A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. Used by permission. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 6: Religion
Some years ago a well-known book was written on the question of "the religious availability of Whitehead’s God."(Ely.) The conclusion reached in that book was decidedly negative. Some of Whitehead’s other interpreters have agreed that his God and the God of religion, at least the God of Western piety, are different. This is certainly true if the God of Western piety is narrowly defined in terms of one or another of the more common images. Whitehead vehemently rejected the notion of a transcendent creator God who by an act of the will called all things into being out of nothing and continues to govern omnipotently from outside his creation.(RM 69-70; PR 519-520.) Supernaturalist piety, in many of its connotations, is ruled out. But from the very first introduction of thought about God into his system of philosophical ideas, Whitehead affirmed that that of which he wrote was that which had inspired the worship of the ages.(SMW 257, 275-276.)
In Whitehead’s view, not all of God’s functions in relation to the world have relevance to this evocation of the religious response. He wrote also of the secular function of God, and he affirmed that the tendency to neglect this dimension of God’s work in the world has been damaging for both philosophy and theology.(PR 315-316.) But in his view it is the God of religious faith who also performs these secular functions.
Whitehead believed that the phenomenology of religion is to be explained by reference to man’s apprehension of that reality which he discussed in philosophical terms. His account of religion is to be found primarily in Religion in the Making, although there are important discussions also in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas. For his work on religion Whitehead depended heavily on secondary sources, and his familiarity with these was limited. Despite these limitations, his work contains some illuminating insights. His comments on the great importance of ardent rationalism for the health of religion(RM 64, 85-86.) are especially valuable. Nevertheless, the greatest value of these discussions is the light they throw upon his philosophy and upon the general way in which he understood philosophy to be related to religion.
Of greater interest is the relation of Whitehead’s philosophical treatment of God to his own religious response. Here we have the most reliable starting point for considering how what he calls God is religiously relevant, for here he is contributing at firsthand to our understanding of religion in the modern world. The major elements of his own religious response can be summed up under five headings: worship, adventure, meaning, companionship, and peace. What can be said on each of these points is intimately interconnected with what is said on the others, but for purposes of our consideration separate treatment will be helpful.
Religion is not a means to any end beyond itself. Only in its decadence can it be supported on the ground that it contributes to the good of society. "Conduct is a by-product of religion -- an inevitable by-product, but not the main point." (SMW 274.) Religion is a vision of that "whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach,"(SMW 275.) and the reaction to this vision is worship.(SMW 275.) One does not worship in order to achieve some good. One worships because that which he dimly apprehends evokes worship. Worship, in turn, strengthens and communicates the vision. But "the worship of God is not a rule of safety -- it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure."(SMW 276.)
Unlike "worship," "adventure" is a term that is given a somewhat technical meaning in Whitehead’s discussion of values. In this connection it has been treated briefly in Chapter III. It may be explained here in connection with the problem there discussed as the relation between present attainment of some perfection of beauty and the partial sacrifice of such attainment for the sake of the future. If a culture has achieved some high form of beauty, it can continue to reproduce that achievement. Such reproductions have real value, but they begin to grow stale. There is a loss of zest and intensity. The culture begins to decline.
The alternative to such a decline is the occurrence of some new ideal of perfection as yet unrealized and not subject to immediate achievement. If this ideal seizes the imagination, it inspires new vigor of effort. This will entail a loss of harmony, a large element of present discord. Nevertheless, it is only thereby that new beauty with new strength can be attained. This quest for beauty not yet realized and perhaps only dimly imagined is the adventure with which Whitehead is concerned.
The relation between adventure and God can easily be shown. In every occasion God is the lure toward its ideal realization. This lure is toward a good partly to be realized in the immediate satisfaction and partly realizable only in the future. Whatever value might be realized in the immediate present and proximate future, God envisions possibilities of infinite variety in contrast to those presently attainable. He who is captured by the vision of some such possibility, and he alone, will respond to the call of adventure. Thus, God is the urge to adventure and the ground of the possibility of the response.
For the third aspect of Whitehead’s religious response, I have used the term "meaning." Whitehead’s general mood was one of quiet confidence. Life to him seemed worth living. But this confidence was not derived from any assurance about history or about nature. His own vision of all things was of their perpetual perishing. In this lies the ultimate evil in the world.(PR 517.) As we view the world, there is always loss as well as gain. The achievements of new civilizations are not primarily to be seen as better -- they may well be inferior -- but simply as different. This difference is important, even necessary, as we have seen above, but the constant superseding of old values by new ones that exclude them does not provide a basis for apprehending the meaning of life. Viewed only at this level, Whitehead wrote, "human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience." (SMW 275.)
In his own understanding, Whitehead’s confidence was grounded in his vision of God. The vision of God does not assure the success of the good in the world. (There is a possible exception to this sweeping generalization. In connection with the phrase cited in the last paragraph, Whitehead bases a confidence in the future on his view that the religious vision itself, despite its frequent waning (as in recent centuries – [SMW 269; RM 44] always "recurs with an added richness and purity of content" [SMW 275] This ground of confidence is not reiterated in later works.) Whitehead does not introduce God to guarantee an issue from the uncertainties of life different from that which empirical experience suggests. Our predictions as to the future of history and of nature must be made on the basis of our knowledge of these dimensions of reality, not in terms of a privileged belief about God. But the vision of God nevertheless guarantees the worthwhileness of present life whatever may be its temporal outcome.
In part it seems to be the sheer fact that there is a permanence "beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things" that inspires the sense of the worthwhileness of these things themselves.(SMW 275.) In part there is some sense that man’s "true destiny as cocreator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur." (Dial 371.) But primarily Whitehead’s treatment of this theme, that values are after all worth achieving despite their transience, is associated with his doctrine of the consequent nature of God.
In technical terms, the consequent nature of God is his physical pole or the totality of his prehensions of all other entities. In less technical terms this means God’s knowledge and memory of the world. Yet this does not capture the full richness of Whitehead’s intention. A prehension is a reenactment of that which is prehended; it means that what is experienced is taken up into the new experience. Thus, just as some fragments of the past are taken up vividly into our new human experiences, so all things in the world are taken up into God’s experience. Whatever we do makes a difference to God. In that case, we cannot regard our slightest acts as finally unimportant. Further, what is taken up into God is not primarily our public behavior; it is our experience in the full intimacy of its subjective immediacy.(We have noted before, that Whitehead may not have intended that the subjective immediacy itself is retained in God.) Our deepest thoughts and most private feelings matter, and they can matter to us because they matter to God.
Not only does God experience our experience and include it within his own, but also in him there is no transience or loss. The value that is attained is attained forever. In him, passage and change can mean only growth. Apart from God, time is perpetual perishing.(PR 196.) Because of him, the achievements of the world are cumulative. It is this aspect of the vision of God which ultimately sustains us in the assurance that life is worth living and that our experience matters ultimately.
