“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

God and Religious Experience in Whitehead: another response to Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant has problematized my attempt to clarify Whitehead’s position on the function of divinity in the universe. He writes:

“You make the claim that without God there would be chaos and no order. This is a problematic claim for two reasons. First, you have repeatedly tried to claim that God isn’t supposed to explain anything, yet here you are evoking God to explain order. Second, it is unclear why, 1) God is required to explain order (the fact that order exists doesn’t entail that it must have been designed), and 2) it is not clear what God would explain about this order in such an account…”

I will admit that I am still thinking through these issues myself. Whitehead’s writing in this area is illuminating, but much remains obscure. I am struggling to “think with” Whitehead, not so much because his “arguments” are convincing, but because I come to his work already sharing many of the problems he found interesting. One of these is the problem of God, but I did not come to philosophize about God in order to rationalize my faith. God was not at first a religious belief for me. Though I went to temple and church as a child (mixed religious family), I began referring to myself as an atheist at 12 years old after learning a bit about cosmology from Steven Hawking and biology from Richard Dawkins. I remained highly skeptical of religious claims as my understanding of science and cultural relativity grew throughout my teens. Then, as a 17 year old, I learned a bit about the psychology of religion from Carl Jung. I came to to realize that our scientific narratives about the origins of the universe and life on earth are still mythically structured and shaped by cultural attitudes. Jung lead me into a deeper study of anthropology and the evolution of consciousness, allowing me to bracket the “reality” of God in order to consider God’s effect as a symbol, or archetypal complex, on the history of the human psyche. Soon after, I discovered the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (a friend and associate of Jung’s), who completely transformed the way I conceive of the relationship between rational and religious consciousness. Eventually, like Whitehead, I came back to religion and theology (I feel most at home in the dialogue and practice emerging from the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity) as a result of philosophical reflection upon life. As a teenager, I thought God seemed like a belief added to experience by religious doctrine. After reading Jung and Gebser, I came to see the experience of God as constitutive of the order and harmony of our human consciousness of the world. After reading Whitehead, I saw that, for the sake of metaphysical coherence, God must also be constitutive of the order of the world itself.

One of Whitehead’s colleagues at Harvard, Ernest Hocking, reports that (Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, 1963, p. 16), in regards to the concept of God, Whitehead once told him:

“I should never have included it, if it had not been strictly required for descriptive completeness. You must set all your essentials into the foundation. It is no use putting up a set of terms, and then remarking, ‘Oh, by the way, I believe there’s a God.”

Is God an explanation for order in Whitehead’s system? Not exactly. God is not best described as the cause of harmony, nor the designer of the world, since Whitehead’s God is involved in the world, as much the effect of its harmony as its cause. It would still be true to say that, without God, chaos would reign; but this doesn’t necessarily mean God is the explanation for order. Rather, God is the very presence of order in the world, not an absent designer who orchestrates the world’s order from a position beyond it. God is embedded in the world as a kind of aesthetic gravity holding otherwise conflicting possibilities together so as to transform them into novel contrasts in the experiences of actual occasions. Actual occasions are the only reasons for Whitehead, which is to say that God is not an explanation for the order brought forth by their individual decisions. God is also an actual occasion, a creature of Creativity, but God’s creatureliness is everlasting. As a result, God’s primordial nature conditions all temporal experiences as an ingredient in the concrescence of those experiences. God is what mediates between the infinite possibilities of Creativity and the finite actualities of the Universe. God is the World-Soul allowing ideas passage into reality. In this sense, Whitehead’s reformed Platonism is similar to Schelling’s, who built on the description of the World-Soul and its role in the realization of Ideas given by Plato in the Timeaus (I unpack these ideas in this essay on Schelling).

It may still remain unclear to Bryant exactly why God became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s, and my own, reflection upon reality. As I said at the outset, I struggle to think with Whitehead because I share his sense of what matters, of what the problems of philosophy ought to be given the facts of experience. Given these facts, as I experience them, the most urgent philosophical task is to bring together the insights of scientific experiment and religious experience into one rational scheme of thought.

Bryant writes:

“Throughout this discussion you have repeatedly appealed to 30,000 years of human religious experience that philosophy has a duty to account for. You seem to take this experience as evidence that there must be some ontological truth to the claims of religion (i.e., that God exists). Over at Knowledge Ecology’s blog I pointed out that there are at least 30,000 years of racism and sexism and that the form of your argument about God seems to commit you and Whitehead to the position that the ontological claims of racism and sexism must contain some truth.”

