Chapter 11: Science and Religious Symbolism

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 11: Science and Religious Symbolism

The search for clarity has been one of the obsessions of modern thought. From Descartes through contemporary analytical philosophy the quest for lucidity in thought and language has been the dominant motif. On the surface this concern for clarity seems innocent enough. In fact it even appears noble. Any of us who are engaged in teaching require clarity of our students, and we evaluate their oral and written work accordingly. The ideal of clarity is indeed a proper aspiration of students and educators. Without clarity there can be no meaningful communication within the academic context.

However, the ideal of clarity is only a relative and not an absolute good. There are certain contexts where clarity is obtrusively out of place, and where the demand for absolute clarity is an obstacle to the growth of the mind and the promotion of life. It is a characteristic of wisdom to be able to distinguish between those areas where clarity is required and those where it would be a clumsy intruder.

The general problem of science and religion can be approached from the point of view of the question whether all knowledge and language are ideally reducible to the clear and distinct. In other words, the problem of science and religion is part of the deeper and more pervasive question whether the world in its totality can be made into a clear object to be mastered by our minds.

Because of the vague nature of the mythic-symbolic-poetic-ritualistic expressions of religion, some of those who idealize clarity find religion lacking in meaning and truth. For them truth and meaning are found only where there is clarity. Religious language, which is always symbolic, is, therefore, judged to be out of touch with the real world. According to this same contention there is no real world except that which can be mastered, comprehended or clarified by our minds, aided by science and mathematics.

The questions we have treated in this book (such as whether nature has purpose; whether biology is reducible to physics and chemistry; whether and how chance comes into play in the cosmos; and now the epistemological question of how science relates to religion) revolve around the issue of whether our universe is one-dimensional or hierarchical. A one-dimensional universe can allegedly be brought to full clarity, whereas a hierarchical universe is by definition not subject to such clarification. The term "hierarchy" may not be the best possible one to employ, nor is the term "level" entirely satisfactory. And so I have suggested that the notion of "dimension," "field" or "system" might be more apropos. Still the rules are the same: the lesser can be comprehended by but cannot comprehend the greater. If the greater is to be alluded to at all from the perspective of the lesser, the allusion will be cloudy and somewhat obscure, mastery being impossible. To an epistemology of control, however, such a situation is intolerable, and the swiftest avenue toward implementing the program of mastery is to reject out of hand the notion of a hierarchical world.

The matter of clarity vs. obscurity may also be approached from the point of view of Whitehead’s philosophy of perception. I have briefly summarized it in Chapter 3, and I shall now apply it to our question of how to see scientific ideas in relation to religious symbolism.1

One of the most important axioms that I have found in Whitehead’s thought is that those things which are most clear and distinct are not necessarily the most real. "Those elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts."2 And, less clearly: "It must be remembered that clearness in consciousness is no evidence for primitiveness in the genetic process: the opposite doctrine is more nearly true."3 We should indeed seek clarity, but then we should mistrust it. Why? Because clarity is the result of a process of abstracting. To abstract means to draw out (abstraho) certain aspects of something while leaving others behind. And it is all too easy to forget that our clear and distinct abstractions have left behind a welter of complexity. In our will to mastery we tend to set ourselves up as supreme over the abstractions we have brought forth as clear and distinct. And if mathematics is at hand we can easily slip our abstractions into the niche of the purely quantitative. Mathematics deals quite easily with the quantitatively clear and distinct, but it has trouble with the qualitatively opaque and important. In order to make things clear it has to prescind from most of what is relevant in a phenomenon, whether the latter be an atom or the universe. Whitehead’s advice is to mistrust our abstractions since they are not identifiable with concrete reality. His theory of perception helps explain why.

Whitehead’s Theory of Perception

"In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world."4 Each present moment receives the entire past set of perished occasions into its experience. Even if most of this past is only dimly felt, it is related, nonetheless, to the experience of the present moment. And it has a causal efficacy in present experience inasmuch as the present moment of experience assimilates it into its own "enjoyment."

