Chapter 3: Religion and Metaphysics by Alfred North Whitehead

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 3: Religion and Metaphysics by Alfred North Whitehead

Reprinted with permission of The Macmillan Company and Cambridge University Press from Religion in the Making, chap. III by Alfred North Whitehead. Copyright 1926 by The Macmillan Company; renewed 1954 by Evelyn Whitehead.

Religion requires a metaphysical backing: for its authority is endangered by the intensity of the emotions which it generates. Such emotions are evidence of some vivid experience: but they are a very poor guarantee for its correct interpretation.

Thus dispassionate criticism of religious belief is beyond all things necessary. The foundations of dogma must be laid in a rational metaphysics which criticises meanings, and endeavors to express the most general concepts adequate for the all-inclusive universe.

This position has never been seriously doubted, though in practice it is often evaded. One of the most serious periods of neglect occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, through the dominance of the historical interest.

It is a curious delusion that the rock upon which our beliefs can be founded is a historical investigation. You can only interpret the past in terms of the present. The present is all that you have; and unless in this present you can find general principles which interpret the present as including a representation of the whole community of existents, you cannot move a step beyond your little patch of immediacy.

Thus history presupposes a metaphysic. It can be objected that we believe in the past and talk about it without settling our metaphysical principles. That is certainly the case. But you can only deduce metaphysical dogmas from your interpretation of the past or the basis of a prior metaphysical interpretation of the present.1

In so far as your metaphysical beliefs are implicit, you vaguely interpret the past on the lines of the present. But when it comes to the primary metaphysical data, the world of which you are immediately conscious is the whole datum.

This criticism applies equally to a science or to a religion which hopes to justify itself without any appeal to metaphysics. The difference is that religion is the longing of the spirit that the facts of existence should find their justification in the nature of existence. "My soul thirsteth for God," writes the Psalmist.

But science can leave its metaphysics implicit and retire behind our belief in the pragmatic value of its general descriptions. If religion does that, it admits that its dogmas are merely pleasing ideas for the purpose of stimulating its emotions. Science (at least as a temporary methodological device) can rest upon a naive faith; religion is the longing for justification. When religion ceases to seek for penetration, for clarity, it is sinking back into ifs lower forms. The ages of faith are the ages of rationalism.

In the previous lectures religious experience was considered as a fact. It consists of a certain widespread, direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe. Such a character includes in itself certain metaphysical presuppositions. In so far as we trust the objectivity of the religious intuitions, to that extent we must also hold that the metaphysical doctrines are well founded.

It is for this reason that in the previous lecture the broadest view of religious experience was insisted on. If, at this stage of thought, we include points of radical divergence between the main streams, the whole evidential force is indefinitely weakened. Thus religious experience cannot be taken as contributing to metaphysics any direct evidence for a personal God in any sense transcendent or creative.

The universe, thus disclosed, is through and through interdependent. The body pollutes the mind, the mind pollutes the body. Physical energy sublimates itself into zeal; conversely, zeal stimulates the body. The biological ends pass into ideals of standards, and the formation of standards affects the biological facts. The individual is formative of the society, the society is formative of the individual. Particular evils infect the whole world, particular goods point the way of escape.

The world is at once a passing shadow and a final fact. The shadow is passing into the fact, so as to be constitutive of it; and yet the fact Is prior to the shadow. There is a kingdom of heaven prior to the actual passage of actual things, and there is the same kingdom finding its completion through the accomplishment of this passage.

But just as the kingdom of heaven transcends the natural world, so does this world transcend the kingdom of heaven. For the world is evil, and the kingdom is good. The kingdom is in the world, and yet not of the world.

The actual world, the world of experiencing, and of thinking, and of physical activity, is a community of many diverse entities; and these entities contribute to, or derogate from, the common value of the total community At the same time, these actual entities are, for themselves, their own value, individual and separable. They add to the common stock and yet they suffer alone. The world is a scene of solitariness in community.

The individuality of entities is just as important as their community. The topic of religion is individuality in community.


1. By "metaphysics" I mean the science which seeks to discover the general ideas which are indispensably relevant to the analysis of everything that happens.