THE TWICE-BORN"by Charles Taylor
I want now to engage with the very heart of Jamess discussion, which I identify with the description of the plight of the twice-born. Their contrast case, the once-born, are healthy-minded. They have the sense that all is well with the world and/or that they are on the right side of God. After citing a number of cases, James comments: one can but recognize in such writers . . . the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of the opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe (83).
As against these, there are the sick souls, who cannot help but see the pain, the loss, the evil, the suffering in the world. Of course, a typically Jamesian playfulness and irony is running through these passages. Once a distinction is made with a contrasting classification like healthy and sick, it would seem axiomatic that the former is to be preferred. But in fact James stands on the other side; he identifies with the sick here. Not just that this is where he classes himself, without, of course, explicitly saying so. (Research has shown that one of the examples he quotes of deep metaphysical depression, attributed to a Frenchman, actually describes his own earlier experience.) But also in that he sees the sick as being more profound and insightful here.
As he moves from describing the healthy-minded to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls . . . have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness, he declares: Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, Hurrah, for the Universe!Gods in his Heaven, alls right with the world. Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view and put into our hands a more complicated key to the meaning of the situation (135-136).
What do the sick souls see that their healthy cousins dont? We might summarize that they see the abyss, over which we stand. But as we follow Jamess discussion, we can distinguish three forms that this consciousness can take.
The first might be called religious melancholy, The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny, Things seem unreal, distant, as though seen through a cloud (151-152). Another way of putting this would be to speak of a loss of meaning. In describing Tolstoys experience, James says of him that the sense that life had any meaning whatever was for a time wholly withdrawn (151).
The second, which James also calls melancholy, is characterized by fear. The intentional object here is the world not so much as meaningless, but rather as evil. And as we get to the more severe forms, what threatens is desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one. . . Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help! (162). (This is incidentally the form of melancholy ex- perienced by Jamess Frenchman [160-161]).
The third form of the abyss is the acute sense of personal sin. Here he is talking about, for example, people reacting to standard Protestant revival preaching and feeling a terrible sense of their own sinfulness, even being paralyzed by it perhaps to be later swept up into the sense of being saved.
James speaks again here of the superiority of the morbid-minded
view. The normal process of life contains many things to which
melancholy (of the second kind, the fear of evil) is the appropriate
response: the slaughterhouse, death.
Those who have been through this kind of thing and come out on the other side are the twice-born. Just as religious experience is the more authentic reality of religion, so this experience is the deeper and more truly religious one. It is thus at the heart of religion properly understood. It is an experience of deliverance. It yields a state of assurance, of salvation, or the meaningfulness of things, or the ultimate triumph of goodness. Its fruits are a loss of all worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be , even though the outer conditions should remain the same (248). The world appears beautiful and more real, in contrast to the dreadful unreality and strangeness felt in melancholy. We are also empowered; the inhibitions and divisions that held us back melt away in the condition James calls Saintliness (271). It gives us a sense of being connected to a wider life and a greater power, a sense of elation and freedom, as the outlines of confining self- hood melt down, a shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections (272-273).
This is at the heart of religion for James, because this experience meets our most dire spiritual needs, which are defined by the three great negative experiences of melancholy, evil, and the sense of personal si
n. Some of the perennial interest of Jamess book comes from his identifying these three zones of spiritual anguish, which continue to haunt our world today.
The third one, the sense of personal sin, may be less common among Jamess readers, who generally belong to the educated classes, which are disproportionately nonbelievers and, when they have some faith commitment, are unlikely to find it in those modes of evangelical Protestantism in which this sense is the most acute. And yet who can fail to notice that this kind of religion, and the experience of personal evil and deliverance which it makes central, is alive and in full expansion in our day. This is not true only in the United States, but even more so in Latin America, Africa, and even in parts of Asia. Some have estimated that evangelical Christianity is the fastest-growing form of religious life, faster than or as fast as Islambut this is the more remarkable in that its expansion is largely the result of conversion, whereas Islams comes mainly from natural growth.1
The surge of evangelical Protestantism often occurs in contexts where community has broken down, in Third World countries, where people have been pitched into urban life, often in chaotic circumstances and without support systems. They can be overwhelmed by a sense of personal incapacity or evil, but find that they can overcome crippling failings and weaknesses, drink or drugs or drifting or whatever, by surrendering themselves in a conversion experience. It would appear that entering the Nation of Islam has wrought a similar change in the lives of some African-Americans. Here is a very important religious phenomenon, whose incidence seems to be growing with developing modernity and which figures in Jamess account.
