Royce’s “Doctrine of Life” in an Age of Fundamentalism and Materialism


A Traditional Paper




Royce contends that the early Christian communities discovered a Doctrine of Life, larger than any historical form of Christianity, a doctrine that can serve the universal needs of the human race. Individuals in isolation feel lost and in need of salvation, which they find in a beloved community animated by a spirit larger than the individuals who compose the community. The Christian communities founded by St. Paul are prototypes of saving communities that may exist apart from the historical and theological particulars of the first century. Religious fundamentalism, mistaking the historical for the essential, stands incompatible with this Doctrine, as does materialism, which limits consciousness to the physiology of individual humans. This paper interprets Royce’s ideas as an antidote for the inadequacies of both sides of the current culture wars between religion and irreligion.





Royce’s “Doctrine of Life” in an Age of Fundamentalism and Materialism


A Traditional Paper


In his 1913 work, The Problem of Christianity, Josiah Royce asks whether a modern person can be a Christian in creed.  Of course there are people in the modern era who identify themselves as Christians, but Royce asks whether the Christians are modern persons, and, if so, whether their Christianity is consistent with their modernity. By “modern man” Royce meant a person “whose views are supposed to be not only the historical result, but a significant summary, of what the ages have taught mankind”[1]  His definition is a summary of the hypothesis “that the human race has been subject to some more or less coherent process of education.” Royce does not limit the notion of modernity to the period from the 17th to the 20th century as we might do. Rather he argues that by his definition, the term “modern” applies to anyone in any era, who affirms “…that the human race, taken as a whole, has some genuine and significant unity, so that its life is no mere flow and strife of opinion, but includes a growth in genuine insight” (PC 63-64). By this definition, St. Paul was a “modern man” of his era and he presented his teaching as the outcome of a coherent process of education. Since the definition involves progress, a modern person in one era cannot interpret the world the same as a modern man who lived two millennia earlier. 

A First Century Christian in the Twentieth Century

A vast contrast separates St. Paul’s world from our modern age, a contrast whose vastness we know but perhaps do not often consider. Royce invites us to think of the contrast by a thought experiment in which a member of a Pauline community goes into a deep coma and is preserved and resuscitated in the 20th century.[2] Royce stipulates that the person of his thought experiment is a well-educated philosopher who had been converted by St. Paul.

The visitor would learn our language and be educated in the whole history of civilization up to the present. The visitor would find many things that no member of his Pauline community could have expected. Nineteen hundred years had gone by, Christ had not returned, and the world had not ended. The earth had been mapped and traveled; he learned of whole continents and peoples that he and his contemporaries had not suspected existed. Our Pauline Christian awakening in 1913 would learn of transoceanic ships, transcontinental railroads, huge cities, electricity, and an effusion of factory-made goods.  The earth does not sit at the center of the universe but revolves as a satellite of a star that is one of several hundred billion in a galaxy that in turn is one among billions of galaxies. The world would be more alien to our Pauline Christian than any imaginative science fiction world would be to us. Could the visitor absorb this modern world, give it his intellectual and ethical consent, and still be a Christian? Royce argues that every Christian faces the same problem in the modern world. 

            We can take a page from Royce and devise our own fiction. If a group of educated people fell asleep in 1913 and awoke in our time, they would face a situation similar to Royce’s Pauline Christian, but not nearly as severe. A person leaping over ninety years into our present time would certainly be overwhelmed by television, jet travel, space travel, computers and the internet, cell phones and the rest of our technology. Perceptive observers in 1913 might have predicted that the future would not be the sweetness and light that many others had predicted at the beginning of the modern era.

But when the visitors learned of the events just in the thirty-one years from 1914 to 1945, the horror would be overwhelming. Their expectations of the future would be assaulted by the reality of two world wars, the Holocaust, and nuclear and fire bombings of cities.  They would learn that during the forty-five years following 1945 we lived under the shadow of a nuclear annihilation while famine and mass murders decimated whole populations, and today we live in chronic uncertainty of the future. The visitors might not be asking whether a modern person can be a Christian, but whether any person living today can be a “modern person” in Royce’s sense. They might think that the only people with a trace of sanity are those who call themselves post-modernists. According to Royce, a modern person was supposed to be one “whose views were not only the result of but a significant summary of what the ages have taught mankind.” But to the awakened persons, the human race seems to have turned all of its learning into a nightmare. Our visitors might look at science as more of a danger than a benefit. In considering technology they might remember the warning of William James who compared technological society to a child who got into a bathtub and accidentally turned the water on but did not know how to turn it off. Religion in its best sense appears impotent, but dangerous forms of fundamentalism exert power. The visitors might think of W. B. Yeats’s words, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The question that Royce posed for Christianity has not become easier in the ensuing years. But his answer retains its interpretative power. Royce’s answer to the question of a modern person being a Christian in creed requires a distinction between the historical and the essential in Christianity. The essence of the Christian creed, according to Royce, consists in its Doctrine of Life.

