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  • Was Royce Christian?
  • John Clendenning

All of those acquainted with the philosophy of Josiah Royce know that he was—in both thought and person—intensely religious, but no one has explored this subject more profoundly and fruitfully than Frank Oppenheim. Throughout his scholarly career—spanning more than a half-century—Oppenheim has illuminated, more fully than any of his predecessors, the essential “Christian doctrine of life” that Royce professed: the interlaced triad of Loyalty, the Beloved Community, and the Realm of Grace. In what follows, I do not dispute Oppenheim’s interpretation of Royce’s religious philosophy. His sharp eye and rigorous scholarship have been constant guides in my research. However, I do approach this subject—as will be apparent—from a different viewpoint, one that I hope will complement Oppenheim’s enduring studies.

What being a Christian means is enormously complex, and therefore, in relationship to Royce, a definite answer to this often-pondered question is difficult, perhaps impossible. Some have answered with a simple affirmative: “Royce was a lifelong Christian” (Parker and Skowroński 6). Although he was, without doubt, always a spiritual and even a saintly person, these traits alone do not make him a Christian. A simpler question is easier to answer: Was Royce a member of any Christian Church? No. Throughout his adult life Royce never belonged to a Christian Church or avowed that he was—in that sense—a Christian. Of course, he was drawn passionately to some Christian beliefs, but that cannot amount to his membership in any particular Christian faith. At least once in his spiritual journey, Royce aligned himself with religious nonconformists: “I myself am one of those students whom a more modern and radical skepticism has, indeed, put in general very much out of sympathy with many of what seem to me the unessential accidents of religious traditions as represented in the historical faith” (Conception of God 49). [End Page 12]

Royce knew the Bible backward and forward. He quotes Scripture fluently and subtly alludes to it repeatedly. But then he did not see it as divine revelation. In fact the Christian reliance on the Bible as the word of God and the fount of religious truth was for Royce a tautology: something is known to be true because it is known to be true. Royce called this the “paradox of revelation.” Scripture may indeed contain the “divine signature,” but this can be discerned only through an “interior light” that shines in darkness, a personal experience that precedes acquaintance with biblical truth (Royce, Sources of Religious Insight 19–25).

Royce was born and raised in a rigid evangelical Christian family. Both his mother and his father adhered to zealous, mystical, unwavering literalist beliefs in Holy Scripture. As a boy, Josiah—as he later remembered—was fascinated by Bible stories, but stubborn when made to submit to Sunday observances. Later, presumably in his college years, Josiah questioned his inherited Christian doctrine concerning the origin of human life and the universe. Darwin’s theory of natural selection—professed most importantly by Joseph LeConte at the University of California in the 1870s—undoubtedly influenced the young Royce, and he responded by avowing that evolution is all—all in the sense that all life on this planet and all life in the entire cosmos, indeed the cosmos itself in all of its aspects, including God, is continuously evolving. Cosmic evolution was, for Royce as it would later be for Teilhard de Chardin, profoundly religious. Teilhard wrote:

To create, to fulfill and purify the world is, for God, to unify it by uniting it organically with himself. How does he unify it? By partially immersing himself in things, by becoming “element,” and then, from this vantage point in the heart of matter, assuming control and leadership of what we now call evolution.


Thus, acquiescence to science in no way entails a refutation of Christianity. In fact, Royce emphasized his conviction that one can embrace both science and religious beliefs. One can, in other words, live fully in accordance with essential Christian beliefs while remaining skeptical with regard to the traditional Christian cosmology.

In 1909, Royce presented to the Harvard YMCA a series...


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