Can Whitehead Be Made a Christian Philosopher?

by Paul G. Kuntz

Paul C. Kuntz is professor of philosophy at Emory University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 232-242 , Vol. 12, Number 4, Winter, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


How do we define what a Christian is? Is it not dependent upon who does the defining? Whitehead was a Christian philosopher in the sense that will be recognized if Christianity becomes tolerant enough to universalize itself.

I have formulated a complex question, for it seems to presuppose that Whitehead was not a Christian philosopher. This I have done deliberately because an interesting point of beginning is a pair of documents that spell Out clearly why their authors cannot accept him as "Christian" or a "Christian philosopher."1 If to be a Christian means to pray to a supreme person who can satisfy the prayers of the devout, or if a Christian is necessarily a supernaturalist who holds that God is a power who brought the world into being out of nothing, then Whitehead was not a Christian or a Christian philosopher, and it is ridiculous to try to make him the patron philosopher of a movement now called "process theology." Since there is such a kind of "Christian philosophy" sometimes called a "Christian natural philosophy," we need to hear the affirmative as well as the negative side.2 It is important to present the problem dialectically so that a confrontation can help us recognize the presuppositions of what it is to be "Christian," to be a "philosopher," to be a "Christian philosopher." Depending on the meanings of each term, we may ascertain the truth of each claim and conclude with a clarification.

The early writer about Whitehead, Dorothy Emmet, whose Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, of 1932, was republished in 1966, is a model ignored by too many successors. She recognizes that the use of the philosophy of organism in Lionel Thornton’s The Incarnate Lord, 1928, which although accepting Whitehead’s view of the natural order, yet affirms "that Christ is not a product of the creative organic series but an irruption of the Logos-Creator (or the absolute eternal order) into the series." In spite of this failure to achieve thought that is both Christian and philosophically coherent, Dr. Emmet yet cannot resist restating doctrine in philosophical terms since she knows that theology must bring about a reconciliation of doctrine with a current philosophy as did the Greek Fathers. She likens creative power to God the Father; limitation or primordial nature to God the Son, the Logos; the consequent nature to the Holy Spirit.

Professor Emmet adds that she "should not wish this analogy to be taken too seriously since it is always a deceptive business to compare one system of ideas with another." Probably on this basis she did not go further in this direction; in the second edition she singled out Charles Hartshorne as one who developed a "natural theology," but there is no mention of Hartshorne’s students who have developed a "Christian natural theology" and "process theology."3 Unfortu nately, however large the literature, this Whiteheadian Christian philosophy may be the most illegitimate of bastards. By the superlative I mean that it may be it cannot be made legitimate.

Yet it may be comparable historically to the meeting in Philo Judaeus of Moses and Plato. In Harry Wolfson’s perspective, Judaism was formulated philosophically, and Plato given an institutional reality. By scripturalizing philosophy and philosophizing scripture, there was ushered in a great new period that dominated Western thought until Spinoza. How do we know we do not have something here of such vast importance?4

If we mean by "Christian" what the Christian churches mean, one who attends worship, accepts the sacraments, professes the creed, was Whitehead a Christian? I believe the answer will have to be no. One of the most persistent of Whiteheadian theologians, Norman Pittinger, writes: "At Cambridge, Massachusetts, he attended the nearby parish church until his later years, when he began going from time to time to the University Memorial Church."5 I believe this is without much factual basis, if any, and part of a legend. To make Whitehead a "Christian" in this sense may require further pious fraud.