This universal characteristic of the causal efficacy of the past in each occasion is not absent from our own experience. Our own mentality is, after all, an aspect of the cosmos. Recent scientific thinking has begun to take seriously the dramatic implications of quantum physics which posits the mutual implication of the universe and each of its constituent aspects. Hence there is no reason for us to assume that in human perception the cosmological axiom that "everything is everywhere" is suspended. Our human experience is as much tied into the structure of the cosmos as is anything else. Epistemology must correspond with cosmology. The entire universe is somehow ingredient in our own feeling as it is in every actuality. All of reality enters causally into what we have called primary perception. But the data of primary perception are not clearly delineated. They have a quality of vagueness or fuzziness about them that renders them incapable of being distinctly brought into focus. The reason for their resistance to being clearly perceived is quite simple. These data given in primary perception consist of the whole of reality, including its aspect of beauty, which, we have seen, is not able to be felt in its full intensity and scope from our finite perspectives. When we talk about beauty we are talking about value, purpose, aim, in other words qualities that cannot be set forth with mathematical clarity. We cannot have a controlling knowledge of the universal beauty which is the fundamental being of the universe. It is the function of symbolic expression to awaken in us a more vivid sense of the universal value (beauty, purpose) that we feel vaguely in our primary perception.

Symbolic expression is necessary to put us consciously in touch with what is the hidden metaphysical-cosmological horizon of all of our experience. And religion is perhaps the most obvious exemplification of such symbolic expression. Its purpose is to sensitize us to the ultimate value of things of which we already have a latent feeling in primary perception.

However, there is another, more immediate type of perception, that of our five senses. This secondary perception is situated at some distance from the importance we feel in primary perception. The senses present the world to our consciousness with great vividness, but in doing so they filter out much of what we gather in through our primary perception. Common sense as well as most philosophy assumes that sense perception is the fundamental way of experiencing reality. Its immediacy and lucidity seduce us into making it the criterion of knowledge. And so the empiricist orientation of modern thought (represented by Hume, Locke, Mill, and much Anglo-American philosophy) has made sense perception, aided of course by scientific instruments of observation, the basis of our understanding of the world. Because the senses present to our minds data which can be clearly and distinctly perceived and understood, we tend to assume that sense perception is the deepest and most capacious form of experience. Our senses mediate the world to us with a lucidity that is absent in primary perception. And if we are moved by the assumption that what is clear and distinct is also the most concretely real, we will be inclined to suspect the whole realm of symbolic discourse as illusory, as moving us away from rather than toward the real world, precisely because symbolic expression is so frustratingly nebulous. The problem of science and religion arose in the past and persists today partly because of the modern bias that the clear and distinct are also the most fundamental and that lack of clarity means absence of realism.

We may recall how Descartes gave expression to this intuition. In his obsession with discovering a sure foundation for philosophy he undertook a search for ideas that were clear and distinct. Being a mathematician he was aware that certainty, at least in that field, required the elimination of all ragged edges. The clarity and distinctness that accompany quantitative analysis became the ideal of his philosophical quest for certainty as well. And most modern thought has accompanied him both in his ideal and his quest. But since the "importance" of things is always cloaked in ambiguity the theme of value and purpose has been shoved aside as unworthy of philosophical consideration.

It is one of the most fortunate and, I suspect, controversial aspects of Whitehead’s thought that it challenges both Descartes and the empiricists. Whitehead questions Descartes’ assumption that "clear and distinct" necessarily means concretely real. And he chastises the "empiricists" for not being empirical enough. His own "radical empiricism" goes deeper than the abstractions that are always the result of our attempts to clarify.5 And this same radical empiricism strives to put us in touch with reality as it exists in its intrinsic aesthetic patterning prior to the point where our process of perception refines it down to the crisp impressions given immediately by our five senses. Radical empiricism, in other words, reaches for the world as it is always already given to us in primary perception.

