The God of William James

I am currently enjoying Stanley Hauerwas’ Gifford Lectures With the Grain of the Universe. He provides an accounts of the thought of William James Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. As I understand, Hauerwas argues that Niebuhr is indebted to William James during his Gifford Lecture The Nature and Destiny of Man. James, according to Hauerwas, was a modern pragmatist that “never entertained the presumption that the God of Israel might exist.” James provided a case for religion, however, because he needed to show that human existence was not “pointless.” He thought that people could be “religious without taking ‘institutionalized’ religion seriously. ”

Towards the end of his discussion of William James, Hauerwas describes James’s “Democratic critique of Christianity.”  For James the particularity of Christianity is incompatible “with the way of life necessary to sustain democracy.” This is because the universal claims of the Christian faith run against the universal claims of democracy that elevated the individual over the collective as displayed in the romantic values of Ralph Waldo Emerson. An interesting passage summarizes Hauerwas’ assessment of James:

“Just to the extent that James denied the creaturely status of human beings, I suspect it is a mistake to take too seriously his arguments against natural theology as the primary objections he had to Christianity. Those arguments were primarily an expression James’s deep moral objection to Christianity. What really bothered James was not that Christianity seemed to entail false views about the world, but that Christianity challenged the moral and political arrangements necessary to sustain the human project without God.”

A few lines down he adds, “Many Christians today want the world James wanted, while assuming that they can continue to have the Christian God. But James was right to think that you cannot have both.”

To sustain democratic order the things people care about most must be privatized because “if they were given purchase in public, they would, at best, lead to what James could regard only as unfairness and, at worst, escalating conflict.” Hauerwas concludes that James could not have it both ways because democracy in itself does not have the resources to keep itself from being “a way of life legitimized by coercion and violence.”

I thought this section was brilliant and illuminated the logic of Hauerwas’ vision of Christian ethics.


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