The fourth feature of Whitehead’s apprehension of the religious meaning of the vision of God is companionship. This overlaps with what has just been said about the preservation of values in God, but it introduces a new note expressed in several moving passages. For example: "The depths of his existence lie beyond the vulgarities of praise or of power. He gives to suffering its swift insight into values which can issue from it. He is the ideal companion who transmutes what has been lost into a living fact within his own nature. He is the minor which discloses to every creature its own greatness." (RM 154-155.) And again, "The image -- and it is but an image -- the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost." (PR 525.)
In these passages we sense that Whitehead’s doctrine of the consequent nature of God meant something more for him than the assurance that his life had meaning ultimately. It meant also that God cared as an ideal companion cares. Whitehead knew, of course, that this was anthropomorphic language and that terms like "companion" and "tender care" cannot be applied to God’s relation to us without qualification. But this does not mean that this language about God is analogical in the Thomistic sense. On the contrary, the relation between God and man can be stated in univocal language. This was done in Chapters IV and V. But in the passages quoted above Whitehead states nontechnically, and therefore not altogether literally, the meaning of this relation to the human believer who experiences it. The language becomes richer in connotations, some of which must not be pressed, but it retains a basis in univocal predication.
There is a final factor in the relation of man to the consequent nature of God that further strengthens this sense of the divine companionship. By reason of the relativity of all things, we know that we also prehend the consequent nature of God. In this fourth phase of the interrelations of God and man "the creative action completes itself. For the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience. For the kingdom of heaven is with us today. The action of the fourth phase is the love of God for the world. It is the particular providence for particular occasions. What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion -- the fellow-sufferer who understands." (PR 532.)
I have quoted this passage along with the others because the dull prose of my own writing may lead the reader to doubt the seriousness of Whitehead’s religious intentions. Clearly, in passages like this, he means to wed the careful philosophical formulation of speculative doctrine with the rich warmth of his own emotional response. He believes in the wedding of the vividness of religious experience and the rigor of critical reason. Man’s prehension of the physical pole of the divine actual entity is also his experience of "the fellow-sufferer who understands." And it is with this richer formulation that Whitehead closes his most technical philosophical treatise.
Adventures of Ideas also closes on a profoundly religious note. The concluding chapter is on "peace." I have dealt with peace before in Chapter III, and will not write at such length again. However, at that time I was attempting to explain Whitehead’s theory of value without reference to God. Now we can see how peace depends upon, perhaps in a comprehensive sense is, the vision of God.
Thus far, in discussing the consequent nature of God, I have written as if God simply took up into himself the values of the world and preserved them. If that were so, God’s consequent nature would include the evil in the world as well as the good. While we could take joy in contributing to his good, we must perforce find terror in our contribution to ultimate and undying evil. Such. a vision would indeed give meaning to life, it would help to sustain adventure, but it would also lend anxiousness to human striving. It is Whitehead’s belief that finally in God good and evil are not on the same plane. God weaves into his own nature all that is good, and what is evil in the world he transmutes into an enrichment of the total good. In this sense, in God the good triumphs.(RM 155; PR 525.)
There is another factor, thus far inadequately indicated, that makes for peace. This is commitment to ideals beyond oneself such that one’s own fate, perhaps even one’s own contribution to the divine life, loses for oneself decisive significance. There can be a love of humanity in general that guides one’s acts and determines one’s feelings. This freedom from bondage to self-concern is a part of what Whitehead means by peace.(AI 368.) This too is a response to the vision of God.
But peace as the final inclusive response of man to the vision of God cannot be explained rationally or articulated in other terms. It refers to a state of serenity that is a gift. "The trust in the self-justification of Beauty introduces faith, where reason fails to reveal the details." (AI 367-368.) And this faith finally "comes as a gift." (AI 368.) It would not matter to Whitehead whether we said this gift of faith is the gift of God, or of life, or of nature, for it is in life and nature that God works. But we must recognize that the gift of faith comes largely beyond the control of purpose." (AI 368.) The gift comes through the vision of "something which stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest." (SMW 275.) That vision and the response to that vision is religion.
In all these ways the vision of God was for Whitehead the basis for all reality of meaning and all depth of feeling. Yet it would be very false to conclude that Whitehead was preoccupied with religion. He returns to it again and again, but the great body of his attention is focused on what we have learned to call penultimate questions. The vision of God is there in the background securing the importance of these questions. It is rarely itself at the center of the stage.
Whitehead’s own spirit was urbane rather than intense. It would be false to say that he was not a deeply committed man, but for the most part he preferred the stance of the dispassionate observer. He stood aloof from all party spirit, especially in religion. In each religious movement he noted both strengths and weaknesses. One never senses that in any form of its expression can Whitehead find that with which he would identify himself finally. The one exception may be an element in Jesus’ own ministry. Even here as historian he notes the peculiar conditions that made possible the emergence of a doctrine that is socially irresponsible.(AI 19-21.) Yet in that doctrine he sees a vision that is also very much his own. He writes, for example: "There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present." (PR 520-521.) Whatever one may think of the historic accuracy of this portrayal of the message of Jesus, one can see that here was a figure by whom Whitehead was deeply moved.
Whitehead’s vision begins with the world and moves out step by step toward its limits and beyond. Only as it is completed in that which is beyond itself, is its own importance and reality vindicated. Hence, in retrospect we can see that the whole enterprise of understanding and of life is suffused and sustained by the dim apprehension of the beyond. In this sense Whitehead’s vision is religious through and through.
But there is another quite different way of responding to the vision at which Whitehead arrived. Rather than seek in it security of meaning for that which is immediately given in the world, one might reverse one’s approach. He might begin with the vision of the whole and reevaluate the valuation of the parts in the light of that comprehensive vision. Jonathan Edwards, who well represents the alternative type of religious response to a philosophical vision, proclaimed as the essence of rational obligation that one should "consent to being." (Jonathon Edwards, Notes on the Mind, Sec. 45.) By this he meant that one’s attention and concern should be directed toward every entity in proportion to its being and excellence. The details of his exposition do not concern us here, but it will be found that they correspond closely with the theory of value and ethics developed in Whiteheadian terms in Chapter III. Despite the profound difference of spirit between Whitehead and Edwards, the similarity of their thought would make an exceedingly interesting study.
If we accept the view that consent to being is the ultimate principle by which life should be lived, and if we understand being and the distribution of being as Whitehead understands it, then a religious sensibility quite alien to that of Whitehead may result. In God all the being of the world is included and everlastingly preserved, and to it he adds the incomparable riches of his own vision. To consent to being must mean to love God wholly and ultimately, and that every act which follows from a motive in tension with the love of God is a violation of the final obligation imposed upon us by our rational power of self-transcendence. Of course, there can be in Whitehead’s vision no antithesis between love of God and love of the temporal creatures. Love of God must express itself in love of the creature, for it is by contributing to the creature that we contribute to God.