The Christian Doctrine of Life

A doctrine of life, as Royce uses the term, includes an ethical and a religious idea. The religious idea brings us into union with “some supremely valuable form or level of life.” The ethical idea teaches us our duty to live in accordance with the religious insight. Redemptive religions such as Christianity and Buddhism begin with a view of human life as lost and in need of redemption.[3] While Buddhism sees desire for individual existence as the source of suffering and teaches its followers to “extinguish” the individual ego, Christianity sees the individuals as having absolute worth. But the worth of the individual flows from being loved by God as a member of the “Kingdom of Heaven." Royce interprets the kingdom as the universal community.  The unredeemed or sinful individual stands outside the community. Isolation constitutes “original sin.” Religion reveals the community as an ideal and the ethical duty requires us to work for the creation of such a community.

According to Royce, Christianity begins not in Jesus as an individual, but in the communities in which the members felt animated by the Spirit of Jesus. The specifics of the theology as well as the stories and symbols consist of historical and, to an extent, accidental forms.  The essential ideas of Christianity are the need of the individual for atonement, salvation through the beloved community, and the Spirit as the life-giving power of the community. These are universal human truths of which the communities of St. Paul exhibited the first historical manifestation. Royce contends that these ideas are neither limited to nor dependent on any historical forms of the Christian Church.

The historical church cannot in truth declare itself to be a universal beloved community, but it can, and ethically must, proclaim the beloved universal community as a task to create.

            Fundamentalism interprets the historical manifestation of the Doctrine in the Pauline community as a literal and final expression, which cannot be altered by the on-going education of the human race. If the visitor in Royce’s story refused to believe the insights gained from science and from the “education of the human race” for the last two millennia, he would not be a modern man. And if such a person actually existed, he would strike us as a comical character. In fact, we would have a problem imagining him anywhere except as a character in a comedy. But what if he generally accepted the education that the modern world provided except that in his religious creed he inconsistently clung to his first century worldview? Does that not express the plight of a contemporary fundamentalist?

In the dilemma faced by the fictional visitors we find Royce’s answer to the question of whether modern men and women can be Christians in creed. The answer is yes, if they do not confuse the essential truth of Christianity with its many historical expressions. The truth that Royce affirms is that the community is a reality and not just a collection of individuals, and the spirit of interpretation that ties the community together is real. According to the teachings of St. Paul, the community is the community of believers, and the spirit is the Holy Spirit. But Royce argues that any community of people tied together by a shared history and a hope in bringing the human race together as a Beloved Community is an expression of the truth that St. Paul taught. This would apply, for example, to a community of scientists who work together in loyal pursuit of truth, even if the scientists are atheists. Royce calls such communities, the "Invisible Church." The task of the Visible Church, the Church in the ordinary sense of the word, consists of serving as an exemplar of the Beloved Community. When the Church fails to do this, as it often fails, it does not perform its task.

Materialism as an Exemplar of Modern Thought

Since Roycean interpretation involves comparison, the viability of the Christian Doctrine of Life can be compared to modern thought, which to a great extent evolved independently of the Doctrine. I will take materialism as an exemplar of modern thought. Materialism may be immune to the disillusionment that has pervaded modernism since the beginning of World War I. If the world is just a conglomeration of molecules, it does not promise anything and if things go badly, that should be no surprise. Of the infinite number of possible universes, one of them had to evolve life like this and we are it. So let’s make the most of it; that’s all we can do. The good news is that if we are materialists, we can be modern men and women. Unlike the post-modernists, the materialists who call themselves naturalists believe in science and that some ideas are true while others are false. As materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett says:

If you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look at the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths…. But it should be obvious that the innovations of science, not just its microscopes, telescopes, and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach. [4]

Dennett exemplifies Royce’s vision of the modern man who believes that the human race has been subject to some coherent process of education. Anyone who thinks scientifically can be called a modern person in this sense. Materialists try to proceed free of dogma, but many, if not all, are subject to at least one dogma. The materialist dogma holds that we cannot coherently speak of reason or consciousness independent of biology. Materialism sometimes mimics religious fundamentalism by bestowing on the contents of science a literal and final expression of truth.

Those who hold the materialist view find it more rational than other explanations because it speaks a language that they can understand, namely, chemistry and physics. Further it does not posit a reality or knowledge beyond their ken, and thereby it allows them to take intellectual control of their experience. The passion for the kind of rationality that allows us to stay in control was expressed by Freud who warned Jung of the danger of giving up the sexual theory. Freud’s theory explained the conscious and unconscious mind through a mechanistic process that Freud could deal with. Jung reports that Freud’s emotional plea to him was, “…promise me never to abandon the sexual theory…You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakeable bulwark…against the black tide of mud of occultism.” Jung expressed alarm at the terms “dogma” and “bulwark” and understood the term “occultism” to include everything that religion and philosophy had learned about the psyche.”[5]  So while materialism may serve as a comfort to some people the way that religion does to others, we can examine an alternative to the materialist theory asking whether such an alternative theory is plausible and if so whether it would threaten our rationality.

A key question for philosophy asks whether it is probable that nothing exists except that which we human beings can understand at this stage of our evolution. Can there be a consciousness that is not based on the evolution of the human brain? Might there be a higher consciousness that we are evolving toward, a consciousness which has a hand in the progress that we are making? Is such an idea coherent?

