Chapter 3: God and Existence
If God does not exist, it does little good to talk about him. "Philosophy destroys its usefulness," writes Whitehead, ‘when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away. Its ultimate appeal is to the general consciousness of what in practice we experience."(Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929; New York: Macmillan, 1929], p. 23.)
There is no verification of assertions about God’s existence that matches the verification of scientific assertions. This is to be expected, for language about God operates on a different level from descriptive language. "Though God has never been seen by any man, God himself dwells in us if we love one another; his love is brought to perfection within us (1 John 4:12, NEB)"
In order to approach the issue of God’s existence with some degree of clarity, this chapter will examine briefly the writings of F. S. C. Northrop, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne, as men who operate with similar assumptions about knowledge and metaphysics. Then we will consider some of the objections to reliance on religious experience. Against this back-ground, we can consider some aims of education, about which Whitehead has written. Later, in chapter 9, we will return to some of the metaphysical problems.
In the field of knowledge about God, there is no new information; yet the data we have are not convincing. Religious people have strong intuitions, deep convictions, and ultimate commitments which provide meaning and guidance for their lives, but often even they are hard pressed when they seek to support their own way of looking on God and the world. The Christian educator needs more than this, for he is asked to provide education in Christianity for others, not only to describe what it has been and is, but to use language in such a way that the learner will come to an understanding of the nature of Christianity and hopefully will discern the presence of God in his own life and commit himself to the Christian way. What we need to do is to make sense out of the evidence we have. Wittgenstein says, "The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known."(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [2d ed.; Basil Blackwell; New York: Macmillan, 1958], p. 47e.) If we take seriously the creativity in human nature and the language that points to and shows the rich meanings to he found in human life, we can talk about the existence of God.
Creative Thinking and God
F. S. C. Northrop has worked out a sophisticated approach to the knowledge of God. He is concerned with the parallels between the generalized concepts of science and metaphysics, and their relation to religious thinking. He is also concerned with depth experiences that may be called religious. He believes that "the essence of man as a moral and spiritual being is that he is a knowing being." In man’s knowledge there are important distinctions that need to be made. The first is between the given facts of nature and those artifacts made by man out of cultural, human, and bodily behavior. When these two orders are confused, as they often are, we find ourselves in a mixture of language-games and cannot extricate ourselves. The second important distinction is between concepts that result from the examination of data from experience and concepts that are postulated In the intellect. Most commonsense ideas and many scientific experiments are based on induction from the data, or at least we believe that such concepts would stand up under such testing. But there are mathematical concepts which are imageless, which are independent of experience, and which are indirectly verified by the consequences, thus providing us with knowledge of the real world.
When I go for a walk, I experience space and time, and I can arrange to meet you at a street corner. But this is different from the kind of thinking that is necessary for two space vehicles to link up behind the moon, for this latter involves the kind of imageless thinking that is essential to modern physics. Columbus did not need a sophisticated analysis to find the new world, but the astronauts did to find a way to the moon. Yet both experiences refer to the real world.
The world is known, according to Northrop, in two ways: (1) by testing data from sense experience leading inductively to propositions about reality and (2) by imageless concepts postulated by the creative imagination and tested deductively. The problem is how to bring these two realms of discourse together. They consist of two widely different families of language, and Northrop says that we need a method of correlation, or correspondence, or coordination to bring them into a single view of reality. How this "epistemic correlation’ is worked out is rather technical. (See ibid., p. 90.) What is essential for us is to realize that the world of Einstein with his mathematical physics and the world of Joe Doaks who knows at least that the world is not flat are the same world and that some people can move from the one to the other.
