In The Creativity of Action, Joas argued that values are an indispensable dimension of intentional action, but his critics faulted him for failing to explain the origin of those values. That would be the subject of his next book, The Genesis of Values. After examining recent efforts by philosophers and social scientists to answer this question, Joas turned to the analysis of value formation in James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. Unsatisfied by attempts to explain religious experiences scientifically, James explored accounts of how individuals came to feel themselves in contact with a power that enabled them to discern, and perhaps to bridge, the gap between their present selves and their ideal selves. For James, that awareness was the genesis of values, and it came about not through philosophy, theology, churches, or rituals, but instead through powerful pre-reflective experiences that Joas calls “self-opening,” “self-surrender,” or “self-transcendence.”
Joas likens such experiences to interpersonal love, which can be “shattering” in that it can awaken individuals to the distance between their ideals and what exists. For Dewey, what individuals judge “desirable” emerges through education, understood not as the transmission of information but as the formation of judgment through open-ended inquiry. As we make decisions concerning what steps of creative action are necessary to overcome obstacles or resolve problems, we are constantly reflecting on, and revising, our understanding both of means and of ends. Thus “the desirable” is never fixed; it remains provisional, contingent, subject to revision pending future reflections and judgments on experience. For Dewey, the “religious” is, as it was for James, a category wider than conventional religion. It encompassed various forms of “consummatory experience” that carry individuals beyond things as they are and toward things as they might be, including experiences of the aesthetic and the erotic, as well as experiences of self-opening that can occur in the natural world, in religious rituals or “mystical intuitions,” or in “feelings of togetherness that accompany happy, communal life.”
Fascism, fundamentalism, totalitarianism, authoritarianism (including that of the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church), and Soviet Communism all threatened the ethos of experimentation that Dewey associated with the authentically religious. For that reason Dewey “sacralized” democracy. Although Joas judges the “empty universalism of the democratic ideal” too “weak and abstract” to motivate action, he endorses Dewey’s view that values originate in “the creative work of our imagination.” He agrees with Mead that developing the capacity for empathic “role-taking” responds to the “universal need for the normative regulation of human cooperation.” For that reason Joas contends that nurturing this capacity—and the social conditions that best facilitate its development—is of the highest priority.
How can we develop the capacity for empathy without succumbing to the moral and cultural relativism that Joas finds incoherent? Even those who claim to prize tolerance above all, he argues, require standards to which they can appeal to justify that position. It is to these questions that Joas has directed much of his recent work, including not only his study of the origins of human rights, The Sacredness of the Person, but also his ambitious critique of secularization, The Power of the Sacred.
Joas argues that we must get past the dueling narratives of secularization and anti-secularization. Among the principal professional projects undertaken by the first generation of social scientists was the argument that religion would fade away. Its place in modern cultures would be taken by a new high priesthood, social scientists themselves. Many of these pioneering social scientists, in Europe and in the United States, were themselves religious, and they saw their work as augmenting rather than supplanting the work of traditional churches. Others, however, such as Weber and Durkheim, agreed with Marx that religion was but an indefensible holdover of the superstitions that had led the earliest human communities to see the natural world, and humans’ place in it, as the gods’ handiwork. Now that scientists from Newton to Darwin had disclosed the mechanisms governing the physical world and the process whereby humans had evolved from other forms of life, rationality could take the place of such illusions.
A century later, Joas observes, such predictions seem considerably less persuasive. Although religious observance in Western Europe and the United States has clearly declined, in much of the rest of the world Christianity, Islam, and other traditional forms of religious faith have persisted or even surged in popularity. Thus we need another approach, which Joas first outlined in Faith as an Option (German 2012; English 2014). “A sphere is opening up,” he writes, in which believers and nonbelievers alike “can articulate their experiences and assumptions and relate them to one another.” If the claim that secularization is an inevitable feature of modernity is no longer tenable, neither can believers assume that they alone have access to the truth. Joas holds out what he calls “faith as an option,” a formulation influenced by Charles Taylor’s account of the rise of a secular option, an account that might leave both believers and nonbelievers dissatisfied. As Josiah Royce quipped when confronted with William James’s “will to believe,” when the gods are demonstrable only as hypotheses, they are no longer gods.
