Josiah Royce and the Possibilities of Conversation


This blog post is developed from a paper that I presented this month for the Josiah Royce Society at the Central American Philosophical Association conference.

Richard Rorty captures well what he considers the liberal and Jeffersonian compromise of how, in a pluralistic society, we can relate to religious language in his essay Religion as Conversation Stopper.

One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.

He contrasts this with Stephen Carter who believes religious faith is being trivialized because it’s being treated as a conversation stopper but as Rorty writes

It is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God…OK, but since I don’t think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we’ll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let’s see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion.

Rorty in one of his more memorable examples, says that religious language is a private language. He argues that we need to recognize a domain of public conversation that is different from private interests & hobbies even. So yes I may like God or I may like to masturbate, but that is not something you share with others. By doing it you end the conversation. Where we do go from there?

I take as central the belief that conversation is possible. Not just possible but a requirement for a democratic society. This happens through engaging the other empathetically. Even across large differences, the ability to imagine the other person, their life, their perspective in a way that can transform my own sense of things  is what allows for the development of an inclusive perspective.

As Josiah Royce writes in The Sources of Religious Insight A man corrects his own narrowness by trying to share his fellow’s point of view…the way toward divine insight…lies through our social experience.

So if religious language is a divide, one where we simply are not in a position to talk to one another, this is a fundamental problem, for our democracy, for the possibilities of communication, and in Royce’s estimation for the possibilities of divine insight. And given the religious and cultural divides that mark the life of the US at this time, this has proved to have wider ramifications.

In the book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop notes, that in every area of life, especially where you choose to live, we have been sorting ourselves based on our religious, cultural, and political beliefs. And that this way of sorting oneself means that one can go through life oblivious to the perspective of the other.

It was captured in the quote by Pauline Kael who expressed surprise that Nixon won re-election in 1972 when everyone she knew was voting for McGovern. That quote is famous because it suggests that she was out of touch but while rare in 1972, today it captures most American’s lives. Over 70% of my fellow Oklahomans voted GOP  for Senate and House. In San Francisco the vote totals would be more than be reversed. Outside of a handful of states and districts this is how we live.

Micro pollsters such as Mark Penn have been able to take that to new levels, such that the beer we drink, the sports teams we watch, or what kind of sports  the music we listen to, whether we watch Fox News or MSNBC, NPR or top 40, whether you go to church or not, shop at Walmart or Whole Foods, can be accurate predictors of what bubble you live in and what feedback loop you are plugged into.

Even where I have a job is defined by this phenomena. I live in the bluest town in Oklahoma, where there is a university, and therefore a threshold has been reached that there is a need for a liberal church. Yes there are blue and red churches.

Our values, our identities drive our social relationships, our connections, and with that our job prospects and that bears on our quality of life. It’s hard to disentangle politics, religion, and culture from that mix. So I don’t have any solutions to that phenomena except that it would take a special effort on our part to purposely move outside of our bubbles to engage other folks, including those that disagree with us.

Royce suggests in The Sources of Religious Insight that there is something intuitive in us that makes us dissatisfied with being in the bubble. We really do yearn for a sense of the whole, not to have parts of the world shut out from us. Rorty should have had this too. But if religious language is such a problem that the secular and the religious simply are not in a position to talk with one another, then perhaps not.

The thesis of this paper is that whenever you see a breakdown of communication, this is the failure of both parties seeking to communicate with one another. If it is true that the religious and secular cannot speak unless one gives up their own language, then both sides have failed to do their task. I would say the same whether it involves religion, politics, and the culture wars.

The second part of the thesis is that Josiah Royce provides a model for engaging religious ideas such that the religious and the secular can communicate and understand each other. That is, there is nothing inherit in religious language that should prove to be a “conversation stopper.”

The most common objection to religious language is that since its realm is in the supernatural, there is nothing falsifiable about it. Your religious ideas may move you to do terrible deeds from clinic to suicide bombings or they may move you to work with AIDS victims, reaching out to the poor. The grounding is still based on what a religious text says, what clergy say, or whatever inspiration comes into your head. In this, the religious claims are not accessible to analysis, to reason, to justification.