This provides the beginning of a method for knowledge of God. Northrop has two crucial questions. The first arises out of his experience at a conference of philosophers of East and West, in which the concepts of "Nirvana" and "the Atman that is Brahman without differences" were considered. Nirvana is a Buddhist concept and has its meaning in an all-enveloping experience. The second phrase is used in Hinduism and has its meaning in the elimination of distinctions. Both concepts are derived from the data of mystical experience. Northrop was asked whether his phrase, "the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum," was identical in meaning. In all three cases, the phrase "without differences" is critical. It refers to one’s "radically immediate experience, with all the differentiations of sensing and sensa removed, signifying nothing beyond itself."(Ibid., p. 189; also see pp. 21-25)
Now the question for the reader is whether the description provided by Northrop has any meaning at all. Are there moments when one is swept up into a sense of oneness, when one is overwhelmed by the vastness in which he is engulfed, when one is at one with whatever being he conceives God to be? This is a kind of mysticism, reported by many as the experience of prayer or visions and by others as drug-induced. It is the keystone of many Eastern religions, as Northrop points out, but is not as evident in a practical and activist Western culture. It is so lacking in differentiation that it exists, as William James pointed out, at the periphery of experience. This is the approach to God through experience.
Now Northrop is ready for his second crucial question. Is there a basis for believing in God as a result of the imageless thinking of mathematics and physics? If so, can this be correlated with the undifferentiated experience of the awareness of oneness? The problem is that many philosophers think of imageless thinking simply as linguistic conventions which provide guidance to control reality without referring to it. Northrop, in contradiction to such a position, claims that there is presupposed in such concepts a "logically real self." (See ibid., pp. 216-31.) This position asserts that such knowledge of a "logically real self" is valid but open to improvement.
Nature, then, is a cosmos and not a chaos. There is a logos, a principle of order like unto mind, which is approached but never reached "by the changing, logically realistic constructs of Western mathematical physics."(Ibid., p. 230; also see pp. 84-85.) Note that this is the intellectual component. It is not different in kind from the more traditional emphasis on God as prior being, first cause, or purpose behind the universe, except that God is not a substance or a thing. God is to be loved with the human mind. For Northrop, God is spoken of as "an eternally-now logically realistic relation between beloved creatures."(Ibid., p. 236) At the same time, the result is not a consistent, mechanical kind of behavior. When one accepts the invariant order derived from our knowledge of the Principle of Relativity, one must supplement this with the Quantum Theory, allowing for chance, which Northrop says "operates within the restrictions specified by its invariant universal laws."(Ibid., p. 255.) This concept allows us to make room in our theology for both natural and man-made evil, for freedom to respond or not to respond to God, and for what seems to be the miraculous according to more rigid views of natural law. In this sense, both men and God are free. Northrop speaks of God’s freedom by use of the model of God’s "playfulness."
What Northrop has presented is an approach to God through philosophical reasoning as affected by Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics and correlated with the reports of Oriental mysticism. Underlying this is a carefully worked out view which he calls "logical realism," assuming that there is a reality approached through imageless concepts. Like Plato with his emphasis on wisdom that is higher than knowledge, Northrop is utilizing a major philosophical system as a basis for his philosophy of science. Within this system, also not unlike Plato he includes empirical verification based on an undifferentiated kind of experience which is akin to mysticism. By careful "epistemic correlation," he seeks to bring these two elements or realms of discourse together as a basis for belief in God.
This is one kind of answer to the challenge of the logical empiricists who claim that there can be no verification of assertions about God. Northrop, by changing the rules of evidence in the light of the philosophy of science, claims that language is not simply a linguistic convention but is a report on reality. Northrop claims that there is a mystical element behind all knowledge and all language. "No words mean or can say anything, except as one knows, with inexpressible and unsayable immediacy, what the words are pointing at or showing, independently of the words themselves. Such knowledge is what the word ‘mystical’ means."(Ibid., p. 241.) The limitation of language is that it can point or show, but it cannot say. There is nothing mysterious about this, for it applies just as much to language about the color "yellow" as about God.
Northrop’s argument is admittedly difficult and technical. What makes it so imposing is that it is based on modern ways of thinking. When we begin thinking about Christian education for those whose productive lives will be in the twenty-first century, those who are already having great difficulty with theological claims that are based on nineteenth-century science and confused linguistic analysis, we discover that Northrop’s claims, although open to objections on both the level of imageless concepts and undifferentiated experience, have at least as much certainty as we have about the existence of electrons. Is this sufficient?
The Immanence of God
The presupposition behind all language about God is that he exists. The primary tool of both theology and philosophy, as A. N. Whitehead writes, is language. There are appeals to experience and the interpretation of experience, and when they lead to significant evidence they require a recasting of language itself. Language, as we have shown, can be very slippery, and words can only point or show but do not say.(See Process and Reality, p. 14.)
