Originally a Baptist in the habit of reading the Bible daily and memorizing numerous passages from it, Royce’s father joined the Disciples of Christ in 1857. His seminary-trained mother, with her mystical, evangelical sense of the divine presence, preferred the quiet devotions of the Congregational Church, but helped her husband all the same in organizing the Disciples’ congregation. With the father often on the road in a mostly futile pursuit of the American dream, Royce’s religious upbringing was directed mainly by his mother. His lifelong intimacy with the Scriptures owed much to the fascination he experienced as a child listening to his mother reading stories to him from the Bible. The first book he remembered reading independently was the Apocalypse from the copy of the New Testament on display in the family’s living room. When home, the father strictly supervised the biblical readings, prayers, and singing of evangelical hymns. This paternal regimen, along with the excessive dogmatism and formality of the organized church services Royce was made to attend as a child and teenager, soon evoked the stubborn rejection of external religious observances that would mark the rest of his life.
Undergraduate study at the University of California under the Darwinian Joseph LeConte and his reading of Mill and Spencer triggered doubts about personal immortality and other religious doctrines. His childhood faith was further challenged by exposure to the indifference and hostility toward traditional religion he later encountered during a year abroad studying the continental philosophers (e.g., Kant, Fichte, Hegel) at several German universities, before finally getting his doctorate at Johns Hopkins and (thanks to William James) eventually landing a professorial position at Harvard. Discovering in the possibility of human error a new argument for the existence of God gave his native religiosity an absolute grounding that it would never lose as he spent the last thirty years of his life expounding in the classroom, lecture hall, and print how best (along Kantian, Hegelian, and Peircean lines) to resolve religious problems and to reconcile religion and science. He resumed his reading of the Bible, and developed a prayer life of sorts ("communing with the divine"), but seldom attended "stifling and divisive" church services, never again joined any religious body, and along with his formerly Episcopalian wife, decided against having their children attend church or denominational schools.
Royce on Religion. The deepest religious aspect of reality is furnished not by what the present world has come from, nor by what it is becoming, but by what it eternally is. And what the whole of our universe is, eternally, is "one live thing, a mind, one great Spirit," variously interpreted as the Absolute and Universal Intelligence that grounds the pursuit of both truth and goodness, or the Infinite Self, whose omniscient will and purposeful loyalty constitute the transcendent ideal toward and in which all individual lives are directed and find their freedom and identity. It is the possibility of error, rather than any pantheistic monism or empirical, teleological theism, that provides the best rational support for the reality of such an eternal dimension. For without the actuality of Infinite Thought within which to relate all isolated judgments to each other, actual error is impossible to conceive.
But if reason can help in resolving the religious paradox of being sure of God’s presence or revelation despite man’s natural ignorance, it is, nonetheless, only one of the many sources of insight into what is the essential feature of the higher religions, namely the need for and interest in finding salvation. Individual and social experiences of the Ideal (by which to judge the value of personal lives), the Need (the falling short of the Ideal), and the Deliverer (the superhuman, salvific power) precede such rational reflection. Subsequent, complementary sources of religious insight are the aim of the will to conform itself freely to the Supreme Will, loyalty to the cause of all loyal people (i.e., unity), patience in the face of human tragedy, and especially, communion with the invisible church of all who are devoted to the common cause of resolving conflicting interpretations of how best to save mankind. Among the religions of loyalty constituting the precious, visible parts of this invisible community, Christianity is the most highly developed.
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