Hocking was born into a Cleveland family of strong Methodist piety, and on the mother’s side, of Puritan lineage. Every morning, after breakfast, the children would kneel in a circle to pray with their parents and to recite the biblical verses they had been expected to memorize. At the age of twelve, while attending one of the Sunday special meetings regularly sponsored by Joliet’s Methodist Church for the sake of providing members a personal experience of the divine presence, Hocking underwent a conversion, a mystical experience of sorts which afforded him a new vision of himself as one of many human beings participating in the great procession of immortal souls. The experience resulted in his stepping forward to be saved and formally joining the Methodist Church.
A year later, however, his reading of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles left him doubting any need for the "extra-beliefs" propounded by religion to explain everything. The skeptical spell would last for four years until one day after graduation from high school, while working as a surveyor on the railroad, he had a personal experience of the impossibility of himself as a knowing subject trying to "imagine" the "nothingness of non-being" implied by Spencer’s evolutionist portrayal of animal death. Combined with his subsequent discovery of William James’ Principles of Psychology in the library of the school he next attended for a short time (Iowa State), it helped revive his adolescent religious sense of the spiritual immortality and uniqueness of human life.
After four years of teaching in Davenport he was able to afford Harvard, earning his B.A. there in 1901, his M.A. the following year, and his Ph.D. in 1904. His several years of study with James and further study abroad with Husserl and Dilthey (not to mention his marriage in 1905 to a deeply religious, albeit freethinking, Roman Catholic woman) helped stir in him a vision of a new worldwide community that would unite men of all faiths through their common belief in and awareness of God as the underlying unity of Being. It was to such a vision that he tried for the rest of his life to give expression in his Hibbert and Gifford Lectures during the 1930s, in books he published (The Meaning of God in Human Experience, Living Religions and a World Faith, The Coming World Civilization) while teaching at California, Yale, Harvard and elsewhere, or, on a more practical level, in his work from 1930-32 as chair of a commission studying the missionary activity of various Protestant denominations in India, Burma, China and Japan.
Hocking on Religion. Modern thought has prompted some to reduce religion to nothing more than a way of feeling. They are mistaken, however, in not observing that the feeling they are talking about is itself still idea. For in religion, idea and feeling are inseparable. Even if religion did originate in feeling, therefore, it still needed to produce some great idea or system of ideas in order to find satisfaction and greatness. And as a matter of historical fact, no religion has ever taken itself as merely a matter of feeling. At the heart of every religion has been the idea of God—a non-inferential, intuitively certain, cognitive feeling of the mysterious presence of a Being that, although identical with the essence of the human self, is Absolutely Other than Nature and Man, but which, as Absolute Mind, is ever silently at work in the creation of our universe.
Mystics especially, but others too, have been open to the experience of such knowledge, and have used it to put a religious interpretation upon their instinctive experience of reality as a whole. It is by freely alternating this worshipful view of the whole with practical attention to the particulars of everyday life that genuinely religious people maintain that happy, undivided attitude of prophetic consciousness whereby they feel empowered to change the world through creative love and to bring all the religions of the world to share in a global faith by recognizing their unity in difference. This not only generates in religious people a hope for the permanence of human values and immortality for themselves and their beloved, it also allows them, already here and now, faithfully to anticipate the attainment of what in the course of nature is reached only at the end of infinite progression. To that extent, religion is neither an ineffectual abstraction, nor a mere hypothesis; it works, parenting all the sciences and arts. Whether any humanistic endeavor that tries to get along without the idea of God can work as well is highly doubtful. For without God, the vast universe is devoid of meaning or value.
- Living Religions and a World Faith. New York: Macmillan, 1940. .
- The Meaning of God in Human Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Henry Frowde; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912. .
- Science and the Idea of God. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944. .
- Types of Philosophy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959. .
- Experience and Certainty: William Ernest Hocking and Philosophical Mysticism. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988. See esp. 41-74. .
- Existence as Dialectical Tension. A Study of the First Philosophy of W.E. Hocking. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.
- "The Making of a Philosopher: Ernest Hocking’s Early Years." In Philosophy, Religion, and the Coming World Civilization. Essays in Honor of William Ernest Hocking. Edited by Leroy S. Rouner. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966. 5-22.
- Within Human Experience: The Philosophy of William Ernest Hocking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969. .
- "Empiricism in Religious Philosophy." In Philosophy, Religion, and the Coming World Civilization: Essays in Honor of William Ernest Hocking. Edited by Leroy S. Rouner. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966. 183-97. .
- American Philosophies of Religion. Chicago and New York: Willett, Clark and Company, 1936. 108-14. . and
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