founder of American psychology, wrote a classic book still in print: “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” To church scholars arguing the fine points of doctrine, James offered a new view: It didn’t really matter. What mattered was the “experience” of religion — the benefits experienced by the believer.

It wasn’t really planned with James’ book in mind, but on a  recent Sunday I had three religious experiences. I began with the early mass at St. Catherine’s. There’s been a Catholic church in Laguna since around 1908 when Joseph Yoch bought and donated Laguna’s first schoolhouse as a place to meet. This was the first Sunday of Lent and the chapel was full. The mass, officiated by Fr. Pat, evoked a timeless and venerable feeling. In the ritual of call and response leading to the communion ancient creeds were invoked. In the pattern of Fr. Pat, the homily was brief. Afterwards friends lingered to visit.

The next service was at Church by the Sea, an evangelical church started in that same schoolhouse years after the Catholics had moved to their current site. A visiting pastor and musician from Texas was warming up with the praise band when I arrived. Little Church is known for their music and soon the place was rocking. My favorite part was when we closed singing “How Great Thou Art.”

I next attended the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across from the high school. Yes, they also once met in that old one-room schoolhouse. This was the first Sunday of the month when there are no assigned speakers and worshippers are free to come to the pulpit and share their faith. My favorite was a teenage boy in the spiritual process of discovering faith who shared his experiences. The beautiful wife was with me and it caused me to consider our shared journey of faith these many years.

William James later proposed a related idea termed “The Will to Believe.” Belief, he posited, cannot be proven but must be experienced. To experience a belief, one must in confidence presume it true and live the belief. From this experience, this “experiment upon the word,” the benefits — the utility of the belief—become the proof. I think James was onto something, for he further argued that the value of the saintly virtues (obedience, chastity, humility) can only be known by the practitioner.

It was a great Sunday. Later we meet for a big family dinner, the grandchildren full of youthful joy. They have beliefs too. Some are innate, others planted by their parents. They’re young and innocent; they believe before they know to doubt. In time, doubts will come but their experiences can prove their beliefs. Going to bed that night, in need of a subject for this column, William James and the experiences of the day coalesced. In our search for meaning, we are informed by our beliefs. Our experiences provide the proof. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach. Email: [email protected]

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