My point in these brief comments is that a passionately theocentric faith may follow from the Whiteheadian vision just as appropriately as Whitehead’s urbanely humanistic faith. Nothing in the cosmology itself determines such a question. The difference lies in the dimension of sensibility and especially religious sensibility. There are God-intoxicated men and there are others for whom the reality of God provides the context within which they can express their concern for their fellowmen. Somewhere between these two poles most religious men find themselves.
2. Religious Belief and Religious Experience
In the preceding section we have been considering Whitehead’s own religious response to his philosophic vision. Undoubtedly there were elements in his religious experience that affected his philosophic doctrine. But our focus was upon his convictions and upon the way in which they gave meaning and peace to his life. In this section I propose to consider other ways in which Whitehead’s philosophic vision, especially in the form in which I developed it in Chapter V, can evoke a religiously important response. I propose also, however, to consider what may be called more properly, religious experience, in the sense of conscious experience of God. Whitehead certainly allows for such experience, and his own vision may indeed have involved or been affected by experiential elements in this sense, but I will not try further to consider this question in terms of Whitehead’s personal belief or experience. In this section I will treat religious belief and religious experience in abstraction from each other, how each may be understood from a Whiteheadian perspective, and how they should be conceived in their relations with each other.
In Chapter V it was argued at some length that God is the decisive factor in the creation of each new occasion.(See Ch. V, sec. 5.) How an occasion becomes is finally determined by its own decision, but that a new occasion occurs at all cannot be determined by itself. It may be that Whitehead intended to attribute the fact of its occurrence to creativity, but I have argued that his philosophic principles do not allow this. "Creativity" describes in the most comprehensive terms what occurs everywhere, even in God, but ultimately the creator of every occasion is God. God shares this role of creation with past temporal occasions, but in the end they in turn derive their being from beyond themselves. And in each moment the decisive factor is God. Whatever Whitehead’s own intentions and preferences may have been, his thought systematically requires that we recognize God as the "ground of our being," as he upon whom we are dependent for our existence.
God’s determination that an occasion occur does not determine precisely how it shall occur. On the other hand, it is far from irrelevant to how it shall occur. God offers to every occasion an ideal opportunity for its self-actualization or satisfaction. I have suggested that other past occasions likewise may communicate to the new occasion their aims for it, so that the initial aim of the occasion may already include some complexity. That satisfaction at which the occasion does in fact aim is some modification or specification of this initial aim that includes the ideal factor derived from God. The subjective form of the satisfaction of the occasion is affected by the relation of the satisfaction to the ideal aim given by God. The whole range of moral experience is an expression of man’s relation to God.
That our environment provides an order that makes possible intensity and continuity of experience is also the work of God. God so adjusts the ideal aim of each occasion as to achieve relationships of social order and personal order. The gradually evolving order of the universe is his work, apart from which all higher phases of experience would be impossible.
We know God, then, as the ground of being, the ground of purpose, and the ground of order. Each of these dimensions of our total relationship to God is experiential in one sense, but not in the sense in which I am speaking of religious experience in this chapter. Our experience is deeply affected, indeed made possible, by these relationships with God. But we do not consciously experience God as we experience the results of his work. We do experience our existence as not of our own doing, as in this sense given. But in this we do not experience the giver. Our self-experience can be interpreted in terms of "thrownness" rather than as a gift of God.(Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. By John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1962], pp. 223, 264, and passim.) We experience ourselves as having purposes and more vaguely as failing to be all that we could or should be. But we do not experience the giver of the purpose or the source of the norm of judgment. The experience allows itself to be interpreted simply in terms of an existential structure without reference to a ground. Likewise, we recognize an orderliness in the world as we experience it, but rather than attribute it to God, we may view it as grounded in nature itself or even in our experiencing processes.
Thus, the experience itself, in abstraction from all interpretation, is not a religious experience. However, experience does not factually occur in such abstraction. Hence, for the man who lives by the theistic vision, in this case the Whiteheadian theistic vision, the experience of his being, his moral nature, and his orderly environment can be an experience of God in the secondary sense. The believer experiences his existence as a gift of God, his motives and acts in relation to God’s purpose, and the totality of nature as God’s ordered creation. From the point of view of the philosophical position developed in this book, the believer is philosophically correct.
If indeed the believer’s interpretation is the correct one, then we may suppose that it is the more "natural" one. By a natural interpretation I mean one arising most spontaneously out of the experience itself, one least dependent on preformed intellectual convictions. A case could be made for this. Man does seem naturally religious, and this does mean among other things that he experiences life as in relation with suprahuman power. It does seem that a thorough secularization of interpretation depends upon a high degree of intellectual sophistication in which rational objections to religious belief play a large role.
However, we should not place too much weight upon this. Other explanations of man’s natural religiousness are possible which contain no reference to the actuality of suprahuman powers. Furthermore, the monotheistic interpretation defended above has depended for its emergence either upon an inner purification of religion through the prophets or upon the rational philosophical development and critique of religion. For any full clarification, both are probably necessary. Hence, while preferring the view that the theistically interpreted experiences carry their warrant in themselves, that is, that the grounding in God is susceptible to some dim manifestation within these experiences, we must grant that the interpretive element is predominant.
Consciousness is a very special and limited feature of human experience. We have noted that consciousness presupposes experience and that most of our experience never attains consciousness. Hence, we should not suppose that the failure to experience God consciously means that we do not experience him at all, any more than the failure to experience consciously the innumerable events in our brain means that we are not, in fact, experiencing them. However, unlike man’s relation to these latter events, some men do believe that they have special and vivid experiences of God, and I am here treating such experiences as religious experiences in the primary sense. Our question then is as to what aspects of our experience of God are most susceptible of becoming conscious as experiences of him. To approach an answer to this question, we must briefly survey the results of the analysis in Chapters IV and V as to the relevant respects in which man prehends God.
The primary factor in the relations between God and man treated thus far in this section has been God’s provision to each occasion of its initial aim. Whitehead refers this function of God to the primordial nature. I have argued at some length that Whitehead has too sharply separated the two natures of God. (See Chapter V, sec. 1.) If we identify the primordial nature of God with his purely conceptual prehensions and the consequent nature with his purely physical prehensions, then much of the actuality of God can be assigned to neither nature. All the higher phases of experience, whether in man or God, involve the fusion of physical and conceptual prehensions in what Whitehead calls "impure prehensions." (PR 49.) All propositional feelings, for example, are impure prehensions, and I have argued that God entertains with respect to every new occasion an imaginative proposition of which the occasion is the logical subject, and an ideal possibility for its actualization -- ideal given the condition of its world -- is the logical predicate.(Again see Ch. V, sec. 1.) God’s propositional feeling is clothed with the subjective form of desire that the proposition become true. If this be the correct interpretation of Whitehead, then the initial aim of the occasion, as the feeling of God’s propositional feeling for it, is not a feeling of a pure conceptual feeling on God’s part but a feeling of an impure prehension involving the interweaving of physical and conceptual prehensions. In the derivation of the initial aim from God, it is God as actual entity who is prehended, not simply the primordial nature.
