Skip to main content

Full text of "Idealistic and Pragmatic Interpretations of Religion"

See other formats


STOP 



Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 
purposes. 

Read more about Early Journal Content at http://about.jstor.org/participate-jstor/individuals/early- 
journal-content . 



JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 
contact support@jstor.org. 



IDEALISTIC AND PRAGMATIC INTERPRETA- 
TIONS OF RELIGION 



CLARENCE H. HAMILTON 
University of Nanking, China 



Historically idealism has been of religious significance in 
two ways. First, by its teaching that all existence is essentially 
a being known by some mind, it has maintained the ultimate 
spiritual character of the universe and sought to make, man 
feel at home in his environment. Secondly, by its doctrine of 
the Absolute, the Infinite Bearer of all Experience, the Ultimate 
Solver of all Problems, the Absolute Mind that looks before 
and after and knows the infinite time-span in one completed 
whole of thought, it has developed a majestic conception that 
seems to be a logical elaboration of religion's vision of the God 
of the universe. With these conceptions it has undertaken, as 
one writer puts it, "to substantiate the extreme claims of 
faith — the creation of matter by spirit, the indestructible 
significance of every human person, and the unlimited suprem- 
acy of goodness." 1 It has specifically declared its fundamental 
interest in religion and its faith that by means of idealistic 
categories it has explicated the inner meaning of Christianity. 
Its pages abound with the language of inspiration. It speaks 
much of the infinite and the eternal, the fair perfection of the 
whole to which our temporal finite eyes are dim; and it pro- 
claims in arguments of endless variety that things are not 
what they seem. 

It is possible to sympathize with the aim of idealism to 
bring courage, hope, and inspiration without agreeing with the 
method by which it seeks to arouse these attitudes. As a 

1 Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies, p. 164. 

616 



IDEALISTIC INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION 617 

matter of fact it has developed through several generations of 
minds with an outcome such as to lead to serious doubt whether 
the result arrived at is that which was originally intended. 

One is led to ask, in the first place: Does the notion that 
the physical universe is ultimately spiritual because it is a 
system of known objects really help us religiously? No one 
urges more vigorously than Royce that the world of ideas is 
just as obdurate and unyielding as the world of physical 
nature conceived by the materialist. It is still there as a 
stern fact. We may call it a system of ideas in the mind of 
the Absolute. But the attitude logically called forth by such 
a eulogistic view is simply that of humble resignation. The 
suggestion is that the core of the religious spirit is essentially 
humility, adoration, worship, the acceptance of things as they 
are. It is significant that it is the worship element of religious 
experience for which men like Josiah Royce, William Ernest 
Hocking, and George Plimpton Adams seem most solicitous. 
The non-pragmatic participation in what is already there is 
the note that is sounded. Despite all appearances to the 
contrary our world is through and through spiritual. 

Now it is not to be denied that the attitude of acceptance, 
acquiescence, adoration has played a great part in the older 
religious conceptions. Especially was it cherished by the 
western world in the Middle Ages. But it is a fact that the 
indubitable progress of science has introduced the concept of 
control. It has now become a question whether religion can 
remain essentially a worship function. Room must somehow 
be made to recognize that change and control of the environ- 
ment, amelioration of its conditions, are actual achievements. 
It is difficult to see how we can rest content with simply 
proclaiming that the world is idea and therefore to be accepted 
as it stands. 

With reference to the Absolute as maintained by the older 
idealists the objections are many. As simply a knower it 
is too intellectualistic. Its timelessness disagrees with its 



618 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

immanence, for, as timeless, it transcends finite struggle. 
Its all-inclusiveness makes mere appearance out of evil, for evil 
must somehow have its place in the Absolute's view of the 
timeless whole, and, as having a place, must be somehow good. 
As the Ultimate Being in which all problems are solved and 
all contradictions resolved it reduces the finite world which is 
the nearest concern of struggling, toiling humanity to an 
unintelligible puppet-show. Evolution as taking place in 
time becomes mere appearance. 

