April 10, 2009

William James

In an earlier blog, I wrote of my sincere desire that members of religious persuasions—mine included—refrain from using a phrase I find arrogant and damning: I know the church is true. (Let’s call this "The Phrase"). In response, a good friend of mine, a man whom I respect and admire, made the following comment.

Regarding your wish—it has already been granted! We testify of Christ's impact on our life. I think what the kids are saying is—somehow, I like church, it makes me feel good.

I take as the meaning of my friend’s comment that what people are really saying by The Phrase is: The church makes me “feel good” and this serves as proof that I’m being led along a path of righteousness that will make me happy.

I don't disagree with him. In fact, his response reminds me of ideas formulated by one of my personal heroes, William James. In his collection of essays, The Will to Believe, James crafted eloquent arguments on the intellectual and emotional risks of religious belief that form the underpinnings of his philosophy of pragmatism. To me, the most compelling piece in the collection is his title essay, which serves as a defense of faith. I understand that at one point James considered calling the essay, “The Duty to Believe,” but rejected the title, realizing it implied an obligation he hadn’t intended. Next, he thought to call it, “The Right to Believe,” but noted that such a heading called for a grantor of the right, which wasn’t consistent with his view.

In the end, he selected the eventual title, because it best described an attendant assumption that all human beings want to believe in a universe where goodness exists and truth can be apprehended. Without that possibility, he claimed, moral decisions are futile exercises. However, such a universe can't be defended by reason or logic alone. It exists for us only if we have faith—only if we show, in James’ words, “a passionate affirmation of desire” for both truth and goodness. To that extent, we will to believe that those qualities exist.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, James tried to temper the empiricism of his time by investing individuals with the authority to determine what is and isn’t true. He did so by arguing that ideas must be functional and, in his own words, that: “Truth happens to an idea (when) we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify (it).” At the root of his pragmatism, he asks practitioners to consider the value of an idea in terms of its personal utility:

Grant an idea or belief to be true,…what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would be obtained if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

I admire this idea, which I find to be in complete harmony with my friend’s comment. Where I part ways with him, however, is how the idea is put into practice in most religious settings. Let me explain my point.

  • James, as I’ve indicated in other blogs, defined truth in roughly the following way: If it works for you, it’s true. Implicit in this statement is that truth is highly individualized, since what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. In practice, however, the faithful generally believe all people come to the same conclusion about spiritual matters, if only they follow an established protocol, usually requiring study and prayer. There’s a Book of Mormon scripture, commonly referred to as Moroni’s Promise, that people of my faith point to as a kind of guarantee of this. Similar passages, I’m sure, are found in other sacred texts. The upshot is that most followers of religious tradition assume that anyone who comes to a conclusion contrary to their beliefs has either: 1) sinned beyond spiritual repair, or 2) not tried hard enough to receive enlightenment. However, if by uttering the phrase, “I know the church is true,” people are actually only saying, “The church has been good to me,” we have to concur that an individual can reach a different opinion and still be correct. Not all people, after all, will think the church makes them “feel good.”
  • I have an acquaintance, who was once a high-ranking official of an organization that attracted members with promises of spiritual and financial remuneration in exchange for physical property and other assets. He tells fascinating stories of how this was accomplished and apparently no device was more effective than the repeating of affirmations at group assemblies. Shouting in unison, “God loves me. He wants to bless me. He will give me love and riches,” would put potential members in a euphoric and highly-receptive state. (The FBI, by the way, shut the organization down when my acquaintance became disillusioned and turned State’s witness). The point here is that, in a subtle way, the repeating of aphorisms can be used as a control mechanism and The Phrase, which is often supported by an emotional response, is a case in point. For example, when missionaries teach people who feel an obvious connection to the message, they will often say something like the following: “You’re feeling the spirit and it’s telling you that the church is true.” But is that what’s really happening and is it honest to say so? Instead, could the emotional response really mean: I like these clean-cut young men and their unbridled enthusiasm?
  • I don’t think members process The Phrase as, “I like the church. It makes me feel good.” Rather, they are made to believe that the church is infallible and, by extension, that all debate ends in the scriptures or authoritative pronouncements. I have, in other blogs, spoke of the danger of apologetic thinking. Once a person decides that the church is “true” in every respect, all experience and new learning must conform to the notion or be rejected, no matter the supporting evidence. Otherwise, the alternative is to experience a kind of cognitive dissonance that must be ignored or conflicts of conscience and faith will result.
Like William James, I’m a great believer in the value (even the necessity) of faith. After all, logic only takes us so far until we must take occasional leaps into canyons of wonder. What I hope for, however, is that the faithful acknowledge their beliefs to have more to do with uncertainty than an unambiguous knowledge of the truth. If we could admit that, there would be far fewer roadblocks to learning and less sanctimony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

True, logic -- and evidence -- take us only so far in knowing and understanding, but "canyons of wonder" can thrive happily in "faithless" uncertainty. Wonder does not lead inevitably to faith, I think.


Grins and best wishes,