11 March 2012

William James on Catholicism

On another blog I see that the following question has been raised: "Do you know what William James thought of Catholicism?"

The blogger gives his own reply, which you can read via this link if you like.

Personally, I think I do have a handle on what James thought of Catholicism, so I'll offer my own answer.

The short answer is this: he thought of it as too “legalistic and moralistic” to satisfy the deepest of spiritual needs. But he did admire the aesthetic creativity with which it has always been associated, and he regretted the anti-aesthetic, stained-windows-smashing, aspects of the Reformation.
(See? as always with James, even the short answer can’t be very short, because there is always on the one hand and on the other hand. It is what makes him adorable.)

As for the theology of it, James had little patience for the sort of doctrinal structure that generally comes with the RC faith. Here is a pertinent passage from Varieties:

“Take God’s aseity, for example; or his necessariness; his immateriality; his ‘simplicity’ or superiority to the kind of inner variety and succession which we find in finite beings, his indivisibility, and lack of the inner distinctions of being and activity, substance and accident, potentiality and actuality, and the rest … candidly speaking, how do such qualities as these make any definite connection with our life? … what vital difference can it possibly make to any man’s religion whether they be true or false?”

He is aiming directly at the Thomistic doctrinal baggage of the Church there.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.