But it is not necessary to dwell on the standard refutations 
of standard idealism. The question is: Do the more recent 
protagonists of idealism develop from it conceptions which are 
more congruous with the categories which the development of 
modern life are thrusting upon us ? 

Adams in Idealism and the Modem Age shows clearly that 
he recognizes where the issue lies. Again and again he 
reiterates that whereas Platonism, Christianity, and Idealism 
have stood for attachment to ideal structures which call for 
recognition, knowledge, and love, the modern age emphasizes 
control, mastery, activity, the progressive remolding of 
circumstances in the interests of democracy. It is significant 
that Adams indulges but little in phrases drawn from the older 
idealism. One finds no talk of a monistic Absolute but rather 
of the pluralistic "significant structures." No space is taken 
up with proving that the physical universe is the expression of 
an Infinite Cognitive Consciousness. Rather the word idealism 
seems to be taken in the more familiar sense of devotion to 
ideals. It is the great system of ideals developed in any age, 
whether ancient or modern that calls forth the attitude of 
loyalty — a more secular expression, perhaps, for the attitude 
of religious devotion. Loyalty, reverence, contemplation, 
these are the ethical and religious values of idealism which 
Adams is concerned to conserve without holding too much to 
the trappings in which they have been traditionally enveloped. 



IDEALISTIC INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION 619 

Ultimately his position resolves to this: There are some things 
in the universe which man himself does not make but which 
he appreciates and accepts. These are the ideal structures of 
his age. To these he gives his loyalty. We cannot accept as 
final either the idea systems of a past age nor those of our own 
age. But the idea systems of all ages imply one underlying 
system which may be envisaged as the good. This last rather 
vague and abstract conception is apparently Adams' equiv- 
alent for the Absolute, though he does not use the term. 

While Adams clearly recognizes the modern activistic trend 
and avoids the conceptions that have latterly involved idealism 
in much criticism, he is still evidently hampered by the tend- 
ency to center religion in the act of worship. He deplores the 
fact that "our age estimates religion in accordance with the 
presupposition that nothing can be significant for the modern 
man except that which contributes to his forward-looking 
interest in control, organization, and activity; in behaviour 
and the anticipation of behaviour." He thinks that our 
modern "practical religion" witnesses to "the success with 
which the biological and economic (capitalistic) interest of 
men in instrumental power and pragmatic mastery have all 
but eaten their way into the very citadel of that interest which 
historically has been the spokesman for possession and con- 
templation, for the love and worship of some significant 
structure which alone makes any activity and any mastery 
worth while." But do not Mr. Adams' very words indicate 
that the far development of new conceptions calls for a recon- 
struction which he finds it impossible to make on the basis of 
his idealism and his interpretation of religion? May it not 
be that this enemy which he finds storming the citadel is an 
enemy only of the limitations of idealistic presupposition and 
that after all it is a champion of a larger and fuller religious 
life for man. How far can we develop a conception of religion 
that holds to the values of worship and possession but which 



620 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

widens its scope to include those of activity and progressive 
melioration? To get some light on this question we must 
consider the philosophy of pragmatism. 

II 

With reference to pragmatism the complaint is usually made 
that it is many and not one. It must be confessed that there is 
a considerable variety among the applications and results of 
the various writers in the field. The collaborators in the 
volume on Creative Intelligence are careful to abjure any 
platform of planks on which the movement stands, modestly 
content to indicate that the probable common characteristics 
of all of them are the "ideas of the genuineness of the future, 
of intelligence as the organ for determining the quality of the 
future so far as it can come within human control, and of a 
courageously inventive individual as the bearer of a creatively 
employed mind." 1 But it is not necessary to canvass the 
entire circle of pragmatic writers to consider the significance 
of the method for religion. There are two great recognized 
leaders in America, William James and John Dewey, and it 
will be convenient to limit attention to these. 

