Stained-Glass Saints: A Roycean Critique of James' Saint

A Traditional Paper for presentation at the SAAP  32nd Annual Meeting
March 3-7, 2005
By Sean Riley
Doctoral Candidate
Baylor University


In this paper I argue that William James' conception of the saint is misconceived as a hyper-individualist, ascetic aberration with a comparatively diminished capacity for charity.  I argue for a richer conception of the saint that makes the saint a loyal, atoning member of what Josiah Royce called, "The Beloved Community.".  So conceived, the saint is capable of wider-ranging melioristic effects than what she is in James' Varieties of Religious Experience.  In the Roycean Beloved Community, the Jamesian saint can create new saints through her creative acts of charity, thus perpetuating saintliness in the community beyond the limited scope of the saint's life.  This makes it possible that eventually everyone in the community could become a saint, as opposed to the "monstrous aberrations" James makes the saints out to be.

In The Varieties of Religious experience, William James offers a description of saintliness that I will argue is underdeveloped and misconceived.  James' misconception begins with his treatment of the saint as an isolated individual, apart from her intimate relationship with the community.  Because she is treated as an isolated individual, the Jamesian saint is a "monstrous aberration."  It is impossible, in James's view, that the saint could be a common type of person in any community.  Further, because he treats the saint as if she could exist outside of her social relations, when James attempts to put her back in to the community by describing charity, he ends up with a deep, but limited version of charity that is incapable of doing the kind of work it needs to do, the kind of work Royce, along with Peirce and the Gospels say it can do within the community.  I will first consider the saint as a "monstrous aberration," and then proceed with a deeper analysis of saintly charity.

The Jamesian saint is like the saints as conceived traditionally by the Catholic Church.  In itself, this is not a bad thing.  However, when saintliness is limited to being an uncommon, miraculous phenomenon in the world, James begins to miss the full import of saintliness.  James writes, "These devotees have often laid their course so differently from other men that, judging them by worldly law, we might be tempted to call them monstrous aberrations from the path of nature."[1]  If we find ourselves to be somewhat-less-than-saints, according to James, we are likely to pine away our days without ever having tasted the heavenly gift of saintliness.  The "communion of saints" in the ancient creeds, according to this view, is an exclusive club of the spiritually elite.[2]  I take this errant interpretation to be indicative of a conceptual and methodological flaw on James' part.

James focuses his description of the saint in the Varieties chiefly around asceticism[3] instead of around charity, which is possibly the most telling sign of James' inordinate level of individualism.  Because I want to show how this is a deficiency in James' description of the saint, I will first investigate his thin description of saintly charity.  Charity, for James, is "tenderness for fellow-creatures."[4]  Instead of reacting to hateful individuals with antipathy, the saint loves her enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as if they were her kin.  James points specifically to St. Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola who exchanged clothes with filthy beggars and others such as Margaret Mary Alacoque, Francis Xavier, and St. John of God who apparently cleaned the sores and ulcers of their patients with their tongues.  In these examples, James makes charity a sub-category of asceticism.  One way the saints beat themselves up is by helping others in self-deprecating ways.  This is significant, though, because unlike any of the other characteristics of saintliness in James's description, charity is an inherently social attunement.  In the following passages on saintly charity, James comes closest to understanding the saint in her social relations.

After yielding to Herbert Spencer some of his criticisms of extreme charity, such as is found in all saints, namely that the saints are unfit for a world full of non-saints and will never survive if they continually give to the needy and the manipulative, James masterfully defends the pragmatic value of extreme charity. 

And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for the wronger's person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in. The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective of our imaginations.[5]

James even claims that the saints may be prophetic because they give people the will to believe they can be better than they are. 

The saints, existing in this way, may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation.[6]

Just as in his essay, "The Will to Believe," where James says that if we believe in something, our believing will give us the strength to make it true, so the saint can create a new reality for the object of her love.  James would say we see this sort of thing happen all the time in saintly lives.  Saints tend to make lovers out of their enemies and good people out of the wretched.

