Whitehead Religion in the Making (Rational) (Aesthetic) (Metaphysical)


Preparing for a conference on the American Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan, I took a little detour into Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality will have to wait, but I read quickly his little book Science and the Modern World and then, more carefully the 1926 Religion in the Making. In the preface to the latter, Whitehead presents the two as companion volumes. Common to both is the apprehension of those permanent elements by which there is a stable world, the permanent elements without which there is no changing world (preface).

Religion in the Making is composed of historical and metaphysical elements. About the metaphysics, what I found immediately interesting is how unlike Whitehead is from many of the so-called process theologians who would claim his mantle. Whitehead is not primarily interested in virtual fields or clouds of unknowing, much more interested in the dynamics by which “epochal occasions” (i.e. creaturely life, creaturely concretions, creaturely creativity) are constituted as an occasion of actualization (p.88). That is to say, the focus is not on de-realization, but realization.

Also unlike many of the theologians who fall into the process theology camp, Whitehead turns out to be a dualist, or rather a metaphysical pluralist, but definitely not a monist. To be sure, Whitehead rejects the idea of “substance,” but only insofar as what one means by that is a self-standing substance that requires nothing else for its existence.  Whitehead recognized three kinds of substance. There are bits of matter, there is mind, and there is God. Unlike classical theories of substance, Whitehead saw these as interconnected. Religion reveals not God per se, not God as a separate or infinite substance, but rather reveals a thoroughly interdependent world composed of mind, body, energy, elements passing into and affecting each other (pp.102, 85).

For Whitehead, God is not dynamizing, destabilizing presence or force, as God is often presented in radical theology. Rather, God is a force of contraction, concretion, limitation. This notion appears in the final chapter of Science and the Modern World and again in Religion in the Making. Godhood imposes itself as limit on the protean world of pure potential, God being less ground than limit, the force that determines value in the world (pp.91-2, 97, 147). Finite, limited, and limiting, God could not be infinite because that would mean that God would include evil, which is a thought that Whitehead resists completely (p.147).

What I like about all this is the theological modesty (the idea of a finite God), the cosmopolitanism, and the metaphysical reach.The religion that Whitehead upholds, the one that he wants, is rational religion, religion as a form of world consciousness first and foremost and prior to its function or being as God conscious (pp.39-41), the apprehension of qualia and character in the nature of things (p.77, 60), and, above all, the direct intuition of metaphysical truths relating to order and actuality (pp.77-8). Lastly, of course, Whitehead presents all this as foundationally aesthetic, not moral.  Moral order is a sub-set. “The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” as that limiting condition or force.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to Whitehead Religion in the Making (Rational) (Aesthetic) (Metaphysical)

  1. Mel Scult says:

    A Gift to ZB. from Mel Scult

    Kaplan had little to say about Whitehead in the diary but I have found a reference. For your consideration.

    Kaplan was at the Hebrew University for two years in the thirties. In his diary, written in Hebrew at that time and translated here by the late Rabbi Nahum Waldman, z”l, Kaplan writes of his first meeting with Buber. [ Not quite an I-Thou experience for Kaplan ].In thinking over Buber’s I-thou, Kaplan is reminded of a statement from Whitehead which he believes expresses a idea similar to Buber’s. Kaplan however is less interested in the “mystery” of the I-thou than in its concrete function in our lives.

    A Frustrating Meeting with Martin Buber.
    Tuesday, April 12, 1938.

    Yesterday I visited Martin Buber. He was appointed Professor of Philosophy of Society at the same time that I was appointed to teach education. For a time he was the candidate for the teaching of education, but it seems there was opposition to him because of the mystical line in his approach to Judaism. Still, it was impossible that they not find a place in the University as he is one of the greats of our generation even if it is not so easy to fit him in the framework of our familiar values.
    I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed with my meeting with him yesterday, which was the first. In our conversation it fell upon me to be the stimulus, while he was simple reacting to my questions and comments. The discussion moved to the idea he expressed in the book that was translated into English, I and Thou. It seemed to me that he is striving to express–in a deep manner–with regard to the relationship of one human to another the same idea which Whitehead expresses in his book Science and the Modern Mind, when he says, “The concrete enduring entities are organisms, so that the plan of the whole influence the very characters of the various subordinate organisms which enter into it.” But all of this is theoretical: he has in effect never documented the possibilities between the I and Thou with respect to our discussion. He did not ask me one question with regard to my views, my goals, my work. The attainment of practical results is, it seems, a simple matter that only cheap pragmatists like me demand. The matters of mystery do not need such pragmatism.

    • zjb says:

      that.s just fantastic, Mel! thank you so much.

    • zjb says:

      Mel: let me know if i can post this as an independent post with an attribution to you, of course.

      • Mel Scult says:

        yes of course. give me your email so i can send things to you which you might post or not. i am looking for more whitehead. A small way of thanking you for your support. by the way, Kaplan sseems to bemocking the mystery and even himself here. what do youthink.


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