- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

Most everyone realizes that we live in an epoch of individualism. We are consumers who put a premium on choice and novel experience. The fastest growing religions in the West, moreover, seem the be the ones with this quality.
In "Varieties of Religion Today," Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has now reached back a century to remind us that the Harvard psychologist William James had, in ways, predicted this kind of religious future. In his Gifford Lectures titled "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902), James argued that personal, cathartic experience with the divine was the essence of religion.
We now live in an age of "expressive individualism," Mr. Taylor writes. While tipping his hat to James' foresight, he worries about how the Bostonian Protestant and materialist (who was a theist of sorts) totally dismissed the validity of organized religious doctrine or ritual. "What James can't seem to accommodate is the phonemona of collective relgious life," says Mr. Taylor, a Catholic thinker. In contrast, the author speaks of the personal joy of seeing the hometown team win, and as with religion how that joy is amplified by knowing others share the same experience.
But this slim volume, subtitled "William James Revisited," does not focus on his narrowness, but his unique contribution and how well Mr. Taylor believes it predicted Western religion of the present.
The book began as a lecture, and so it has that conversational style that is fluid to read but sometimes moves to abstraction or the assumption that the audience is as well read as Mr. Taylor, and understands all the names he drops. In all, however, it is a compelling distillation in which we learn three primary things about William James. First of all is his individualistic and experiential definition of religion. As an aside, a little known fact is how a forgotten student of James' collected all the personal accounts of religious experience. Then, the wise teacher became famous in his "Varieties" lectures analyzing them the university system has hardly changed.
Second, Mr. Taylor introduces us to James' psychology, which shuns the sunny optimists of life and takes more respectful interest in people who face life's dread and overcome it by religious experience. Mr. Taylor, using the Jamesian terms, calls these "the three great negative experiences of melancholy, evil, and the sense of personal sin," and adds that, "some of the perennial interest of James' book comes from his identifying these three zones of spiritual anguish, which continue to haunt our world today."
Finally, we learn of James' battle with the rationalistic and scientific agnosticism of his day. It said: Do not believe anything without evidence, or even proof. James' response reveals the pragmatism for which he is best known: If religious experience solves the human problem, then its usefulness proves its worth and believability. In fact, James enjoyed portraying how silly a harsh skepticism can be in a real life. To argue for an "agnostic veto" of religious belief, he says, is to say that "to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true."
In this idea, Mr. Taylor says, Jamesian thought remains deeply relevant. Many modern people stand "on the cusp" in their struggle between belief and disbelief, and James gives encouragement to take the leap. "James is our great philsopher on the cusp," says the author. Though James was not trying to predict the state of the world a century hence, Mr. Taylor puts him to that task and asks how on target he has been. To answer the question, Mr. Taylor must build his own hypothesis of how the world of religion has changed in the West.
He relies on the concepts of three benchmark European thinkers on religion and society Ernst Troelsch, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber essentially to show how the "dispensations" of history decreed that religion gradually separate from the state and even from denominations. This has not totally isolated religious experience in Atlantic societies from a larger group. Individualists still believe in social order, a divine design for human freedom, or a providence such as that believed in at the American founding. But the collective experiences all struggle against the experience of the rootless individual.
If society has become a collection not "of common action, but of mutual display," and of audience-like participation, then this will effect religion: "The spiritual as such is no longer intrinsically related to society," Mr. Taylor says.
In this, James may have been prescient, though he fell short on three points, the author says.
The Harvard psychologist did not suggest that people will often choose conformity over individualism, as many do today. He did not sense that aggrieved groups, moreover, would opt for organized religion "to gather around." And he missed what seems to be a modern surge of individual experiences evolving into serious lifetime practices, such as prayer, study, meditation and service and even joining up.
Otherwise, Mr. Taylor says, the Jamesian core has remained of perennial interest.

Larry Witham is a reporter for The Washington Times.

By Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, $19.95, 127 pages

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