In any discussion of the language about God, an appeal to experience is primary. Whitehead writes that there is wide agreement that "religious experience does not include any direct intuition of a definite person, or individual. It is a character of permanent rightness, whose inherence in the nature of things modifies both efficient and final cause." (A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making [New York: Macmillan, 1926] p. 61) A "personal" God, whatever the word "personal" may mean, is always an inference. Yet the experience from which the inference is drawn is subject to all kinds of pressures, is open to a variety of interpretations, and in the last analysis is dominantly private and subjective.
Whitehead believes that the church has been wise in its suspicion of "a direct vision of a personal God." (Ibid., p. 66.) But the intuition of the inherent rightness of things is capable of acceptance, although it is "not the discernment of a form of words, but of a type of character. . . . Mothers can ponder things in their hearts which their lips cannot express. These many things, which are thus known, constitute the ultimate religious evidence, beyond which there is no appeal."(Ibid., p. 67.)
As Whitehead develops this approach, examining the views of God of Asian religions, Semitic religions, and modern pantheism, he makes a striking point: As long as God is thought of as standing outside a metaphysical world view, he is unknowable. He can only be an unproven idea. "In other words," says Whitehead, "any proof which commences with the consideration of the character of the actual world . . . may discover an immanent God, but not a God wholly transcendent." (Ibid., p. 71.) This insistence on immanence is an important factor in any discussion of the knowledge of God. For once God is defined as wholly transcendent, there is no possible human knowledge of him. At the same time, Whitehead writes that God "transcends the temporal world, because he is an actual fact in the nature of things."(Ibid., p. 156.)
Christianity does not start with a world view, as does Buddhism, for Christianity "has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic." (Ibid., p. 50.) God, he writes, is "a non-temporal entity" and is
exempt from inconsistency which is the note of evil. Since God is actual, he must include in himself a synthesis of the total universe. There is, therefore, in God’s nature the aspect of the realm of forms as qualified by the world, and the aspect of the world as qualified by the forms. His completion, so that he is exempt from transition into something else, must mean that his nature remains self-consistent in relation to all change.(Ibid., pp. 90, 98-99.)
Such language is highly technical, including some complex metaphysical concepts, but it indicates an approach to the meaning of God similar to that of Northrop. The emphasis on God’s immanence should be noted, because most of the attempts to show that God is dead or that assertions about him cannot be verified are directed toward God as transcendent only. Perhaps here is one of the possible breakthroughs in talk about God.
Necessity and Intuition
Charles Hartshorne, who shares many of Whitehead’s views, states that God is a "necessary reality." he uses the tools of language analysis to make his point. "Divinity," he writes, "is not a mere fact or fiction of the actual world, but is either nonsense, in relation to all possible states of affairs, or a necessary reality, that is, the idea is metaphysical." (Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Reality: A Social Conception of God [New haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948], p. xiii). Such truths are "certified by meaning alone," and so we can say that "God is the one individual conceivable a priori."(Ibid., p. 31). Therefore, we have literal truth about God.
We may use analogy and metaphor to talk about God, "but the pure theory of divinity is literal, or it is a scandal, neither well reasoned nor honestly dispensing with reason. It is precisely the being with a necessary essence that, as such, must be definable a priori." This literal truth Hartshorne sums up as follows: "Thus God is wise -- period. He is unborn -- period. He is everlasting -- period. He is socially aware of all beings, the actual as actual, the possible as possible -- period." "Whatever is good in the creation is, in superior or eminent fashion, ‘analogically not univocally,’ the property of God. Thus knowledge, purpose, life, love, joy, are deficiently present in us, eminently and analogically present in God."(Ibid., pp. 37-38, 77.)
There is a difference between what we can say literally and what we can say analogically about God. There is an abstract nature to the language used about logical inferences concerning a necessary being, but the concrete actuality, described in terms of analogy and metaphor, is something each man finally intuits for himself. However, even the literal meanings of theological terms come from men’s intuitions, and we need a theological method by which we can distinguish between normal intuitions which do not lead to insights into God’s nature and those more "conspicuous’ but less frequent intuitions which lead to deeper understanding.
