The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics

“…if you want to make a new start in religion, you must be content to wait a thousand years.” -Alfred North Whitehead

I’ve been thinking through my recent posts on the philosophical import of religious experience, and in light of some of the concerns brought up by Jason Hills, I wanted to further unpack the nature of the spiritual integration I’m trying to pull off. I think Jason’s worries concerning syncretism and equivocation are well-founded, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to articulate further how an evolutionary panentheism might allow “post-secular” philosophy to converse meaningfully with more traditional forms of religious sense-making. Following thinkers like Jean Gebser and Rudolf Steiner, my approach is not, at least in theory, an attempt to meld the content of different religious visions into some amorphous conception of “God,” but rather to give an account of the history of religious experience in terms of an evolution of consciousness. I’ve written a bit about what such a scheme entails (HERE and HERE), but I’ll admit much work remains ahead of me if I hope to adequately disentangle an integral account of the evolution of consciousness from a syncretic melding of religions.

In this post, I will consult chapter 10 of Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, “The New Reformation,” wherein he focuses on the evolving relationship between metaphysics and religion in Western history. He concentrates upon “three culminating phases”: 1) an intellectual discovery by Plato, 2) the exemplification of this discovery in the life of Christ, and 3) the metaphysical interpretation of these events generated in the formative period of Christian theology.

Before discussing the nature of these phases, Whitehead comments on the “steady decay” of Protestant Christianity in the modern age: “its dogmas no longer dominate, its divisions no longer interest, its institutions no longer direct the patterns of life” (p. 160). I think it is important to point out in this context that the forces of secularization that were pushing Christianity out of public life while Whitehead was writing [~1930] simultaneously functioned to further interiorize religious belief. What had been public became increasingly individual, especially in 1960s America, as exported Asian traditions began to influence a spiritually-orphaned youth, leading to wholly novel forms of mostly unaffiliated religious practice. So rather than considering religiosity and secularity to be opposed forms of socialization, I think it makes more sense to recognize the interactive role of each in our still developing “post-secular/post-religious” situation.

While Whitehead recognized the decline of traditional religions in Europe and America during the first half of the 20th century, he also pointed to the non-violent uprisings in India orchestrated by Gandhi as evidence that the religious spirit “still holds its old power, even more than its old power, over the minds and the consciences of men” (p. 161). Had he lived to see the civil rights movements of the 60s inspired by MLK, I think Whitehead would have felt a further assurance of this spirit’s continued effectiveness in America, as well.

Whitehead, here as elsewhere, asks us to be attentive to a contrast: religion is decaying even as it survives in new and more powerful forms. Instead of erecting a false dichotomy, where religion is pegged as a superstitious and regressive force preventing the spread of rationality and science, Whitehead asks us to look again at the history of our civilization.

“Must ‘religion,'” he asks,

“always be a synonym for ‘hatred’? The great social ideal for religion is that it should be the common basis for the unity of civilization… The religious spirit is always in process of being explained away, distorted, buried. Yet, since the travel of mankind towards civilization, it is always there” (p. 172).

Whitehead’s thesis is that a “New Reformation” is underway across every continent, but that its success depends upon the integration of conflicting beliefs into some general spiritual scheme. I quote him at length:

“I do not hold it to be possible, or even desirable, that identity of detailed belief can be attained. But it is possible that amid diversities of belief, arising from differences of stress exhibited in metaphysical insight and from differences of sympathetic intuition respecting historical events,–that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook. In other words, we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts, and as to their general way of coordination in metaphysical theory, while disagreeing in various explanatory formulations” (p. 161).

Absent such a coordination of humanity’s varied spiritual expressions, I am not at all optimistic regarding the future of our civilization. Capitalism and war have already bound the planet together into an ever-tightening knot, yet we still lack the “Earth ethos” that will surely be necessary to sustain a planetary civilization into the 21st century and beyond. Given this increasingly precarious situation, my position is rather straightforward: only a widespread renewal of humanity’s religious spirit, reformed in light of contemporary ecological and cultural conditions, can save us now.

In this context, philosophy’s most urgent role is to midwife the birth of this new planetary spirit. But short of a fragile and superficial syncretic patchwork of different traditions, how is the varied religious experience of humanity to be given metaphysical expression? Whitehead’s approach may be criticized by atheists as inheriting too much from his Christian background, except for the fact that his cosmology, upon his own admission, “seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to Western Asiatic, or European, thought” (Process and Reality, p. 11). From my perspective, Whitehead’s thoroughly historical approach rightly emphasizes the progression, or evolution, of religious consciousness, which, through “the effort of Reason,” has been trained so as to “safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition” (p. 162).

Levi Bryant has argued (also HERE and HERE) that, while individual religious experiences obviously do occur, the content of many of these experiences (e.g., God) is probably illusory in light of the explanatory reductions made possible by the social and natural sciences. In appealing to the history of religious experience, Whitehead does not mean to suggest that we should avoid discrimination of the evidence. He employs two grounds of criticism, aesthetic and logical, which are to be “welded together in the final judgment of reason as to the comparison of historical periods, one with the other” (p. 164). He dismisses the idea that the requisite evidence for the content of religious experience can be derived from “direct introspection conducted in one epoch by a few clear-sighted individuals” (ibid.). Rather, when Whitehead considers the history of religion from a philosophical perspective, he does so as an “appeal to summits of attainment beyond any immediate clarity in our own individual existence” (p. 162). In other words, he sees in the historical development of our civilization an accumulation of spiritual wisdom, based not in the fleeting dreams of isolated individuals, but in the enduring “actions, thoughts, emotions, and institutions, which great persons and great occasions [have] made effective” (p. 165).

