Democracy and the Religious Experience

Jan 27, 2003 11:58 AM EST

ONE HUNDRED YEARS after William James published ''Varieties of Religious Experience,'' perhaps our most poignant tribute to religious tolerance, educated people in Western democracies are being stirred to something like religious war.

''It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn't Lutherans,'' Franklin Graham insisted in the wake of Sept. 11. ''The Koran,'' he later clarified, ''provides ample evidence that Islam encourages violence in order to win converts and to reach the ultimate goal of an Islamic world.''

Norman Podhoretz made pretty much the same case, quoting not the Koran but Palestinian textbooks quoting the Koran. He might also have quoted (but did not) West Bank settlers quoting Numbers. Meanwhile, at riot-torn Concordia University in Montreal, Rector Fredrick Lowy has lamented that ''some Jewish students, confronted by large numbers of angry Arab and other Muslim students, have felt intimidated to the point where a few have felt the need to remove items of clothing or jewelry that identifies them as Jews.''

What would James have made of all this?

Actually, I think he would have concluded that there is a battle to be joined here, which he would not likely have avoided, but it is not about the superiority or threat of any religion. Rather, it is about the very definition of religion, or at least religion acceptable to democratic life. And the dividing line is not between one sacred book and another but between people who believe in sacred books and people who believe that it is the right to interpret books that is sacred. This is the difference - James showed, but did not quite say - between being in a religion and being in a cult, however established and huge.

Some argue that religious search is itself the problem, since it strives after unanswerable questions. In what sense does matter matter? How is it we speak of good, truth, and meaning, words that are necessary to but derive no meaning from scientific observation - a conundrum James called, the ''reality of the unseen''? Such questions, presumably, are a gateway to division and fanaticism. They invite no common ground or empirical test. Merely asking them, so the argument goes, puts one on a course where heightened passion, or devotion to a like-minded community - anything that makes one ''more religious'' - also tends to make one more dangerous.

But this is wrong. The difference between William James and Osama bin Laden is not simply one of degree. The former lived on questions, the latter on answers. And religious questions, James eloquently argued, are inevitable and, in a way, sublime. The people James thought of as most truly ''religious,'' people whose souls are eventually made ''sick'' by awareness of these questions, come to know them as - how did Ecclesiastes put it? - ''vapors and a shepherding of wind.'' Still, they persist with the courage to ask them. The beauty and necessity of religious communities, whose celebrations are (revealingly, he thought) as various and intimate as works of art, come from the satisfaction of searching through mysteries together. Try speaking about God without inviting argument and poetry. Try singing ''Amazing Grace'' alone.

Sick souls often recover and feel ''twice born,'' James concluded; they may in a flash of insight amounting to a ''conversion'' intuit something like compassion in the silence. This seldom happens in one's youth. But truly religious people can never shake off their sense of uncertainty, contingency, or the loneliness of self-knowledge. They may profess faith, they may state a ''categorical imperative,'' they may affirm that God is like a king or a teacher or a way. But they can never quite forget the cheerless truth of being limited by senses, experience, and the meager power of metaphor.

James knew, in other words, that we lessen God's grandeur, and our own religious depths, when we act as if our questions have answers or as if the metaphors were facts (is God only a king?), and thus fail to see as provisional the texts, rites, laws, music, etc., that get written out of homage. Which brings us to the dangers.

James observed that some people - whom he called with discrete sarcasm, the ''healthy-minded'' - resented the uncertainties. Bright thoughts about what was expected of them provided happiness. They thought they knew God's will, though they could not quite feel their own. Such people, James implied but was too gracious to say, were inclined to a disquieting, naive piety, providing them ''passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.''

Nevertheless, intelligent people in the West have allowed the word religious to be hijacked by precisely those rather hapless souls who believe they have answers. Worse, we have debased the word secular so that instead of it meaning a principled refusal to privilege particular religious forms, it seems to mean contempt for sublime questions themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that cults and sects thrive, merely on the strength of their willingness to ask them?

Thoughts of indoctrinated children strapping on exploding belts spring to mind, but in my own part of Jerusalem, the Hebrew words for religious, ''dati,'' and awe-struck, ''haredi,'' are reserved for people who obey commandments most strictly, while the phrase ''religious Zionists'' is reserved for people who think God promised Jews particular lands. Secularist Israelis, in contrast (and in reaction), seem to want to banish religious life completely from the salons and boutiques of Tel-Aviv, and then they wonder why their children linger on the banks of the Ganges.

In any case, it is not in any orthodoxies that we'll find religious dignity - not in West Bank settlements, Pakistani madrassas, or evangelical pretensions to literalism. The dignity of religion is as in any other form of questioning, which means search, doubt, exchange - for James, that which ''lives itself out within the private breast.''

Herman Melville had said it more passionately in ''Moby Dick,'' a divine book if not a sacred one: ''Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!''

Bernard Avishai, author of ''The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy,'' is dean of the Raphael Recanati

By Bernard Avishai