From the October, 2003 issue of Touchstone

Variations on James by Jeremy Lott

Variations on James

The Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited
by Charles Taylor
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002
(127 pages; $19.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Jeremy Lott

McGill professor of philosophy (emeritus) Charles Taylor was awarded the 1999 Gifford Lectureship—a prize that had previously been given to such speakers as Albert Schweitzer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Sir James Frazer. Financed by the estate of Adam Gifford, the lectures are held annually at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews. The speaker is given the dais to explore whatever subject he wishes, so long as he manages to advance in some way “the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words the knowledge of God.”

While he was combing familiar sources to prepare for the lectures, Taylor found that psychologist and fellow philosopher William James had not only delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1902 but used the talks to lay the groundwork for his very famous book, Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor writes: “The sense I had of treading in the steps of this trail-blazing predecessor was enhanced by the powerful recurring impression . . . [that] it could have been written yesterday, as against a hundred years ago.”

The interplay with James continued beyond the Gifford Lectureship into another series of talks, delivered the following year. Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited is billed as a summary of those lectures but, at 127 pages, readers may get the sense that they’re only getting the Cliff’s Notes version. Far be it from this reviewer, however, to heap hot coals on the underappreciated virtue of brevity.

Varieties of Religion Today begins by setting down James’s “pragmatic” view of religion and its relevance to our modern, secular era. “One could argue that James has certain blind spots in his view of religion,” argues Taylor. “But these blind spots are widespread in the modern world. They are just as operative in our world as in his.” James, for instance, distinguished sharply between a living faith and an institutional variant thereof (“second-hand” religion). James believed that

as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers. When these groups get strong enough to “organize” themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions, with corporate ambitions of their own. The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and to contaminate the originally innocent thing.

James defined religion almost wholly in terms of individual experience, feeling, and behavior. In this view, theology, philosophy, and ecclesiology are but secondary growths and are often set against the early, purer (“innocent”) form of the religion. All three disciplines, in fact, often serve that nasty “spirit of politics” in helping to suppress further religious innovation.

Readers should not be surprised if this critique catches a familiar chord. In one variation, it is the Free Church critique, of Catholicism in particular and of “second-hand” tradition-bound religion in general (e.g., “They rely upon works and rituals and man-made authority while we have a direct pipeline.”). In another, it’s the rationale of “New-Agey” types everywhere (“I’m into spirituality, not stifling religion.”). In its most diffuse form, it seems to have slipped into the water supply of the United States, prompting your average Joe Taxpayer to mouth pieties about the problems with “organized religion,” which often degenerate into attacks on the Catholic Church that would have made the Know Nothings proud.

What the above groups may fail to understand is that they’re riding the shockwaves of a trend that is both quite ancient and thoroughly Catholic. Taylor shows that the shift toward the individual in the church predated both James and Protestantism by a fair clip. “From the high Middle Ages,” he writes, “we can see a steadily increasing emphasis on a religion of personal commitment and devotion over forms centered on collective ritual.” From the Lateran Council of 1215 to the Brethren of the Common Life in the 1500s, the emphasis of church teaching shifted sharply toward emphasizing the individual’s relationship with God.

It is worth remembering that this shift occurred in a context where both the Catholic and Protestant churches had a high view of ecclesiastical authority. But when the emphasis arrived in the New World, with its warring empires, religious dissenters, and absence of long-established churches, it arguably became something different. Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards focused the people’s attention like a laser beam on individual conversion experiences. In various revivals from Cane Ridge to the present, the often bizarre outward manifestation of inner religious experience was what counted.

Of course, just because James resonates today does not mean that there are no differences between our time and his own. In much of Europe, church attendance has plummeted, and the number of people willing to label themselves “Christians” has fallen as well. In the United States, church attendance and religious identification have fared better, but the opinion-makers might as well come from Sweden. Mention of God is largely banned in the nation’s schools and public monuments, and it is probably only a matter of time before his name is removed from the currency and the pledge of allegiance. Though the overwhelming majority of Americans would identify themselves as “Christians” of one stripe or another, it becomes a scandal anytime a politician opens his big mouth and calls this a “Christian nation.”

Then again, it is true that a more vibrant faith has flourished in America while it has withered elsewhere. Taylor thinks this is because Europeans came to see state-sponsored churches as part of the moribund old system that so many of them no longer have any faith in. In the United States, however, the more individualistic religious impulse made it impossible to sustain state churches and helped to usher in a government policy of separation of church and state. As a result, religious observance is seen as less offensive—being an extension of our own private relationships with God.

This may sound to some readers like small potatoes, but Taylor would probably argue that, hey, it beats starving. In the preface, he admits that “I am still struggling with these issues.” I hardly need to add that he’s not the only one.  

Jeremy Lott is a columnist for Books & Culture Online. He attends a Baptist church in Lynden, Washington.

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