William James on the divine and the religious attitude: Confusions discussed

In the beginning of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes so beautifully about religious experience, so respectfully about subjects that fly in the face of what he calls in the Preface ‘medical materialism.’ Take this early, muscular, stylistically delicate passage on the concepts of the divine and the religious attitude:

There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse. It is precisely as being solemn experiences that I wish to interest you in religious experiences. So I propose–arbitrarily again, if you please–to narrow our definition of the once more by saying that the word ‘divine,’ as employed therein, shall mean for us not merely the primal and enveloping and real, for that meaning if taken without restriction might well prove too broad. The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.

I follow and follow and then get confused. I follow him up to his delimitation of the concept of the divine. Initially, the divine was ‘the primal and enveloping and real,’ which indeed seems too broad since a scientific naturalist would reasonably rebut it by saying that this is merely nature. Yet in order to circumscribe his concept of the divine, he argues that the divine is that which elicits from us a certain response–namely, a religious attitude. I believe he is close. Had he argued that the divine is a primal reality of a kind that can elicit from us a solemn, grave response, then he would have been on the mark. Or: the divine is a primal reality that can afford one a religious experience, which experience can then be completely specified.

The claim that one ‘feels impelled’ seems to give too much to the subjective side. When this is so, then religious experience can easily slide into solipsism. James needs it to be the case that the religious believer is properly responsive to or answerable to some features of primal reality. The religious believer’s attitude, his stance must lean on some features of primal reality.

Of course, the reply on the other side is that this gives ground too much to naive realism as if reality simply flashed up and were ‘given’ in all its gloriousness. But this needn’t be so. For the religious believer would have to make the sort of contribution to his perception of primal reality, which contribution would at least be a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for the reality’s appearing to him as it does. Hence the commitment to some praxis: some purification, some rituals, and so on. The religious person must be perceptually, intuitively prepared to receive primal reality.

I think this is what I’m arguing, then, in a Kantian spirit:

1.) The divine is a primal reality such that it can elicit from us a certain kind of response, i.e., a religious attitude (divine potency);

2.) The subject’s response to the divine must be such that it is in response to some features or aspects of primal reality (answerability);

3.) The subject must prepare himself to be able to receive the divine (preparedness).

So, the divine is such that it can (though need not) exert some force upon us, the believer is such that his responses are always connected, i.e., must be answerable to this reality, and the believer could not even possibly be in contact with this reality unless he were in some kind of state of mind brought on by certain forms of preparedness.

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