From this point of view we may admit the human charity, which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints, to be a genuinelycreative social force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it alone is ready to assume as possible. The saints are authors, auctores, increasers, of goodness. The potentialities of development in human souls are unfathomable. So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have in point of fact been softened, converted, regenerated, in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators, that we never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless."[7]

The pragmatic value of the saint rests in her ability to do for humanity what for the non-saints is impossible.  The saint can somehow take a situation, a deed, or a life that is otherwise worthless and give it value through charity.  The saint can bring out of hateful people "potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant."[8]  This is the essence of loving one's enemies.  Charity takes that which is hateful and turns it into something lovable.  But charity does not stop at that first miracle.   It also takes the person who is hateful into a lover herself.  This is "the saint's magic gift to mankind."[9]  She uses her creative energies to keep the community moving forward spiritually.  Without the saint, the community would be given over to spiritual stagnancy.  For James, then, the saint is the most important member of the community, and, from the perspective of the community, charity is her highest virtue.  The saint is a creator, a reconciler, and an energizer of community.

For James, the practical effects of charity are great and far-reaching, but I wonder if they go far enough.  Considering the fact that the Jamesian saint is such an aberration, and considering how much time James spends on asceticism and how little time he spends on charity, we might want to temper our expectations for the transformation of the world by the charity of a few saints.  Certainly saints, when they descend upon us as if from Heaven, have a positive effect on the world.  They even meliorate our communities.  However, when they die, their creative energies die with them.  Their immediate effects can only last a generation and the ripple effect of their existence eventually fades to nothing.  If the saints are so anomalous and are unable to have more of an effect than James attributes to them, then we might seriously question their ability to truly meliorate the whole world as opposed to just their spacio-temporal local communities.

James, though he recognizes the creative force of the saint, is unable to move far enough beyond the hyper-individualism and egotism that prevents worldwide meliorization, because his individualistic prejudices restrict his philosophy.  The problem with James's approach is that he isolates the saint in order to more easily study the psychology of saintliness.  Once he has taken the saint out of the context of community, it is difficult to understand the real significance of her saintliness.  Along the same lines, once James has pulled the saint out of her social context, it is difficult to understand the full impact she has when he tries to place her back into the community.  James's mistake is in his method.  When he studies the saint, he does so by making, at the outset, an insider/outsider distinction.  He then assesses the value of saintliness from these two separate perspectives.  James prioritizes the insider's view because it is rich and meaningful, but only for the saint.  The outsider can only assess the value of the saint pragmatically.  The insider has concrete experience, while the outsider can only understand the saint by way of abstraction and by assessing the worth of the saint's religious experiences pragmatically.  James's analysis of saintliness always presupposes these two distinct perspectives, so when he tries to bring them back into accord, when he tries to place the saint back into her proper community, he struggles to fit them back together.  This Humpty-Dumpty approach to studying saintliness is why James is unable to understand the full significance of charity, but goes on at length about asceticism. 

Charity is necessarily social.  If we are to understand saintly charity, we cannot start, as James does, with a detached, individual saint and then try to reintegrate her into the social framework.  James is left with a saint who is like man-made pavilion.  During its life, it provides cover and improves the lives of those who come into contact with it.  It may even allow for the soaking wet to dry off.  However, once the pavilion is torn down or rots to the ground, its influence dies with it.  True saintliness is more like an oak tree that provides shelter from the storm during its life, but also leaves behind acorns that grow to become new oaks with acorns of their own.  Over time, the whole forest is has a canopy of oaks.  This "sustainable" saintliness emerges when the saint is viewed as intimately tied to the community, not as some aberration that has been transplanted as if from another world into a foreign community.

My thesis is that the saint, properly conceived, is necessary if our communities are to continue to grow even after our aberration saints are gone.  By properly conceived, I mean, conceived as a creative force within the community, as Royce would see her.  Stated as clearly as can be done at this point: The greatest creative act of the saint is to, through his or her creative energy, turn those who are un-saintly into saints themselves.  Here it will be necessary to invoke Royce's conception of the infectiousness of loyalty to the Beloved Community and, to a lesser extent, Peirce's conception of "evolutionary love."  Royce and Peirce are able to see this greater role for the saint precisely because they reject the individualism of James.  The would-be saint who leaves the world without passing down his or her saintliness is no better than Sisyphus.  She exerts all her creative energy, but if that energy does not give birth to new saints, she will be destined to watch her efforts roll back down the steep slope of history.