“Each age deposits its message as to the secret character of the nature of things. Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized. And they have this property, that the appropriation of them in the understanding unveils truths concerning our own natures. It has been said that the great dramatic tragedies in their representations before audiences act as a purification of the passions. In the same way, the great periods of history act as an enlightenment. They reveal ourselves to ourselves” (p. 164).

Returning now to the “threefold revelation” singled out by Whitehead at the outset of this essay, I’d like to spend a moment examining the unique role I believe is still to be played by Christianity–that strange and unsteady amalgam of Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy–in our planetizing civilization. Whitehead, like Steiner, Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, and Owen Barfield (all 20th century thinkers who have significantly influenced my own thinking), believes, both for reasons of historical honesty and popular effectiveness, that “the leaders of religious thought should today concentrate upon the Christian tradition.” Each of the above mentioned men had no shortage of respect for the profound wisdom generated by other traditions, but nonetheless, saw in the archetypal motifs of Christianity an embodiment of “the greatest advances in the expression of moral and intellectual intuitions [marking] the growth of recent civilization” (p. 166).

The incarnation of Christ is, according to Christianity, the supreme moment in religious history. The Christ event revealed the true nature of God and of God’s agency in the world. Though the historical record is fragmentary and inconsistent, Whitehead argues that “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” (p. 167).

But, while Whitehead admits that the singular beauty and moral example of Christ’s life “forms the driving power of the religion,” he also points to the importance of an intellectual discovery made several centuries prior:

“Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?” (p. 167).

Whitehead credits Plato with “one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion,” that being the enunciation (in the Sophist and the Timaeus) of the doctrine of Grace: that divine persuasion, rather than coercion, is the foundation of the order of the world. Unfortunately, Plato, more a visionary than a systematic philosopher, failed to coordinate this doctrine with the rest of his cosmology. Aside from a few glimpses of a more participatory possibility, when Plato is asked to schematize the relationship between God and God’s Ideas to the world, he depicts the latter as a derivative and second-rate imitation of the former. Ideas were brought into relation with the physical world only through the supernatural power of divine will. This is unacceptable from a metaphysical perspective, wherein the relationship between God and the world must be grounded in the necessity of their natures, rather than the accidents of will.

Whitehead suggests that the formative phase of Christian theology was principally concerned with the struggle to overcome Platonism. He credits early theologians for partially overcoming the Platonic dualism by “deciding for some sort of direct immanence of God in the World,” however differently it was worked out in detail (p. 169). They failed to fully generalize the metaphysical implications of the doctrine of divine immanence, however, since “the nature of God was exempted from all the categories which applied to individual things in the temporal world” (ibid.). The final verdict of Christian theology was that God is necessary for the world’s existence, but the world itself was deemed entirely contingent, a free creation of divine will. It remains the task of philosophy to correct the arbitrary gap hewn by traditional theology between God and the world. As it stands at present, God’s nature remains largely obscure, since, “it is only by drawing the long bow of mysticism that evidences for his existence can be collected from our temporal world” (ibid.).

“The task of [a properly philosophical] Theology,” writes Whitehead,

“is to show how the world is founded on something beyond mere transient fact, and how it issues in something beyond the perishing of occasions. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment. We ask of Theology to express that element in perishing lives which is undying by reason of its expression of perfections proper to our finite natures. In this way we shall understand how life includes a mode of satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow” (p. 172).

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For a better sense of how I think Christianity is relevant to Speculative Realism generally, see my essay “Towards a Christolgical Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield.”

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8 thoughts on “The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics

  1. “…if you want to make a new start in religion, you must be content to wait a thousand years.” -Alfred North Whitehead

    I have to disagree. They just change the names and the figureheads. It’s a science rather than a church. Darwin’s theory rather than Moses.

    And look at the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, Mormonism, and Fulan Gong for example:

    “In 1992, Mr. Li Hongzhi (referred to respectfully by practitioners as “Master” or “Teacher”) first taught Falun Dafa publicly in the city of Changchun, China, and then continued to lecture all across the country. Those who attended experienced such profound benefits that they told friends and family. As a result, the number of practitioners grew very quickly, solely by word of mouth. By 1998, at least 70 million people had taken up the practice in China alone.”

    Natural leaders can start a huge cult religion without even trying. Look at Stargate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-XI9I9spkg

    LOL j/k Kind of.

    Religions may take an eternity to die, and there’s no harm in that if love is the motivation.

    -John

  2. Another interesting article, but reading through the idea of “god imagery” kept coming into my mind. It would seem we somehow, at least usually, need to personalize what we deem to be Ultimate Reality or a Higher Power or Energy that stands as the Plenum of our universe. Could this penchant for god imagery simply be due to our human development, in that we have not yet evolved to the point where we feel comfortable *not* employing such imagery.

  3. Matt,

    This post clarifies your perspective. You’re taking a “post-secular” stance–and I am not sure what that means as I’m not familiar with your references–that looks like the syncretism of theosophy. That clarifies how to understand you references to religion, although that means that I would never put you in the same camp as traditional religion, e.g., your problems and concerns are quite different.

    • Jason, when you say “theosophy,” are you refering to Blavatsky and her followers, or something more general? If the former, I have more clarifying to do. Steiner broke from the Theosophical Society around 1910 for several reasons, reasons I think could be fairly summed up by the fact that he disagreed with their overt and often careless syncretism of East and West.

  4. Pingback: Speculative Philosophy and Incarnationalism in Whitehead and Meillassoux « Footnotes to Plato

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