Whitehead ceased to be Anglican, did not convert to Roman Catholicism, and although he made liberal Protestants quite happy, did not, to my knowledge, join such a sect as the Quakers, for whom he expressed admiration. The one encounter I witnessed between Whitehead and an orthodox Christian society was, to say the least, as cordial as the trial of a heretic by a court of the Inquisition.6

Yet why should the judgment be passed only by priests of the Church? Perhaps a Jewish philosopher and an ex-Christian agnostic are better able to judge who is or who is not a Christian and a Christian philosopher. Rather than saying that Whitehead was very deficiently Christian by orthodox standards, Morris B. Cohen and Bertrand Russell complained that he was excessively Christian, or at least too Christian to be a rational philosopher.7 Whitehead, from a purely rational point of view, was, as Pascal and James before him, a defender of emotion and feeling, or in Biblical terms, a defender of the heart, the raison. d’amour as well as raison de finesse. If Whitehead was not an ecclesiastical Christian, or a confessional Christian, he was a cultural Christian. If we have no evidence of his communing, accepting the bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood, so what? All expression was sacramental, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace (RM 131). Whitehead may indeed, as Lucien Price reports, have given up on the Bible, but what Twentieth Century philosopher uses scripture stories, teachings, and crucial terms with greater effectiveness as meaningful and true?

We may detail all manner of cultural traits of Whitehead, the son of an Anglican priest, that come through in his philosophy. Some say that his humility was merely the deference of a Victorian gentleman. Some say that his optimism is merely a Nineteenth Century idealism of progress strengthened by upward evolution. Some say that his objection to idolatry is merely a streak of rebellious iconoclasm. Some say that his emphasis on the tender aspects of the cosmos, ascribed to Jesus and the Gospels, is merely a rural English kindliness. Some say that his world-loyalty encompassing Buddhism and Chinese wisdom is merely the intellectual side of British imperialism. But in the context of Adventures of Ideas there is no doubt in my mind that even mediated by modern institutions, he has deep roots in the antiquity that produced Christianity. When it is all put together in context, could we say that Whitehead was Christian in his way of relating to persons and to humanity in its historic adventure?

I hear the theological objection that "he may have been a good man, quite a faithful husband, in sharpest contrast to Bertrand Russell, but being a Christian is a matter not of morals, but of faith.

An orthodox Christian who reads in Whitehead that the primordial nature of God envisions all possibilities and provides the lure might well say that Whitehead’s "God" in instigating the order of nature does not know what he is doing. Is it only the consequent nature that can be said to be conscious rather than unconscious? Then he has become conscious and found out what a world he has tried to persuade. No wonder then that God is a "fellow-sufferer." God may be a tragic cosmic hero, but may be also a comic hero, whose fault has disastrous consequences. This may be a truer and more inspiring vision, but surely it cannot be easily identified with that of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, said by theology to be omnipotent and omniscient, the Lawgiver and Judge of all mankind, by whose will the earth will come to an end. Because of the human breach of the divine command there is in the Christian drama a depth of sin from which only a divine Savior by his sacrifice can rescue the human race, thereby instituting the divine way with a church of the apostles to administer the saving sacraments to those who confess the creed of the Savior born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, who suffered, died, and rose again on the third day.

By such theological standards, Whitehead is no Christian and there is no place within his system for the plan of creation and salvation.

The most explicitly negative answer to the question is to the formulation of a creedal test. The more theological the conception of Christian, the less Christian Whitehead seems. Yet Whitehead is not at all antitheological in principle because he defends the efforts to formulate beliefs as clearly as possible, provided that the results be considered subject always to revision. Surely that fits Newman s teaching of the Development of Doctrine.

The philosophical point is that religious beliefs are meaningful and to be judged more or less true. Some beliefs are false, by internal and external tests. It is natural, therefore, in an age when most secularizing philosophies exclude theology, and reduce all religious language to nonsense, to expect the eagerness with which theologians welcome Whitehead the theist. This point was never so well made as by Malcolm L. Diamond’s survey of the positivist-analytic attack in "Contemporary Analysis: The Metaphysical Target and the Theological Victim" (PPCT 143-70, esp. 160-65). In the context of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, still very much a positivism, what better means to use in our intellectual world in defense of theology than the metaphysics of Whitehead? Particularly since Whitehead was, with Russell, author of the new logic used by Wittgenstein, and himself once an opponent of metaphysics who had overcome positivistic objections to "the cock-and-bull story," and himself in theology a post-Humean who goes on as another participant in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; there could be no philosopher whose methods and results would put the theologian in a stronger debating position. All this may be called the political situation of the Christian in the contemporary academy, but this needs saying because we commonly overlook the obvious.