A radical empiricism, therefore, lives comfortably with, even requires, symbolic expression. It recognizes (along with modern physics and religious mysticism) that our senses bite off only a tiny contemporary cross-section of reality and that our abstractive intellects may remove us even further from the intrinsic reality, depth and importance of things. It must be recalled that the intrinsic actuality of things consists in their aesthetic patterning of experience. That is to say, their reality is their beauty. Their reality is their value. Our senses can have a narrow glimpse of this intrinsic value of beauty, and our intellects can grasp a certain veneer of aesthetic patterning (especially through the use of mathematics and logic). But the past depth and present scope of reality in its comprehensive patterning and in the intensity of its intrinsic beauty can only be dimly apprehended by our sensation and abstraction. In order to compensate for this deficiency our human consciousness has searched for and has been shaped by an alternative mode of expression, the symbolic, in order to open us further to the intrinsic reality of things, namely to their importance. Radical empiricism, therefore, takes symbol seriously. This means that it takes religion seriously also.

A radical empiricism acknowledges the futility of any philosophical (or theological) attempt to reduce the intrinsic reality (beauty) of the world to ideas or impressions that can be clearly grasped. But it acknowledges that the search for clarity has a legitimate and essential role in the advance of consciousness. For this reason it does not reject the gains of modern science, empirical philosophy, or logical analysis of language. It accepts the legitimacy of certain forms of criticism and suspicion of symbols and religion. Such criticism is necessary because religious people often claim that their own symbol systems adequately represent reality. Religions fall into idolatry, which is parallel to the logical fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Our tendency to identify abstractions with concrete reality is the same tendency that moves the religious to identify their symbols with the symbolized. This human obsession with squeezing reality into containers that are not large enough needs to be challenged whether it is being done by scientists or by religious people.

A radical empiricism, therefore, can help us transcend the conflict that gives rise to most aspects of what is called the problem of science and religion. It pushes the scientific thinker beyond the illusion that the universe in its intrinsic actuality of aesthetic scope and intensity can ever be adequately grasped in the abstractions of mathematical equations. And it sensitizes religious people to the fragmentary quality of their own symbolic articulations of ultimate reality. But, in the end, a radical empiricism refuses the ideal that strives to do away with symbolism altogether. It insists on the need for art, poetry and religion to move us toward a wider and deeper conscious awareness of reality in its wider and deeper dimensions. It helps us to recognize that our symbolic life is not simply a projection of our wishes onto an insentient cosmos of primary qualities. For it teaches us first that these primary qualities are themselves abstractions from something more concrete and, second, that the aesthetic qualities which "surround" the primary qualities are intrinsic to reality itself and not mere "secondary" projections. Once we see through the logical mistakes that underlie the cosmology on which the theory of projection has parasitically fed, we can begin to locate in a fresh way just where the symbolic expression of religion fits into the structure of the evolving universe and how the language of religion relates to that of science.

The Cosmological Location of Symbolic Expression

A typical definition of symbol is "anything which, by expressing one meaning directly, expresses another indirectly."6 Symbolic expression takes objects, persons, experiences and events that are familiar and employs them as indicators of the less familiar. A symbol, therefore, is two-sided, pointing in different directions. It has a primary intentionality whereby it stands for the familiar, and a secondary intentionality by which it draws us into the world of the unknown.7

The word "symbol" itself comes from the Greek symballein, literally, "to throw together." A symbol clasps together the two worlds of the known and the unknown. It does so in such a way that the second can be brought to awareness only by way of the first. In some way the first intention of the symbol "embodies" the second intention, and so it is intrinsically (and not arbitrarily) related to what it symbolizes.

Usually symbols are understood in what may be called a subjectivist or psychological sense. I mean that symbols are recognized as products of human imagination. The capacity of an entity to stand for another depends upon our own imagining. The use of the familiar experience of our fathers, for example, to symbolize ultimate reality (God as Father) requires our imagining the symbol’s secondary intentionality. And the components of imagination differ considerably from one person to another. Because of these elements of subjectivity that characterize symbolic expression we can easily wonder whether symbols have any objective referent at all. They might be nothing more than projections without any basis in reality.

