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Josiah Royce and Catholic Religious Experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Cara Anthony
University of St. Thomas


“Religious experience” is an ambiguous theological term. American philosophers William James and John Dewey contribute to an understanding of religious experience as private and strictly affective, which reinforces belief in a denuminized communal sphere. Another American philosopher, Josiah Royce, accounts for religious experience in ways that resonate with Catholic experience and that counteract current American tendencies to privacy and insularity. Royce envisions an alternative to both William James' individualism and John Dewey's naturalism that illumines two typically Catholic experiences: encountering God sacramentally in the community called “church,” and discovering God's gracious power within human knowledge and freedom. His description of the sources of religious insight affirm the intellectual and actional elements of religious experience as well as its affective dimensions. His description of the act of interpretation explains how many selves can take part in a single experience, and thereby create a shared life together.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2006

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1 Perhaps the most notable Catholic debate in the past half century regarding questions of religious experience, especially as they relate to revelation and faith, accompanied the publication of Schillebeeckx's, Edward books, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. Bowden, John (New York: Crossroad, 1980)Google Scholar, first published as Gerechtigheid en liefde: Genade in bevrijding (Bloemdall: Nelissen, 1977), and the Interim Report on the Books “Jesus” and “Christ,” trans. Bowden, John (New York: Crossroad, 1981)Google Scholar, first published as Tussentijds verhall over twee Jezusboeken (Bloemendall: Nelissen, 1978). Critical questions were raised by theologians such as Löser, Werner in a review published in Theologie und Philosophie 51 (1976): 257–66Google Scholar and Dupré, Louis, “Experience and Interpretation: A Philosophical Reflection on Schillebeeckx' Jesus and Christ,” Theological Studies 43 (March 1982): 3051.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

A small sampling of diverse types of recent Catholic literature demonstrates the continuing emphasis on religious experience: Johnson, Luke Timothy, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998)Google Scholar; Phelps, Jamie T., Black and Catholic: The Challenge and Gift of Black Folk: Contributions of African American Experience and Thought to Catholic Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Secker, Susan L., “Human Experience and Women's Experience: Resources for Catholic Ethics,” in Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, Richard A., Readings in Moral Theology, No. 8 (New York: Paulist, 1993), 577–99Google Scholar; Scalia, Antonin, “To be Faithfully Catholic and Loyally American: The Experience of a Catholic Lay Person,” in The American Catholic Heritage: Reflections on the Growth and Influence of the Catholic Church in the United States, ed. Pontifical North American College (Rome), (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1992), 2736.Google ScholarGelpi, Donald outlines nine different meanings of “experience” in The Turn to Experience in Contemporary Theology (New York: Paulist, 1994), 34.Google Scholar

2 For example, Sheldrake, Philip notes the “privatization of spirituality and a concentration on interiority” in which “[s]piritual experience becomes separated from a social or public vision of ethics” (Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999], 6).Google ScholarMcIntosh, Mark describes “the focus of later eras on the inner experiences aroused in this process of encounter [with God],” which led to “an understanding of spirituality that is less transparent to the other who engenders the transformational process…” (Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology, Challenges in Contemporary Theology [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998], 10).Google Scholar

3 For a recent sociological discussion of the distinctively Catholic communal orientation, see Greeley, Andrew M., The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 111–35.Google Scholar

4 I discuss this in detail in “The Love of God Poured Into Our Hearts: Experience of the Holy Spirit in Christian Tradition” (Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 2003). There, I focus on the Paraclete Sayings in John 14–16 and on Romans 8. Specific communal interactions with the Holy Spirit were identified. In the Johannine tradition, the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds the community about Jesus (Jn 14:26; cf. 1 Jn 2:27). The Spirit witnesses on behalf of Jesus (Jn 15:26), and guides believers in the truth of Jesus (Jn 16:13). Romans 8 brings additional activities of the Spirit to light when Paul alludes to the “Abba” prayer, where the Spirit “bears witness with our spirit” that we are children of God (Rom 8:16). The Spirit also intercedes for Christians, disclosing human hearts to God and fitting human prayer to the will of God (Rom 8:26–27). These activities are founded in the fact that the Spirit frees Christians from the power of sin (Rom 8:2), and empowers Christians for obedience to God's will. Christians undergo these activities of the Spirit when they share in the sonship of Christ together, when they pray together, and when they lead transformed and renewed lives. All of these experiences are given to individuals embedded in the Christian community; in Paul's case he writes to the church at Rome with the presumption that because they are members of the church, they have received these experiences.

5 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 3134.Google Scholar

6 The definitive description of this struggle is found in Bellah, Robert, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).Google Scholar

7 Gelpi, Donald L., Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study in Constructive Postmodernism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), xi.Google Scholar

8 Dewey, John, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 46.Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 9.

10 Ibid., 19.

11 Ibid., 72, 77.

12 See Greeley's comments (note 3 above).

13 “The Catholic attitude toward the role of government … may seem paradoxical — more supportive of government intervention and more faith that a government is a positive good, yet also more likely to take to the streets when the flaws of government become intolerable” (Greeley, , Catholic Imagination, 129Google Scholar).

