On Religious Life

William James and I: An Affectionate Rumination

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Cordell Strug
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf and Stock
    , June
     2016.
     154 pages.
     $21.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498290319.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Cordell Strug’s memoir, On Religious Life: William James and I: An Affectionate Rumination provides a valuable addition to the continuing body of scholarly work devoted to William James. Although this particular book may be more affectionate than academic, it admirably demonstrates the author’s scholarly engagement with James’s philosophical thoughts (11). Strug, a retired Lutheran minister, carefully narrates the record of his lifelong conversation with James’s religious vision in The Varieties of Religious Experience [1902]. Ever since he was a young doctoral student of philosophy and religion, James has accompanied Strug, not as a subject of study but as a living presence (ix). Now, at the closing of his life, Strug returns to The Varieties and other writings by James, investigating the salient themes that challenged him as a person and changed the path of his religious life.

The first part of the book narrates the time when Strug first encountered James during his graduate studies at Purdue University. For Strug, James’s writing contained “the grappling with concrete experience, the breadth of sympathy with all human doing and dreaming, the passion and the vision” that are unseen in other philosophies (3). Captivated and stimulated by James’s “ways of knowing and living,” Strug was thrilled to “do nothing but read and write about William James” (6). Strug’s first monumental attempt to introduce James’s philosophy to theologians is found in the second part of his book, which is the text of a lecture given at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary. In this lecture, Strug demonstrates how James’s understanding of divinity helps us to view gods and humans as “partners” in life (25). The third part is the major portion of this book, in which Strug revisits and reengages with The Varieties of Religious Experience. The first half of the essay shows how Strug as a young scholar of philosophy analyzed James’s approach to and evaluation of religion: the Jamesian conception of the religious life and beliefs as well as the tools James employed in religious inquiry. Now, as a person who has spent several decades in pastoral ministry, Strug evaluates his earlier understandings of James by clarifying his own interpretations and arguments. Then, Strug concludes with thoughtful reflections on the contemporary religious landscape, discerning what James would think about the religious cruelty and intolerance spawned by “the poisonous dogmatisms now plaguing our time” (30). The fourth part is a collection of short personal essays that display how James’s presence in Strug’s life functions as “a bridge of understanding” between the many forms of adversaries Strug experienced in his life as a minister (136). Finally, at the end, Strug bids farewell by thanking for “the ambiguities and happy confusions” in James’s writings as well as “his company and wisdom” that brought meaning to Strug’s own life (140).

A particularly unique feature of the book is how Strug engages with The Varieties by seeing the text as a story. As a young scholar, Strug viewed The Varieties as a set of academic lectures on the subject of religion and paid attention to the conceptual structure of the text. Now, half a lifetime later, Strug sees The Varieties as a story; “a story filled with other stories, a philosophical Canterbury Tales” (29). There are stories of “the blessed and the tormented, the suffering and the saved, and there is the story of James himself, searching for something of value among the passions and the miracles” (29). Strug writes in the same manner, introducing his own religious stories in critical conversation with The Varieties throughout the book. He also tells, as well as revises, his religious stories with James as a companion by raising some salient pragmatic questions rooted in the human reality: Is there a common experience that shows up in different religious contexts, but that is essentially the same, differing only in the various interpretations placed on it? How do humans make sense of their gods when religion is used as the instrument of violence? What would William James’s god as well as church look like? What kind of people would you see in James’s church?

Looking back, Strug admits that his younger self simply wanted to make sense of The Varieties. But now, as a seasoned, retired minister, Strug is willing to challenge James’s “conceptual fuzziness” and “tendency to glide cheerfully over difficulties” in The Varieties by exploring tensions and gaps in James’s logic and interpretation (28). One primary critique Strug offers is James’s negligence of the importance of tradition in one’s religious experience. Strug argues that a person’s religious tradition is potentially more important than James was willing to admit. In many cases, tradition may not only provide “a mean of interpreting experience,” but also offer “the occasion and the material of the experience itself” (72). At the end of Strug’s many years of revising and clarifying his understanding of James’s The Varieties and its practical implications, Strug praises The Varieties for being much more than an attempt to define the nature and evaluate the worth of religion. It is “a journey through [the] human experience” of “possibilities and challenges, temptations and threats and risks and rewards” (129-130).  

Once again, this book as a personal memoir telling how one minister with an academic background makes sense of James’s renowned text, The Varieties of Religious Experience. For the field of practical theology, Strug’s writing can be significant gift. It offers a creative and insightful model of using narrative as an analytical tool to conduct philosophical studies. In other words, it demonstrates one effective way of integrating philosophy and psychology into the ministry and life of religious communities, particularly the mainline Christian congregations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eunil David Cho is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cordell Strug studied philosophy at Purdue University but spent most of his life as a pastor in rural Minnesota. He has written on philosophy, religion, literature, and film. He is the author of All Hands Stand By to Repel Boarders: Tales from Life as a Lutheran Pastor and The Other Cheek: Gospel, Empire, and Memory in One Christian's Journey.

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