Yet Joas insists that conceiving of faith as an “option” offers an alternative to the rival dogmatisms of religious traditionalists and “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins. In The Power of the Sacred, he modifies his earlier accounts of religion by supplementing the arguments of James, Dewey, and Mead with the semiotics of the fourth founding pragmatist, Charles S. Peirce. We need to move beyond James’s account of religious experience, Joas now argues, and “link the psychology of religion with semiotics, the theory of signs.” Although our immediate religious experiences, our encounters with the sacred, may be pre-linguistic, we require language to write or talk about those experiences. Even our self-knowledge, our reflections on our experiences and their meaning, depends on signs, for which Peirce offered insights more useful than those of James.
The German thinkers who had drawn most directly from pragmatism, Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, had emphasized for just this reason the importance of Peirce’s ideas more than those of the other early pragmatists. Thus Joas’s turn to Peirce (and to Royce) constitutes a notable modification of his ideas. When individuals reflect on and interpret pre-reflective experiences, they depend on linguistic tools, and culturally shaped and shared understandings, to communicate that experience. Again, it is the multi-dimensionality, plasticity, and variability of that language and those understandings that Joas is at pains to emphasize.
In light of the undeniable fact of steady secularization in the North Atlantic, believers should try to articulate the meaning and significance of their faith in terms comprehensible (if not necessarily persuasive) to nonbelievers. Committed secularists should do the same. In a splendid forthcoming book on secularization and the stubborn persistence of belief in the United States, Christianity’s American Fate, historian David Hollinger models the forbearance that Joas has in mind. Although Hollinger insists that the more education people have, the less likely they are to invoke the supernatural to explain events, he acknowledges that some individuals manage to balance their faith with their commitment to the life of the mind.
Joas thinks he can explain that phenomenon. Central to his argument in The Power of the Sacred is his contention that what Durkheim identified as “the sacred” and associated with religious rituals should be understood to have a permanent place in all societies. “Sacredness,” Joas argues, “also exists, outside of institutionalized religions, in a wide variety of forms, and underlies the development of all ideals, including secular ones.” As Durkheim himself acknowledged, ideas such as “progress” or “democracy” become sacred for those who believe in them, and rituals of various kinds emerge to give believers the occasion to practice their faith. Joas argues that such rituals create “a controlled environment that temporarily suspends the mechanisms of everyday life. Ideal states can thus be rendered experienceable, in such a way that individuals remember them as intensive experiences when they have returned to the realm of the quotidian.”
Ideal formation, at least as Joas sees it, is universal, whether it takes the form of religion or not, and it can happen in experiences ranging from prayer to play. Unlike Durkheim, who limited occasions of “collective effervescence” to totemic rituals, or Habermas, who grudgingly admits the importance of religious traditions even though he contrasts such “archaic” holdovers to his ideal of “rational argumentational discourse,” Joas insists on the continuing salience of “individual experiences of love, of fusion with nature, of sexuality, or of shattering compassion.” Exiling from the process of ideal formation everything except rational linguistic communication, as Joas argues that Habermas does, impoverishes our understanding of the richness and variety of our lives as humans. Do we really want a utopia without music, poetry, dance, theater, sports—or sex?
Together with Robert Bellah, Joas has also written about the “axial age,” the era when the world’s great religions took shape around universalistic rather than particularistic values. Christianity (like Buddhism and Confucianism) stressed the value of every human being and thus challenged prevailing hierarchies and exclusions—in principle if less often in practice. Although the ideals of these religions contrasted with existing standards, and also with individuals’ practical needs and prevailing political and social norms, such ideals nevertheless persist as permanent challenges to all cultures that pay lip service to them. Ideals such as equality and responsibility have a similar significance: they unsettle us by asking whether we are willing to take steps to realize the ideals we claim to cherish. In certain circumstances at least, humans have advanced “to an idea of ‘transcendence’ that points beyond all this-worldly ‘sacredness.’” That, Joas concludes, is simply “a fact,” and that continuing process, he contends, shows why Weber’s influential concept of “disenchantment” fails to convince. The process of ideal formation is every bit as vibrant in post-religious cultures as in religious ones.
