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.