I think we have to acknowledge the susceptibility of symbols to becoming illusions. By now, however, we should be alert to the assumptions that often underlie the psychological interpretation of symbols. Above all there is the persistent bias that our mental activity is not itself part of the cosmos, and that the cosmos is an inherently valueless screen upon which we project our imagined sense of importance. I have repeatedly questioned this conviction above and I should like to do so again now with specific reference to those mental occurrences that are called symbols.

I shall propose that in addition to the psychological understanding of symbolism, where symbols seem to be no more than our imaginative creations, we must also situate symbols cosmologically. We must ask what symbols are when seen in the context of the creative advance of the universe. I shall not reject the psychological understanding, since I think we do imaginatively create our worlds symbolically and that we often do so erroneously. But I shall argue that we will seriously misinterpret our symbols unless we simultaneously view them within the more comprehensive framework of cosmology.

What, then, would be the nature of symbolic expression when defined in terms of our cosmological considerations? We may respond to this question by employing both the aesthetic and the hierarchical conceptions of the universe. (1) In the aesthetic scheme symbols "hold together" the world as it is felt in primary perception with the world as it is sensed immediately in secondary perception. (2) And in the hierarchical view symbols "hold together" the level of our human consciousness with the higher level that seeks to comprehend and integrate our consciousness (in its response of faith) into itself. Let me elaborate on each of these without giving the impression that either Whitehead or Polanyi would necessarily follow me here in my speculation.

I. Symbolism and Cosmic Beauty

In the aesthetic way of understanding the universe, the intrinsic value that resides in the whole pattern of the cosmos (most of it hidden from immediate awareness) impinges directly on our primary perception. We are affected by this value in a subliminal mode of causal feeling, and so we are usually not vividly aware of its impact upon us. Nonetheless, the ingredience of this universal aesthetic value in our primary feeling has a concrete effect upon us. It is causally efficacious in constituting us as the kind of beings we are. Concretely our being affected by this cosmic value gives us our tendency toward trust. It is in our native capacity to trust and our instinctive sense that life is worth living that we give evidence of our primordial connection to a cosmos that is intrinsically valuable.8 Much recent research, especially in psychology, has highlighted this capacity we have for "basic trust" and has emphasized its indispensability for our personal development.9 My conjecture here is that there are cosmological grounds for our tendency to trust consisting of the value that is inherent in the patterning of experiences that we call the universe. In our primary perception we feel ourselves linked to this universe of importance, even though clarity and distinctness are not attributes of this feeling.

Yet each of our lives is comprised of only a tiny fragment of the entire patterning which, woven together in ever newer syntheses, issues forth as our universe. Because of the narrowness and perishability of the route of occasions comprising our own lives, we command no secure vision of the universal pattern in its nuance, intensity and massiveness. Such a vision belongs only to God whose inner experience embraces the totality of cosmic experience. Consequently, owing to the restrictedness of our individual perspectives and the finiteness of our particular existence we are likely at times to shrink reality down to those aspects which we can easily abstract from or correlate with our own limited experience. And in doing this we may lose at the conscious level any sense of the intrinsic value of the whole. We may, in other words, be tempted to distrust. Distrust is possible whenever there is a weakening of the connection between the intrinsic value of reality and our own consciousness. This weakening can occur for any number of reasons, most of them having to do with the relationships we have with other persons in our immediate environment.

Even in the most extreme conditions of wounded trust, however, our causal connection with the intrinsic value of the universe is not completely severed. It is an axiom of organismic cosmology that no one is an island; even in our estrangement from others and from the cosmos (as imagined perhaps along the lines of dualism and cosmic pessimism) we are still being influenced inevitably by the totality of which we are a part. Our primary perception, which lies beyond our conscious or willful control, organically relates us to the totality, a totality that exists only inasmuch as it is patterned, a totality whose reality is, therefore, its aesthetic value. By virtue of our being part of this aesthetic whole we can never be alienated completely from its inherent value; and the fact of our being perpetually tied into it by our primary perception ensures that we can never be cut off from the metaphysical-cosmological basis of our trusting. That such a link between ourselves and cosmic value abides continuously is borne forth in our "prototypical gestures" of laughing, playing, hoping, ordering our lives, and especially in our continuing to ask questions. All of these spontaneous gestures occur only because of a fundamental trust that reality is valuable and that our lives are worth living.10