14 Smith, John E., “William James and Josiah Royce,” in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, Vol. 2, ed. Smart, Ninian, Clayton, John, Katz, Steven T. and Sherry, Patrick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Royce, Josiah, The Sources of Religious Insight (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 6.Google Scholar

16 Ibid., 7–8.

17 Oppenheim, Frank M., Introduction to Royce, , Religious Insight, xiii.Google Scholar

18 Royce, , Religious Insight, 1218.Google Scholar

19 Oppenheim, Frank M., Royce's Mature Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 98.Google Scholar

20 Royce, , Religious Insight, 26.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 28–31.

22 Ibid., 51–52.

23 Ibid., 52.

24 Ibid., 53.

25 Ibid., 55.

26 Ibid., 75.

27 Ibid., 74–75.

28 Ibid., 87.

29 Ibid., 91.

30 Ibid., 107–110.

31 Ibid., 130.

32 Ibid., 181.

33 Ibid., 185.

34 Ibid., 189.

35 Ibid., 202.

36 Ibid., 205.

37 Ibid., 214.

38 Ibid., 240.

39 Ibid., 235.

40 Ibid., 253.

41 Ibid., 272.

42 Ibid., 269–270.

43 Ibid., 271.

44 Ibid., 271.

45 Ibid., 273.

46 Ibid., 279.

47 Ibid., 280.

48 Ibid., 280–281.

49 Ibid., 281.

50 Lumen Gentium, art. 8, in Flannery, Austin, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 357.Google Scholar See Markey, John J., Creating Communion: The Theology of the Constitutions of the Church (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2003), 5680.Google Scholar

51 Royce, , Religious Insight, 910.Google Scholar

52 This reticence seems to have stemmed from a reluctance to enter the then-current controversy between “liberal” accounts of the historical Jesus and “orthodox” accounts of the divine Christ (Royce, , Problem, 4445Google Scholar). Royce's caution in the following statement is typical: “The individual [Jesus] who initiates this process [the new life of loyalty] will then plausibly appear to an onlooker, such as Paul was when he converted, to be at once an individual and the spirit—the very life—of a community. But his origin will be inexplicable in terms of the processes which he himself originates. His power will come from another level than our own. And of the workings of this grace, when it has appeared, we can chiefly say this: That such love is propagated by personal example, although how, we cannot explain” (Royce, , Problem, 130–31Google Scholar).

53 Neuner, Josef and Dupuis, Jacques, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York, N.Y.: Alba House, 1982), no. 1929.Google Scholar See Denzinger, Heinrich and Schönmetzer, Adolfus, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum, et Decla-rationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 35th ed. (Barcelona: Herder, 1973), nos. 1525, 1548, 1554.Google Scholar

54 Royce, , Religious Insight, 292.Google Scholar

55 Royce delivered The Problem of Christianity as a series of sixteen lectures in 1913 at Manchester College, Oxford. The overarching question of the series was, “In what sense can the modern man consistently be, in creed, a Christian?” The series divided into two parts, with the first eight lectures identifying the dynamics in Christianity that gave rise to such concepts as grace, love, sin and repentance. The second half of the series developed Royce's theories of interpretation and community. See Smith, John E., “Introduction” found in Royce, Josiah, The Problem of Christianity (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 47.Google Scholar

56 “Interpretation” here refers not to the hermeneutical theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, but to the mediation of minds through signs, in accordance with the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. See, e.g., the discussion in Smith, John E., Experience and God, American Philosophy Series, no. 3 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995).Google Scholar

57 Royce, , Problem, 58.Google Scholar

58 By “modern” women and men Royce meant “people who confront reality as intellectual heirs and stewards of contemporary western civilization.” (Gelpi, , Transcendental Experience, 318Google Scholar).

59 Royce, , Problem, 233.Google Scholar

60 The work gives “a cogent account of the conditions for the possibility of shared communal awareness” (Gelpi, , Transcendental Experience, 336Google Scholar).

61 “The most characteristic feature by which the Christian doctrine of life stands contrasted with its greatest religious rival [Buddhism], we found to be summarized in the words of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints” (Royce, , Problem, 233Google Scholar).

62 Ibid., 234.

63 Hence Royce admires Johannine christology, which “identifies the Logos with the spirit of the community” (ibid., 235).

64 Ibid., 234.

65 Ibid., 238.

66 Ibid., 239.

67 Ibid., 243.

68 Ibid., 248.

69 Ibid., 249.

70 Ibid., 252.

71 Ibid., 263.

72 Ibid., 281.

74 Ibid., 281–282.

75 Ibid., 285.

76 Ibid., 286.

77 Ibid., 287.

78 Ibid., 288.

79 Royce's theory of interpretation applies not only to human relations, but also to a whole metaphysics compatible with scientific modernity. For example, geologists interpret the physical structure of the Colorado Canyon: “Its walls record, in their stratification, a vast series of long-past changes. The geologist of the present may read these traces, and may interpret them for future geologists of our own age. But the present state of the Colorado Cañon … will leave traces that may be used at some future time to interpret these now present conditions of the earth's crust to some still more advanced future … In sum, if we view the world as everywhere and always recording its own history … we can simply define the time order, and its three regions,—past, present, future,—as an order of possible interpretation. That is, we can define the present as, potentially, the interpretation of the past to the future. The triadic structure of our interpretations is strictly analogous, both to the psychological and to the metaphysical structure of the world of time. And each of these structures can be stated in terms of each other” (ibid., 289).

80 Ibid., 289–290.

81 Ibid., 314.

82 Ibid., 315.

83 Ibid., 317.

84 Ibid., 318.

85 Ibid., 319.

86 Ibid., 294.

87 Ibid., 294.

88 John E. Smith, “Introduction” in ibid., 32.