Saturday, January 12, 2008


Yesterday would have been William James' 166th birthday. This site is not always an accurate emotional meter of its author, but it's a roughly useful guide to things I've been thinking about, reading, seeing, hearing. So it's pretty astonishing that I haven't spent more time on the ways in which reading William James (and about William James) has enriched me over the past several months. Partly this is because I'm working on a more traditional essay about the experience. It's also because I have a lot more to read before I feel caught up on his work and thought. I had planned on devoting this week on the blog to him, in honor of his birthday, but that ended up too ambitious relative to the rate of my reading. So, that spotlight will follow later in the new year.

For now, to mark the big 166, an excerpt from his book The Pluralistic Universe, the text of a series of lectures he gave in Oxford in 1908 and 1909. There are thousands of A+ James excerpts to choose from (a month or even a year on the blog would be more appropriate, but I'll keep my head). This one is about religion, and it speaks to his remarkable ability to eloquently and gently argue for multiple perspectives. After all, this is someone who was considered an apologist for traditional religion to many. In fact, right after this excerpt, he insists on leaving "cynical materialism" out of his talk in order to investigate different species of spiritualism. But here, I'll let you read:
God as intimate soul and reason of the universe has always seemed to some people a more worthy conception than God as external creator. So conceived, he appeared to unify the world more perfectly, he made it less finite and mechanical, and in comparison with such a God an external creator seemed more like the product of a childish fancy. I have been told by Hindoos that the great obstacle to the spread of Christianity in their country is the puerility of our dogma of creation. It has not sweep and infinity enough to meet the requirements of even the illiterate natives of India.

Assuredly most members of this audience are ready to side with Hinduism in this matter. Those of us who are sexagenarians have witnessed in our own persons one of those gradual mutations of intellectual climate, due to innumerable influences, that makes the thought of a past generation seem as foreign to its successor as if it were the expression of a different race of men. The theological machinery that spoke so livingly to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of nothing, its juridical morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an 'intelligent and moral governor,' sounds as odd to most of us as if it were some outlandish savage religion.

The vaster vistas which scientific evolutionism has opened, and the rising tide of social democratic ideals, have changed the type of our imagination, and the older monarchical theism is obsolete or obsolescent. The place of the divine in the world must be more organic and intimate. An external creator and his institutions may still be verbally confessed at Church in formulas that linger by their mere inertia, but the life is out of them, we avoid dwelling on them, the sincere heart of us is elsewhere.


Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

A William James essay about religion? What?

Also, will you be posting this essay?

9:24 PM  

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