- Royce on the Rivalry between Buddhism and Christianity
Within an interpretive community, conversation will not cease until voices are silenced by circumstance.1 Less than three months after lecturing at Lake Forest College in November of 1911 (Sources of Religious Insight), Royce suffered a stroke.2 Within a year, Royce had adequately recovered and recuperated, so as to redouble his preparations for a lecture series on Christianity, initially presented in part at the Lowell Institute and then in a more completed version at Oxford. These lectures would come to constitute The Problem of Christianity.3 Publication preceded Royce’s passing by a mere three years.
In Royce’s day, both the United States and England were largely Christian nations. They are no longer so today. Global religions and local sects compete with Christianity, as does faithless commercialism. Royce’s conception of a universally “Beloved Community” modeled after Pauline Christianity is neither as fathomable nor as welcome as it was for Anglo-American audiences in 1912, before the Great War fractured any global sense of “us,” before the end of colonialism brought about mass migrations, changing the identities of nations, allegiances, and loyalties.
Royce nonetheless retains his way of rekindling critical appreciation4 in this secular age. That he does so as a spiritually inspiring, Christian philosopher is largely due to the devoted scholarship of Fr. Frank Oppenheim. Like a light shining in the darkness, Oppenheim has illuminated the Christian spirituality that is at the heart of Royce’s later writings, addressing what makes loyalty and community genuine. This has been a brave, sometimes lonely undertaking, since contemporary students and scholars of American philosophy, like Richard Rorty, have felt far more comfortable with a “desacralized” understanding of American pragmatism from Royce and Peirce to James and Dewey. Like Gabriel Marcel before him,5 Oppenheim has recognized that [End Page 45] Royce’s Problem of Christianity was the apotheosis of Royce’s philosophy of community. As Royce approached his own death, his final views on communities of faith had revolved and evolved, surpassing and to some extent replacing familiar themes previously developed in his Philosophy of Loyalty (1908).
In Royce’s Mature Philosophy of Religion, Oppenheim revealed the very soul of The Problem of Christianity through exacting exegesis, close readings of Royce’s other writings, and examination of Royce’s letters to his colleagues and friends. Oppenheim insightfully seized upon Royce’s late enthusiasm for Peirce’s triadic theory of interpretation, which suited Royce’s evolved understanding of a spiritually based community requiring the immanent presence of a divine interpreter.6
Royce offers a special challenge to his readers. His masterful rhetoric and occasionally mesmerizing sentences can produce the illusion that his views are simple and straightforward. Royce’s fame as a lecturer was well deserved. Oppenheim’s exegesis of Royce’s religious writings has broken through that illusion to reveal the subtlety and nuance of Royce’s envisioned road to a universal community.
Oppenheim has appreciated what many of us historians of philosophy have often missed: that in the last analysis, we cannot separate the philosophical text from its author and its author’s history. Ideas are generated from within the individual but located by the individual’s presence within a historical community. In this way, Oppenheim recognized that a spiritual transformation had been taking place in Royce’s later writings, where Royce’s biblical readings as a child at his mother’s knee rebounded from the agnosticism of his earlier years at Harvard and matured into his final hope for a great community guided by a spiritual grace.7
As Royce reiterated and reconsidered what he had previously said or written on religion and community,8 he turned to a somewhat singular comparison in articulating his abiding hope for a Beloved Community, a universal community. Royce staged The Problem of Christianity against the background of what he regarded as the great rivalry between Christianity and Buddhism (Problem 140, 189, 233).9 In seeking a model for a devoted global community of the faithful commanding universal loyalty, Royce appeared to suggest that Buddhism might prove as viable an alternative as Christianity. But in the end, Royce found Buddhism...