Whitehead elsewhere discussed the prehension of the consequent nature of God as if that in its turn were quite separable from the prehension of the primordial nature. But this is equally misleading. There may, of course, be some prehension of God in terms of his purely physical feelings, but Whitehead’s actual account of this prehension as "the love of God" flooding "back again into the world" (PR 532.) hardly suggests that only purely physical feelings are involved. I have proposed that we distinguish between our prehension of God’s aim for us and our prehension of all other aspects of God rather than between prehensions of the primordial and of the consequent natures of God. All the important prehensions of God are hybrid prehensions, since they objectify him for the new occasion by eternal objects that occur in God’s conceptual feelings. In this respect they are like a man’s prehensions of past occasions in his own life history, especially the immediate past occasion of experience.
Hybrid prehensions differ greatly as to the extent to which they bring to focus in the new occasion the objectivity, otherness, or it-ness of the occasion prehended. In Whitehead’s discussion of the prehension by the dominant occasion of the occasions in the body, he notes how many of the events, for example, in the central nervous system function only to communicate the feelings originating at the nerve endings. (PR 184.) These termini are objectified. I feel a toothache as an ache in my tooth, and I can be fully conscious both that I am in pain and that events in my tooth are being felt in my pain. If the transmission of the pain from my tooth to my brain is interrupted by novocaine, the cells in my tooth may continue to have the same feelings as before, but I as the dominant occasion in my body no longer reenact or objectify these feelings.
Consider as another example more nearly analogous to that of our prehensions of God, our prehensions of our own past occasions of experience. Specifically consider the prehension of the immediately preceding occasion of experience, perhaps a tenth of a second earlier. In this relation, much of what the present occasion includes in its consciousness is directly derived from what was consciously entertained in the predecessor occasion. Yet normally we do not consciously objectify that predecessor occasion. To do so at all requires a very unusual redirection of attention away from the worlds of sense experience and of reflection that usually absorb consciousness. Nevertheless, my consciousness of a certain purpose may be dimly qualified by the consciousness that my present entertainment of that purpose did not originate in the moment in question but derived from the preceding moment of experience. This sense of derivation from our own past as well as from our bodies and their environment has an important effect upon consciousness despite the fact that it is almost always at its periphery.
If Whitehead’s philosophical analysis is correct, we, in fact, derive also from God. We should expect, therefore, that a dim sense of the derivation of our initial aim from God should also qualify our consciousness of purpose. That it, in fact, does so is the widespread testimony of religious men. But we are now asking how it happens that at times what is normally on the extreme fringes of consciousness can come to occupy its center.
My suggestion, in line I believe with Whitehead’s intention, is that consciousness of God in any focused sense is usually associated with prehensions of him other than the derivation of the initial aim. Consciousness depends upon contrast and negation, (PR 399.) whereas God’s role in our derivation of the initial aim is unvarying, however much the aim may vary. The weight of atmosphere we constantly experience does not enter into our consciousness, although we would be aware of its sudden removal. In the case of our initial aim, God’s abrogation of his constant role would mean our nonexistence; so consciousness by contrast is impossible.
In the remainder of this section we will consider primarily the other way in which God is prehended, that is, as one among the initial data of the human occasion. Even here we see that the constancy of God’s presence militates against consciousness of him. In the consciousness of most of us most of the time, God’s presence as part of our total actual world functions only as another aspect of our dim and poorly discriminated sense of derivation from a real past. As in the case of the prehension of God’s aim for us, the totality of every experience is subject to interpretation with no reference at all to God’s presence. But those who interpret it in reference to the constant presence of God find their interpreted experience dimly qualified by that presence. In this case, however, an additional element of difference obtains between those who affirm and those who deny the presence. Where only the derivation of the initial aim is at stake, God’s effective activity for each occasion is not altered by belief or disbelief. He confronts believers and unbelievers alike with the ideal possibility for self-actualization. Each occasion continues to receive from him the now relevant ideal, an ideal that takes account of the new situation produced by the relative successes and failures of the past, but is always the best possibility for this new occasion now. But the causal efficacy of a past occasion for the present one in every other respect than the initial provision of the aim is affected by the aim of the new occasion, and in the human occasion the structure of belief affects the aim.
For these reasons, those who deny the presence of God so form their subjective aim as to reduce the efficacy of that presence for them. Since every entity in the world of an occasion must be positively prehended, God is never totally excluded. But God’s causal efficacy beyond the provision of the initial aim may be reduced to triviality. On the other hand, those who affirm the presence of God may so form their subjective aims that God’s causal efficacy for them may be maximized. It may even impinge upon consciousness in such a way as rather clearly to confirm the belief that facilitates that impingement. Faith can lead to experiential self-validation.
But not all religious experience is a vague, persistent concomitant of the everyday life of the believer. It can also appear in dramatic ways in moments that seem almost wholly discontinuous with ordinary life. There are, for example, intense experiences of the numinous, and ecstatic experiences of union and communion. If we are to understand the occurrence of such experiences, we must consider both the ontological and the ontic bases for their occurrence. In all this we are simply assuming the authenticity of the experience.
The experience of the holy may be considered first. It is widely regarded as coterminous with religious experience. He who dimly experiences the presence of God in his whole life is also dimly experiencing God as holy. The periodic intensification of the experience is at the same time an intensification of the sense of the holy. Indeed, holiness may be identified as the subjective form of the prehension of God in the mode of causal efficacy. Any particular prehension of God may involve other subjective forms, but this one is constant. Hence, God is the Holy One. The element of the holy does not disappear even in experiences of most intimate union or communion.
In Whiteheadian terms, ontological union with God is impossible. Any occasion in a human living person remains such, and God remains God. If at any point there were no member of the serially ordered society constituting the living person, then the human person simply would not exist. That could not be called union with God. Nevertheless, the ecstatic experience often interpreted as union with God can be given strict ontological explanation in the categories of thought developed in this book.
Every occasion in a living person inherits from past occasions of experience of that living person; it inherits from occasions in other living persons; it inherits from the occasions constituting the body of which it is the presiding member; and it inherits from God. When the dominant line of inheritance is that from earlier occasions in the living person, then personal identity is maximized. This identity may or may not be weakened by the occurrence of strong influences from other living persons, but in any case, these influences create intimate interpersonal relations. When the predominant determinants of a human occasion are from the body, the occasion tends to become subhuman and subpersonal in character, for this means that it is doing little more than playing its role in stimulus-response mechanisms of the psychophysical organism.