There is a parallel here to Northrop’s method, for Hartshorne also builds on the combination of necessary postulates in the realm of abstraction and the intuition into the presence and nature of divine power. In developing his method, Hartshorne has provided a complex logic for analyzing such terms as omnipotence and omniscience so that there is a place for evil in his understanding of the nature of things, for genuine freedom, and for a deity who works through persuasion. As Whitehead says, "The power of God is the worship he inspires."(AN. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World [New York: Macmillan, 1927], p. 276.)
Hartshorne has adapted the metaphysics of Whitehead, with the emphasis on process and on God at work in the process. He has labeled this "panentheism," a term which Schubert Ogden and John A. T. Robinson have adopted. "‘The concrete reality of God,’’ says Hartshorne, "is in us only insofar as we with radical ineffectiveness and faintness, intuit it. Though it is vastly less true to say that we do than that we do not ‘have’ or include God, both statements are true. God, on the other hand, in his actual or relative aspect, unqualifiedly or with full effectiveness has or contains us; while in his absolute aspect he is the least inclusive of all individuals." (Hartshorne, op. cit., p. 92; see also Schubert Ogden, The Reality of God [New York: Harper & Row, 1966], p. 62; John A. T. Robinson, Exploration into God [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967], pp. 86, 89-96; Kenneth Cauthen, Science, Secularization, and God [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969], p. 164. See below, chapter 9, for a further treatment of metaphysics.)
Northrop, Whitehead, and Hartshorne provide us with the use of technical vocabularies and dynamic metaphysical categories to talk about God. They are able to do this in a meaningful way, because they are concerned with the view of the secular world as modified by the latest scientific insights, and they speak religiously without being limited to traditional forms of language. Northrop speaks out of personal acquaintance with Wittgenstein and Whitehead as well as out of knowledge of the broad field of the philosophy of culture. Whitehead’s influence is more and more permeating the current scene in philosophical theology as well as in metaphysical thinking. Hartshorne has applied a complex logic to thought about God and has influenced such theologians as Schubert Ogden, John Cobb, Kenneth Cauthen, Peter Hamilton, Norman Pittenger, and John A. T. Robinson. Northrop, Whitehead, and Hartshorne, therefore, throw’ much light on our endeavor to speak of God in the light of current developments in linguistic philosophy and secular thinking. They at least establish the philosophical respectability of "God-talk" in the contemporary world.
Skepticism and Religious Experience
But we are not home free. These three men come down finally to a reliance on some form of intuition or religious experience.(See Northrop, op. cit., p. 108. Whitehead, Religion in Making, p. 62; Hartshorne, op. cit., p. 38.) When Rudolf Otto describes the sense of the "numinous" or holy as an irrational experience both fascinating and awe inspiring, in which the content can only be felt and not spoken about, he is making a similar point. For Otto, this "wholly other" is transcendent rather than immanent, which marks it off from Whitehead’s insistence that immanence is the key, although both seem to be considering the same experiential evidence. For Otto, such experience stands alone, without value when reduced to language.(See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy [London: Oxford University Press, 1923; Pelican Books, 1959])
A. J. Ayer is critical of propositions that result from such experiences. He writes, "In describing his vision the mystic does not give us any information about the external world; he merely gives us indirect information about the condition of his own mind." (A. J. Ayer, Language , Truth, and Logic[ 2d ed.; London; Gollancz, 1936] , p. 118.) One answer, provided by E. L. Mascall, is that the mystics have their own language-game, although the outsider does not have the slightest idea what it is all about.(See B. L. Mascall, Words and Images: A Study in Theological Discourse [London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1957], p. 12.) Ayer would respond that even if such language is used, it would have only "emotive" meaning.
