Whitehead's Observations On Religion

Like many other world sages, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) saw in religion at least a few commendable and redeemable traits. Remembered principally for three works -- Principia Mathematica (three volumes, co-authored with Bertrand Russell), Science and the Modern World, and Process and Reality -- he focused unabashedly on problems of metaphysics and cosmology when the rest of the philosophical world had contented itself with narrower issues of language and knowledge. His thoughts on religion are surely more deserving than any cursory treatment that can be given here. Nevertheless, I wish to cull a few key passages from his work and bracket a random comment or two.

In Religion in the Making, he says the following:

"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.

"Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms. They may be useful, or harmful; they may be authoritatively ordained, or merely temporary expedients. But the end of religion is beyond all this."

[Comment: For most persons of faith, religion is a corporate experience. Believers congregate to a temple and seek out the "company of blessed people." If religious experience today were seen chiefly as a private matter -- not to be talked or preached about openly, not to enter the public sphere of discussion, not to rear its head in the sanctuary of science or the theater of politics -- might it not be more influential, more relevant than it now is to daily life? Might it not have much to say to a society that is unreflective and materialistic, incessantly noisy and preoccupied (with work, computers, hand-held devices, news 'round the clock)? And might not people actively seek to exchange ideas and thoughts with others in a more intelligent and forbearing way?]

In Adventures of Ideas*, Whitehead has the following to say about Plato and Jesus:

"[According to Plato] the divine element in the world is to be conceived as a persuasive agency and not as a coercive agency. This doctrine should be looked upon as one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion...The alternative doctrine, prevalent then and now, sees either in the many gods or in the one God, the final coercive forces wielding the thunder. By a metaphysical sublimation of this doctrine of God as the supreme agency of compulsion, he is transformed into the one supreme reality, omnipotently disposing a wholly derivative world. Plato wavered inconsistently between these diverse conceptions. But he does finally enunciate without qualification the doctrine of the divine persuasion, by reason of which ideals are effective in the world and forms of order evolve.

"...The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain...But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.

"I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?"

[Comment: "Persuasive agency" vs. "coercive agency". The God of "coercive agency" is anthropomorphic and is considerably easier to believe in for the masses because there is little room for ambiguity: God is king (perhaps angry, perhaps strong-willed); human beings are His weak and pitiful subjects; this God is to be obeyed, feared; this God is somehow the "answer" to (surely not the source of) the problems that unfold in society and history.

"Persuasive agency" is a far more alluring notion. Metaphors for rule ("king," "lord") and for space ("above," "beyond") can be easily jettisoned. "Persuasive agency" might mean little more than an ideal, or a collective conscience, or intimations of the eternal in nature, or an awareness of one's finitude and the gumption to consider whether there is any continuity of consciousness with the demise of the body. "Persuasive agency" wouldn't be a father figure animated to fit the needs of someone who craves, in adulthood, a loving father; it wouldn't be the ground of all hardened and absolute judgments against experience and against other people; it couldn't be neatly invoked to justify earthly aspirations or the dominion of oneself and one's group over another.

"Persuasive agency" might only mean a Platonic Form, say of Goodness or Truth, which is illuminated and revealed by works of charity, acts of love, moments of keen contemplation. Or maybe the notion is alive, as Whitehead says, in the simple and meager life of a self-abnegating man -- a man in whom the ultimate paradox of "defeat become victory" was manifested.]

* I'm quoting the Whitehead passage as found in Max H. Fisch's Classic American Philosophers (1951, Prentice-Hall), pp. 453-454.

(Tim Ruggiero, January 27, 2002)

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