The Risk of Being Religious (Proverbs 8)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
May 22, 2016
William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience has become one of the most influential texts in American philosophy and religion. No serious student of either gets very far without engaging James and his arguments. He stands, in Cornel West’s estimation, as “the most profound. . .and unpretentious public intellectual in [our] history.” And The Varieties of Religious Experience is his magnum opus. But it didn’t start out that way.
The book is actually the collection of James’ Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University. He traveled there to offer them in 1901 and he was nervous about it. At the time, Edinburgh was one of the intellectual centers of Europe – the city of Hume, Smith, and Ferguson. And James arrived as the lowly American, having steamed from a country that was only beginning to find its voice and take its place it the world of ideas. He wondered if he’d be taken seriously. He wondered if there would be any crowds at all. What he didn’t wonder was whether or not he had something to say.
During James’ first lecture, we are told that about 250 people came to hear him. It was a respectable crowd, and James began with self-deprecation and humor. I’m only an American, you see. Not a specialist. Not an academician. Not the type you’re accustomed to hearing. And then he launched into a strikingly bold series of talks. As he did, word got around and the crowds began to swell. Here was an American who was redefining what it meant to think religiously. He was bringing science and poetry and psychology to bear. He was stressing individual experience and asking deep, existential questions about it. And he was avoiding matters of doctrine and metaphysics altogether in order to ask about something closer, more immediate and practically useful. James wanted to know what our attitude was toward the world. Put another way, he cared much less about the ideas we held in our minds than the ways those ideas led us to live, the ways of being they called forth from us. Shall our religion engender meek and conventional habits? he wondered. Or shall it give us the courage to take risks in the face of uncertainty and live boldly and free?
I thought about William James all week because of a conversation I had with Eddie Glaude over lunch. We are both students of James and we were talking about the times we are living in and the courage that is called for. At one point, the conversation moved so quickly that we were practically finishing each other’s sentences. He was talking about the existential courage we read in James and I shouted like a child, “We’re on the mountain pass!” He punched me in the arm in recognition of the reference as the rest of the table wondered what on earth we were so excited about. We’ll return to the mountain pass allusion, which is drawn from James’ essay “The Will to Believe,” but we need to take one step back before we do. Back about eighty years before James went to Edinburgh.
In his lecture here at Circular Church, Eddie Glaude began by referencing Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry.” Actually, he referenced it when he got off the plane, after we first shook hands in the airport concourse. We greeted each other and were talking. Eddie asked about how things were in Charleston and made a comment about the times we were living in. And as we spoke he invoked Shelley. “Imagination is the battleground,” he said. We wondered what it would take to imagine different times than these, different possibilities. And that was one of the major themes of Eddie Glaude’s time with us. After so many years of having our imaginations confined, constricted, and hemmed in. . . After so many years of living with a stale status quo where the divide between rich and poor grows and the resegregation of our communities and schools deepens. . . After so many years of participating in an economy that destroys and depletes the earth and puts us all in peril. . . Could we imagine differently? Could we widen our notions of what is possible? Could we break through our inhibitions in newly expansive ways?
“Reason is to Imagination,” Shelley wrote, “as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.” Put another way, our reason is here to serve our imagination, not the other way around. We are to take the risk of imagining first and then let our reason and science come around to support the dream of something different. Shelley made a beautiful case for the poet’s role in fostering the imagination. But Glaude made a case for the church’s role. . .and the community’s. We are at a crossroads, he suggested. We are in trying times. And the only way forward is to think differently. To imagine better.
The old wisdom writers knew about living at a crossroads. They said it was there that the voice of Wisdom could be heard. At least by those who could discern. And then take the risk of joining their voices with hers in the marketplace of contested ideas. Listen to the description of it the text we’ve heard from Proverbs:
It is Wisdom calling,
Understanding raising her voice,
She takes her stand on the topmost heights,
By the wayside, at the crossroads,
Near the gates at the city entrance;
At the entryways, she shouts,
“O men [and women], I call to you;
My cry is to all [hu]mankind.
What follows is a description of Wisdom’s attributes. She is personified here in the feminine. Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom is always feminine and she is always there. Proverbs says that she was present at the beginning, before the water and the hills and the earth. And she can be found in every time and place by those who seek her and by those who have courage. That word shows up halfway through the proverb. “Mine are counsel and resourcefulness,” Wisdom says, “I am understanding; courage is mine.” The entire chapter is something of a poem to the many ways Wisdom comes to us, but I stayed with courage. In part, because it resonated so deeply with the wisdom of William James. And in part, because the times we are living in call for it themselves. “Courage is mine,” sang Wisdom. But is it ours? I wondered.
I am struck by how often in my line of work people come to me looking for a way out of having courage. That is, people come to me looking for certainty. They seek assurance. They seek consolation. They seek the avoidance of tension or unpleasantness. And here I am not necessarily talking about church people. But anyone who knows I am a minister. They assume that I am in the business of making life easier. But I’m not. I’m in the business of making life more honest. I’m in the business of translating Jesus and James. I’m in the business of asking people to take risks and to work for change in themselves and the world. It takes a lot of courage. And we are hardly certain what the outcomes will be. The only thing we are certain of is our will, as James would say. We are certain of our conviction, which is rooted in nothing more complicated than love.
When it comes to working for change, for example. We work because we love the world and we love each other. Not because it is easy or assured. Not because the pathway ahead is clear. Rather, we work because we are in love with it all and because we understand that love makes certain claims on us, asks things of us like the taking up of a cross, as Jesus said, the willful acceptance of something that is difficult, challenging, and unsure. That is what we were talking about when Eddie Glaude punched me in the arm. Love is the reason we work. And our courage derives from it. Therein lies the Wisdom. She is present when we take the risk of standing at the crossroads, hearing her voice, and then acting in love, accepting the consequent unknown.
That, dear friends, won’t fit onto a bumper sticker. But it sure is good religion according to William James. And here are his words on it, a quote that he drew from James Stephen and used to concludes hi essay “The Will to Believe”:
In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. . . . If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a [person] chooses to turn [their] back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent [them]; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that [they are] mistaken. . . . Each must act as [they think] best; and if [they are] wrong, so much the worse for [them]. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.
It’s a different kind of religion than we hear about conventionally. And it requires a different kind of faith. Faith grounded not in certainty, but in a kind of love that would have us act boldly and unafraid.
You may wonder if such faith really works or if there is an abiding Wisdom in it. All I can offer from my own experience is this: At one of the most uncertain moments in my life, when my own health was gravely in doubt, I received a note from a friend and professor. He was an old naturalist and a lover of William James. I opened the note and read in his hand of his love and concern for me. The note ended: Be strong. Have courage.
I did not receive any other words that made me feel better than those. Because they were so honest. My friend knew that the outcome was unclear. And all that he did was say that he loved me. And encourage me to be strong. Which was all that I needed. Surprisingly, I made it past that particular mountain pass. But only to arrive at another. And another. Like the place we are now in Charleston, South Carolina. As race relations are incredibly strained. As a presidential election plays to our fears. As an economy moves more wealth to the very rich while the middle class eclipses and the poor are shunted off and segregated out of view.
The question is whether we can imagine things differently. Whether we will dare to do what James would do. Or Shelley. Or Glaude. Or Wisdom herself, whispering to us at this crossroads.
Will we hear her call? And will we summon the existential strength and courage to step into the uncertainty in love?
 See the dust jacket to The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
 Percy Bysse Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” in The Major Works (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), 675.
 Prov. 8.1-4, TANAKH translation.
 Prov. 8.14.
 William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 735.