I have just sketched the outlines of an aesthetic cosmology indicating how each of us is tied into the cosmos through the mode of primary perception. I have reasoned (on the basis of the Whiteheadian ideas outlined in previous chapters) that we each have a subliminal feeling of the value that gives substance and actuality to the cosmic whole. But it is precisely because this feeling remains for the most part buried beneath the level of our immediate awareness that we need symbolic expression to bring this value into our conscious awareness so as to bolster and vivify our capacity to trust. We are now in a position, therefore, to specify how symbols function cosmologically.

It is through symbols, those of art, poetry and especially religion, that the intrinsic value of cosmic reality insinuates itself into the conscious experience of those organisms that we call human beings. Since these organisms are themselves creative and imaginative and are co-producers of symbols along with their fellows, their own symbolic creations add nuance, novelty and complexity to the cosmos of which they are a part. I am not entirely denying the validity of the psychological (and socio-cultural-historical) evaluation of what is involved in the fabrication of symbols, myths and stories. All I am emphasizing is that the production of symbols, like all mental occurrences, is first and foremost a cosmological event. And such an event fulfills a cosmic function. This function is to impress the value of the whole on some of the parts, specifically the human organisms, in a manner relevant to the cultural, historical and psychological situation of these organic participants in the cosmic process. Each actual occasion feels the universe’s reality in a manner relevant to its experiential depth. In our human experience the reality (value) of the whole is felt at the pole of primary perception. But we also have the capacity to experience reality more clearly at the secondary pole of perception. And so

our connection with the importance of things needs to be brought closer to the surface. It is the function of religious symbols in particular to bring the inherent purposefulness of the universe out of the mistiness of primary perception and into a mode of representation that can be correlated with the world of sense perception. But because the world of sense perception is too shallow to contain the depth of importance resident in the whole of reality the symbols which employ material from this shallow world (as their first intentionality) always remain somewhat off-shore in deeper waters where they appear to us only in a refracted visage. In this obscure position they "hold together" the worlds of primary and secondary perception. Symbols stand somewhere between the clear but trivial world of secondary perception and the cloudy but important world of primary perception. Given the polar nature of our perception of reality we should expect that there would be such an intermediary region of representation. And it is in this range that we find the symbolic expression of religions. Therefore, we should not expect our religious symbols to have the clarity of scientific discourse which deals predominantly with the world that can be correlated with secondary perception. Religious symbolism strives to retrieve a universal dimension of importance that cannot be articulated with mathematical rigor. We may say, then, that religion and science are complementary modes of discourse, each related to different poles of the perceptive process. They will appear as contradictory only if we fall back into the prejudice that reduces all perception to what can be clearly grasped by the senses. Our understanding the symbolic process in terms of the bipolar theory of perception avoids the one-sidedness of an exclusively psychological or subjectivist location of religious symbolism. It undermines the possibility of our seeing symbols as mere projections. It does so by recognizing their power and indispensability for putting us in touch with the intrinsic value (which is the reality) of things. By interpreting the symbolic process cosmologically we may envisage reality (the aesthetic whole) rather than our subjectivity as taking the initiative, first by linking us to itself in our primary perception and second by flowing through the channels of our perception until it comes closer to the pole of secondary perception (without ever quite arriving) where it can impress its importance upon us in a more vivid manner. By utilizing objects which can be correlated with sense experience symbolism mediates cosmic value to us. As reality becomes more clearly ingredient in our experience it clothes itself in those enticing and elusive configurations that we call symbols. As it moves from the vagueness of the pole of primary perception toward the crispness of the pole of secondary perception reality assumes a particularity that will appeal to our specific personal, historical and cultural experience. It does so by entrusting itself to symbols which "throw together" universality and particularity. In this sense we may appreciate symbols as revelatory of the ultimate importance (of reality) while at the same time we acknowledge our own creatively imaginative input into their production.