For both James and Dewey intellectual activity is 
essentially a function of will; experience is fundamentally a 
striving; and thinking is an instrument in the furtherance of 
the process. Ideas are not true in themselves but only in so 
far forth as they contribute to the progressive enrichment of 
experience. They are significant only if they work, to use the 
more popular expression. Ideas are first projected as hypoth- 
eses and then tested by their actual ability to lead to further 
significant experience. Along with this instrumental con- 
ception of intellect goes the faith that the world is such that 
it can be transformed and that intelligence can do the trans- 
forming. Because this view stresses life and striving it is 
called biocentric; because it believes in progressive adaptation 

1 Prefatory note, p. iii. 



IDEALISTIC INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION 621 

and transformation it is evolutionistic; because it rests upon 
experience it is empirical; because it believes the whole 
process can be one of making things better and more suited to 
human welfare it is melioristic and humanistic. 

Of our two writers James is the more concerned to make the 
specific application to religion. He finds religious faith to be 
one aspect or expression of the faith function which is every- 
where present in all forms of knowing. Among other things 
which experience presses upon us is the necessity for some kind 
of attitude toward the universe as a whole. Here is a forced 
option. Our attitude may be one of theistic belief or not. 
Agnosticism here leads pragmatically to the same result as 
atheism and so need not be considered an alternative. Here 
religious faith is entirely rational and one may have the right 
to act upon it and help make it true by working to establish 
the supremacy of the good. Another faith which we may 
hold as a definite working hypothesis is what James calls 
indeterminism. It is as allowable, James maintains, to 
believe that the world is pluralistic and amenable to shift and 
change and manipulation among the variously grouped parts, 
as it is to believe that it is monistic, whether taken spiritual- 
istically or materialistically. Upon this view the mood of 
sheer acceptance and resignation is out of place. One is 
called upon rather to be up and doing, to bring about organiza- 
tion within experience through one's own choices and through 
co-operation with God. James's conception of the universe as 
pluralistic in character enables him to emphatically deny that 
evil is in any necessary way mixed up with the good. In fact 
the idealistic Absolute in which all contradictions are resolved 
and all ills given a seemly station seems to him a slander upon 
the name of God. Rather he prefers definitely to reject the 
omnipotence and infinity of God in order to free him from 
responsibility for evil. God is not static in some state of 
Olympian bliss but is the great toiler with much work to do, 
seeking to eject the evil elements from experience and develop 



622 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

a progressively purer and more ethically satisfactory cosmic 
organization. To co-operation in this task is man summoned 
by religious faith. The summons is urgent because the issue 
may be doubtful without our help. God has not yet won 
the victory and we have to face the possibility that he may 
not win it. But all the more should we recognize that "there 
is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we 
should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote 
and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of 
good which we can see." 

These conceptions of the functional validity of religious 
faith, of indeterminism, and of a finite God are undeniably 
suggestive. They show how the modern-age emphasis upon 
volition, control, reconstruction, scientific method, and the 
democratic faith that the individual counts even in the largest 
concerns, can be taken up as significant factors into the 
religious consciousness. But it must be confessed that it is 
the suggestiveness of a sketch rather than of a completed 
picture. Difficulties occur to one. For example one reason 
why religion develops in man is that he tends to seek some 
expression for his faith that the universe in its deepest nature 
accords with moral aspiration — that values will be conserved. 
The conception of God is man's fullest expression of that 
assurance. But with James's conception of a finite God the 
whole problem breaks out afresh in the cosmic sphere. If 
God struggles with his environment after the human fashion, 
then what is there to guarantee to Him an ethical character 
to the universe which surrounds Him? If another Being is 
postulated to meet God's problem then we simply fall into a 
hopeless infinite regress. Further, as has been pointed out 
by Eugene Lyman {The God of the Modern Age), there is an 
ethical unsatisfactoriness about the idea of a finite God. In 
the eagerness to avoid ascribing evil to God there is a danger 
that we ascribe it to other cosmic forces that are not God, and 



IDEALISTIC INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION 623 

fail to bear our own responsibility — which, of course, vitiates 
the conception from a moral point of view. 