Melancholy is, of course, a phenomenon long recognized. It goes back well into the premodern world. But its meaning has changed. The sudden sense of the loss of significance, which is central to melancholy, or accidie or ennui, used to be experienced in a framework in which the meaning of things was beyond doubt. God was there, good and evil were defined, what we are called to cannot be gainsaid; but we can no longer feel it. We are suddenly on the outside, exiled. Accidie is a sin, a kind of self-exclusion, for which there can be no justification.
But in the modern context, melancholy arises in a world where the guarantee of meaning has gone, where all its traditional sources, theological, metaphysical, historical, can be cast in doubt. It therefore has a new shape: not the sense of rejection and exile from an unchallengeable cosmos of significance, but rather the intimation of what may be a definitive emptiness, the final dawning of the end of the last illusion of significance. It hurts, one might say, in a new way.
One might argue which mode of melancholy hurts more: my exile from the general feast of meaning, or the threatened implosion of meaning altogether. But there is no doubt which has the greater significance. The first pain touches me, the second everyone and everything.
The shift to the new mode and context of melancholy is clearly marked in the life and work of Baudelaire. Against the background of a real cosmic significance which I am perversely incapable of rejoicing in, taking the side of evil seems pointless; but where the threat is the ground zero of all meaning, even the recovery of evil is a gain. Baudelaires spleen poems accomplish a paradoxical liberation: in describing the empty world, the lowered, leaden sky, they lift its weight from my shoulders, by giving this burden a visage and a shape. The ground zero of melancholy has always been that one loses even the sense of what has been lost, even awareness of the source of the pain. To the extent that melancholy has a place in the cosmic order, as one of the humours, which is in turn connected by correspondences to other realities, one can escape the ground zero by portraying its characteristic symbols, as Dürer does. But by the time of Baudelaire, where even the correspondences have to be reinvented, our only recourse is to paint the lack, the evil itself. Hence the new spiritual power of something that can be described as les fleurs du mal.
Melancholy, modern style, in the form of a sense of perhaps ultimate meaninglessness, is the recognized modern threat. We readily see it as a danger that menaces all of us. We even see our philosophies and spiritual positions as addressed to this threat, as attempts to rebut or thwart a sense of meaninglessness. It is common to construe the history of religion through this prism, as though from the beginning we could see it as an answer to the inherent meaninglessness of things. This is a view implicit in Weber, I would argue, made more explicit in Gauchet.2 I think this is a serious distortion, but there is obviously some truth in it. And once more, we see James identifying a crucial area of modern spiritual malaise.
But how about the third version of the abyss, the sense of enveloping evil? This is less widely recognized. Awareness of it can even be eclipsed by the sense that our great problem in a secular age, after the death of God, is meaninglessness. The sense of evil seems to partake too much of the metaphysical dimension that we are supposed to have left behind us in modernity. But I believe that it defines just as important a threat, if not more urgent than the loss of meaning. As the sense of a guaranteed order in which good can triumph recedes, the sense of the surrounding evil, within us and without, which James so well describes, faces no obvious defenses. It cannot but deeply disturb us. Indeed, one can suspect that we sometimes take flight into the meaninglessness of things in order to avoid facing it, just as Baudelaire in a sense moved in the opposite direction, while aestheticizing evil to make it bearable. But beyond that, the fierce, often violent, moralism of the modern age constitutes one of our most important defenses against this sense of pervasive evil.
If even some of this is true, we can once more credit James with an extraordinary insight into the spiritual needs of the modern world.
WHAT WAS JAMES'S TAKE on religion doing for James? Or, put more impersonally, what was the wider agenda of which it was part? I believe it was a crucial part of Jamess argument, with himself and his contemporaries, about the admissibility of belief. It was an important part of his apologia pro fide sua.
Like any sensitive intellectual of his time and place, James
had to argue against the voices, within and without, that held
that religion was a thing of the past, that one could no longer
in conscience believe in this kind of thing in an age of science.