The fundamental difference between James's saint and Royce's saint is that in the Roycean Beloved Community, everyone is potentially a saint.  When one confesses loyalty to the Beloved Community, she takes on the responsibility of being a saint.  The saint is not a "monstrous aberration" in the community.  Every actively loyal, loving member of the Beloved Community is a saint.  The kinds of saints will vary by gift, but the general effect the saint will have when employing her gifts will be the same no matter what the gift.  Through her creative love, she will use her gift to produce more love, both within the community and without.  She will also, through the creative act of atonement, reconcile to the community those saints who have "fallen away" through acts of disloyalty.  We must, then, thicken up James's version of the saint so that we can understand her within the context of the Beloved Community. 

James offers four defining characteristics of the saint.  They are, according to James, 1) a feeling of being in a wider life and a belief in the existence of an Ideal Power, 2) a sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control, 3) an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down, and 4) a shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections.  These affections included a) asceticism, b) strength of soul, c) purity, and d) charity.[10] 

I focus here on charity because of the difference in the way charity is conceived by Royce and James makes clear how James' saint needs to understood as a common, though more powerful, member of Royce's Beloved Community.  The first ability of the loyal member of the community in Royce's Beloved Community has is the ability to restore disloyal members to the community through creative love.  The atoning ability of the saint goes unnoticed in James' account, but only because of his individualistic emphasis.  How atonement happens in the Roycean Beloved Community is, in a very real sense, a mystery known only to the saints who act "as the incarnation of the very spirit of the community itself."[11]  Royce simply says it is a fact.  There are certain acts, committed by the representatives of the community that have the power to atone for the treasonous deeds of other members, to transfigure the meaning of their deeds.  We will simply note that Royce believes this to be a fact of community life and say that if the Beloved Community is at all possible, the atoning work of the members must also be possible.  Royce writes:

Those who do such deeds solve, not the impossible problem of undoing the past, but the genuine problem of finding, even in the worst of tragedies, the means of an otherwise impossible triumph.  They meet the deepest and bitterest of estrangements by showing a way of reconciliation, and a way that only this very estrangement has made possible.[12]

There is no deed too great that the love of loyal members of the Beloved Community cannot transform into a positive opportunity for growth.  James is silent on this melioristic ability of the saint, but it seems to follow if we reintegrate James' saint into the Beloved Community where she belongs.

The second charitable ability of the member of the Beloved Community is to spread not only charity but also the ability to love to others to non-members.  The Beloved Community is where the saintly energies are multiplied.  Royce writes, "The first duty of love is to produce love, to nourish it, to extend the Kingdom of Heaven by teaching love to all men."[13]  Each and every truly loyal member of the Beloved Community has within her capacities as a lover the ability to, through her saintly creative energies, produce love in others.  Love and loyalty to the community are contagious and it is the duty of all members of the Beloved Community to spread their creative love.  Royce writes in The Philosophy of Loyalty, "Your very loyalty to your own cause will tend to prove infectious."[14]  Now, while the effectiveness of each member's love is by no means guaranteed to result in the object of her love becoming a lover herself, the lover can rest assured that in the long-run, through the continued interpretation of the Beloved Community, that her love will result in the spread of the spirit of love until the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Earth.  Royce's "spirit of Christ" works in a similar way as Peirce's cosmological agapasm or evolutionary love.  Peirce's agapism, according to Corrington, "affirms that there is a principle of evolutionary love that operates in the universe as a whole."[15]  To the member of the Beloved Community, the simultaneous motion of loving a person but at the same time releasing that person from the need to see the results of the lover's labor is possible only because the cause of universal love is greater than the individual lover.  Royce says the lover is able to make the leap of love and become vulnerable without any guarantee of reciprocation because the lover knows she is limited in her abilities to love and know how to love:

It is indeed the business of every lover of his neighbor to help other men by rendering them also lovers; and secondly that, as to other matters, one who tries to help his neighbor must leave to God, to the all-loving Father, the care for the true and final good of the neighbor whom one loves.[16]

The lover is able to love without any "strings attached" because she has confidence that her labors, though they may presently fail, are never in vain.

