One can read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience as a kind of spiritual autobiography in the guise of a psychological study of religion. In compiling his exhaustive and still-definitive work, James drew on some 200 personal narratives -- none ostensibly his own and yet all reflecting in some way his own spiritual struggles. James made a fundamental distinction between the healthy-minded, or “once born,” who were largely untroubled by the presence of evil in the world, and those who were unable to escape its contagion. This latter group suffered from a “soul sickness” that would only be remedied by being “twice born,” typically through some powerful conversion experience.
As a young man, James was beset by numerous mental and physical ailments that suggest he may have had more than a purely academic interest in soul sickness. He suffered at times from depression, panic attacks, hallucinations and suicidal impulses, along with a variety of bodily ills involving the eyes, back, stomach and skin. Poor health caused him to withdraw temporarily from the Harvard Medical School and later prevented him from practicing medicine after he graduated. He was eventually diagnosed with neurasthenia, a now-obsolete catchall term for a variety of psychosomatic symptoms related to nervous exhaustion. James eventually snapped out of it through sheer force of will but always remained profoundly sympathetic to those Jesus called the poor in spirit.
One might imagine that the untroubled souls James categorized as “once-born” must somehow enjoy God’s special favor. But they might just as easily be wallowing in the spiritual shallows, unable to navigate deeper waters. James had little regard for the mind-cure movement, forerunners of today’s New Agers, who extolled the healing power of positive thoughts and emotions without proper consideration for the presence of evil in the world. “The completest religions would…seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed,” he wrote, mentioning both Buddhism and Christianity. “They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.”
Unless one is born anew, Jesus said, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Christian fundamentalists take this to mean we must embrace the dogma that Jesus died for our sins in order to find salvation through a born-again experience. Of course, Jesus had not yet died when he said this. And he did not say we must be born anew to find salvation; he said we must be born anew to see the kingdom of God. The key word here is see. We must see the world as God created it, as a new-born would -- not turning away from the parts we may not wish to see but absorbing it in its entirety. This is the principle difference between the once-born and the twice-born. The twice-born do not ignore the reality of evil, but neither are they overwhelmed by it. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he admonished them “to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Clearly, to be reborn is not the same thing as being born yesterday.