But Royce starts with a different premise. Religious language begins in and finds it’s justification in human experience. Not just any kind of human experience though, but rather the kind that seeks to relate to our world and our life in saving ways. The religious experience of our race is the endeavor of mankind to bring to pass, or to move towards, the salvation of man.

It is an effort by human beings to secure, something of our world, and its resources, a way of life that brings unity to our experience and therefore meaning. It is a way to save both ourselves as individuals and a way to achieve salvation for others, because somehow we recognize in each other our own salvation. And it is a way to relate to our world as that reality which on some level will ground, provide a way of understanding and supporting these efforts.

While Royce asserts this, why should we believe him? Presume you are the atheist interlocutor that Richard Rorty is imaging. What else could you believe? Essentially Royce sees religious language, practices, religions themselves as a very human endeavor to negotiate our world towards the better. It is an expression of the “evolution of the human race.” I can find that by reading Daniel Dennett.

But if you don’t start with Royce’s premise, you either accept the story of supernatural sanction from on high that some religions will claim or you consign them to mad utterances in which case you believe that most of humanity and in my the case, Oklahoma, that most of your neighbors have issues. But Royce proposes his route as a middle way. A way of treating religion as a human product.

The distinction Royce raises is between a psychological account of religion versus a theological account. Throughout the Problem of Christianity, he raises this distinction. He is interested in exploring religious ideas for what they do to describe our world, the human condition, resolving problems that individuals and their world in community experience. Some may be unique to Christianity to Buddhism and so on but they matter when they describe what is given as human beings. In this, he is not interested in the religious terms for their own sake.

The other premise he asks readers to consider is whether it is possible to read religious ideas with some broad sympathy. That is, when we encounter religious language, if you start with the assumption that there is a set of ideas to learn from which can be had by engaging the other, you will likely learn something through the encounter. Especially if those religious ideas appear to come from humans negotiating their world with problems that we all share as humans.

A third premise that Royce does not specifically mention but I believe he operates with is captured by the term functionalism. That if you want to engage religious ideas you have to get a sense of how a religious term functions. There is always a relation between the religious idea and some activity in the world, which is why religious ideas invariably have a relationship to human experience.

I want to explore that a bit with, how Royce takes up the idea of original sin. To examine original sin though is not to suppose the mythic story of Adam and Eve as a historical fact. Rather Royce seeks to define that which seems to be in play in any given instantiation of sin given an understanding of our evolutionary history. To reduce the size of this article if you wish to read his account click here.

By locating original sin in the natural world, in the constitution of who we are as humans Royce bypasses traditional accounts without dismissing the idea wholly. Because to do so would miss an important insight. The insight about how we experience ourselves in the world. One that seems basic to being human.

Now I don’t think we need to agree with Royce’s account per se. I actually recommend Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man and Marjorie Suhocki’s work The Fall to Violence as a more compelling account. But what I am commending is the method Royce used to interpret this religious idea.

Royce writes that interpretation takes an idea, let’s say original sin, and then takes the needs of the given community, the interpreter, so as to do something in the future with this. Interpretation is not simply interested in an historical account of what was believed in the past. It is a normative account of what we should believe now. History could inform us in reconstituting the symbol for today to inform how we live in the future. Interpretation is a triad of an idea or symbol, its past meaning, the current community seeking to appropriate it today to affect human action into the future.

If we say God creates the world, we know it cannot mean the same as what it meant 500 years ago. But there would be a continuity. If we wanted to see what operates to create and sustain the world today you would have to look at the evolutionary process. Which Royce did in examining original sin. And now it takes on new meaning but restores the rightful place of the old idea.

If God created the world 6000 years ago, it’s a silly myth and folks move on. But if we use that symbol to look for the creative ground of existence, it becomes an important human task. And one which our respective religious traditions could have resources for, especially in light of climate change and otherecological and sustainability concerns. And it is one which should be explicable across religious divides.

Royce compares religions to human languages in their descriptive power. Not as a counterpoint to other routes of description. I’m not choosing God over science, or even Christian descriptions over Buddhist ones. I rather start from my community of interpretation, for me, the church, to engage other descriptive routes and communities in working with the problems of human life. To develop a sense of the whole means we dare not seek to reduce or eliminate the descriptive routes we have developed in our respective traditions to get to it.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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