To probe this I will continue to call on the mature writings of Josiah Royce.

Royce learned from C. S. Peirce that interpretation is the faculty that gets us most in touch with reality. Most philosophers, including James, had identified two basic mental processes, perception and conception. But with the guidance of Peirce, Royce gained the insight that interpretation goes beyond percepts and concepts. For example, interpretation is the only way that we know that other minds exist.

Royce and the Community of Interpretation

Royce argues that we are brought to the very center of metaphysics by investigating the question of a Community of Interpretation. Distinct individuals are unified by certain ideas, events, and goals that are acknowledged by each member. Such a community involves a temporal process with a common history and common hopes. We can think of communities from clubs to universities to nations. We share a common history and a common hope that we try to interpret to each other. For example, Dennett praises “science” for its innovations and commitment to reason and evidence. Science is real and not merely a collection of men and women who work at it. Every philosopher and every scientist believes in a community of interpretation as a pre-supposition for the discipline itself. We do not discover these communities by perception or by conceptual thought, but we cannot seriously doubt their reality.

In comparing modern materialism to Royce’s idealism, we can turn to the issue of freedom.  Dennett devoted a book to affirming the compatibility of freedom with materialistic determinism.[6] As a determinist, he argues that given a present state of affairs, only one state of affairs can follow. But because we can imagine several options, and our desires and plans are part of the state of affairs, then we choose freely. A conglomeration of molecules makes the decisions.  But in that case do you make the decision? Yes, because you are nothing but the conglomeration of molecules. Decision makers are not Cartesian spaceless points. We make decisions over time and the process involves our brain and even our whole organism. Decisions are partly conscious and partly not conscious. When the whole organism acts with no sense of coercion or prohibition, we are acting freely. This notion of freedom remains consistent with the materialists’ understanding of nature.

While admiring the consistency and elegance of Dennett’s definition, we may question its adequacy. Dennett describes a free act as one in which “…the whole organism acts with no sense of coercion or prohibition.” This description could describe a young man who on his 21st birthday goes binge drinking with no fear of arrest for underage drinking or false ID. Or we could think of the looting in Baghdad after the coalition troops overthrew the Iraqi government. When reporters asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to comment on the looting, he said that the Iraqis are now free and that (looting) is what free people do. By Dennett’s definition the people in these examples, enjoy no more or no less freedom than those who choose to devote their lives to developing clean energy or to improving health care. I take it as obvious that we need a larger definition of freedom based on a larger world view than that of Dennett.

Royce’s notion of freedom means overcoming the capriciousness of our individual desires and even our narrow social ideals in favor of a loyalty to the universal community. After describing the chaos that prevails between individuals and within individuals, Royce affirms that salvation from this condition consists of a wider vision that enables us to "see life steadily and see it whole, and then to live triumphantly in the light of that vision."[7] (SRI, 50).  The social world is wider than that of any individual and the ability to understand and share another's point of view corrects our own narrowness.  Further, our social responsibility imposes a discipline that moderates our capriciousness

While our knowledge expands, it remains ever incomplete and we form opinions that we believe to be true. Royce insists that an assertion can be true only in relation to a larger consciousness to which the opinion of our partial consciousness conforms. The unity of meanings that belong to the implied larger consciousness Royce calls “the unity of the spirit.” The awareness of the unity of the spirit gives us a glimpse of a reality that transcends the consciousness of any human being and thereby enables us to share in the larger unity.

Loyalty to the universal community requires us to support the loyalty of all communities that work for the advancement of knowledge, including those who strive to explain all that they can by biological evolution. Royce’s idea of loyalty to the task of creating a Universal Community includes the work of scientists who are genuinely devoted to scientific truth. Such loyal scientists are those who strive to bring their personal opinions into conformity with science.

Darwinism can explain a lot, and scientists rightly push to see how much more it can explain. But we can be naturalists without holding to the narrow and pinched view of nature that our contemporary materialists hold. We can come to a fuller understanding of reality, as described by Royce, by interpreting the larger vision revealed in the work of the scientific community just as we can find a larger vision in a religious community or a justice-seeking community. The idea of an individual-transcending community can not only fulfill our spiritual needs and sustain our affirmation of free will, but also provide a strong basis for an environmental philosophy, ethical theory, political and economic philosophy, and many other insights. The glimpse of a partial unity leads to the task of creating a unity beyond our present knowledge.




[1]   Josiah Royce. The Problem of Christianity (Washington DC: the Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 63; hereafter, PC.


[2]  Royce tells the story in great detail over 14 pages, (PC 369 –384). The version presented here is a retelling of Royce’s story for the sake of brevity as well as updating from 1913. The meaning of the story is maintained.    


[3] William James held that all religions begin with a sense of uneasiness, a problem with life as it is as well as a solution to the problem.


[4] Daniel Dennett. Freedom Evolves. (New York: Penguin Books 2003), 5


[5] Carl Jung. Memories, Dreams and Reflections (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 150.


[6]  Dennett, Freedom Evolves, cited above.


[7]   Josiah Royce. The Sources of Religious Insight (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1912) 50.