The best discussion of Whitehead as a Christian philosopher does not mention "Christian philosophy." But that is the issue between William A. Christian and his critics, particularly Donald W. Sherburne, George Allan, Frederick Ferré, and Robert C. Neville. The issue of the Christian Scholar (now Soundings) of Fall, 1967 (CS 50) is excellent because the negative side is taken by the ablest expounder of Whitehead’s Categoreal Scheme and God. Professor Christian is also an authority on Christian theology. If he had not had both commitments, to metaphysics and to Christianity, he would not have felt so deeply the danger each poses to the integrity of the other. The autonomy of metaphysics is guarded by limiting its question to tile kinds of being and "the structural relations between things of these sorts" (CS 50:306). The autonomy of theology, within the Christian religion, is guarded by limiting its question to "What is it that is of central and ultimate significance for human life?" (CS 50:307). Since answers to each question have their own logical basis, and between the two is "only an indirect relation," the conclusion follows.

Christian theology must develop from its own roots, but its life may be fertilized and invigorated by influences which penetrate the soil in which it grows. It may be that in our time Whitehead’s philosophy will be such an influence.

No doubt some theologians will go on adapting Whitehead to their purposes without understanding his problems and his solutions. This way of despoiling the philosophers, as the ancient Hebrews despoiled the Egyptians, taking jewels of silver and gold, and raiment, is an old theological habit. But often the jewels are displayed in bad taste and the raiment does not fit. When theologians appropriate and make use of speculative theories, they do less than justice both to speculative philosophy and to their own discipline. Augustine did not make use of neoplatonism. He was a neoplatonic philosopher who had become a Christian theologian ("I had sought strenuously after that gold which thou didst allow thy people to take from Egypt, since wherever it was it was thine" Conf., VII, ix, 15). Aquinas did not make use of Aristotle. He was a Christian theologian who was also an Aristotelian philosopher. (CS 50: 315)

Shall we conclude by agreeing with Christian’s eloquent appeal to keep a person’s Christianity and his philosophy separate and distinct? I am bothered by the use of Augustine. He was the son of a Christian mother who was not firm in his faith and wandered through all the viable ways, Manichean, Stoic, Skeptical, shunning the Aristotelian, until he found the Platonic way. In this he found everything of Christianity except the Word made flesh. For the Christian Platonist, and Whitehead is a kind of Christian Platonist, there is wisdom that comes through reason and wisdom that comes through faith, but is not wisdom one because it flows from God into the soul and restores man to God? However different the two ways may have become when Augustine was a bishop fighting heresies, at the period of his conversion his philosophic understanding of scriptural teaching about the divine order is far more in evidence than any appeal to faith. Pythagoras is the philosopher to whom he appeals in De Ordine, and in the De civitate Dei the way of seeking wisdom, philosophia, was a manifestation of humility (AS 10:79-89).

If the logic of Christian’s position is followed, the notion of a "Christian philosophy" is nonsense and worse than nonsense. We must therefore examine what it presupposes and whether these presuppositions are tenable.

It presupposes a complete dualism between what is sacred, in this case "Christianity," and what is secular, and philosophy which is completely outside, and also on a lower plane, so that the theologian can criticize philosophy but the philosopher cannot criticize Christianity.

It presupposes by "theology" what is based on the faith alone, presumably revelation, and therefore "revealed theology," and that therefore whatever theology developed by metaphysics, a "natural theology," reason using the cosmos as evidence of some source of order (as Whitehead said "the great fact which produced the order of the world") is completely irrelevant.

