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Pragmatism and Religion: Evolutionary Directions

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Roger Ward
Georgetown College
United States

Robert King
Utah State University
United States

David O'Hara
Augustana College
United States

Abstract:
Introducing his anthology Pragmatism and Religion (2003), Stuart Rosenbaum argues for “seeing the pragmatic tradition as an essential tool for reorienting religious and intellectual culture toward the natural world.” As John E. Smith has noted, pragmatism’s approach to religion is experiential rather than creedal, empirical rather than abstract. Basic works include John Dewey’s A Common Faith, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and Charles Peirce’s various writings, ably synthesized in the work of Michael Raposa and Robert Cummings Neville. Douglas R. Anderson, for example, in creatively juxtaposing Edwards, Dewey and Thoreau, offers an account of religion that focuses on religious attitude and imagination rather than on traditional matters of scriptural interpretation and conventional testimony, his focus congenial to pragmatic inquiry and more socially productive and progressive than interdenominational quarrels.

With a more supple definition of religion--open-ended, evolutionary and pluralist--pragmatism enables a more dynamic, naturalistic account of religious practices at a time when traditional forms of religious practice erode in the face of the social and cultural pressures of the 21st Century. To use Dewey’s terms, “religiosity” needs to be saved from “religion,” the latter viewed as institutional, reactionary and sclerotic. Pragmatism enables a redemptive mode of inquiry that saves religious experience from that old-time theology and philosophy. As Nancy Frankenberry suggests, pragmatism is “in a unique position to offer methodological and theoretical directions for overcoming some of philosophy of religion’s worst myths, dualisms, and dogmatisms.” At the same time, pragmatism offers insights on the continued appeal of religious experience in American culture, with an additional focus on the importance of interpretation and community in understanding religious practices.

Pragmatic inquiry into religious experience is relevant to the study of American philosophy in that it enables fresh illumination in such areas as epistemology, truth claims, ontology, ethics and semiotics. An example would be Robert Cummings Neville’s use of Charles Peirce’s semiotics and approach to religion, an approach he characterizes as evolutionary, empirical, intuitive and of value to a pluralist, comparative theology relevant to a globalized culture. The religious naturalism and historicism of William Dean offers another recent example of pragmatism’s value to religious inquiry, an approach summarized in Sheila Davaney’s Pragmatic Historicism (2000).

The proposed panel hopes to offer similar inquiries into religious experience, rooted in pragmatism and offering fresh interpretations of such issues as the relationship of religious instinct and inquiry in Charles Peirce and the identification and tracking of that religious instinct in the writings of Jonathan Edwards and Henry Thoreau. The first paper, “Religious Instincts and the Transformation of Inquiry in Peirce’s Pragmaticism,” follows the transformation in Peirce’s thought between the 1898 lectures known as “Reasoning and the Logic of Things” and his last published essay in 1908, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” where he introduces an emphasis on instinct. The essay argues that the instinctual sense of the reality of God constitutes a central role in grounding Peirce's logic and expansion of knowledge, and making an important step toward validating the logic of pragmaticism.

The second proposed paper, “Peircean Musement in Edwards and Thoreau: Tracking the Transcendental,” examines Edwards’ “Miscellanies” and Thoreau’s journals as examples of Musement, Peirce’s model of “Pure Play” evolving properly into speculative theological inquiry. While both essays pay attention to “The Neglected Argument,” they work in different ways to extend the understanding and application of Peirce’s pragmaticism and philosophy of religion, exploring fresh directions in Pragmatism’s engagement with religious experience.

The third paper, "The Sentiment that Invites us to Pray: The Religious Aspect of Charles Peirce's Philosophy," offers an account of what Peirce says about the instinctive origins of prayer and about the possibility of prayer as offering nutrition both to inquiry (as a training in abductive inference) and to the community that inquires (through is sustenance of traditions of inquiry.) Peirce argues that prayer arises instinctually and naturally as a response to our world; and that it offers not just consolation but both beauty and explanation; and that it holds the seeds that could germinate into ideal community. The paper argues for the importance of Peirce's practical--and pragmatic--view of prayer.

 

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