Adam has offered a response that I am largely in agreement with. He distinguishes between facts of experience and truths of experience. Religion, racism, and sexism are each facts of experience, though I am not prepared to claim that the content of these experiential modes necessarily corresponds to reality. I take a broadly Jamesian/Deweyan/Peircian approach to truth, however, in that I am more concerned with the effects of our descriptions of reality than with their accurate correspondence to a supposedly pre-given world. The truth of the claims arising out of religious experience are to be judged, from the pragmaticist perspective, by a “consideration of the experimental differences in the conduct of life which would conceivably result from the affirmation or denial of the [claim] in question,” as Dewey puts it (Century Dictionary, 1909). I think certain religious ideas and meanings stand on far better footing than racism and sexism in this respect, since the later two modes of thought have only been productive of hatred, violence, and injustice. I judge the experiential possibilities of racism and sexism to be undesirable based on “the experimental differences in the conduct of life” that their practice has been productive of in the past. No doubt some religious ideas have also been productive of violence and injustice, but I think it would be disingenuous to claim that religion has offered nothing positive to humanity. My pragmaticism may go beyond traditional definitions at this point, but when dealing with the ontology of the claims arising from experience, I take a radically participatory view. The history of humanity represents the Universe’s struggle to discover its own nature: we are the Universe’s conscious testing ground of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are ideals which are still in the process of working themselves out in our (and the universe’s) history. It is not simply a given that racism is wrong; its wrongness is a fact that must be discovered in our moral feelings and defended by our ethical practices. If Nazi Germany had won WW2, and its Final Solution had succeeded, we might be living in a world where the experiential facts confirmed the truth of racism. Fortunately, because of an outpouring of ethical will, this possibility was kept at bay. It has now become an ethical fact that genocidal racism is wrong, but only because the moral feelings of one sector of global society won out over another. Goodness is always at stake, always being defined and redefined in the adventure of civilization.

I’ve written about what a participatory spirituality looks like for me. I have more work to do to flesh it out, of course…

Finally, Bryant writes:

In your post over at footnotes2plato you make the odd claim that somehow naturalism prevents us from fighting neoliberal capitalism. This ignores the rather obvious fact that 1) Marxist thought is a naturalistic position, 2) those European countries that are most socialized are also overwhelmingly secular, and 3) religion has repeatedly sided with capitalism throughout history and provided support for forces that underly these forms of capitalism.

I would make the claim that atheistic naturalism (wherein the whole point of the scientific endeavor becomes the thorough disenchantment of the universe) makes criticism of neoliberal capitalism more difficult, since I think such critiques must penetrate to the metaphysical underpinnings of capitalism in order to be effective. These underpinnings include what Donna Haraway has referred to as “productionism”:

“Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” -“The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies (1992), p. 297

Marx’s humanistic orientation and productionist metaphysics suggests to me that his naturalistic assumptions leave the deeper metaphysical structure of capitalism (that which makes it so socially and ecologically disruptive) untouched. Also, even if Marx himself was less than enthusiastic about religion, there are plenty of examples of religious communists, for whom it is religious experience that compels them to adopt communist ideals. Marx’s may have been a naturalistic position, but the Marxisms emerging in his wake have not always been.

As for “secularized” Europe, polls suggest that as much as 76% of Sweden, 80% of Denmark, 79% of Norway, 61% of France, 72% of Germany, 71% of the Netherlands, and 78% of the United Kingdom either believe in God or in”some sort of spirit or life force.” Church attendance may be down across much of the Continent, but this seems to be reflective of a move toward less conventional, more individual forms of post-religious spiritual expression.

A religious revival itself will not necessarily put a dent in capitalism. Žižek is fond of pointing out how New Age spirituality only functions to support the commodification of religious practice. And in some sense, even religion as understood esoterically (in both Western and Eastern contexts) may only foster a withdrawal into the apoliticism of mystical contemplation. This is why I think Whitehead’s philosophical project is so important, since it presents us with a way to bring science, religion, and politics into a more mutually enhancing relationship.



