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  • The Possibility of Religious Insight
  • John Jacob Kaag and Aaron Pratt Shepherd

I. Josiah Royce’s Religious Insights

Josiah Royce’s philosophical interest in religion can be traced to his earliest days, when hymn singing and reading the Bible were constant practices in the fervently evangelical household of Josiah, Sr., and Sarah Royce in Grass Valley, California.1 Royce’s mother, Sarah, in particular, was a profound influence. She burned with the Holy Spirit, sparked by the fire-and-brimstone revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in New England, where she grew up. Educated at Phipps Union Female Seminary in Albion, New York, Mrs. Royce treasured the scriptures, and was an elegant and thorough interpreter of them for Josiah and his three sisters.

In spite of his delight in the reading and study of scripture at home, young Josiah begrudged his parents’ membership in the Disciples of Christ Church. Although he appreciated the power of social organization that the church exemplified, the strictures of the institutional church left Royce disenchanted. Later, when confronted with the staunch skepticism of the professors and students at several universities in Germany during his year-long post-baccalaureate study there, Royce found himself forced to consider the importance of his childhood faith. This clash influenced Royce’s first published philosophical book, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), a book that secured his position at Harvard’s philosophy department and led him to be regarded as one of the great—perhaps the last great—idealists in America.

In Religious Aspect, Royce asserts his own personal conclusion that “religious problems . . . of all human interests, deserve our best efforts and our utmost loyalty.”2 This ideal governed Royce’s continuing philosophical investigation into the possibility and nature of an Absolute Knower. Following the criticism of his absolute idealism by G. H. Howison in their 1895 [End Page 274] debates at Berkeley (published a year later as The Conception of God), Royce further refined his view before his delivery of the prestigious Gifford Lectures (1898–1900) in the philosophy of religion at the University of Edinburgh, later published as The World and the Individual. Royce’s attentiveness to religious problems was also a vital aspect of his deep personal and intellectual friendship with William James, which spanned nearly thirty years.

Though he never reconciled himself with the institutional church (he almost never attended worship services after high school), Royce would continue to look to religious communities as a site of great potential for the betterment of society. Unlike others in this period of American philosophy, Royce did not shy away from the reality that the United States was one of the most ardently churched nations in the world. This pragmatic insistence upon rooting philosophical inquiry in experience was what eventually brought Royce to articulate his absolute idealism in terms of human life in community. And this articulation appears finally, in 1911, as a modest little book called The Sources of Religious Insight.

Sources represents the best of what philosophy of religion can be. While Royce’s concern in the lectures is the religious notion of salvation, his approach displays the full maturation of his philosophical method. The lectures contained in this book were not intended for scholars or religious fundamentalists but rather “a general audience of thoughtful people.” Though much of the text is oriented toward Christianity, Royce also intends to demonstrate to his audience that “very vast ranges of the higher religious life of mankind have grown and flourished outside of the influence of Christianity.”3 Royce is neither a preacher nor a theologian. Rather, the mastery of Sources lies in the admixture of faith and reason, of cool philosophical contemplation of religious notions put into the context of the most visceral human experiences of need, loss, and hope that Royce presents. It is the combination of Royce’s loyalty to religious questions, fidelity to the realities of being human, and devotion to the salvation of humankind through wisdom that makes Sources a masterpiece in the philosophical study of religion.

II. Saving the Demoniac, Seeking the City

Like any great work of philosophy, The Sources of Religious Insight provides a reader with many points of access. One way...


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pp. 274-291
Launched on MUSE
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