It presupposes that the religion other than what is officially self defined as "Christian" is pagan and sometimes idolatrous, and that any interrelation is accommodation to heresy, which is to be shunned as not leading to salvation.

It presupposes that Christianity is a completely finished and self-contained social entity, which may perhaps change from within following the lines laid down in the past, but never to be affected by criticism from the outside, that is, from science, philosophy, history, art, and moral intelligence.

I believe in these four ways Professor Christian has imposed upon his Whitehead views which are more like those of Karl Barth. Barth drew boundaries so sharply that even he, using Augustine on creation in his Dogmatics, could not avoid as a theologian asking and answering metaphysical questions.

All the respondents to Christian who know Whitehead reject this interpretation. This is a great problem of "process theology" and any possibility of a Whiteheadian Christian philosophy. Christian is clear, but clearly wrong. The whole analytic method of sorting out questions that are strictly metaphysical ("What is it that P?") and statements that are Christian-theological ("What is it that is of central and ultimate significance for human life?") resembles A. J. Ayer’s attempt to separate the empirical, which can be verified, from the metaphysical, which cannot. Most effectively Donald Sherburne quotes Whitehead: "‘Religion is among the data of experience which philosophy must weave into its own scheme’, but these data also, he insists in the same breath, must undergo their sea change: ‘Philosophy finds religion and modifies it’ " (CS 50:316f., quoting from PR 15f./23).

Whitehead is not committed to fact-value dualism, or to the insulation of theology from criticism, as by metaphysics, or the limitation of theology from the question of its truth, or the refusal to get beyond to the level from which one distinguishes one discipline from another. The criticisms of Sherburne, Allan, Ferré and Neville add up to a rejection of Christian’s refutation of the possibility of Christian philosophy. But do they add up to the possibility of a Whiteheadian Christian philosophy? (CS 50:318-25).

I am not happy, except in the loose terminology of philosophic traditions, to call Whitehead a Christian Platonist. I introduced this because my reading of Augustine is rather the antithesis of Christian’s. But Augustine’s position allows me to invent a characterization of Whitehead which I find more appropriate -- a Christian Pythagorean. Pythagoras is the great hero of Science and the Modern World, chapter II, on "Mathematics as an Element in the History of Thought." Very few interpretations of Whitehead have noted the importance of harmony, aesthetic, logical, social, cosmic, and divine, which is the distinguishing mark of the Pythagoreans. Nor have critics yet taken account of why Whitehead conjoins "Plato and Epicurus, the Gnostics, the Alexandrian theologians, the rationalists of Antioch and Mopsuetia, the Manicheans, Augustine, Calvin:" they all shared "this unquestioned belief in order" (AI 167).

Is a Christian philosophy possible? Some deny the very possibility. What would Whitehead make of this denial? I believe he would cite it as evidence of the disintegration of Western culture. Certainly it is clean and neat to say that the Biblical God is the Creator and that the philosophic God is the first cause or the demiurge. Yet the European mind that created science has "but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail has been supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality" (SMW 18). I do not believe Whitehead means this only as history of the origins of modern science, for the philosophy of organism included not only harmony, but rhythm, balance, series, progress -- all modes of order are affirmed of nature and "set before us as ideals" (SMW 28, extended from harmony and progress to other modes of order). It is not only science that depends on faith in order. I believe a reading of Adventures of Ideas and the other works would justify saying there can be "no living [art, morality, religion and science] unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things, and, in particular, of an Order of Nature" (SMW 5). What has gone wrong in interpreting Whitehead is that, like Christian, we pay attention only to what people "say in words. . . . The words may ultimately destroy the instincts" (SMW 5).

A program like Whitehead’s is very critical of most of what has gone on in the name of Christ. Whitehead is not, we have admitted, an ecclesiastical Christian, and not a confessional Christian. But he is a cultural and moral Christian. More significantly, he is a philosophic Christian, that is, critical and constructive of "religion as it ought to be." Christianity in history has been exclusive, denying the legitmacy of other religions. The two great missionary religions of the world are those sprung from Gotama Buddha and Jesus Christ. If the essence of high religion is "world loyalty," Christians owe it to their universal aim to accept the criticism of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.

