Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James.
By Ann Taves. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Reviewed by A. Gregory Schneider
… Taves points out that when James distinguishes between origin and function, his move allows him fruitfully to investigate some extreme characters and their experiences. Quaker founder George Fox, for instance, was by James’s reckoning an unbalanced personality, subject to obsessive impulses and ideas.
The pattern of religious experience he originated, however, proved to have ongoing and profound value for human life… An analogous application to Ellen White and her visionary ideas begs to be made. White’s innovations in theology and spirituality may have their origins in a personality unbalanced by brain lesions, though I hasten to add that the evidence by no means compels such a conclusion. They may have their origins in a character who was not altogether candid about her affiliations and influences, a conclusion to which I think the evidence does compel us. Nevertheless, her ideas served the needs of the early Advent community and founded what would become a worldwide commu nity. That certain patterns of thought we have inherited from her may now seem less useful, even inimical, to our spiritual common life, as I have argued above, does not diminish her lasting significance to our community.
Now, however, well-informed Seventh-day Adventist must appreciate and assess that significance in the comparative perspective that our religiously and culturally pluralistic world forces upon us. There are other keepers of flames in other lamps. All of us hold our treasures in earthen vessels, and even our lights flicker and smoke in distracting, confusing ways. Concepts like James’s subconscious and studies like Taves’s Fits, Trances, andFisions’will help us under stand and evaluate the many lights around us. Neverthe less, the Light is our life, not the science of the lights.
‘”What really exists”‘ wrote James, “‘ is not things made but things in the making. Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them.”17 The study of religion, whether theological, historical, or psychological, is a body of concepts, a collection of things made, well preserved, no doubt, but dead. Living religion is a body of things in the making, a truly living being. Adventism is a thing in the making, a living religious community and culture that neverthe less carries and shapes itself by its body of concepts.
Adventists informed by critical historical study of their community are as much a part of the making of Adventism as those who would demonize such study. They may use their broader, deeper knowledge of the Adventist story to help form a spirit in self and community that is in turn broader, deeper, and, we may hope, less defensive. Less defensive because our critical knowledge, if acquired and used in faith, lets us understand that our Adventist community is but one of those “earthen vessels” into which our Savior is pouring grace and favor for the world’s salvation. We may, indeed, profit much from comparative study of those other vessels. Nevertheless, this vessel, our little Seventh-day Adventist jar of clay, is not a club from which we may casually withdraw or a corporation by which we ambitiously promote our spiritual careers. It is the living tabernacle that has given us birth and nurture. For our souls’ sake we will remain faithful to it.
A. Gregory Schneider, professor of behavioral science at Pacific Union College, chaired the session discussing Ann Taves’s Book at the American Academy of Religion in November 2000.
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A. Gregory Schneider, Ph.D. (Seventh-day Adventist), Professor of Religion and Social Science, Pacific Union College, Angwin CA