Already a passage in Varieties gives a sense of what is at stake
in this inner debate. James is speaking of those who are for one
reason or another incapable of religious conversion. He refers
to some whose inaptitude is intellectual in origin:
But a fuller discussion of these agnostic vetoes, and the answer to them, occurs in The Will to Believe.3 Here it is plain that the main source of the vetoes is a kind of ethics of belief (and William Cliffords work is explicitly cited, e.g., WB 17-18). Cliffords view in The Ethics of Belief starts from a notion of what proper scientific procedure is: never turn your hypotheses into accepted theories until the evidence is adequate. It then promotes this into a moral precept for life in general. The underlying picture of our condition is that we find certain hypotheses more pleasing, more flattering, more comforting, and are thus tempted to believe them. It is the path of manliness, courage, and integrity to turn our backs on these facile comforts, and face the universe as it really is. But so strong are the temptations to deviate from this path that we must make it an unbreakable precept never to give our assent unless the evidence compels it.
With his unrivaled gift for striking rhetoric mixed with irony
and gentle, over-the-top parody, James evokes this view:
On the same page James quotes Clifford: Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer . . . Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away. The pleasure of illicit belief is a stolen one, asserts Clifford. It is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town . . . It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence (WE 17-18: One wonders who is more over the top?).
James opposes to this his own counterprinciple:
Backing this principle is his own view of the human predicament. Clifford assumes that there is only one road to truth: we put the hypotheses that appeal to us under severe tests, and those that survive are worthy of adoptionthe kind of procedure whose spirit was recaptured in our time by Poppers method of conjectures and refutation. To put it dramatically, we can win the right to believe a hypothesis only by first treating it with maximum suspicion and hostility.
James holds, on the contrary, that there are some domains in which truths will be hidden from us unless we go at least halfway toward them. Do you like me or not? If I am determined to test this by adopting a stance of maximum distance and suspicion, the chances are that I will forfeit the chance of a positive answer. An analogous phenomenon on the scale of the whole society is social trust; doubt it root and branch, and you will destroy it.
But can the same kind of logic apply to religion, that is, to a belief in something that by hypothesis is way beyond our power to create? James thinks it can. What is created is not God or the eternal,4 but there is a certain grasp of these, and a certain succor from these that can never be ours unless we open ourselves to them in faith. James is, in a sense, building on the Augustinian insight that in certain domains love and self-opening enable us to understand what we would never grasp otherwise, rather than just following on understanding as its normal consequence.5
What does that tell us about what the path of rationality consists in for someone who stands on the threshold, deciding whether he should permit himself to believe in God? On one side is the fear of believing something false if he follows his instincts here. But on the other there is the hope of opening out what are now inaccessible truths through the prior step of faith.
Faced with this double possibility it is no longer so clear that Cliffords ethic is the appropriate one, because it was taking account of only the first possibility. The two possibilities define an option, and indeed a forced one, in that there is no third way: to suspend judgment is just as surely to forgo the hope of new truth as to judge negatively.
So Cliffords principle has to be rephrased as a choice:
Better risk loss of truth than chance of error that
is your faith-vetoers exact position (WB 30). But
in what does this demonstrate superior rationality to the contrary
The minimal form of Jamess argument is, then, that the supposed superior rationality of the agnostic veto on beliefdont believe in God until you have overwhelming evidencedisappears once you see that there is an option between two risks of loss of truth. Everybody should be free to choose his own kind of risk. But this minimal form easily flips into a stronger variant, which is captured by the italicized clause I have just quoted. Taking the agnostic stance could here be taxed as the less rational one.
This is for grounds similar to those laid out in Pascals famous wager. James has already evoked this (WB 16-17) and treated it rather caustically. But on reflection, this may be because the Pascalian form is specifically directed to converting the interlocutor to Catholicism, to masses and holy water. But if one takes the general form of Pascals argument herethat you should weight two risks not only by their probabilities but also by their prospective payoffsthen James himself seems to entertain something of the sort. Religion is not only a forced option, that is, one in which there is no third way, no way of avoiding choice, but it is also a momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good (WB 30).