If a philosophy, such as Whitehead’s, is acceptable to Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and Taoists, does that mean that it therefore cannot be a Christian philosophy or even a philosophy of Christians? It would seem that if a Christian were anxious about the truth of something in his faith, he would want to find something that is found in other faiths. The more ways of testing affirmations and restating them in different languages, the surer we can be that something in a religious point of view approximates to truth. Whitehead in Religion in the Making is looking for "consensus." Whitehead looked beyond Western culture in his metaphysics and in his philosophy of religion, Therefore, if we adopt a meaning of "Christian" that is limited to Western culture, Whitehead will necessarily fail to satisfy.

But could it be that the decay of European churches, and the loss of appeal in their doctrines, is exactly the interruption that allows Christians to overcome the artificial restrictions and inhibitions?

That is my reading of "The New Reformation." In spite of the decay of churches, the "religious spirit is an effective element in the affairs of men." The illustration is Mahatma Gandhi and the Anglican Viceroy who cooperated in restoring peace (AI 205). I believe all the other examples of religious effectiveness, St. Francis, Fox and Woolman of Quakerism, John Wesley of Methodism, are from the past. Mahatma Gandhi is, I believe, the only example of eminent religious life cited by Whitehead in the twentieth century (AI 205).

More than two thousand years ago, the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces it was possible to accomplish. This, I suggest, is a plain anticipation by Plato of a doctrine of Grace, seven hundred years before the age of Pelagius and Augustine. (AI 205)

If the universalizing seems more Hindu than Christian, that may be because what we mean by "Christian" has not made enough of the variety of perspectives, the failure of insight and language, and the possibilities of variation and change.

Whitehead was a Christian philosopher in the sense that will be recognized if Christianity becomes tolerant enough to universalize itself. If he is not Christian as Christianity now is, he would reply, "So much the better." He can be made a Christian philosopher if Christianity evolves in the ways in which he hopes it will.

I do not hold it to be possible, or even desirable, that identity of detailed belief can be attained. But it is possible that amid diversities of belief, arising from differences of stress exhibited in metaphysical insight and from differences of sympathetic intuition respecting historical events, -- that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and in general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence as a completion required by our cosmological outlook. In other words, we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts, and as to their general way of coordination in metaphysical theory, while disagreeing in various explanatory formulations. (AI 266)



AS -- Au gustinian Studies, for Paul Grimley Kuntz, "Homo Erro to Homo Viator: St. Augustine’s Journey," AS 11 (1980), 79-89.

CS -- The Christian Scholar, for CS 50/3, ed. George Allan and Merle Allshouse, Current Issues in Process Theology.

PPCT -- Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Beeves. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971.



1Oliver Martin, "Whiteheads Naturalism and God," Review of Religion 3/2 (January, 1939), 149-60, clearly rejects the notion that Christianity may change its ‘essence," and that essence has been that God is eminently real. To argue that "the religion of Jesus" is compatible with naturalism is contradictory to Christianity so identified (160). There is therefore in the philosophy of organism no basis for the reconstruction of "Christian philosophy and theology" (159). Towards the end of his rather stormy philosophic career Oliver Martin told me that between a true Christian philosopher, that is a Thomist, and a follower of Whitehead the relation was very simply described: "WAR." I believe this later statement was not published.