What separates Royce's "saint" from James' is that Royce's saint is a kind of evangelist.  She brings the lost to saintliness through her creative acts of love.  She can, on behalf of the divine community, transfigure a tragic life into a life of faith, hope, and love.  She can help a fragmented person find wholeness in the Beloved Community.  She can move beyond mere toleration and actually embrace that which she should justly despise.  The saints are the human embodiments of the spirit that continually guides the willing members of the Beloved Community to make everyone a member of the Ideal Community.  They are, if we use Peirce here, concrete expressions of agapasm.  According to Peirce, "Agapastic [evolution] depends upon a reproductive creation."[17]  The greatest creative act of the saint is to, through his or her creative energy, turn those who are un-saintly into saints themselves.  Now, with the help of Royce, and to a lesser extent Peirce, we have a deeper understanding of James's under-appreciated and underdeveloped communal aspect of saintly charity.

One easily thinks of Jesus restoring Peter to the community of disciples and then building the church upon him after Peter denied Jesus three times.  Jesus could have justly despised Peter and denied him as he was denied.  Instead, Jesus decided to take Peter's humiliation and turn it into just the kind of humility he would need to lead the newly formed church.  Only by actively engaging Peter and turning him into a lover once again, was Jesus able to atone for Peter's treason.  He created something new, the church, out of what was otherwise an irrevocable treasonous deed.  Moreover, by his atoning act of love, Jesus was able to inspire saintliness in Peter, so that Peter was able to continue loving others in the way that Jesus had loved him.

With confidence, then, we may say that every loyal member of the Beloved Community is at least a saint in James's definition.  That he believes the saint to be a "monstrous aberration" is likely the result of his hyper-individualistic method that separates otherwise inter-connected members of the Beloved Community.  James's approach singles out the most extreme examples of saintliness, but in the process, he forgets the milder, everyday saints who constitute the Beloved Community and contribute to the growth of love and goodness on Earth.  James's saints are as distant from the real life of the community as the beloved saints we find immortalized in stained glass and statues.  We should never try to diminish these heroes of the faith, but to remove them from the real, present life of the Beloved Community and set them up as impossible standards serves only to stifle the growth of the community.  These select saints form an indispensable part of the community of memory, but they can only inspire the current members of the Beloved Community if there also exists the hope that each individual member can potentially become a saint and is capable of the same feats as the stained-glass saints.

[1] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1958.  p. 226 (emphasis mine).

[2] My critique is not intended to downplay the significance of the great saints.  It is rather intended to raise the significance of the non-saints of the Beloved Community and to challenge the members of local communities to become like the great saints James refers us to. My criticism of James is not that he tells us about the great saints, but that he sets them up as monstrous aberrations. 

[3] Even James's charity borders on asceticism, as can be seen from the examples he chooses, though charity differs from the asceticism he describes elsewhere in that it necessarily involves others. Charity is social asceticism for James.

[4] James. Varieties. p. 236.

[5] James. Varieties. p. 300,1 (emphasis mine).

[6] James. Varieties. p. 301.

[7] James. Varieties. p. 301

[8] James. Varieties. p. 301.

[9] James. Varieties. p. 302.

[10] James. Varieties.  p. 235,6 (abridgement mine).

[11] Royce, Josiah. The Problem of Christianity, Vol. I. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1968. p. 307.

[12] Royce. Problem Vol. I.  p. 310.

[13] Royce. Problem Vol. I.  p. 85.

[14] Royce, Josiah.  The Philosophy of Loyalty. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1908. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.  p. 73.

[15] Corrington, Robert S. The Community of Interpreters: On the Hermeneutics of Nature and the Bible in the American Philosophical Tradition. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1987. p. 9.

[16] Royce. Problem Vol. I. p. 89.

[17] Peirce, Charles Sanders. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce.  Edited by Arthur W. Burks.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.  CP: 6.304.