8 responses to “God and Religious Experience in Whitehead: another response to Levi Bryant”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar


    Let me point out one problem here and that I have noticed elsewhere in your discussion. Though it may sound like it, I do not intend to be harsh, but to be truthful. I hope that you can understand the constructive criticism in the spirit that it was intended. That said, you equivocate on the term “God” in almost every philosopher you mention. If we look at what “God” means and implies in Whitehead vs. Jung, vs. Dewey, etc., then your statement for the necessity of God has been emptied more and more with each figure you name. Now, you may be naming them to cite inspiration, but then you need to synthesize and defend such appropriation. In Whitehead’s case, “God” is mostly an axiomatic posit made necessary by his system, although its factual necessity is a moment of mystery that you quote. But that does not get us a Christian God, or a monotheism, etc, etc. Your appeals to experience and the fact of transcendent experience do not get you out of this problem, because you continue to invoke more than that mere fact can support. In sum, I think you need to make it very clear whether you are a traditional theist of some sort, in which case you’d need to clarify many significations of the term “God,” or are just giving your own “varieties of religious experience,” although that will drain any force behind your encounters with Levi et al. So, please either indicate how you are not equivocating, and if you claim you are not, then much needs to be said. If you go the experience route, then what exactly are you stating in terms of extent scholarship and its significance? If none of the above, then please clarify an apparent equivocation, etc.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      Thanks for your request for clarification. Unfortunately, at this time I cannot fully provide the defense and synthesis you’ve rightly pointed out is missing from the brief, somewhat autobiographical text posted above. “God,” I am realizing more and more in these discussions, is a somewhat hyper-semiotic vocalization, making it easy to equivocate when employing it in one’s philosophy of religion. The word is overflowing with meaning; its use can be either banal or numinous depending on the context. Each of the thinkers I mentioned, including Jung, James, Whitehead, and Gebser, hires the word “God” to play a slightly different literary role in their work. In bringing them into conversation, I seek neither to create a synthetic systematization of their ideas and meanings, nor to present their varieties of religious experience as proof of some role for “God” in the world. In terms of extent scholarship, my research and writing in this area is basically motivated by a desire to bring “academic” philosophy back into conversation with its esoteric and spiritual origins (Pythagoreanism, Hermeticism, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism…). In these “occult” traditions, the idea is not so much to prove the existence of God by way of logical or empirical argument, but to participate, through spiritual practices, in the birth of God within oneself and one’s community. God is not, then, something given and awaiting proper human description. God is a possibility awaiting actualization by the thinking, feeling, and willing of humanity.

  2. mary Avatar

    I may not articulate this very well , Matt, but the equivocation in question, which for Jason empties the necessity of God, is for me paradoxically one of the strengths of Whitehead’s thought, that God is ingressed into/with/through every prehension…in an analogue, “god” is the quantum state that is the ground of the collapse, in this case into the multiplicity of the experiences of “presence”. I am thinking specifically of Stenger’s chapter From the Concept of Nature to the Order of Nature. She says,” Concepts will thus ensure that rationality can affirm its rights, all its rights, but not the right to an ultimate and self-sufficient explanation.”
    What you are being asked to do is collapse the wave function in to a particle, that can be unequivocally placed in a static measurable space/ or velocity. which would render the concept of the divine “clarified”. But Whitehead was unpacking thought itself anew in a mathematics towards all the science beyond Einstein,… towards Schrodinger and Heisenberg, which thrived on the freedom of the “how”, the quality, the varieties of unification within all manner of prehension.
    “The actual world is a manifold of prehensions; and a “prehension” is a “prehensive occasion”, and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion”(SMW,71) TWW.

