The Rev. Peter Faass
In an op-ed this past Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of two great American philosophers who lived at the turn of the last century and worked at Harvard. One was named William James and the other Josiah Royce.
Brooks describes these men’s over-arching philosophical viewpoints this way: “James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.”
He goes on to say that James’ philosophy took root and holds sway in our culture these days, but that based on the condition of our nation and society, it is Royce’s philosophical ethos we need to reclaim.
Here is segment of Brooks column where he explains why:
“James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So, for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain . . .
Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action. “The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty. The cause gives unity and consistency to life. The cause gives fellowship, because there are always others serving the same cause.”
As I reflected about Royce and his philosophy of loyalty and devotion to a cause that is binding and gives connection to human life, one person to another, I could not help but think of today’s first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Paul’s letter is written to a church community where there were great divisions based on class and wealth. A sense of entitlement and superiority had overcome some members of the Corinthian church, over those who had less resources or were of lower social status. Their loyalties were not to the cause of the Gospel but to their own needs. They felt that those different from themselves were not worthy of their concerns. To quote Royce, people had made themselves miserable pursuing nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
Paul admonishes this attitude in a decidedly Royceian way.
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Just as Royse was the philosopher of binding and connection to the cause of a healthy society, so Paul is the apostle of binding and connection to the cause of the body of Christ.
In our fragmented, divisive, me first society, the message of Paul and Royce need to be lifted up and embraced. To paraphrase Royce, “The loyal person serves. That is, she does not merely follow her own impulses. She looks to her cause for guidance. This cause tells her what to do.”
As followers of Jesus our cause is the body of Christ; a body that calls us to total interdependence, respect and mutual care. Our loyalty is to make our song this Gospel truth that regardless of who or what we are, we are all worthy, children made in the image of a loving God. We are called to sing that in that body there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is our cause. That is where our loyalty lies. And the world is more than ready to hear the healing good news of that cause, and to be made whole by it.