Stephen Lee Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942), is dependent on the former (n. 7) and considers the problem of "reconstruction of Christian philosophy." It was reviewed by the best balanced student of Whitehead, Victor Lowe, in Review of Religion 7 (1943), 409-15. The best recent reply is probably Nathaniel Lawrence, "The Vision of Beauty and the Temporality of Deity in Whitehead’s Philosophy." Journal of Philosophy 58 (1961), 543-53, reprinted in George L. Kline (ed.), Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.; Prentice-Hall, 1963), 168-78. Lawrence does not conclude that what Whitehead did was to affirm an inherited Christian philosophy, but rather to translate "the eternal will of God," the "familiar language of Christianity," into "the Consequent Nature of God," thus rendering it rational (173). Nor does Lawrence meet our question with head-on directness in Alfred North Whitehead: A Primer of His Philosophy (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974). This book deals beautifully in the first chapter, "Biography," with the Anglican background, and ends the last chapter on God with reference to Christian faith. The implication of Lawrence’s subtle use of the quotation, "God is the great companion -- the fellow-sufferer who understands," etc., is that Whitehead restated the essence of Christianity (176f.).

The two chapters on Whitehead’s religious views in Paul A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tudor Publishing Co.) 2nd ed., 1951, do not ask the question of whether this philosophy is or is not, and in what senses, a "Christian philosophy": Julius Seelye Bixler, "Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religion," (489-511), and Charles Hartshorne, "Whitehead’s Idea of God," (515-59). Yet Bixler does quote among "the great religious conceptions … the solitary Man on the Cross" (502). And Hartshorne does defend the doctrine "almost unexplored in philosophy, that God is love (in a non-Pickwickian sense . . .)" (541, n.).

2J. B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965).

The review by Schubert M. Ogden in Christian Advocate, 9/18 (September 25, 1965), 11f., reprinted in PPCT 111-15, takes issue with "Christian natural theology." If a theologian finds truth in philosophy, it must be part of the whole truth of Christian faith. "But this does not . . . justify our speaking (with the tradition of ‘Christian philosophy’). . . although we may say… that any philosophy which is true is to that extent anonymously Christian" (p. 114).

3Dorothy Emmet, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1966), 254-55 n., 253-55, 256, xxxv.

A very interesting paper by Bowman L. Clarke, "Whitehead’s Cosmology and the Christian Drama," Journal of Religion 39 (1959), 162-69, begins with an analysis of St. Peter’s Sermon in Acts 2 and uses it to show a Christian dramatic pattern in four acts to illustrate what Whitehead may have been generalizing in four stages of creativity, to which he applies the term "the particular providence for particular occasions" (PR 532).

Clarke recognizes the difference between metaphysical generality and the particularity of the historic scheme of Christian salvation then justifies generality as part of a universal religion. It is a pity this dialectical pattern, with recognition of objections, has been ignored.

4 The size of the literature can be judged from 1868 items (including Whitehead’s 105) in Barry A. Woodbridge (ed.), Alfred North Whitehead: A Primary-Secondary Bibliography (Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1977). Among the significant new contributions of the next two years are Lewis S. Ford, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); and Lawrence F. Wilmot, Whitehead and God; Prolegomenon to Theological Reconstruction (Waterloo, Ontario: Winfred Laurier University Press, 1979).

The parallelism to Philo Judaeus, to go beyond the Christian Alexandrians who were admired by Whitehead, was prompted by reading Leo W. Schwarz, Wolfson of Harvard: Portrait of a Scholar (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 5738-1978), p. 149. Wolfson’s analysis of the problems of process theology would have been most illuminating.

5Norman Pittenger, Alfred North Whitehead, in Makers of Contemporary Theology (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1969). Pittenger now admits that in this detail he was misled by Professor John Marshall of the University of the South.

6 Of course, "Are you a Christian?" or "Are you a Christian philosopher?" were not the kinds of personal questions one asked Whitehead, and certainly not the kind of thing he talked about.

The question was something of a joke with Dean Willard L. Sperry, the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, Chairman of the Board of Preachers to Harvard University. Why some professors attended and others did not was always a subject of speculation, and especially so at Memorial Church, after Religion in the Making. Liberal opinion in Cambridge and Boston after the chapter "God" in Science and the Modern World demanded Whitehead for a return as Lowell Lecturer in 1926, and Whitehead replaced Hocking as the true successor to Royce and James, the philosopher who provided an alternative to the very strident atheism and persistent agnosticism that then (and now) marked "advanced" thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell.

