Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A New Anglican Reads Old Things: William James and Personalities in the Church

Emily Garcia was raised in the Evangelical Free Church. In her freshman year at Princeton she was baptized at the Easter Vigil, and joined the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion four weeks later when she was confirmed on Good Shepherd Sunday. She is in the discernment process for the Episcopal priesthood, is a published poet, and is this year’s Kellogg Fellow at the Chaplaincy. In this column she will take a piece of “old” (or older) literature as a starting point for an informal reflection on the religious life.

“It would be absurd, for example, to ask for a definition of ‘the ideal horse,’ so long as dragging drays and running races, bearing children, and jogging about with tradesman’s packages all remain as indispensable differentiations of equine function.”
-William James, from The Varieties of Religions Experience, in Lectures XIV and XV: “The Value of Saintliness”, page 374

The other day I sat whining at a friend—also religious, but in the Latter-Day Saints tradition—about a new character at one of my workplaces. This person (I complained) stood too close when he talked, used my first name too often, asked too personal of questions, and shook hands too warmly. I did not like his familiarity, his (over)confidence—in fact, I did not like the way he went about relating to people. (I did not like him, Sam I Am.)
Indulging my bad mood, I went on to say that I’m always distrustful of this particular character type—which I think of as “a businessman”**.
My friend had a good laugh over my flustered outrage, and then very gently eased around the conversation. He pointed out the obvious thing that I had missed: that people with this personality can also “serve God and the kingdom,” that they also “hear and share the simple Gospel of Christ.” He suggested that this, in fact, was part of the parable of the talents: that we should use our personalities for the work of God, rather than hiding them. So instead of expecting my “businessman” to become a soft-spoken artist or a self-deprecating scientist, I should ask God to open my heart, so that I can see how this man can serve and is serving the kingdom of God.
This is a very simple lesson, but I often need to relearn it! In the excerpt above, William James is demonstrating that “all ideals are matters of relation.” He’s particularly concerned with the belief in “an ideal type of human character” and the perpetual “feud” between “the saint’s type” and “the knight’s or gentleman’s type.” After considering these “differentiations of equine function” (above), he goes on to say: “You may take what you call a general all-round animal as a compromise, but he will be inferior to any horse of a more specialized type, in some one particular direction.”
Workplaces and churches are odd mixtures of specialized animals; sometimes I spend too much time wishing that I or another were a particular “ideal type.” Better to spend some time considering what functions each of our talents fill, and what “particular direction” we’re each headed towards.

**Luther, our Chaplain, chuckled when I shared this with him, as it’s a sign of how my view of the world is split into “academia,” “business,” “art,” and “the church.” Both stoic bankers and extroverted salesman are “businessmen,” he pointed out.


  1. Hi Emily,
    Nice piece.
    Thought you might like to know that I was a :businessman" for 25 years before I went to seminary. Not the overly-friendly type, so I'm wondering if you're OK with that.
    Steve W.+

    1. Oh-HO! Good point. I'm reconsidering our entire relationship, Steve . . . Oh man, and what about LUTHER, who was a lawyer. I'm surrounded by exceptional ex-businessmen!