Anything can function as a symbol through which the depth, importance and ultimate beauty of reality discloses itself. A person, a group, an historical event, a word or a set of words, an animal, a rock, a dream etc. -- any of these is capable of functioning symbolically, of mediating to us a purposefulness that transcends us and gives significance to our lives. There is no doubt that the complicity of our own imagination is a requirement of the effectiveness of these things to symbolize. But this does not mean that symbols are nothing but our imaginings. It is likely that we will be tempted toward such a reductionist position only if we have already assumed that the universe is intrinsically valueless. And it has been the main objective of the present work to challenge this assumption.


I think we should specify once again the cultural and philosophical background out of which the typical, psychologically biased understanding of symbols has arisen. For it is one in which most of the assumptions we have challenged in this

book have reigned supreme. First it takes for granted the dichotomy of a meaning-creating subject situated over against an inherently valueless world. Accordingly symbols have been understood in modernity primarily from the point of view of the isolated epistemological subject. And this is why, in our age, there has been so much suspicion of the realism of symbolic expression. If symbols are primarily or exclusively the productions of a subject, then they probably lack objectivity. Hence they seem unrealistic. Secondly, this psychological-subjectivist understanding of symbolism assumes the primacy of sense perception and the supremacy of clear and distinct ideas. Hence the misty world toward which symbols point and the opaqueness of this realm of ambiguity to clear logical articulation renders the symbols themselves somewhat suspect. Perhaps they are important steps toward clear understanding, but eventually they must be abandoned in the interest of a more lucid understanding of reality. More and more, symbolic expressions of all types, poetic, artistic, mythic-narrative and religious, have aroused the suspicion that they mask an underlying lack of realism, that they conceal ideological bias, fear, weakness or even hatred. And this suspicion has typically demanded that we move beyond the spuriousness of symbolism out into the clear light of daytime consciousness. Again I would emphasize that there is a great deal of value in this suspicion. It is indeed possible for us to hide beneath our symbolism, to idolatrize it and thus to restrict our own under-standing of the real world. Because of our propensity to misread our symbols we need a "hermeneutic of suspicion" to unveil our misplaced trust." And yet it would be a mistake to interpret symbolism simply as a subjectivist, capricious and unnecessary mistake. The masters of suspicion are themselves part of a world that has been symbolically mediated through the myths of dualism, of tragedy or of utopian expectation. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and their followers do not themselves recognize the degree to which their own courage of suspicion rides the tide of symbolic-mythic undercurrents in Western culture. There is little chance that we or they will ever do away with the narrative-symbolic matrices of all human consciousness and questioning.

For this reason I think we must supplement the psychological interpretation of symbolism with an interpretation that begins from the cosmos of which all acts of consciousness are a part. Once we reject the myth of dualism, we have to see all mental occurrences as part of the cosmos. Symbols, therefore, are not only subjective creations. They are that, of course, also. And creative imagination is from one point of view the source of all mythic-symbolic constructs. But from a wider point of view symbols are cosmic events which play an indispensable role in the creative advance of the universe. They are the avenues by which the principle of order and novelty lays hold of our consciousness so as to move it toward a deeper and more explicit sensitivity to value. And they are the openings made by divine care as it insinuates itself into our distrust. Symbols are two-sided phenomena. They arise from our imaginations while at the same time they are the result of the world’s intrinsic value rising to the surface.

II. Religious Symbolism in Nature’s Hierarchy

Another model of the universe has shaped our reflection throughout this book, namely, the hierarchical. How does religious symbolism fit into the emergent hierarchy of nature? Our response to this question will allow us to flesh out more fully our discussion of faith as it occurs in an emergent universe.

