The Big, Lonely, Left Turn in Liberal Religion

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Lists of the most important non-fiction books from the twentieth century always contain The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 by the philosopher and psychologist William James.

Things were looking bullish for liberal Christianity in 1902. At that time the British Empire with its Christianizing mission was at its height. The United States with its own Christianizing mission was getting into the empire business and building an aspiring middle class. Liberal religion appeared to be the wave of the future — the “nice Jesus” movement that I talked about in my last blog post was at its height. Christianity — specifically Protestant liberal Christianity — appeared to be the wave of the future.

In his book, William James defined “religion” this way:

James defined “the divine” as “any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.” That’s about as broad as a definition can get . . .

Now, we can see why James, as a psychologist, would view religion as something going on in the minds of individuals. Meaning and purpose are subjective constructs, after all.

That’s also a very liberal view, and you can see how liberals, especially Universalists and Unitarians of the time, would immediately pounce on it, since both groups had already developed a creedless tradition that valued individual conscience. In addition, many Universalists and Unitarians were convinced followers of Transcendentalism.

Add to this movement other liberal movements seeded by Transcendentalism: Theosophists, Baha’is, New Thought exponents, and the growing number of Westerners intrigued by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Yes, it appeared that Americans were going their own ways in matters religious.

William James was reporting and reflecting on this trend.

But this liberal, left, individualistic turn was an educated, middle-class phenomenon. For example, my four grandparents were young people in 1902. Two of them were completely illiterate — they were sharecroppers. Two of them could read and write a bit — they owned a small family farm. They certainly didn’t read books of theology or philosophy; they could barely read the bible.

How were people like that — which describes most people in the US at that time — how were they supposed to go about understanding themselves “in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”? How were they going to discover Theosophy?

In the house I grew up in a half-century later, we had two books: the Sears catalogue and the bible. What were people like my parents going to do with their religious impulses? One thing is for sure: they weren’t going to be individualistic about it. They had no resources.

William James, liberal Protestants, and religious experimenters in general — and religious liberals still today — often forget a very important element of religion: congregations. Many, many people cannot “do religion” or philosophy alone. They simply don’t have the tools.

If you don’t believe me, go to a Dollar General Store, Family Dollar, or Dollar Tree and take a look at the bibles for sale. What you will discover is a King James translation, because that translation is both out of copyright (and therefore cheap) and considered by many fundamentalists as the only true translation of scripture. Another thing you will notice is that the print is so small that it is essentially unreadable. Why? Because for many, many Americans the bible is not a book to be read but a talisman to hold sacred. (At a twelfth grade reading level, the King James Version is well above the reading level of the average American.)

I suspect that it is no accident that the charismatic, Pentecostal tradition exploded among the poor and the oppressed in the United States at about the same time that William James was writing his book . The black church in its current form came out of that time period; the Pentecostals, Apostolics, Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, and on.

One quarter of Americans are now charismatic, and there are now something on the order of six hundred million charismatic Christians on the planet.

William James — and liberal religion — got it wrong. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the future of religion in the Americas was theirs to lose, and they lost it. The liberal religious movement embraced individuality to the exclusion of most people — in the US and worldwide. This was to have profound consequences.

Consequences that continue today. How might the liberal, ecumenical, religious tradition attract the poor and oppressed? That’s a good question. And not one much discussed in denominations wringing their hands before the potential collapse of their traditions.

Source: William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, as quoted in ”Each Attitude a Syllable” by Lindsey V. Reckson in American Religious Liberalism, ed. Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, page 303; Indiana UP, 2018.

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page