Friday, February 23, 2018

Varieties XI-XV: Self-immolation of the saints

Well, if the discussion of conversion in James' Varieties is confounding, the lectures on "Saintliness" and "The Value of Saintliness" are even more so. Maybe that's why, although they represent fully a fourth of the whole Varities, they are rarely referred to. I've always rather liked them, though, and use the "Value of Saintliness" chapters in the section on saints of my religious ethics class; I even taught a whole course once called "Preposterous Saints," inspired by these singing words of his:

The world is not yet with them [saints], so they often seem in the midst of the world's affairs to be preposterous. And yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. (1902 edition, rept Penguin, 358)

I was all set for our discussion this morning to center on this wonderful if not unparadoxical claim (saints make what's natural no longer possible?), but it took most of two hours of brush clearing before we could get there. Encountered in the their place in the sequence of Varieties, the five lectures/chapters on saints are disconcerting. The lives recounted, which are supposed to offer the composite photograph-like representation of a religiously celebrated life shared by all religions (271), are by and large not inspiring, and although James' question is the "fruits for life" of religion, these saints seem often to lead lives stripped fruitless by extravagances of self-mortification. And yet James claims by the end of the section to have answered the question of the value of religion decisively in the affirmative.

Wait, was that the question? James opened his lectures claiming to be putting aside not only everything ecclesiastic and theological (31), but also all "spiritual judgments" assaying the value of religion (4). His approach was to be strictly scientific; his "empiricist criterion" attended to "fruits" rather than "roots" (20) because these are observable. And yet here he's judging fruits - and judging religion on the basis of these fruits - using as his standard a slippery, unexplained thing called "common sense." He thinks this same common sense bids us discard the ecclesiastic, with its spirits of corporate and dogmatic dominion, as the enemy of true religion, too (337-38).

The students were confused in part because James seems to have dismissed everything - "theopathic" individuals and religion-smothering institutions - leaving, well, what? I know where (I think) this leads but it's evidently not clear to a first time reader, who doesn't know what's yet to come. Everything hangs on that "common sense," with a science of religion helping us appreciate the indispensable contributions religion makes. To benefit from religion we're better off not understanding it on the terms of its corporate and dogmatic devotés. I would have thought that would have some appeal for my organized religion-leery students, but James' evident antipathy for most of the saints canceled that out.

James' singing words may not sing for them for another reason, too, connected to the apparent paradox in saints' rendering us incapable of being as mean as we naturally are. James loves using words taken to have a fixed meaning - indeed to guarantee the fixity of meaning - in dynamic ways; it's all part of what he'll later call the "pragmatist view of truth." "Facts," for instance, are what seem to us determined, but that's not the end of the story. Recall James' insistence in "Will to Believe" that in certain not unimportant cases faith in a fact can help create the fact!

Create the fact? Through their very "over-trust" in human nature, saints create a human nature worthy of that trust.

The saints ... may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation. (357) 

This makes them a genuinely creative social force. Are they altering human nature, then? Yes and no, since their inspiration changes what we know human nature to be, what we think it capable of. The saints are so important for James' assessment of religion because they are the agents of religious change - of its changing human nature. Change is too neutral a word; better would be evolution. Riffing off a remark of Herbert Spencer's, James explains that saints are prophetic because they are adapted to a world that is not yet there - but a world which they bring closer. Preposterous, indeed!

Isn't it exciting? Our story isn't over, the final judgment on the human adventure hasn't been felled. One student owned that this was the most optimistic part of the Varieties - too optimistic for her. But others were put off by what they described as James' pessimism in the same chapters. Asked to explain they pointed to the distaste with which he describes most of the saints, and recalled the combination of envy and contempt with which he he spoke of "healthy-minded" and "twice-born" earlier in the series.

But they may be picking up on something else, too. The first half of the book, like "Will to Believe" before it, articulated the "fruits" of religion for those fortunate enough to have it. The "fruits" of saintliness, however, accrue not to the poor maladapted saints themselves, but to humanity as a whole. Their misshapen lives are consumed by the evolving spirituality of humanity. The intersection of "saintliness" and the earlier discussion of the "twice-born" lies precisely in the sacrifice of "asceticism,' as James makes clear in another term-mangling passage:

In these remarks I am leaning only upon mankind's common instinct for reality, which in point of fact has always held the world be essentially a theatre for heroism. In heroism, we feel, life's supreme mystery is hidden. … The metaphysical mystery, thus recognized by common sense, that he who feeds on death that feeds on men possesses life supereminently and excellently, and meets best the secret demands of the universe, is the truth of which asceticism has been the faithful champion. (364)

It is not the saints but we who are out of touch with the reality of the universe in thinking that this is all there is - what we take to be human nature is all humans can be. What the universe demands is that we feed on its pain, and in so doing feed it - with our lives. The saints' lives don't make the kind of sense the earlier subjects of James' Varieties do - unification, centering, etc. - because they are matter out of place, prophets unaccepted in their own country. The unfinished story of human redemption makes the closure, the coherence of the convert seem immature. There's no rest in a universe which demands heroism, which makes our current human lot unbearable but gestures to a future fueled by the self-immolation of the saints for redemption.

No comments: