(William James) Religion Is….

I’ve been struggling with the caricature according to which the definition of religion suggested by James is “Protestant.” This is to claim that for James, religion is a private matter, The problem is this. On the one hand, the caricature comports exactly with how he defines religion in the second chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience. On the other hand, the caricature does not comport with the larger body of work. A Pluralistic Universe is given to a model of human mind and awareness vis-a-vis a world in which distinct and finite beings, including God who is finite, are interconnected into a larger, animate matrix.

In that light, I would emend James famous definition of religion to square with what religion means in a pluralistic universe.

According to James:

Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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.

Careful readers might note a tension in the original wording by James between “solitude” and “in relation.”

On that basis, I would like to align the definition this way. Adding only three words, my emendation is in bold font:

Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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 in the world.

Once “the world” is introduced into what it is that James meant and what we mean by “religion,” all kinds of variations are possible that are not possible when we lose sight of what for James was the object of mental states or intentional consciousness. Feelings, acts, and experience always stand in relation to a defining vis-a-vis.

I would like to think that adding “in the world” is what parliamentarians call a friendly amendment. James was an anti-theist. The revised definition embeds religion onto the material topographies of a pluralistic universe in ways that the original language does not.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (William James) Religion Is….

  1. dmf says:

    he may have been thinking along the lines of Emerson’s distinction between the personal and the Impersonal, see Branka Arsic’s book On Leaving.

  2. dmf says:

    https://newbooksnetwork.com/judah-magnes
    “In Palestine no one understood his uniquely American pragmatism and insistence that a constitutional system was foundational for a just society. “

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