When we turn to Professor Dewey we have a thinker who 
has wrestled with the central problems of pragmatism and 
sought to carry through the conceptions in a complete and 
thorough-going fashion. His Essays in Experimental Logic are 
perhaps the profoundest attempt to deal with the fundamental 
questions of the pragmatic method that have appeared. He 
is concerned to describe the actual procedure of the mind in 
the solution of problems, and he works out minutely the way 
in which difficulties cause the search for hypotheses. Hypoth- 
eses are developed in their logical implications to point to further 
experience, and further experience in turn is used to verify or 
bring about the rejection of hypotheses. One feels behind 
Professor Dewey's writings a great wealth of observation of 
concrete detail in everyday familiar experiences. He sets 
forth with endless patience the way in which we solve piece- 
meal our problems, one by one, according to "the situation." 

But just because, perhaps, Professor Dewey takes a keen 
interest in the variety of concrete situations he seems un- 
interested in the larger massive reaction to the universe as a 
whole which is involved in the religious attitude. He identifies 
this religious reaction, unduly no doubt, with the particular 
attempt of idealism to conceive of the universe as a self- 
consistent interrelated Whole or Absolute in which all problems 
are solved in advance. Apparently this leads him to feel that 
religion is only one of the non-intelligent ways of escaping 
from the immediate pressure of specific problems. To seek 
solutions "in general" is simply to satisfy ourselves with senti- 
mentalities, and meanwhile the particular ills of life go uncor- 
rected. He has hard words to utter against the purely con- 
templative interpretation of intelligence which makes it 
simply a beholding eye to view the eternal verities of some 
beatific vision instead of setting it to work to make the social 



624 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

order better. The implication seems to be that the idea of 

God is an abstraction which beclouds men's recognition of the 

true sources of problems in everyday life. In his own words : 

The great scholastic thinkers (i.e., of the Christian theology) taught 
that the end of man is to know True Being, that knowledge is con- 
templative, that True Being is pure Immaterial Mind, and to know it 
is Bliss and Salvation Through this taking over of the concep- 
tion of knowledge as contemplative into the dominant religion of Europe, 
multitudes were affected who were totally innocent of theoretical 

philosophy So deeply engrained was this idea that it prevailed 

for centuries after the actual progress of science had demonstrated that 
knowledge is power to transform the world, and centuries after the 
practice of effective knowledge had adopted the method of experi- 
mentation. 1 

We recognize the healthy emphasis which Professor Dewey 
lays on concrete problems and the active, instrumental char- 
acter of intelligence. But with reference to his general 
attitude toward religion we raise several questions. 

i. Among the various concrete situations which confront 
human individuals, are there not some which we recognize as 
specifically religious? Despite the fact that we spend most 
of our time on limited problems and situations, are there not 
circumstances when the problem of a relation to the whole of 
things does become specific and urgent ? 

2. Because religion and the idea of God have been connected 
with idealisms and absolutisms in the past, does that mean they 
must always be so, and must be rejected with the discrediting 
of these philosophic conceptions ? 

3. Is it necessary to read religion always in terms of con- 
templation, resignation, mystic estheticism? If God is con- 
ceived as the Great Companion in the life of ethical endeavor 
does not this hearten humanitarian enterprises instead of 
ignore them? It would seem that both Dewey and the 
idealists have difficulty because they center religion in the 
mood of worship as such instead of in its urge toward wider 
and fuller life. 

1 Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 112. 



IDEALISTIC INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION 625 

4. Do not Professor Dewey's own ideals of humanitarian 
ethics, evolutionism, and democracy imply a profounder basis 
than he gives ? He presents us with a faith in the power of 
intelligence to change the course of events. But the implica- 
tions of such a faith is a cosmic ethical tendency which he 
does not explicate. 

Ill 
In conclusion, our study leads us to feel that idealism is 
correct in holding to the mood of contemplation and worship 
as a significant phase of the religious life, but its difficulty 
comes from conceiving this mood as its most important or 
even its exclusive aspect. As to pragmatism its emphasis on 
volition and activity is profoundly important and calls for 
the inclusion of voluntaristic values in religion. But its 
religious implications have not been adequately worked out 
either in James or Dewey. What is called for is a religion in 
which worship is means as well as end, and ameliorative 
activity is both an outcome of and an occasion for worship.