The fourth possibility is that the becoming occasion inherit primarily from God. That means that the causal efficacy of God for that occasion would exceed in importance for its satisfaction that of all other occasions combined. If this should occur, then the occasion in question is largely dissociated from its identity with the living person, its social relationships with other human beings, and even its interactions with its body. All of these would remain, but they would be reduced to triviality. In that case, the occasion would be constituted largely by its continuity with God. Such an experience could be quite literally described as ecstatic. Experientially speaking, it may well be understood as an experience of union with God, even though, philosophically speaking, actual identity must be denied.(My dogmatic denial may not be warranted on strictly metaphysical grounds. Whitehead notes the possibility that two enduring objects can intersect in a single occasion belonging to both objects. [PR 302.] I do not believe, however, that such intersection can meaningfully be affirmed of living persons.)
An experience of communion is differentiated from that of union by the continuing self-identity of the human person. The human occasion continues to inherit from its personal past to an important degree. Its inheritance from God is therefore experienced as the prehension of an Other. However effective that prehension may be in the satisfaction of the becoming occasion, the sense of the distinctness of the living person from what is thereby prehended remains. Thus, the relation is one of intimacy of two persons rather than of unity between them.
It must be stressed again that the ontological possibility of experiences of this sort does not determine whether they actually occur. This is a purely ontic question. On purely ontic grounds there do seem to be reports of experiences susceptible of interpretation in these terms. These reports are also susceptible of interpretation in other terms such as psychoanalytic ones. Hence, they do not constitute proof of the actual occurrence of the ontological relationships described. However, such explanations as the psychoanalytic ones force upon the report an interpretation much more remote from the spontaneous self-understanding of the experience itself. Hence, an initial prejudice in favor of the present interpretation is legitimate. My assumption is that the "natural" or more spontaneous interpretation of an experience is to be preferred to one that imposes on the experience categories not suggested within it.
Granting the occurrence of religious experiences of these sorts, the question of value also remains open. Those who have had these experiences commonly report great intrinsic value. Also, in some cases lasting beneficial results appear to follow. On the other hand, widespread efforts to achieve such experiences may distract from pressing needs and still fail to achieve their distinctive goals. In most religious communities mystical experience is not held up as a goal before all.
We will now consider the conditions most likely to lead to this heightened consciousness of God. We may suppose that whether or not the prehensions of one’s own past occasions are drastically deemphasized or downvalued in the satisfaction, at least the prehensions of other living persons and of the occasions of bodily experience must be excluded from any important role. This means, first, that perception in the mode of presentational immediacy must be down-valued. The subject must dissociate himself from sight, sound, and touch. Since we experience God only in the mode of causal efficacy, this usually unconscious side of our experience must be brought into dominant awareness. Then within this unconscious dimension there must be a further downvaluing of the causal efficacy of the body. Finally, many elements in the causal efficacy of the past occasions of the living person must be excluded from importance. Only if vivid awareness can be sustained through this long process of negation, would one expect the prehension of God in the mode of causal efficacy to attain predominance in consciousness.
Thus far the assumption has been made that in the variation of religious experience the variable is man and not God. A great deal of religious thought tacitly or explicitly does assume this, but there is no ontological necessity for this restriction. The causal efficacy of one entity for another is determined both by the subjective aim of the prehending occasion and by that of the prehended occasion.
To varying degrees, an occasion may actualize itself with an aim at the future. Its aim is not only at its own satisfaction but to achieve that satisfaction in such a way as to lay a very specific obligation on its successors. When consciousness is present, this aim to affect the future can and often is conscious.
For example, when I begin to say a word, I place a considerable obligation upon successive occasions constituting my personal life to finish just that word. When I begin to type a sentence, I place a slightly vaguer obligation on my successive occasions to finish that sentence. When I sign a contract to write a book, I place a much vaguer but still potent obligation on more remote future occasions. But my aim to affect the future is not only an aim to affect my own future. When I say a word, I usually intend that it be heard and have some effect on the thinking, feeling, or activity of some other person. When I type a sentence, I usually hope that it will be read. When I sign a contract, I intend to bind another party as well as myself.
All this is so evident that its elaboration may seem pointless. But it is important to use these simple illustrations to emphasize that what is prehended depends not only on the prehender but also on the prehended occasion’s intention that it be prehended in a certain way. It would be arbitrary to deny to God this freedom to differentiate his relations to particular occasions. Hence, we may suppose that God may well take the initiative in presenting himself to human occasions with peculiar force and specific efficacy prior to and quite independently of their self-preparation or desire for this occurrence. Whether God does so, when, and where, are entirely ontic questions. However, some religious traditions have been so convinced that God does take very particular and decisive initiative that they belittle all attempts of man to attain to an experience of God by his own efforts. Hence, there does seem to be important evidence of the divine initiative.
Thus far in this discussion of religious experience as experience of God, attention has been directed only to that kind of experience in which no sensuous element plays a significant role. Such pure spiritual experiences do seem to occur and to play a critical role in the understanding of religion. But far more of what we ordinarily call religious experience involves the mediation of visual objects, sounds, lighting effects, smells, and bodily movement as means of evoking the awareness of the presence of God and the apprehension of the meaning of God for life.
This suggests that there are sensuous elements in experience that have some association with the prehension of God such that the accentuation of the former accentuates also the latter. Most of these sensuous elements gain their function through a particular history. The cross and the sacraments, for example, receive most, if not all, of their meaning for Christians through the story of Jesus. However, there may be also some natural associations between sensuous objects and the experience of the divine. For example, it may be that any sufficiently mysterious sensuous experience tends to break through our usual structuring of experience so as to allow the inbreaking into awareness of elements not usually conscious. In this way we could understand how some such sense objects might facilitate the consciousness of the prehension of God. Once again, these are purely ontic questions to be studied in the psychology and phenomenology of religion. However, ontic questions are in fact approached very differently according to the categories of description or explanation available to the investigator. In this respect purely hypothetical suggestions such as the ones made here may be relevant to the determination of fact.
All experience of God, whether primarily characterized by the experience of the holy or by union or communion, whether involving or rejecting sensuous symbols, is experience of one who is "wholly other." This expression can mean many things, and some of these meanings are excluded by the doctrine of God formulated in this book. But a doctrine of God that intends to speak of the object of religious experience must come to terms with this experiential fact.
"Wholly other" means, first of all, numerically other. Man is not God. Even in the most extreme case of " union with God," the radical difference between man and God remains. If "union" is actually attained, this can only be at the price of total dissolution of the human self in that which is wholly other to it. This would mean strictly that at some moment there would be no occasion occurring in the serially ordered society that is the human living person. That this is possible is doubtful, but even if it should happen, the numerical otherness of God and man would not be abridged.
