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.

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The Way of Flowers (A whim)

I think I could really take to the Way of Flowers, though I don’t know what it involves. I like looking at wild flowers. I like cutting them. I like arranging them naturally, organically, letting them hang every which way or certain ways, as if no hand had touched them or, if at all, only gently so.

The whole thing–from eyes to hands, wordlessly throughout–appeals to my aesthetic sensibility, affording me the chance to look, look for, and then look at. So rarely would I look for or at otherwise, preferring instead to think. But when a wild flower, seemingly alive, reveals sweet transience, ah well then am I truly happy.

Before the window, in the evening light: hanging vines, cut, twisting, leaning, torquing, a yellow flower already having fallen off: how beautiful is our dinner now.

An artist’s thought

Amazement.–Look with me at the man on the canvas, the one with two faces, two men or the same facing different directions. A sailor, a hardened man, a handkerchief lightly about the neck. He has no ears yet but he is equipped, beautifully so, with a firm carnivore’s jaw.

Awe the moment we stopped, feet scuffing earth no more, to stand and hear the birds and their desert song. How was it that song? Quietly merry. Was it so? It was. And did you catch their names, any of them? We weren’t then about that.

On a cold day, I clipped lavender and set these wickered branches into a glass jar which I then filled with rocks to steady them. At what angles, after some days, do the lavender flowers bend. Some upright and gazing, some turning to hang elliptically, others like swans dipping their heads underwater in search of deep fish.

Well, my friend, and now the snow is gone, some days now, and the Pink Dawn tree has finally folded to winter, crumpling up its leaves, not being so wistful as to poke up fresh buds. Thank God. Look farther out toward the distant mountains. Still snow-covered. Recall the sand beneath runner’s feet feeling like snow and the earthen bowl cradled, as always, by the concave bowl glorious and finite.

Imagine the world as if it were created out of rock and fire, out of sky, from water, each thing and all things cast and pressed and hurled into place. Do. It is an artist’s thought.