Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
William James and a Journey into the Land of the Faithfully Unafraid | Righting America

by Earl Crown

Earl Crown teaches high school United States and Modern European history at Chapelgate Christian Academy in suburban Maryland. He has a bachelor’s in history from Messiah College and a master’s in liberal arts from McDaniel College. His scholarly interests include the history of dissent and marginalized groups in the United States. He is currently working on a project on his uncle’s involvement in the struggle to integrate the University of Florida as an undergrad in the 1940s. He lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania with his wife Sarah and two children. 

In a recent piece on this blog, Bill Trollinger wrote of a course called “History of Thought in America” which he taught at Messiah College in the early 1990s and in which I was a student. As Bill rightly points out, of particular interest to my fellow students and I was the work of William James. Our discussions of James, quite heated at times, centered on James’s distinction between religious belief that claims a foundation of certainty, and that which doubts that certainty can exist without empirical evidence.

Black and white portrait of William James in a black tuxedo and tie with a bushy beard.

William James, courtesy of Houghton Library [public domain]

Perhaps surprising—if not horrifying—to many readers of this blog will be the large number of students who identified with the former claim that the tenets of orthodox Christianity can be held with absolute certainty. In 1992 my then-nineteen-year-old self was counted among this number. When I arrived on campus the year before, I had barely ever ventured beyond the confines of the upper-middle-class bubble in which I had been reared. In this dichotomous world, right is right and wrong is wrong; there is no room for anything else. At stake is the soul of a nation. Anything short of absolute certainty only confounds the rigid confines of such reasoning. Rather than appreciating James for his attempt to defend the legitimacy of religious belief, I instead saw him as a dangerous weapon that stood against my Arthurian quest.

Almost eighteen years later, I found myself a student in Bryn Upton’s American intellectual history grad seminar at McDaniel College. This cathartic experience made me aware that I was no longer as certain as I once had been. Like Bill, Bryn is a great appreciator of James, and once again I confronted the challenge of James’s pragmatism. While researching for a paper in that course, I came across the following gem from James: “True ideas,” James argues, “are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify…Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.” Looking back at myself from the perspective of grad school, I realized the foolishness of having claimed certainty for a set of ideas that at least for me were at that point untested. My past certainty had been made false by events. Marriage, parenthood, travelling and living outside of the country for a time, and two decades of teaching high school history had combined to open my mind. This for me was not a rejection of faith. It was simply recognizing the preposterous arrogance of claiming that I had cornered the market on religious—or any other—truth.

My takeaway from my experience with James is twofold. First, in an age when we take our certainty, isolate ourselves in echo chambers, and allow our car bumpers to shout truth at each other, James is more important than ever. His call for subjecting our ideas to evidential verification is antithetical to our fearful and anti-intellectual culture. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to teaching. I can channel my frustration at ignorance, including my own, into my students. Young minds are so wonderfully teachable.

On a more personal level, I still consider myself a person of faith, and I still expect that there is truth out there. I have simply been wrong too many times to assume that I have ever arrived at it. I think I feared that embracing the uncertainty that was lying dormant inside me all the time would reduce me to something resembling Camus’ Meursault, unable to conjure up even the slightest hint of sympathy for my fellow man, or to find meaning in anything. Quite the opposite is in fact the case. The journey towards a deeper understanding of reality has made life more meaningful than ever before. If, as Bill says in his piece, my old self was “a fearful place to be,” then my 45 year-self is in a wonderful place, unafraid, if not eager, to find out my errors.