Does religious experience penetrate reality and are propositions derived from intuitions to be considered seriously? This is a key question in any discussion of religious language. Not only. must there be some agreement about the meaning of the word "God" but there must be some kind of objective reference. Ian T. Ramsey speaks of a "cosmic disclosure, an element of transcendence in both the objective reference and in our own subjective response and commitment." (Religious Education LX [Jan.-Feb. 1965], p. 12) The key to this is "the method of empirical fit."(Models and Mystery [London: Oxford University Press, 1964]). You don’t verify a shoe, you wear it. If it does not fit, you discard it. If, after a few wearings, it becomes fairly comfortable, even though it may not be waterproof, it does the job. So it is with theological models. Unlike models in science which may be verified, the testing is a different kind of process. Ramsey says:
Theology is founded on occasions of insight and disclosure when . . . the universe declares itself in a particular way around some group of events which thus take on cosmic significance. These events then become, and naturally, a self-appointed model which enables us to be articulate about what has been disclosed. ( Ibid., p. 58. See "Linguistic Models and Religious Education," ‘ Religious Education, LXI (July-Aug. 1966), p. 275.)
Many models may be used for this kind of testing. One of the weaknesses of theology has been its reliance on single model approaches. Horace Bushnell understood this clearly over a century ago. If a theologian, wrote Bushnell,
is a mere logicker, fastening on a word as the sole expression and exact equivalent of truth, to go on spinning deductions out of the form of the word (which yet having nothing to do with the idea), then he becomes a one-word professor, quarreling, as for truth itself, with all who chance to go out of his word; and, since words are given not to imprison souls but to express them, the variations continually indulged in by others are sure to render him as miserable in his anxieties, as he is meager in his contents, and busy in his quarrels.(God in Christ [Hartford. Brown and Parsons, 1849], p. 50; reprinted in H. Shelton Smith, ed., Horace Bushnell (New York. Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 92-93.)
So it is that many of us have intimations of the divine. We may or may not like the words that others have used to indicate what the divine means to them. But we may be helped if we can speak of God in a framework that makes sense in today’s world. This is the point at which such men as Northrop, Whitehead, and Hartshorne may be helpful to some, for not only have they laid a foundation for belief in God as real and existing, but they have done so within the framework of a modern world view.
There is no coercive and convincing evidence. There never has been and there never will be. Those who want to be absolutely sure will have to rely on their own bliks, such as Hare has described, and not on the evidence. But decisions, attitudes, and imagination have much to do with dealing with the facts and coming to conclusions, as John Wisdom has pointed out:
Things are revealed to us not only by scientists with microscopes, but also by the poets, the prophets, and the painters. What is so isn’t merely a matter of ‘‘the facts.’’ For sometimes when there is agreement as to the facts, there is still argument as to whether the defendant did or did not exercise "reasonable care," was or was not negligent." And though we shall need to emphasize how’ much "There is a God" evinces an attitude to the familiar, we shall find in the end that it also evinces some recognition of patterns in time easily missed, and that, therefore, differences as to there being any gods is in part a difference as to what is so and therefore as to the facts, though not in the simple ways which first occurred to us.(John Wisdom, "Gods." Reprinted from Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-45, in Antony Flew, ed., Logic and Language [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1951], First Series, p. 192; and in John Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion [Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1964], p. 417.)
The decision one makes, therefore, is not simply of deduction or induction, or even a combination of the two, although it is more like the combination. It is, says Wisdom, like the decision of a judge in the face of a complex presentation of evidence, which involves many subtleties, including the judge’s attitudes. His ruling is like an exclamation that has its own purpose and logic and value-judgment.(See Hick, op. cit., p. 420) Theology is a way of calling attention to a pattern by which the facts may be seen and understood. It assists one to penetrate more deeply into the possible meanings of reality. But the reports are always incomplete, although
by no means useless; and not the worst of them are those which speak of oneness with God. But insofar as we become one with him, he becomes one with us. John says he is in us as we love one another. This love, I suppose, is not benevolence but something that comes of the oneness with another of which Christ spoke (John 16: 21) Sometimes it momentarily gains Strength -- Hate and the Devil do, too. And what is oneness without otherness?"(In Hick, op. cit., p. 428)
Skepticism concerning the empirical base for belief in God does not seem to be supported by the evidence. On the other hand, there is no overwhelming evidence in favor of belief. It is a matter of judgment in the light of many data. We cannot spin meanings out of the words we use, but we use words to analyze, point to, and show meanings that are found in human experience at the deepest levels. The words that penetrate successfully can clarify our experiences, but not in forms of formal logic. This is, indeed, a difficult matter, partly because the most "conspicuous" intuitions are given only to the few and partly because our logic prevents us from expressing what we dimly discern. The problem of language centers in the logical mapping of religious assertions and in the further understanding of language-games.