The likeness increases when we reflect that Pascal never thought of his wager argument as standing alone, appealing as it were purely to the betting side of our nature, to the instincts that take over when we enter the casinos at Las Vegas. He, too, holds the Augustinian view that in matters divine we need to love before we know:
But the issue could be put in other terms again. The single-risk view of the agnostics seems more plausible than Jamess double-risk thesis because they take for granted that our desires can only be an obstacle to our finding the truth. The crucial issue is thus the place of our volitional nature in the theoretical realm. The very idea that things will go better in the search for truth if you keep passion, desire, and willing out seems utterly implausible to James not just for the reason he thinks he has demonstrated, that certain truths only open to us as a result of our commitment, but also because it seems so clear to him that we never operate this way.
So one way he frames the issue is that the agnostic vetoers are asking that he wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. But from another standpoint, neither side is really doing this. Agnosticism is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law (WB 30-31). To put it in the harsh language of a later politics, those who claim to be keeping passion out are suffering from false consciousness. This is not the way the mind works at all.
This is the point he makes in a subsequent article in The
Will to Believe, with the arresting title Reflex Action
and Theism (WB 90-113, esp. 99-102). But we can return to
Varieties and see the claim laid out there. Rationalism gives
an account of only a part of our mental life, and one that is
James has in a sense opened up to view an important part of the struggle between belief and unbelief in modern culture. We can see it, after a fashion, from both sides of the fence: even though James has himself come down on one side, we can still feel the force of the other side. Of course, the objections to belief are not only on epistemological grounds. There are also those who feel that the God of theism has utterly failed the challenge of theodicy, how we can believe in a good and omnipotent God, given the state of the world. James addresses this question too, in another essay in The Will to Believe (Is Life Worth Living? WB 34-56).
But if we keep to the epistemological-moral issue of the ethics of belief, James clarifies why it always seems to end in a standoff. (1) Each side is drawing on very different sources, and (2) our culture as a whole cannot seem to get to a point where one of these no longer speaks to us. And yet (3) we cannot seem to function at all unless we relate to one or the other.
(1) The reason the argument is so difficult, and so hard to join, is that each side stands within its own view of the human moral predicament, The various facets of each stance support each other, so that there seems nowhere you can justifiably stand outside. The agnostic view propounds some picture (or range of pictures) of the universe and human nature. This has going for it that it can claim to result from science, with all the prestige that this carries with it. It can even look from the inside as though this was all you need to say. But from the outside it isnt at all clear that what everyone could agree are the undoubted findings of modern natural science quite add up to a proof of, say, materialism, or whatever the religion-excluding view is.
From the inside the proof seems solid, because certain interpretations are ruled out on the grounds that they seem speculative or metaphysical. From the outside, this looks like a classical petitio principii. But from the inside the move seems unavoidable, because it is powered by certain ethical views. These are the ones that James laid bare: it is wrong, uncourageous, unmanly, a kind of self-indulgent cheating, to have recourse to this kind of interpretation, which we know appeals to something in us, offers comfort, or meaning, and which we therefore should fend off, unless absolutely driven to them by the evidence, which is manifestly not the case. The position holds firm because it locks together a scientific-epistemological view and a moral one.
From the other side, the same basic phenomena show up, but in an entirely different shape. One of the crucial features that justify aversion to certain interpretations from the agnostic standpoint, namely that they in some way attract us, shows up from the believers standpoint as what justifies our interest. And that very much for the reasons which James explores, namely that this attraction is the hint that there is something important here which we need to explore further, that this exploration can lead us to something of vital significance, which would otherwise remain closed to us. Epistemology and ethics (in the sense of intuitions about what is of crucial importance) combine here.
From this standpoint, the agnostics closure is self-inflicted, the claim that there is nothing here which ought to interest us a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. A similar accusation of circularity is hurled in the other direction. The believer is thought to have invented the delusion that beguiles him.
Each stance creates in a sense a total environment, in the sense that whatever considerations occur in one appear transformed in the other. They cant be appealed to in order to decide the issue, because as they pass from one stance to the other they bear a changed meaning that robs them of their force in the new environment. As we saw, the attraction of certain feelings and intuitions has a totally different significance in the two stances. This totality forces a choice; one cannot accord the two rival meanings to these crucial features at the same time. You cant really sit on the fence, because you need some reading of these features to get on with life. The attraction of theism can be lived as a temptation, or as a promise, but not easily as both at once (unless, of course, you change the meaning of temptation or promise). The option is forced in Jamess terms.
