Monthly Archives: April 23, 2015

Living on Borrowed Time & the Hell of Social Obligation

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s greatest founders and presidents, were, at different points in their lives, bitter rivals and the closest of friends.  Though they differed radically in personality and temperament, they were drawn together by a shared idealism, common interests, and perhaps most of all, extremely lengthy retirements.  Adams completed his only term as President in 1800, while Jefferson capped his presidency and active political life in 1809.  Fortunately – both for their own sake and for the sake of posterity – the two men enjoyed a long retirement and correspondence that lasted until July 4th, 1826, when both men passed away on the same day.
How did these extraordinary men spend their golden years of retirement?  In a fascinating letter to Adams, Jefferson laments that much of his day is occupied with responding to mail:  “From sunrise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burden of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)

Jefferson’s frustration is understandable; a thoughtful man advanced in years, he was well aware that his time on this earth was limited.  Why, then, did he take the time to answer letters that did not interest him, from people he did not know?  Jefferson’s explanation – “it is hard to refuse them civil answers” – boils down to two […]

By |April 23, 2015|

A Community of Believers – Perversion or Sanctification?

William James, in his classic work on the psychology of religion, drills down to the fundamental aspects of authentic religious experience.  For James, much of what we normally label as “religion” does not qualify as authentic religious experience:

“In critically judging the value of religious phenomena, it is very important to insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate or tribal product… The word ‘religion,’ as ordinarily used, is equivocal.  A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers.  When these groups get strong enough to organize themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own.  The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word ‘religion’ nowadays, we think inevitably of some ‘church’ or other… [which] suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature)

The history of communal religion, in James’ perspective, is essentially the same in all cases. What begins as an authentic religious encounter in the heart of the individual religious genius becomes ossified as inflexible dogma in the minds of his followers, who themselves experience religion only “second hand.”  Once a community forms, the politics and corruption that are endemic in institutions pervert the original religious experience even further.

Given this dark history of institutional religion, James defines true religion as that “which lives itself out within the private breast.” “Religion,” properly defined, refers only to the lonely experience of the individual believer. “Naked comes it into the world […]

By |April 15, 2015|