More important, God is experienced as qualitatively "other." This otherness is not only otherness to myself but otherness to every other experienced datum. God is not experienced as one-among-others. When one tries to describe what is experienced in the experience of God, the major factor in the description must be one of contrast. Typically this contrast takes such forms as pointing to the invisibility of God as over against the visibility of the things we ordinarily think of ourselves as experiencing.
In Whiteheadian terms, many of these contrasts are much less clear or important than is usually supposed. For example, it is not God only who is invisible. On the contrary, very few if any actual occasions are visible in any simple and direct sense. Enduring objects, which are personally ordered societies of occasions, can sometimes be made "visible" through the use of instruments. But even in this way, it is doubtful that we ever see any single actual occasion. Furthermore, such enduring objects as we do see we can see only because of their predominantly physical character. Living persons, which are enduring objects composed of primarily mental occasions, can never be seen. We never see other persons, only their bodies. We never see past occasions of our own experience, although we may reenact their visual experiences. Hence, God’s invisibility is not really so distinctive a characteristic.
It may be argued that in the case of other occasions we can see their bodies, or their brains, or their effects on corpuscular societies, or that we can detect their occurrence by the use of mathematical formulae and scientific instruments, whereas God can be seen in no way. Some difference there surely is, but hardly so clear-cut as this. God’s relation to the world is one that makes a difference -- indeed, all the difference -- in all that is seen. The world has to God a relation dimly analogous to that of the brain to the living person. The clear difference between God and all other occasions with respect to visibility seems only to be that whereas in all other cases we can contrast the state of things in which the entity is absent with that in which it is present, to think of God as radically absent is to think of nothing at all.
What is said here of sight applies equally to the other senses. Our sense organs have evolved for the purpose of relating us practically to complex societies -- especially corpuscular societies external to our bodies, and they have only indirect relevance for our relations with individual occasions. Experience in the mode of presentational immediacy, of which sense perception is an important part, arises in late stages of the concrescence of an actual occasion by a process of transmuting the numerous prehensions of individual occasions into a simplified datum that can be projected upon some contemporary region. The foundation of all experience, certainly of the experience of God, lies in the nonsensuous prehension of individual entities.
Although individual occasions do not come to focus in sense perception, they can impress meanings upon us that do rise to consciousness. My own past experiences can have causal efficacy for the present such that elements occurring in them are reenacted in the present occasion. There is cumulative evidence that such impressions do occur also in the relations of occasions in one living person to those in another, as in mental telepathy. Hence, we may speak quite literally of a nonsensuous perception of meanings. If God " speaks" to man, this can be understood according to the same principle of the immediate impression of meanings upon the human occasion, although what is more commonly referred to as God’s speaking is a far less immediate effect.
That experience of this sort is nonsensuous does not mean that it may not be accompanied by sense experience. The analogy of dreams may be considered. In dreams new stimulation of eyes and ears by the outside world is not what is productive of the dream experience. The explanation of the content of the dream is to be sought primarily in the unconscious aspects of past occasions of the dreamer’s experience, although conscious aspects of those past experiences, immediate bodily influences, the self-determination of the new occasion of dream experience, and still other factors are not to be excluded. Dreams are to be understood as primarily nonsensuous experiences in the sense that they derive from nonsensuous perceptions. Nevertheless, we can and do describe the content of dreams in sensuous terms. The nonsensuous prehension of past occasions is transmuted into a peculiar kind of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, with many resemblances to, as well as many differences from, that of ordinary waking experience in which the sense organs play a prominent initiatory role.
In the same way, we should recognize that the direct impression of a meaning by God upon the human occasion might stimulate physiological activity such that there would be accompanying experiences of vision or audition. Once again it must be stressed that whether any of the human experiences that have been interpreted as the reception of divine communications have in fact involved such communications is a purely ontic question. At the very least, this account should warn us that in the reception of such divine communication the content of the communication is inevitably intertwined with other contents inherited from one’s own past and the environing world. The present analysis is intended only to show the process that would be involved should any such communication occur.
The experience of God is then wholly other from sense experience, but this does not sufficiently characterize its otherness. It is also other than every other type of non-sensuous experience. This otherness is often expressed in the contrast of infinite with finite or eternal with temporal. When these contrasts are pressed radically for their strictest philosophical meanings, they prove misleading and display implications counter to the original religious intention. But short of this finally misleading conclusion, the terms capture something of the uniqueness of the experience of God.
The finite is the limited, that which is here but not there, now but not then. God is wholly unlocalized. He is either everywhere or nowhere, and in some senses both terms must apply. Also, every other occasion depends for its occurrence on a power not its own and not given in preceding creaturely occasions. In each moment God derives the power to be from his own preceding state and is the ground of the being of his own future as of that of all other occasions. In all these senses, God is not finite, hence infinite. The term is good and useful as long as it is not taken also to deny that anything which can be said of finite entities can apply literally to God, that God’s experience can also be enriched, or that the future which is indeterminate in the world is indeterminate also in God’s knowledge.
The temporal is that which comes into being and perishes. God has neither a beginning nor an end. The temporal is characterized by the endless loss of achieved values. In God all that has been attained is forever preserved. In these important senses God is not temporal -- hence eternal. But the term "eternal" often carries other connotations. It points to a sphere to which time is irrelevant, a sphere in which process is simply not real. This is, indeed, the meaning of "eternal" for Whitehead as for much of traditional thought. Hence, he speaks of the eternal objects and of God’s eternal envisagement of them. But God, although not temporal in the sense of participating in perpetual perishing, is also not eternal. God is everlasting. (See Ch. V.)
Perhaps the experience of God in itself dimly suggests these contrasts of God and other entities, but for the most part we must recognize that these distinctions depend on highly developed reflection. This reflection arose in history long after the first experiences of God in his otherness. Hence, we must seek a more primitive ground of that otherness in the religious experience itself.
At this point, I suggest that the otherness of God expresses itself, paradoxically if you will, in his absolute nearness. Every other entity can be somehow distanced, either as temporally past or spatially separate, but God’s presence is absolutely present. He is numerically other, and qualitatively, incomprehensibly other. But this other is spatiotemporally not distant at all.
In Chapter IV, I presented an interpretation of. the relation of God to space-time in terms of which we may think of the extensive standpoint of God as including all the regions comprising the standpoints of other occasions. (See Ch. V.) Such an interpretation in its formulated state depends upon reflection, but it is closely allied to many of the spontaneous expressions of religious experience. If it is correct, then the peculiar character of the otherness of God in prereflective religious experiences can be understood. We are literally in God and God is literally in us -- and this in both directions in a way that is absolutely unique.