The modern secular man, who probably cannot understand mathematical physics but has heard of the Principle of Relativity and the Quantum Theory, does not realize how much this kind of thinking penetrates his thought processes. Although he lives in a world of common sense, he knows that nuclear science, space exploration, and studies in neurology and brain chemistry are changing the picture of the world. Insofar as he thinks about God, he worries about the way in which God is related to this new view of the world. He may escape for a while into a search for the meaning of his own existence, which is essential for his well being, but if he thinks for very long, he comes back to the problem of how God is related to the world.
What Northrop has done in a necessarily limited way is to provide a beginning concept of God for the post-Sputnik world. He has mixed two areas of discourse, both of which contribute to the concept of Cod when interpreted in Northrop’s manner. Whitehead and Hartshorne, using similar philosophical concepts, also rely on a combination of abstract thinking and particular experiences or intuitions. Religion, says Whitehead, "stands between abstract metaphysics and the particular principles applying to only some among the experiences of life." The educational problem lies in the fact that "the relevance of its concepts can only be distinctly discerned in moments of insight, and then, for many of us, only after a suggestion from without."(Religion in the Making, p. 31.)
Certain educational implications of this approach begin to become clear. First, the "conspicuous intuitions" are given only to the few. Second, "suggestions from without" are essential. Third. duty and reverence are closely related. Fourth, careful use of words must relate dogma to experience. Fifth, the solitary experience of insight must be related to the life of the community. Sixth, we must utilize these insights in accordance with our knowledge of child development. Finally, we turn to Northrop’s illustration from baseball of God’s playfulness.
If everyone does not have a "conspicuous intuition," how can we teach about them? The tendency has been to rely on the depth experience of great saints, such as Francis of Assisi, or great heroes of the Bible who had dramatic experiences, such as Isaiah or Paul. Stories of this kind have validity, but they also are clearly unreachable by most people and seem to some to have an aura of unreality, although what has been called ‘‘the mystical germ’’ in us max respond positively. Religion, suggests Whitehead, applies to "only some among the experiences of life," but these do not have to be peculiarly "religious." Can we not find a "religious dimension" of all experience? Or can worship still arouse the sense of the holy, so that one’s emotion of awe or wonder can open one up to appropriate the experiences of others? Whitehead says:
The essence of education is that it be religious. . . . A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity. ( The Aims of Education [Mentor ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1929; New York: New American Library, 1949], p. 26.)
If there is to be "suggestion from without" by means of words in order to evoke "moments of insight," we are still operating on empirical grounds, for in order for there to be a common expression of such insight there needs to be "first a stage of primary expression into some medium of sense-experience which each individual contributes at first hand." (Religion in the Making, p. 132.) Action, words, and art can then be interpreted so that a community of intuition is brought to expression in worship and response.
This process involves a careful understanding of the use of words. For if words do not say, some point and others show. If we choose our words correctly, some will point to the area of abstraction, of principles, of patterns, of forms, of imageless concepts; others will point to the reality reached by intuition with its mystical overtones. For we are concerned that there be a moment of insight, discernment, or disclosure; that this intuition of ultimate reality be open to analysis; that upon being convinced of its truth we be free to respond in terms of our relations with men.
This is a far cry from the prosaic grammar of description of everyday events, and therefore moves beyond the meager imaginations of those who dwell only in the flat and descriptive world of sense experience. Once one is convinced that the word "God" or one of the many synonyms for the divine refers to an activity, or process, or function, or idea, or form, or being in the actual world, the language of faith becomes a possibility.
Religion, for Whitehead, begins in solitariness. However, this is only the beginning, and he has been quoted on this point many times out of context. The individual, he says, has the moment of intuition or insight for himself; he needs to see its meaning for himself, and the theological formulation of dogmas helps him to understand his insight in relation to his world view. "A dogma," writes Whitehead, "which fails to evoke any response in immediate experience stifles the religious life." The expression of belief "is the return from solitariness to society. There is no such thing as absolute solitariness. Each entity requires its environment. Thus man cannot seclude himself from society."(Ibid., p. 137.) As beliefs are verified in common, there is a common language which expresses the conviction that the gospel is good news.
