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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 ...

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