We are in many other actual occasions in the sense that they prehend us, but we are in no other entity in the sense that our standpoint is included in the region that comprises its standpoint. Many other actual occasions are in us in the sense that we prehend them. Also, there may be actual occasions whose standpoints are included in ours in the way ours are included in God’s. But in no other case can we think of another entity as sharing with us our entire standpoint. God is literally present in the region which is also our standpoint. Further, we are not to think of this as meaning only that some small part of God is there present. If we are thinking of the physical pole of God, that understanding may be appropriate. But Whitehead notes that the mental pole of an occasion and its satisfaction as a whole cannot be divided into parts. The whole is present equally in every physical part. Thus God, and not just part of God, is literally present with me and in me.
Yet this relation of mutual indwelling does not result in a relation of part to whole between myself and God. In its own becoming each occasion retains its privacy and its freedom of self-determination. Only as it becomes past is it included in the other in the sense of being prehended. Regional inclusion does not detract from ontological separateness. This unique relationship of the absolute co-presence of ontologically discrete entities may be understood as productive in part of the utter mysteriousness of the experience of God.
We have now considered at some length the possible forms of man’s experience of God. In some cases we have seen that beliefs about God and about the possibility and value of religious experience play a large role in determining whether conscious experience of God occurs and in what form and with what efficacy. There remains another dimension of belief about God which can have and has had profound importance for human experience. This is man’s belief that God experiences him.
The major, although not the only, objection to pressing the implications of infinite and eternal in their application to God is that they seem to render meaningless the belief that God knows and loves the world. Knowledge and love that have no effect upon the knower and lover are so remote from any notion of knowledge or love of which our imaginations are capable that the use of the words seems pointless.(This point has been made frequently and effectively by Hartshorne.) Whitehead is firmly convinced that in a quite literal sense God knows the world and that man can therefore know himself as known. He is also convinced that man’s knowledge that he is known and loved by God and that what he is and becomes is preserved by God is of supreme existential and religious importance. Apart from it, the apparent worthwhileness of life would be shattered by reflection. With it, the inmost meaning of each moment takes on importance.
The relation to experience of God of the belief that God knows us, loves us, and preserves our achievements is much the same as that of the beliefs discussed in the early part of this section. There we noted that the belief that God is the ground of our being, our purpose, and the order that sustains us may claim to reflect directly our experience of our own existence in an ordered world. Yet primarily it must be acknowledged as interpretation. In the same way, it may be that our self-experience is dimly tinged by an awareness of its openness to another, but primarily such awareness is a function of interpretation.
When one does understand his experience in this way, not only does the realization of valued satisfaction gain importance, but aspects of experience take on added importance for the experience itself. If we believe that God knows us in such a way that he knows our subjective aim and its relation to the ideal possibility with which he has confronted us, our motivation gains in our own eyes an urgency otherwise lacking. In Biblical terms, it is because God looks on the heart that man becomes aware of the heart as the center of his being. Only then does man’s dim awareness of estrangement from what he might ideally be, become a sense of sin requiring forgiveness. Hence, this belief that we are known by God has the profoundest influence upon experience even though it may not be viewed as itself a direct expression of the experience. Once experience is transformed in this way the direct experience of God discussed above may take the quite distinctive form of the forgiveness of sins.
This sketch of the many-sided possible relation of man to God is intended to suggest also the complex relations that can and do obtain between belief and experience. Some religious thinkers may minimize belief on the ground that only firsthand experience is authentic and reliable. Others may minimize experience on the ground that it is too private, too unpredictable, too likely to be illusory. Both sides have their point. Belief can have a profound effect upon our understanding of ourselves even when no conscious experience of God is present, and for the great majority of believers such belief is probably dominant in the formation of their religious lives. But belief not tested at any point against experience is both arid and untrustworthy. Likewise, the experience of God may be for some so vital that all interpretation and reflection seem invalid by comparison. But in the long run, it must be recognized that both the fact and the manner of the occurrence of the experience were not unaffected by preexisting categories of thought and expectation. Experienced interpretation and interpreted experience need each other for their mutual completion and correction.
3. The Religious and the Ethical
In the preceding section matters of ethical concern appeared incidentally from time to time. Also in Chapter III, there was extended treatment of ethics. Nevertheless, there is still need for additional consideration of ethics from the perspective gained in the discussion of God.
Many leading representatives of the great religions of mankind oppose preoccupation with conscious experience of God. They hold that man’s destiny and call, at least in this life, lie not in turning from the natural and the human to God, but in accepting the natural and the human as the proper spheres of his service. In extreme cases the call to service of the fellowman may be wholly dissociated from any belief in the divine, but more commonly it is held that it is just in concern for fellowman that right relation to the divine is achieved.
In Whiteheadian terms this view may be stated as that God’s ideal aim for each human occasion is directed toward a satisfaction that contributes to the strength of beauty of his fellowmen. Right relationship to God means the realization of the aim provided by him. Hence, the right relationship to God is established when the decision of the human occasion is oriented to the service of humanity.
In further development of this doctrine that man’s call is to the need of his fellow, one may move either toward a highly rational ethic or toward a total emphasis upon love. The inevitable tension between these two elements was discussed in Chapter III. (See Ch. III, sec. 5.) There it was argued that no simple inclusion of one of these principles within the other is possible. If there is final resolution, it must be in an impartial but personal love of all men -- a superhuman ideal. We can now see that fundamentally the same result can be achieved by the love of God. If God is truly loved, then all that comes from him and returns to him must be loved also for its own sake. The love of God must involve the impartial love of all and each. But even here the tension between spontaneity and reflective concern for the right distribution of goods is not entirely resolved.
In Chapter III it was noted that there is another element in Whitehead’s thought that may point toward an ideal solution of the ethical problem. To every occasion there is given an ideal aim. This ideal aim is formed in terms of all the factors relevant to that situation, most of them beyond the ken of the occasion itself. If in each decision that ideal aim is simply affirmed, then the ethical tensions can be surmounted. In the light of the discussion of God in Chapters IV and V, we can now add that the ideal aim is the gift of God. In conformity to God’s aim the ethical problems of rational reflection and spontaneity of concern would be transcended. Ideal religion would be the fulfillment of ethics without loss of its distinctively religious character.
Let us assume that perfect conformation to God’s aim for the occasion is the one norm transcending all tensions and all the differences of time, place, and circumstance. Does this provide any genuinely relevant basis for life? Or when we return to ask the question of what God’s aim may be, must we simply revive all the ethical and religious problems? I believe that the natural deduction from Whitehead’s thought and the experience of saintly people closely approximate each other in their answer to these questions.