This approach to the understanding of religious education underscores the significance of clarity in the use of language, which is at the same time sufficiently unique to evoke new insights. Whitehead often relies on unusual or invented words in order to explain his metaphysical system. The Bible, even though oriented to a different culture, provides resources for communicating its ideas because of its unusual use of poetic and mythic imagery and of the unexpected twists of logic.
It is amazing how much we know about child development, even in terms of what might be called "religious readiness," in terms of needs, aptitudes, problems, and ways of learning and thinking. (See my Education for Christian Living (2d ed.; Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. 77-96 and bibliographical listing on pp. 414-17; also, Merton P. Strommen, Profiles of Church Youth (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963); Ronald Goldman, Readiness for Religion (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965; New York: Seabury Press, 1968) and Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964; New York: Seabury Press, 1968). Yet we ignore the limitations that children have in forming concepts and in the uses of language. We do not pay attention to the greatest of all the limitations in talking about God, the Bible, or other religious issues with children, the problem of literalism. Goldman’s studies show that approximately 60 percent of children below twelve years of age accept literal interpretations of biblical events. As soon as they can think in more abstract terms and make distinctions between literary forms, this percentage goes down to about 30 to 35 percent. By the time they reach fifteen years and a mental age of about seventeen and a half, only 5 percent take the stories literally, although 25 percent still show a partial literalism. This indicates why so many adolescents reject religious beliefs as they hold on to childish views too long and then cannot make the adjustment to other ways of thinking about religious stories and assertions.(See Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence, pp. 75-80.)
Children mimic adults and often acquire a considerable vocabulary of religious terms. But they are likely to put the words to use according to their experience. A child who had tea with his vicar announced, "I had tea with God." The phrase "The Lord is my shepherd" relies on some acquaintance with God, sheep, human beings, and shepherds plus the ability to reason by analogy. Jesus as "the light of the world" is purely metaphorical in its meaning and even experiments with light will not be of much help with younger children.(See Goldman, Readiness for Religion, pp. 32-33.) Even children who show a natural reverence in saying prayers often get confused about the language, as in "Lead us not into Penn Station" for New Yorkers and "Lead us not into Thames Station" for Londoners. Their prayers are literal. These same children are likely to conceive of the Bible "as a book of magical veneration, written by God or one powerful holy person, . . . and is therefore to be accepted at a literal level as entirely true." (Ibid., p. 81.) Only in adolescence, says Goldman, do pupils show the capacity to handle propositions, ideas, relationships in abstract terms and to treat myths, legends, and poetry properly.(See ibid., p. 163.) This does not mean, however, that we need to wait for adolescence to make such distinctions. If we wait too long, the damage will have been done. If teachers are acquainted with the categories of religious language, even younger pupils can participate in the analysis and come to their own conclusions.(See Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence, p. 85.) It is the only way to avoid a "two world" view, one of which will sooner or later be discarded except by those whose religious thinking is arrested at what Piaget calls the "concrete operational" level. (See ibid., p. 242.)
Northrop moves cheerfully into the fantasy world in order to talk about "God’s playfulness." He takes a seemingly outlandish illustration from a game of baseball, in which human beings err as they play the game within the rules:
Otherwise there would be no "booting the ball" after the manner of a clumsy and aesthetically crude, Brooklyn bum. Hear his religious language: "Blankety blank. This burns me up like hell." Nor would one in the next inning have the unsayable experience of seeing that same sinful, very human soul, the vulgar crowd still trying to boo him out of Flatbush, scoot Peeweelike, back to his right, deep into the hole between Short and Third, to come up with the ball in the smooth single motion over to First that has the Divinely Creative Omniscient Anticipation, Beauty, and Grace of a Rizzuto as he nips an Eddie Collins at First by an eyelash when the Umpire there, his car on the ping in the baseman’s mitt, his nose in the dust, and his eye on the runner’s foot by the sack, snaps up his right arm, its Englishlike thumb pointing outward, with a shout that means "Out!" If this be not Heaven and its Judgment Day, what is? God has spoken! Yes, he has spoken, even though the fleet runner’s coach does not believe God, and emphatically says so, not realizing -- his acquaintance with Wittgenstein being slight -- that not even the language of a Durocher can say anything."