For example, I remember Quakers at Cambridge Friends Meeting who asked Professor Henry Joel Cadbury whether he should not open the question of membership with Professor Whitehead, especially after the nice words about George Fox in Adventures of Ideas. "Ask him to join meeting?" Professor Cadbury rejected the idea as an intrusion upon a professor’s privacy and improper because if the spirit moved him he would do what it prompted. If Whitehead attended Christ Church, I feel sure Professor Cadbury would have mentioned that he objected to proselytizing.

I raise a doubt about claims made by Norman Pittinger in Alfred North Whitehead, not that Whitehead didn’t seem Christian enough! That is the point of Sperry’s stories. Sperry had met Alfred’s brother, a "missionary bishop" of the Anglican Church in India. When Sperry mentioned knowing the philosopher-brother, the bishop lamented, "I’m afraid Alfred is not very Christian." Sperry told the story, as he did masterfully, to convey the indelible impression that bishops are too fussy about creeds, sacraments, and such outer marks of conformity. The "spirit" was utterly Christian in the liberal sense, and Sperry, presiding at the "Immortality" lecture, was himself so deeply moved at the conclusion (the one time Whitehead did speak in Memorial Church) that he rose in tribute to the majesty of the prophetic word, and indeed I was one of the first to follow suit, for I was reminded of the most eloquent passages of Plato, Plotinus and Spinoza. That Whitehead spoke poetically, used metaphor, alluded to Oriental wisdom and was known to his students because of remarks on term-papers, to consider mystical union with the divine to be beyond exact expression in words, gave him the full majesty of a magus.

But there was a professing Christian of the strict observance in the Department of Philosophy. John Wild took us through Plato and Aristotle and discriminated those philosophic doctrines that could be effectively adopted by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas; they were the "Aegyptian Spoils." The Church decided in its councils and through its bishops what was and what was not Christian teaching. There was a place to worship: the Oratory, over which presided F. Hastings Smythe, a high Anglican who pitied the Bishop of Rome because out of communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and who barely tolerated the liberal Henry Knox Sherrill. But a priest has to be deferential to his bishop because so the Church has decided.

Whitehead, of course, never attended mass here, but he did come once to the meeting of the Augustinian Society. John Wild thought me sufficiently Augustinian (but not quite Thomistic enough, as he was) to be the only graduate student invited. Whitehead was absolutely delightful in his irony. To the Augustinians he announced:

"The greatest disaster in Western thought was St. Augustine." He had a deep desire to bring all people to the truth. A notable motivation, he had the idea that God had revealed the truth to him above all others, and because of divine authority he could condemn anyone who disagreed with his interpretation of the Christian Gospel. A very dogmatic stance, which is bad Christianity because Jesus had taught charity towards all and in the parable taught "let them both (wheat and tares) live together until the harvest." Augustine blasphemously put the divine authority of the judge in the hands of human leaders. The whole business of orthodoxy is shot through with subjectivity and relativism -- it’s as Emerson had said, "my-doxy and thy-doxy." Now Augustine is not only an idolator, confusing his version of the truth with Truth itself Augustine was a despot, and the father of despots, because he added to the argument that priests of the Christian Church were responsible for bringing all humans to salvation and heaven; "extra ecclesiam salus nulla." If any soul were not brought into the one true Catholic and Apostolic Church, then that soul was in danger of eternal torment. And the priest who did not do his utmost to convert was responsible and himself subject to damnation. Hence it might be better for the heretic not to live, and surely because one heretic and schismatic spreads the infection, he becomes an enemy to be curbed, silenced, and destroyed. Hence the welcome of the father to the son’s wedding party, "Go ye into the highways and the byways," became the solemn command, "Compel them to come in. Persecution and forced conversion follow logically.