We have repeatedly observed that in nature’s hierarchical structure the higher level dwells in and relies upon the lower but cannot be comprehended simply by an analysis of the lower. And yet, in some mode, contact is made between the higher and the lower systems, fields, dimensions or levels. In the cell, for example, there is a "holding together" of the levels of chemistry and life. It is impossible, in observing a living cell, to draw a clear line showing where chemistry stops and life begins. Vitalism attempts to posit such lines but its efforts have proven unsuccessful. I think the reason for its failure is its dualistic outlook that posits two absolutely disjunctive realms of reality, namely matter and life. Reality, as it turns out, cannot be so neatly segregated into such divergent levels. In the hierarchy of nature there are numerous junctures of assemblies and subassemblies. And in each of these there is an enfolding of the higher into the lower such that no easy disassembly is possible without destroying the phenomenon that unifies the divergent strata in the hierarchy.

At our hypothesized intersection of the level of human consciousness with that of ultimate meaning there can be no easy disentanglement of the two levels either. They are joined together in such mutual implication that one seems to melt into the other. The result of this (to us confusing) union is religious symbolism. As the level of transcendent meaning attempts to gather our human consciousness into its embrace it becomes enfleshed in forms that are familiar to us in our conscious experience. But because it is a higher level that is comprehending a lower, the symbolic forms by which it is embodied will always have a quality of incomprehensibility about them that eludes our conscious efforts at mastery. These symbolic forms will function more in the manner of drawing us into the deeper dimension than as objects which we can control intellectually. If we are comfortable with a hierarchical vision of reality we will have little difficulty in accepting the inevitable ambiguity of the symbols. But if our epistemology is one in which all of reality must lie in principle subject to our intellectual control, we will remain suspicious of all symbols. Then science will seem to be the only legitimate road to truth.

Once again, therefore, we are brought back to the question of the plausibility of a hierarchical conception of the universe. The epistemological validity of symbolic discourse requires a hierarchical conception as its necessary cosmological matrix. The legitimacy of religion in an age of science depends for its recognition on our settling for a hierarchical universe. Only in such a universe do symbols have a cosmological rather than a purely psychological status.

However, we must also acknowledge that any attraction we may have to the hierarchical vision has itself been aroused in us by symbols themselves. Without our having been drawn toward a higher or deeper meaning by a concrete set of symbols expressed in a specific historical-cultural context we would have no inkling of ultimate purpose or of the hierarchical nature of reality. Through a specific set of narrative symbols ultimate meaning has already comprehended our consciousness and stimulated our reflection in the direction of conceiving the universe in a hierarchical fashion. "The symbol gives rise to thought."12 In our surrender to the symbol we have already acceded to the hierarchical conception.

This may seem to involve us in a vicious circle: an appreciation of hierarchy requires an attraction to symbols which in turn draw us toward the hierarchical view. Admittedly this is a circle. Whether it is "vicious" or not, again, depends upon whether we are content with being encircled. That is, are we willing to accept that in some sense we are always comprehended by a circle of meaning that surrounds us and which we cannot get around, a circle to which we can contribute new meanings but which we cannot ourselves circumscribe? To place ourselves inside such a circle involves a risk, a "wager."13 To imagine that our consciousness lies outside of such a circle also involves a risk. In this book I have argued that the former risk is the one more consistent with an organic universe and the cosmic adventure as it has been portrayed by modern science.

I cannot deny, therefore, that my own attraction to a hierarchical vision of reality is a consequence of my already having been taken into a specific circle of historically and culturally conditioned symbols. In my case this symbolic context is Christianity. And in the following chapter I shall sketch the relationship, as I see it, between Christian ideas of God and the aesthetic-hierarchical cosmology described above.


The languages of science and religion may be seen as complementary to each other. They are opposed to each other only if we make sense perception our fundamental access to reality or if we reject a hierarchical conception of the universe.