(2) And yet both these stances remain possible to many people in our world. Secularists once hoped that with the advance of science and enlightenment, and the articulation of a new, humanist ethic, the illusory nature of religion would be more and more apparent, and its attractions would fade, indeed, give way to repulsion. Many believers thought that unbelief was so clearly a willed blindness that people would one day wake up and see through it once and for all. But this is not how it has worked out, not even perhaps how it could work out. People go on feeling a sense of unease at the world of unbelief: some sense that something big, something important has been left out, some level of profound desire has been ignored, some greater reality outside us has been closed off. The articulations given to this unease are very varied, but it persists, and they recur in ever more ramified forms. But at the same time, the sense of dignity, control, adulthood, autonomy, connected to unbelief go on attracting people, and seem set to do so into an indefinite future.
What is more, a close attention to the debate seems to indicate that most people feel both pulls. They have to go one way, but they never fully shake off the call of the other. So the faith of believers is fragilized, not just by the fact that other people, equally intelligent, often equally good and dedicated, disagree with them, but also by the fact that they can still see themselves as reflected in the other perspective, that is, as drawn by a too-indulgent view of things. For what believer doesnt have the sense that her view of God is too simple, too anthropocentric, too indulgent? We all lie to some extent cowering under the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful (204).
On the other side, the call to faith is still there as an understood temptation. Even if we think that it no longer applies to us, we see it as drawing others. Otherwise the ethics of belief would be incomprehensible.
Part of the great continuing interest of Jamess century-old work is that it lays out the dynamics of this battle so well and clearly. He is on one side, but he helps you imagine what its like to be on either. In one way, we might interpret him as having wanted to show that you ought to come down on one side, the stronger thesis I offered above; but the weaker reading is just that he wanted to rebut the idea that reason forces you to the agnostic choice. As Edward Madden puts it in the Introduction to The Will to Believe, James might be seen as arguing really for a right to believe (WB xiii-xxiv); the right to follow ones own gut instinct in this domain, free of an intimidation grounded in invalid arguments.
What is especially striking about this account is that it brings out the bare issue so starkly, uncomplicated by further questions. It gives a stripped-down version of the debate; and this in two ways, both of which connect centrally to Jamess take on religion as experience.
First, precisely because he abandons so much of the traditional ground of religion, because he has no use for collective connections through sacraments or ways of life, because the intellectual articulations are made secondary, the key pointwhat to make of the gut instinct that there is something more? stands out very clearly.
And this allows us to see the second way in which James focuses the debate. It is after all to do with religious experience, albeit in a sense somewhat more generic than Jamess. As one stands on the cusp between the two great options, it is all a matter of the sense you have that there is something more, bigger, outside you. Now whether, granted you take the faith branch, this remains religious experience in Jamess special sense, steering clear of collective connections and overtheorization, is a question yet to be determined. But as you stand on the cusp, all you have to go on is a (very likely poorly articulated) gut feeling.
James is our great philosopher of the cusp. He tells us more than anyone else about what its like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. He describes a crucial site of modernity and articulates the decisive drama enacted there. It took very exceptional qualities to do this. Very likely it needed someone who had been through a searing experience of morbidity and had come out the other side. But it also needed someone of wide sympathy and extraordinary powers of phenomenological description; further, it needed someone who could feel and articulate the continuing ambivalence in himself. 7 It probably also needed someone who had ultimately come down, with whatever inner tremors, on the faith side; but this may be a bit of believers chauvinism that I am adding to the equation.
In any event, it is because he stands so nakedly and so volubly in this exposed spot that his work has resonated for a hundred years, and will go on doing so for many years to come.
1. See, for instance, David Martins discussion in The
Evangelical Upsurge and Its Political Implications, in The
Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics,
ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 37-49,
and also his Tongues of Fire (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).
The Twice-Born reprinted by permission of the publisher from VARIETIES OF RELIGION TODAY: WILLIAM JAMES REVISITED by Charles Taylor, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2002 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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