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Christopher Shannon

After Experience?

William James and consumer religion

Charles Taylor is one of the leading philosophers in the English-speaking world today. A wide-ranging humanist in an age that has seen intellectual life dominated by narrow academic professionalism, he speaks to an audience that transcends disciplinary boundaries and occasionally even reaches that most elusive of publics, the general educated reader. As a Christian, more specifically a Catholic philosopher, Taylor is for our times what William James was for his: a modernist intellectual committed to defending the intellectual integrity of religion against its secular modernist detractors.

In Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, Taylor reflects on the defense of religious faith put forward by James in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, originally published in 1902. Astonished at how well James's work has held up over time, Taylor nonetheless takes James's modernist text as a jumping off point for addressing a distinctly postmodern dilemma: the successful defense of religion as an experience has bequeathed to the quest for the divine a withering, almost solipsistic, subjectivity virtually indistinguishable from the nihilism of the narrow Victorian materialism James sought to refute. Indeed, Taylor argues that the expressive (and excessive) individualism that characterizes so much of contemporary religion reflects the triumph of a basically Jamesian conception of faith. At the same time, however, a justifiable admiration for James's modernist achievement leads Taylor to an evasive, equivocal assessment of the Jamesian legacy.

The timidity of Taylor's conclusions is all the more disappointing given the initial directness with which he confronts the limitations of James's understanding of religion. Taylor begins where other admirers end, with a critique of James's definition of religion as "the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." James's approach to religion favors not only individuals over community but also certain kinds of individuals over others, namely those "geniuses" for whom "religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever." Varieties of Religious Experience is primarily a reflection on the writings of these geniuses, including an account of the spiritual agonies of a mysterious, anonymous "Frenchman" whom James later revealed to be himself. For all his vaunted openness to variety, James held religious experience to a very strict standard of authenticity: religion experienced firsthand is real; religion handed down from others is false. James's privileging of religious innovators leaves one with the impression that the only true religion is that which one creates for oneself.

Taylor sees James's spiritual individualism as leading to a seriously impoverished understanding of religion. He does not shy away from identifying James within a particular strain of American Protestantism, and calls James to account for the blatant anti-Catholicism expressed in his great book. Still, Taylor traces the radical interiority of James's conception of religion to developments within Catholicism itself. Beginning in the high Middle Ages, church leaders in the religious orders and the hierarchy began to stress the importance of personal commitment and devotion over mere external compliance with communal rituals. The Lateran Council of 1215 marked a key turning point in this development by making annual individual confession and reception of the Eucharist a requirement for all faithful Catholics. Luther's emphasis on faith over works went even further by tending to devalue even conscious participation in external rituals as a marker of true religiosity.

Taylor's sympathies are broadly Catholic, yet he sees the Reformation emphasis on interiority as a positive contribution to the history of Christianity. Taylor reads the Counter Reformation as, at its best, an effort to sustain the vitality of communal rituals while still addressing the needs of those desirous of a richer inner spiritual life. Judged in terms of baptisms and Easter communions, European Catholicism's golden age of participation peaked in the late nineteenth century. The genius of Catholicism during this period was its ability to view "the relation between those who were more personally devout and committed, and those whose main participation was in collective ritual … in terms of complementarity rather than ranked as more and less real." This appears to be Taylor's ideal, though it clearly fails the strenuous test of authenticity laid down by James.

For Taylor, the enduring appeal of James lies in the grace, clarity, and insight with which he refuted the secular, rationalist assumptions of the dominant thinkers of his day. James remains a significant figure today if for no other reason than that when the subject of religion arises in contemporary debate, even radical, self-styled postmodernists slide back into the debunking mode of Victorian rationalists, invoking a conventional standard of evidence whose validity they deny in their own deconstructive exercises. Anticipating developments in postmodern thinking, James insisted that belief and unbelief are equally circular in their argumentation. Breaking down the distinction between thinking and feeling, James argued that agnosticism "is not intellect against all passions … it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law." Militant atheism is the bad faith of what James would elsewhere call "the sentiment of rationality."

James defended religion not as a booster but as a believer who had experienced the depths of despair, doubt, and uncertainty. In the second section of his book, Taylor addresses James's famous distinction between the healthy-minded, "once-born" believer and the sick soul or "twice-born" believer. Here too James draws very sharp evaluative contrasts, with the once-born a back-slapping, proto-Babbit and the twice-born a would-be Hamlet, the dark, brooding, melancholy man of European Romanticism. Taylor follows James in his sympathies for the twice-born, and clearly offers this personality type as a model of responsible belief in an age when the existence of God can no longer be taken for granted by educated believers.

Were all believers intellectuals, one might make a case for Taylor's endorsement of James's melancholy man. But thankfully, the world of religious experience offers a variety that cannot be contained within the comparatively narrow range of personality profiles found within the intellectual classes. The Filipino peasants who nail themselves to crosses in imitation of Christ have most likely not undergone the agon of unbelief that James experienced, but neither do they fit the model of the smug, middle-class American liberal Protestant that James had in mind when he sneered at the once-born. Traditional Christianity maintains its hold on millions of ordinary believers because it speaks directly to the pain and suffering ignored by the spiritual sensibilities dominant among the middle classes of the modern West.

This populist critique would be unfair except that Taylor himself addresses the broader question of belief across the range of social experience in the contemporary world. Returning to themes that he and other communitarian writers such as Robert Bellah have been developing for the past 20 or so years, Taylor characterizes contemporary Western society as dominated by an expressive individualism, an "ethics of authenticity" in which moral and spiritual truth have become matters of individual choice, with that choice more often than not guided by little more than subjective feelings and a manipulable sense of well being. As this social vision reflects James's impoverished social understanding of faith, it also forces belief into James's categories of once-born and twice-born. Anyone, of any education level, not completely isolated from the capitalist marketplace is increasingly forced to view his or her faith from the perspective of a Jamesian intellectual.

Torn between his communal and Jamesian sympathies, Taylor concludes: "I'm not sure we wouldn't be wiser to stick with the present dispensation." His reasons are predictable: there is no going back, and even if there were, "we shouldn't forget the spiritual costs of various kinds of forced conformity: hypocrisy, spiritual stultification, inner revolt against the Gospel, the confusion of faith and power, and even worse." Taylor has been accused of defending modernity the way Locke defended Christianity. I used to agree with that assessment, but now I wonder. His ritual slaying of nostalgia simply does not help us to think constructively about the possibilities of communal faith after the passing of the "paleo-Durkheimian" total integration of religion and society.

C. Wright Mills once defined the balanced view as the midpoint between two clichés. Taylor's quest for balance plays into the hands of what I would call, to draw on James's terminology, a "once-born" modernism that locates all violence in tradition, or interprets contemporary violence as cultural lag, a symptom of a modernity not yet completed; Taylor's other writings suggest he knows better. In Varieties of Religion Today, Taylor appears willing to sacrifice "intergenerational continuity of religious allegiance" as atonement for the past sins of communal religion.

The two main rivals of organized religion in the modern world, the state and the capitalist corporation, show no such generosity. Mandatory schooling and an all-pervasive market have ensured the social reproduction of law-abiding, citizen consumers for whom religion is one among many cultural options. Taylor sees hopeful signs that people continue to choose community, but such a "choice" reduces community to a voluntary association. Tocqueville's classic solution to the problem of community in America has only reinforced a classically American inability to think clearly about non-contractual social relations. Taylor's optimism replaces Catholic nostalgia for the Middle Ages with a liberal nostalgia for the nineteenth century.

Christopher Shannon is author of A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity (Rowman & Littlefield) and Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought from Veblen to Mills (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press).

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