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Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited"

Over the weekend I've been reading around a very slim book by Charles Taylor based on a lecture series connected with his Gifford Lecture in 1999 (the book was published in 2002 under the title above).  Taylor marks the occasion by "revisiting" William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (given as the Gifford Lecture nearly a century earlier).  Many of the arguments in the middle of the book clearly presage Taylor's lengthier claims in A Secular Age -- for example, Taylor introduces here arguments from what he calls the neo-Durkheimian dispensation and the post-War development of the "expressivist" (or post-Durkheimian) religious model.

But what is special about the book is Taylor's attempt to situate James's understanding of religious "experience."  James was particularly (exclusively) interested in individual experience, not corporate life (which he disdained).  A different but related idea is that James was concerned to explore what he called religious "feelings" and decidedly not what he thought were the rationalizations and justifications which later proceeded from those feelings and, he belived, diluted and adulterated them.

It has been remarked before that the emphasis on experience and feeling places James as the relatively late descendent of a distinctively Protestant philosophical family tree.  In thinking about the connections of James's thought to modern sensibilities about religion, Taylor says something, again, related, but distinctive: he contrasts the outward, ritualistic, practice-oriented model of religious experience with an inward, personal, devotional model, a model in which people "take their religion seriously."  James's intellectual interests fit neatly within the presuppositions of the latter conception, and it was part of his project to vindicate interior religious experience against the slings and arrows of secular skepticism.   

But, says Taylor, the move from external to interior model was in fact very much of a piece with the march toward secularism: "[T]he drive to personal religion has itself been part of the impetus toward different facets of secularization . . . . Moreover, many of the secular moralities that have taken the place of religion place the same stress on inner commitment," one of which is of course Kantianism.  (13-14).  Some further thoughts after the jump on Taylor's characterization of James. 

Taylor locates James even more precisely.  First, he says that James stands within a branch of the internal mode that he calls "devotional humanism" -- an orientation in which "we try to come closer to God, or center our lives on him, where we proceed in a fashion that trusts and builds on our own inner √©lan," a manner of understanding religious experience that emphasizes the godliness of inner inspiration.  Second, as Taylor puts it, "he sides with the religion of the heart over that of the head," in that theory and reason always derive from and are dependent upon inspiration (think John Wesley and Pietistic religion in early America, and see, e.g., James's discussion of the twice-born and melancholic religious experience, as well as his treatment of Tolstoy's religious sensibility).

All of this means that James has little interest in or time for religion as an experience mediated by churches or any sort of ecclesial life, and so he could never quite wrap his mind around Catholicism (nor did he particularly want to).  True religious experience is divorced, for James, from collective or social life.  Here again it represents a prototype of Taylor's post-Durkheimian religious model.

In all, I recommend Taylor's ruminations on James.  Here is one thought that I had about Taylor's characterization of religious experience mediated by the church -- the model that James just doesn't get (or wants to cast aside) -- where Taylor's reflections don't quite ring true for me.  He says, in mild criticism of James:

There are (what are in one sense) individual experiences that are immensely enhanced by the sense that they are shared.  I am sitting at home watching the local hockey team win the Stanley Cup.  I rejoice in this.  But the sense of my joy here is framed by my understanding that thousands of fans all over the city . . . are sharing in this moment of exultation.  There are certain emotions you can have in solidarity that you can't have alone . . . . How much of what James thinks of as individual experience is affected in this way?  (28-29)

What struck me as off about this is that Taylor does not seem to focus enough on the allegiances of custom and tradition here, and the ways in which a strong sense of community is mediated by those kinds of ties.  To use Taylor's own sports analogy, it isn't that my sense of joy is enhanced by the realization that others whom I don't know are happy too.  That's lovely, I suppose, but largely unimportant.  What matters is that something of me and of my traditions, something to which I've committed my emotional capital over the years and that has become part of the formative customs of my way of life, has triumphed or has met with some sort of success.  Now, I don't really feel this way about sports (even though I'm a Boston sports fan, and even though I know that others perhaps do), but it seems to me that this is closer to what Taylor is getting at, even as it is very far from what interested James.    


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

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