Blog Template Theology of the Body: It was William James

Monday, April 23, 2007

It was William James

"It was the secular theorist William James who 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. 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."

- Jeremy Lott, Books and Culture Online

"As an educated American audience 100 years ago, you certainly would have read the work of William James, who argued in Will to Believe and in Varieties of Religious Experience that religious experience is good not because it is true but because it is therapeutic. James wrote that religious experiences have every right to be authoritative over the individuals to whom they come, but “no authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside them.”

Almost every mainline Protestant church was deeply affected by this movement, which essentially conceded defeat over scientific and philosophical issues. One branch of pietism was “liberal” in the sense that it not only conceded defeat but also enthusiastically endorsed the authority of modern worldviews in matters intellectual. Of course, in North America, this movement sparked a vehement reaction, sometimes called “fundamentalism.” But it, too, tended to play by the new rules of the game. Which is to say that personal religious experience and piety defined the orbit of acceptable religion."

- Russell Hittinger, How Now Shall We Bear Witness?