The Sources of Religious Insight

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sources of Religious Insight [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Josiah Royce.

Royce The Sources of Religious Insight

I found this 1912 book to be surprisingly worthwhile. It’s a set of lectures by Harvard academic Josiah Royce, with a scope situated somewhere between philosophy of religion and religious psychology. It is not theological or sectarian. When Royce observed that “It is useless to make some new sect whose creed shall be that there are to be no sects” (294), I could not help thinking with amusement that he was indicting the Plymouth Brethren, just such a sect, as well as their “non-denominational” successors among “Bible-believing” Christians.

Speaking during the later part of the Progressive Era, Royce refers to William James as “my dear friend” (27), and particularly in the book’s fourth section “The World and the Will” he is at some pains to explain how his views both accord with and differ with those attributed to philosophical Pragmatism. In an earlier section on “Individual Experience and Social Experience” he also details his particular understanding of James’ theory of religion, as well as providing a surprisingly generous and sympathetic gloss on Nietzsche’s “Titanism” (60 ff.).

Although Royce’s willingness to class Christianity and Buddhism as the “higher religions of mankind” (8) and his use of the search for human “salvation” as the touchstone of religion as such seem like stigma of a thinker with whom I would find few if any points of agreement, he develops his argument with a good deal of care and patience. In the culmination of his fifth lecture “The Religion of Loyalty,” he arrives at what I consider to be cardinal truth: “For our attention is now fixed, not on a condition to be called salvation, but on a rule for doing something in accordance with our own true will” (188). Before the lecture concludes, he progresses from this pivot to insisting that “your true cause is the spiritual unity of all the world of reasonable beings” (205, italics in original).

The final lecture is concerned with what Royce calls “The Invisible Church” which transcends all limited doctrines and specific cultures, although he gives no signal of having drawn on esoteric thinkers such as Eckartshausen and Lopukhin for his use of this phrase. Royce is sufficiently scrupulous in his avoidance of theological identification that it is impossible to tell if he originally took “Invisible Church” from the contexts in which it has been used as a gloss on Augustinian anti-Donatist notions supposed to be common to all Western Christianity, or if he was specially receptive to the Protestant usage which allowed for institutional legitimation via a supra-historical avoidance of Roman Catholicism. In any event, Royce uses it in neither sense, and he is explicit that he extends “membership” in the Invisible Church to those “loyal” to non-Christian religions, as well as to the “cynics and rebels” who attack “the narrowness of our nature, the chaos of our unspiritual passions, the barren formalism of our conventions” (285).

So, while there are any number of points where I feel my views to be in friction with those of Royce, I found his treatment on the whole to be both coherent and productive of useful reflection. I would recommend it to clergy, scholars of religion, and others willing to give serious thought to its questions.