I have suggested that we consider the initial aim of each occasion as a composite of the aims for it of all those entities in the past that have had specific aims for it. These entities would be past occasions in that living person, occasions in other living persons, subhuman occasions, and God. Of these, only the person’s own past and God have sufficient importance to detain us. We may consider, therefore, that in the initiation of each new occasion there is a complexity of aim due to the influence of these two sources. There is the aim at the fulfillment that one’s own past has aspired toward and there is the aim at that fulfillment which is offered the occasion by God. So long as these two aims are in tension with each other, we may suppose that in the decision by which the subjective aim is finally determined, there will be some compromise between them. This compromise will determine the aim that will be inherited from that occasion by its successors.
In Chapter III, I suggested that Whitehead’s doctrine that the aim at the ideal constituted the entire initial aim of the occasion might be interpreted as calling for a certain passivity in the becoming occasion so that in its decision it would not deviate from the ideal. Even there I argued that this conclusion need not be drawn. However, with the alternate assumption that the initial aim is composite, including God’s aim but not exhausted by it, the inappropriateness of passivity is much clearer. There must be some resolution of conflicting aims. Mere passivity might lead to a common denominator between them, but would fall far short of either.
The process whereby the subjective aim is formed is for the most part somewhere beneath the threshold of consciousness. Nevertheless, consciousness is dimly qualified by the sense of some "rightness in things, partially conformed to and partially disregarded." (RM 66.) This is the impact upon consciousness of the ideal aim given by God and the failure of the subjective aim finally to accord with that possibility. The consciousness of the difference between what is and what might be, and the sense of the rightness of what might be, can grow. A conscious desire may emerge that the conformity toward rightness be increased. A part of the aim of occasions for the future members of the living person to which they belong may be that the ideal aim in those occasions may be more fully realized. An occasion that inherits from its predecessors the aim to maximize the realization of the ideal aim has far greater possibilities of reaching a decision in which the ideal aim will be more adequately affirmed.
I assume that temporal occasions, even when in their clearly focused consciousness there is predominance of desire that the rightness in things be conformed to, also contribute to their successors more limited aims. Furthermore, I have argued that personal identity is maintained by the unmediated inheritance from still earlier occasions of experience of the living person. Hence, I suggest that no conscious decision to subordinate aims inherited from temporal occasions to that inherited from God will have immediate and total effect. Quite the contrary, it must function against almost insurmountable odds. Nevertheless, such conscious decisions can serve gradually to shift the balance from the determination of the new subjective aim by the person’s past to its determination by God. Perhaps, even, more sudden alterations are possible in extreme instances. In any case, the cumulative result of repeated and constantly renewed decisions to be open to and determined by God’s ideal aim can lead to a situation in which God’s aim for the occasion does achieve a kind of natural and unforced dominance. This condition we may describe as saintliness.
Even in the saint, I assume, tensions remain and conscious effort must still be made. Yet there does seem to be a transcendence of the need for constant reflection as to the moral good. There is a spontaneous conformity to the rightness in things that exceeds the saint’s own ability to foresee or explain. There is an inner directive agency for which the saint takes no credit but on which he profoundly relies. There is, in other words, the providential guidance of God.
I suggest, therefore, that there can be and is a kind of passivity in the saint that is wholly inappropriate in others. He can be passive because there is no duality in the aim that operates within him. His will is genuinely to do the will of God. But for the man who only in some moments wills to do that will, there is no alternative but to reflect upon the total ethical situation. He may, of course, attempt to begin the cultivation of that sensitivity which flowers in the saint, but he must emulate the saint’s depth of willing and not his passivity before the inner promptings. There is in the religious a transcending of the tensions of the ethical, but it lies at the end and not at the beginning of the road.
As to how a greater conformity to the ideal aim may be attained, that is a question which must be left to those who are expert in the direction of souls. Perhaps for some it may involve disciplines of introspection and contemplation. Perhaps for others the act of worship may be of chief importance. Perhaps for still others obedience in each new act to the best that they know may be the way.
The discussion of ethics in a religious context has brought us to the idea of providence. Some senses of this doctrine must simply be rejected. There cannot be in Whiteheadian terms some one goal for a man’s life set before his birth and unchanging through all the vicissitudes of time. The goal must be adjusted to every time and circumstance, to the decisions already made both by the man in question and by all those others whose decisions impinge upon his life. But there is a principle of guidance that is not subject to the limits of understanding in the person guided. And that principle works in harmony with itself also in other persons and things. Men are instruments of purposes they do not comprehend.
Unfortunately, the doctrine of providence has often been allowed to suggest that God has willed just that course of events which has in fact transpired. A doctrine of providence based on Whiteheadian concepts must deny that emphatically. Much that occurs is profoundly contrary to that at which God aims. The guidance of God is often, if not usually, thwarted. His purposes are therefore frequently ineffective. Yet God is not, for that reason, finally defeated. He constantly readjusts his aim to the partial successes and partial failures of the past so that some new possibility of achievement always lies ahead. The effectiveness of God’s providential concern depends upon the receptivity and responsiveness of man, yet the outcome is not simply the product of human effort.
In this last section we have been considering how the ideal aim received from God by which he exercises his providence for us resolves in principle the ethical tensions of human existence. We have been assuming that indeed it is in man’s concern for his fellowman that man fulfills God’s aim for his life and not in the quest for religious experience of God such as was treated in the preceding section. But it may be too simple to reject that quest in the name of ethical passion. Perhaps God’s purposes are more varied than that. Perhaps there are times and places at which for some persons at least the ideal aim must be at communion with God of an ecstatic kind. The task is to learn to discriminate the divine impulse from that inherited from one’s own past. It is finally only in that discrimination, and not in any principles, ethical or supraethical, that man can find his true end.
Key to References
Footnote references to books by or about Whitehead use the following abbreviations. Numbers after the abbreviations in the footnotes refer to pages unless otherwise indicated.
AI Adventures of Ideas. The Macmillan Company, 1933.
CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1920.
Dial… Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price. Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
ESP…Essays in Science and Philosophy. Philosophical Library, Inc., 1,947.
FR…The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929.
Imm "Immortality," in Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. See "Schilpp" below.
MT Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Company, 1938.
PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1919; second ed., 1925.
PR Process and Reality. The Macmillan Company, 1929.
RM Religion in the Making. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
SMW Science and the Modern World. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
Works about Whitehead are listed in the first footnote entry by author and title. Subsequent entries are usually by author only.
Blyth John W. Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. (Brown University Studies, Vol. VII.) Brown University Press, 1941.
Christian William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Yale University Press, 1959.
Ely Stephen Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.
Hammerschmidt William W. Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. King’s Crown Press, 1947
Johnson A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Beacon Press, Inc. 1952.
Kline George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Lawrence Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development University of California Press, 1956.
Leclerc Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. The Macmillan Company, 1958.
Leclerc (Ed.) Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. The Macmillan Company, 1961.
Lowe Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.
Palter Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Schilpp Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.
Sherburne Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press, 1961.