The Augustinians were not merely displeased with the address; they were furious. The three Jesuit priests at my table were angry, and what followed showed Whitehead a theological controversialist. Religion in the Making showed Whitehead’s rejection of St. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. I think it fair to say, what I have not found anyone saying, that Whitehead was an articulate defender of sectarian vs. ecclesiastical Christianity. He was, I believe, so jealous of his individual freedom of interpretation that he did not care to he enrolled as a member lest he become regarded as a "representative," and therefore compromised in thought and actions by a specific religious society.

I believe Whitehead’s interpretation of religion as "what a person does with his solitariness" was deeply autobiographical. Cadbury was respectful of this because of his deep studies, not only of the New Testament but of Seventeenth Century Quakerism. Fox or any Quaker leader would not decide for William Penn’s sword:

"Wear it as long as thou canst." The sect may not demand conformity or even membership. The church considers these necessary for salvation. Unless we recognize the gulf that divides the church-concept of "Christian" from the sect-concept of "Christian," we shall not realize how deeply one reveals his or her orientation when he or she says that Whitehead was not a Christian or Whitehead was a Christian. Of course, there are mixed or betwixt types, but they play no role unless we get from thesis and antithesis to synthesis.

7 Morris R. Cohen, review, Adventures of Ideas, in Yale Review 23 (1933), 173-77, enlarged in Faith of a Liberal (New York: Holt, 1946), chapter 44.

Bertrand Russell, review, Science and the Modern World, in Dial 81 (1926)179-86, also in Skeptical Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), pp. 35-44, and Little Blue Book, No. 543 of Haldeman-Jullus (Girard, Kansas: 1947, "Is Science Superstitious?")


Additional Notes

Since the writing of the essay, Victor Lowe has given us his splendid "A.N.W.: A Biographical Perspective" PS 12/3 (1982), 137-47. The present author could scarcely ask for better confirmation. Whitehead accepted the "model of a dedicated, useful Christian life and of firm moral character" and was faithful to it "although [he] had in his thirties ceased to be an orthodox Christian" (138). This is what I mean by being a moral and cultural Christian, while rejecting the conformity of an ecclesiastical and confessional Christian. The imperial Church which suppressed heretics was an evil because the standard is "change, tension, the multifariousness of things and qualities" -- in other words, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity (138f.). Was not Whitehead, as Arnold Toynbee, more like a Hindu, therefore, than a traditional Christian? I would not, however, agree with Lowe that Whitehead dropped "all Christian belief," but rather that he was taking what he found true and wise, transforming it, as Newman’s interpretation of development showed theologians always doing to a degree (140f.). Outside any institution Whitehead could do that more openly and to a greater degree. Based on the error of the imperial church is the further mistake of "the doctrine of papal infallibility, which Newman was reluctant to accept, and which Mrs. Whitehead later said was the great obstacle [to their going to Rome]" (142). I quite agree that Whitehead’s theism is a conviction of "harmony at the base of existence," and that agnosticism fails to take into account the value of existence, particularly the struggle of good against evil or construction against destruction. I quite agree that Whitehead’s "new reformation," which I interpret as universalizing, would have been compromised by identification with any sect or use of any particular sacrament (145). Lowe’s emphasis on the horror of the First World War is certainly right also in the case of Russell, and the difference between him and Whitehead is that Russell was most reluctant to take the further step toward "a God of love who was not a personal creator but a divine factor in the universe, a Harmony that is always present, not overruling but beckoning and preserving" (144). Yet Russell did a second, and a far more sympathetic review of SMW than "Is Science Superstitious?" (note 7), ("Relativity and Religion," The Nation and Athenaeum, 39/8 [1926], 206f.), and we overemphasize the difference if we fail to recognize that Russell was, though hardly a process theologian, also a process philosopher.

The author thanks the American Philosophical Society, the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, and particularly the Emory Committee on Research, for generous support.