In our aesthetic model with its allied bipolar theory of perception, we can find an illuminative value in each mode of discourse, science or religion. Religious symbolism relates us especially to the intrinsic importance of reality as we feel it primordially grounding our being and becoming at the pole of primary perception. It is at this pole that all beings experience God as the silent horizon of their actuality, as the source of their intrinsic order, as the lure summoning them toward self-transcendence and, finally, as the care into which their existence is ultimately synthesized.14 Religious symbolism represents this felt ultimacy and care by couching it in images that we may correlate with the secondary pole of perception and with our concretely limited historical experience. Because of the relative shallowness of the world as grasped in secondary perception our symbols, which borrow their first intentionality from this immediate world of sensation, are never adequate to their second intentionality. Thus they must constantly be revised in accordance with the demands of the cosmic adventure as it advances toward deeper intensity of beauty and as its freshness is deposited in primary perception. When this revision is resisted our symbols degenerate into idols which support the "evil of triviality" and which, therefore, require the criticisms we find in the likes of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

In this same aesthetic model we may also locate the complementary role of science. Science hovers more closely around the secondary pole of perception. This means that science deals with a much more abstract aspect of the world than does religion. Science typically disassociates its "facts" from "value." And since value, resident in the aesthetic patterning which gives actuality to all things, is the reality of things, any approach which neglects this value must be considered abstract rather than concrete.

Science, then, deals with "high abstractions." This observation may prove offensive to many who think that science deals more concretely with the world than does any other approach, especially religion. But our observation is not intended as a disparagement of science. There is nothing erroneous about abstractions. They are a necessary, even enriching, way of grasping the world from specific perspectives. Abstraction contributes to the advance of knowledge and civilization. The only requirement is that the abstractions be acknowledged as such. Unfortunately most modern thought has identified the concrete world with the abstractions of science and has committed the logical fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The tragedy of this fallacy is that it distracts us from any approach that would bring us back to the concrete reality of things, namely, their importance. It is the function of religion (as well as other forms of symbolic reference) to restore this concreteness to us.

Finally, the complementarity of science and religion may also be formulated in terms of our hierarchical conception. Science is a mode of knowing adequate to grasp what lies below consciousness in the hierarchy. Thus it can specify the particulars of any system in terms of the mass-energy continuum. It can legitimately employ an objectivating, comprehending and controlling epistemology. It has an indispensable function in advancing our knowledge of the universe. Religion, on the other hand, complements science by relating us to fields, dimensions or levels that lie above, or deeper than, consciousness in the cosmic hierarchy. In giving us a sense of ultimate meaning by way of its mythic-symbolic language it helps to locate us in the total "scheme of things" in a way that science, with its techniques of control, is incapable of doing. Our awareness of the hierarchical universe in all of its aspects requires our reverence of both religion and science. I shall now attempt to explain what this means for me in a Christian setting.


1. My discussion of perception and symbolism in this chapter will appear somewhat out of focus to those readers who are pure Whiteheadians. The particular slant I have taken is nonetheless faithful, I think, to the spirit of Whitehead’s thought, if not always to the letter. My discussion here is oriented only by my concern to locate religious expression in terms of science, and so for that purpose I have greatly modified Whitehead’s ideas. For references see Chapter 3, n. 18.

2. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 162.

3. Ibid., p. 173.

4. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 91.

5. Whitehead’s empirical approach, like that of William James and, to some extent, George Santayana, recognizes the superficial nature of sense perception and posits a deeper, but vaguer, contact with reality. This deeper empiricism is called "radical" by James (cf. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York & London: Longman, Green & Co., 1912), and Whitehead has clearly been influenced by James’ "radical empiricism."

6. Cf. Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, pp. 12-13.

7. Ibid.

8. For my understanding of "trust" I am indebted to Shubert Ogden, The Reality of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977); Hans Küng, Does God Exist? trans. by Edward Quinn (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1980), pp. 442-78; and Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 49-75.

9. Especially Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd Edition (New York: WW. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963), pp. 247-51.

10. Cf. Berger, pp. 49-75.

11. On the philosophy of "suspicion" see Paul Ricoeur, "The Critique of Religion," in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, ed. by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 214.

12. Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, p. 348.

13. Ibid., pp. 355-57.

14. My Whiteheadian interpretation has also been influenced by the philosophy and theology of Karl Rahner. Cf. Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word, trans. by Michael Richards (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969).