The historian Michael Saler and scholars in the field of science studies have shown that the idea of “demagification” is a myth. Whether in natural- or social-scientific or political communities, even those proudly and self-consciously devoted to rational inquiry do not always proceed rationally. The concept of disenchantment is, from Joas’s perspective, “wholly inadequate” to describe a “vital, basic attitude of the human being, in which the world is experienced as being of value. When human beings perform an activity they enjoy for its own sake, as in the case of play or work they relish, they are not projecting anything.” Neither are they “succumbing to illusions,” nor are they “victims of a spell from which they ought to emancipate themselves.” Our “everyday experience of a value-laden world” is neither transitory nor a function of belief in the divine. It is instead universal, as James argued in The Principles of Psychology a decade before turning his attention to religious experience. If the world lacked meaning and value for us, we would care nothing about it. The “pre-reflective constitution of meaning” is instead what humans do, and will continue to do, whether or not that “sacralization” takes the form of conventional religion or some other form.
The emergence of human rights as a global ideal after World War II illustrates this perennial process. Joas readily admits what historian Samuel Moyn has hammered home: proclamations of human rights have often merely masked nations’ continuing tendency to maneuver for power rather than address the problem of continuing oppression and exploitation. But like the emergence of anti-slavery discourse in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Joas argues, the emergence of human-rights talk reflects changing ideas in both religious and secular communities. It signals a further broadening of what historian Thomas Haskell, in an effort to explain why anti-slavery agitation emerged, called the “horizon of responsibility” so that it encompasses not only one’s own family, or tribe, or nation, or race, or the enslaved, but everyone.
That process, which Joas examines in The Sacredness of the Person, shows how new ideals can seep into and transform what was taken for granted, upsetting ways of thinking and practices long assumed to be unproblematic. The persistence of poverty, as well as the persistence of child labor, sexual trafficking, and the death penalty surely illustrate the limits of the commitment laid out in the United Nations Charter, even though almost all nations (the United States is a notorious exception) now profess to honor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such long-acceptable practices now count as scandalous. Campaigns exist to eradicate them, just as earlier abolitionists worked to eradicate slavery. Joas interprets such efforts as evidence of the continuing formation of ideals, with or without religious sponsorship or sanction. Despite the persistence of injustice, many of the same people who have turned away from religion have shown a willingness to sacrifice, a “readiness to master and suppress desires and immediate bodily needs,” for a variety of different reasons. Compelling new ideals continue to emerge. New experiences bring together people who no longer share the common bonds formerly supplied by religious congregations. Joas is not proposing a singular process akin to Weber’s notion of world-historical rationalization, the supposed triumph of instrumental reason over all other forms, or Habermas’s struggle of the “lifeworld” to stave off “colonization by the technostructure.” By “sacralization” Joas means instead “a complex and unpredictable plethora of such processes,” most crucially the history of the ideal of moral universalism.
In the closing pages of The Power of the Sacred, Joas lays bare his own normative commitments. First, he contends that “moral universalism is fundamentally superior to moral particularism.” Even those who profess to value toleration and difference above anything else are making a “non-relativist judgment,” which is a kind of universalism whether they admit it or not. Second, by suggesting an alternative to the narrative of disenchantment, Joas has in mind nothing like a value-free description but is instead aiming to transcend “all forms of moral particularism” and to offer an alternative, grounded in human experience and judgment, that can motivate respect for the “dignity of every individual.” Finally, Joas concedes that such a commitment does not and cannot resolve the inevitable tension between our obligations to those closest to us, our families, and our aspirations to moral universalism. The challenge that Jesus issued to those who would follow him will remain as haunting as ever.
Religious people with a traditional understanding of their faith and the imperatives of religious doctrine may find Joas’s account of ideal-formation as unsatisfying as Royce found James’s ideas. Yet for other early twenty-first-century believers, marooned in secular communities in which their faith is considered either incomprehensible or a quaint holdover from earlier eras, Joas’s ideas about the meaningful, value-laden quality of immediate experience, the creativity of all action, the generation of values through sacralization, and the elusive quest to honor the sacredness of all persons might represent a coherent, even inspiring, body of ideas.