    One of the truths about the creative neutrality of metaphysics in Whitehead is just that, its equivocal and open appeal to intuition, that to demand an ontological shortcut…TWWp264..would again fall backwards into a conditioned divine, a Cartesian divine,…a theism of some sort…
    Again, the physics in which Whitehead was creating concepts was not Newtonian, but a physics in which operating from stasis equals the fallacy of misplaced concreteness at the core of the decoherence of God as the order, but not the chaos,…. but in a quantum world, the divine is the principle of the relationship of the good, true, and beautiful, between the two; the divine is the coherence within the act of prehension itself. The divine is the presence that holds the coherence that allows distinguishing fact/truth relations.
    In any case I think it is problematic to hold logic to the constraints of a world that even physics says no longer exists. Stengers writes that “trust is inseperable from thought: Whitehead “trusted that this epoch was to pass away” TWW,p269.and a more adequate abstraction”that claims to grasp its proper conditions” to a God that does not follow physis, but allows the coherence of its creative conception.
    Again, in analogue, this invites the thinker to re-imagine where she has collapsed the wave function of conceptualization and test its adequacy in the world, which is a qualitative act.
    Matt, I too have been struggling to think with Whitehead….It has been difficult for me to read Stengers during Fukushima and I have violated every appeal to suspension of subjectivity, as Stengers asked, but ironically seeing the rationale for such a refusal to see science as a domain privileged to claim a pristine distance from the quality of its production is itself an ecological act, consistent with Whitehead’s non-bifurcation of nature. In any case I am trying to follow this chautauqua of discourse, even from my ignorance of philosophy on such advanced levels.
    thanks again to everyone.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Mary, your analogy is very helpful in my attempt to prehend all that is being said in these discussions over the past several days. Thought must trust that reason is real, otherwise its speculative leaps “with both feet” find no solid (particle) or even shifting (wave) ground. They do not land on anything, not even the groundlessness of Sunyata. Thought, if is to participate in the real, must have faith in its own divine grounding. But it is a ground-in-process (a Creative ground in Whitehead’s sense, an abgrund or abyss in Schelling’s sense) that thought does not simply discover, nor simply create, but that must be imagined anew in the midst of the flow of the specious present. To the extent that thought is able to imagine its own ground, it participates in divinity.

    2. Jason Hills Avatar


      It does not “empty the necessity of God,” but empties “God” of all content. The necessity is clear, e.g., in Whitehead, but it’s a logical necessity, i.e., the “God of the philosophers.” But Matt seems to want much more than a posit. Moreover, your subsequence comments lapse into the syncretism that drains much of the power of any conversation about God, because it becomes positivistic. It no longer even functions is mythos, as the binding story of my people by which all is understood and thought.

      Looking back, let me clarify again. I said nothing about necessity at all. Rather, the “God” (referent of the term) varies greatly in each thinker, but Matt was treating them all as the same. That looks like either syncretism, theosophy, or some such, but that has little proper place in theological discussions bound by traditions, and thus he would have nothing to say to any practicing tradition if he took those views, which requires connecting those views to living traditions.

      Matt, these comments to Mary should also help elucidate my concern. I think you understand it, and I applaud your move to the occult traditions. Have you looked at Swedenborg?


      1. mary Avatar

        Hi Jason,
        I am sorry if I misconstrued your wording and thank you for the distinction you make about emptying the concept of “God” from “the necessity of ‘God’”. It was imprecise wording for which I apologize. I would however like to address two points you made; one about positivism, and the second about syncretism.
        I didn’t intend a positivist spin to my general statement to Matt, but used a mode of thought in a metaphoric way; the use of an event in physics to image a movement within thought. That i use an example lifted from a mode of thought I don’t think aligns the entire content of my statement with a positivist philosophy. I can stir food with a spoon, but that does not make me a chef. Jesus spoke of the sowing of seed in his parables and that did not indicate he was a farmer. Moreover, from time to time , it isn’t necessarily to be avoided that one drains power from conversations about God; within theology itself is the recognition of the pause of habits of conceptualization ….the via negativa…..necessary for Christianity (Aquinas)…and other traditions (neti neti),… as a legitimate phase of evolving thought. For many, I think Whitehead functions as a lure for entering the via negativa needed to enter a more authentic understanding ot the essence of the mythos. The scholar Raimon Panikkar has an interesting article that many find a challenge to the habitual structures of invocation within discourse about Divinity, especially in an intercultural context.

        This leads to my second (hopefully) clarification about syncretism, which is the shadow side of synthesis, which is the risk you are alert to. Again, Raimon Panikkar has an interesting conversation, in which this issue is raised:

        But for a far more complete exposition of his insights into the Christophany at the alchemic heart of the seemingly dissolute conditions of the modern world, I would recommend his book:

        Also, Matt has another essay you may not have read already, which I like much and recommend:( I will keep you busy reading, won’t I)


        Anyway, Jason, I went to your blog and found you definitely hard at work developping a tome of your own….I certainly wish you the best with that and thank you for leaving me a response to my comment. I may refresh my memory of Swedenborg also.
        sincerely, mary

  3. The New Reformation: Whitehead on the Metaphysics of Christianity « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] 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 […]

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