This strange poetic description helps us to point to the meaning of God’s playfulness, to his lawfully regulated sportsmanship, and to his creatures who are free to err and to protest within the game. But the voice of the Lord makes the crucial decisions. Or, as Northrop concludes on this particular insight into God’s nature:
Sports do more than
Malt and Milton can
To point and show
God’s Ways to man.(Ibid., p. 251)
There is the additional problem of which language-game, which choice of words, which particular story will operate to assist in producing moments of insight. My guess is that chiefly among boys in baseball-conscious America or Japan, Northrop’s flight of imaginative writing would be effective. I doubt that it would work with girls, or with most woman teachers, and certainly not in a culture dominated by soccer, cricket, or tennis. What this story does suggest, however, is that all religious language is logically odd, and to this issue we turn in the succeeding chapters.
A Note On Expanded Empiricism
The argument in this chapter is limited to evidence which is consistent with empirically based language. One may, for example, move from a strictly empirical method to more expanded forms of empiricism. Schubert Ogden speaks of "nonsensuous perception," which involves "an awareness of our own past mental and bodily states and of the wider world beyond as they compel conformation to themselves in the present.(Schubert Ogden "Present Prospects for Empirical Theology," in Bernard E. Meland, ed., The Future of Empirical Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1969), p. 82.)
As one moves to such expanded forms of empiricism,(See my "Empirical Method and Its Critics," Anglican Theological Review, XXVII (Jan. 1945), pp. 27-34.) the next step is to go beyond these to the use of speculative theory, analogy, and myth in the formulation of beliefs.( See my What We Can Believe [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1941], pp. 201-21.)
My own theological method has always included these enrichments of empirical procedures in a way that I hope has consistency and coherence. At any rate, it has made it possible for me to discuss the relation of theology to Christian education on a much broader basis than I am doing in this book,( See my The Clue to Christian Education (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), pp. 1-17.) to look carefully at the implications of biblical theology for Christian education (See my Biblical Theology and Christian Education (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1956), pp. 16-31.) and to deal theologically with the nature of the church. (See my Christian Nurture and the Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), pp. 1-32.)
In this view, a theory of revelation is essential as a basis for understanding the purpose of Christian education,( See "Revelation, Relevance, and Relationships," Religion in Life, XXVII (Winter, 1957-58), pp. 132-43.) especially if this view of revelation is related to empiricism as in the thought of William Temple.(See William Temple, Nature Man and God (London: Macmillan Co. Ltd., 19340, pp. 301-27; Sara Little, The Role of the Bible in Contemporary Christian Education [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961])
But unless God is, however dim may be our awareness and however vague our formulation in language of this awareness, all the superstructures of belief lack a firm foundation. In this assertion of the existence of an actual deity, we have the basis for the doctrines of creativity and redemption. If we look on the world as created and redeemed by God, using the Bible as our guide, we have a foundation for our beliefs about God, about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, and about the church. Christology, like revelation, depends on a prior knowledge of and acquaintance with God. This is the logical order of the language of faith. From there we can move to broad speculations about the nature of God and the universe, using theological and philosophical tools.
The psychological order of coming to an attitude of faith and the development of beliefs, however, may not be and usually is not logical. One may come to share the Christian faith exclusively through belief in Jesus as the Christ, or through exposure to the life of the existing church, or through the contagion of the freedom of Christians. The moment of disclosure or discernment and the resulting commitment is not dictated by the logic of theological discourse. But if one comes to God through these other routes, as most people do, the intellectual sustaining of this faith ultimately goes back to belief in the existence of God as an "empirical anchor." Otherwise, one may be left with a Christology that is not grounded in God, as in van Buren’s case, or with a church that is not grounded in worship, or with Christian behavior that is not grounded in a grace-faith relationship.(See my Christian Nurture and the Church, pp. 33-35.)
One major task of Christian education, therefore, turns on the language that we can use to speak of the existence of God. This becomes the basis for all other talk about God, where there is room for speculation, imagination, fantasy, and hope.