Chapter 9: Reflection

Whiteheadian Thought as a Basis for a Philosophy of Religion
by Forrest Wood, Jr.

Chapter 9: Reflection

Giving reasons for one’s beliefs is a normal and routine activity in many areas of our lives: Why do you believe that the economy is improving? What reason is there to believe that he will be successful? How do you know that what you said is true? etc. In religion the same request for reasons for one’s beliefs arises. The request is as reasonable in religion as it is in other areas. But giving those reasons is often more difficult in religion than in other areas. Why? Primarily because most people are taught religious ideas as children and because often these ideas are given a seriousness and a sacredness that precludes an open and investigative approach to them.

The reluctance to reason about religious beliefs must be overcome. Blind faith will not do in religion any more than it will do in science, history, economics, etc. The recognition of other beliefs (other religions as well as other beliefs in our religion), the desire to understand, the hope to explain to another, the wish to know the truth, and the attempt to unify all of one’s beliefs into a coherent whole are motivations for reasoning about religious beliefs.

Whitehead’s thought provides us with an unusual opportunity to reexamine our religious beliefs because he created a new view of reality. What have we gained in insights about religion from this study of a Whiteheadian philosophy of religion?

This study has dealt with the nature of the world, the nature of God, the nature of man, and with two issues stemming from the relationship of these three: the problem of evil and the question of immortality.

Beginning with a view of the nature of entities as events one can construct a coherent world view which is productive of insights in understanding the nature of God and of man. New insights derived from understanding the nature of God in terms of this perception of reality produce a picture of God that is more consistent with the requirements of those who worship (i.e., a religious God) than traditional concepts about God. These insights include the idea that God changes but is not imperfect by doing so. Perfection is redefined as the unsurpassable creative advance into novelty. The perfect being is that which is unsurpassable by any other. God is understood as unchanging in his primordial nature which envisions the eternal objects and as changing in his creative response to the events of the world.

God is immanent in the world as the initial aim of each actual entity and as the lure toward creative achievement in the world. He is a part of every creation in the world. But the world is also immanent in God in that God prehends the world in himself: "He shares with every new creation its actual world. . . ." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 345) Hence God’s ". . .derivative nature is consequent upon the creative advance of the world." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 345)

In such a view, God includes the whole world, not just all people or all living things but all of reality. The flux of the world finds an everlastingness in God. Each event has everlasting significance in the consequent nature of God. Value is not just attributed to people (who surely are valuable) but to every event of the creative advance. Value cannot be absent in the nature of things and then made an ad hoc addition to man. The creative advance is a valuing process. Man is the most complex valuing agent (outside God) that we know, but as such is like all other agents in the world.

The significance of Whiteheadian thought for an understanding of the nature of man lies in its ability to justify many of qualities necessary to the dignity of the human being, such as freedom, self-respect, self-creation, and responsibility. The intellectual challenge to such ideas is well-known. Scientific mechanism and psychological behaviorism undercut modern man’s view of himself as being free. For example, B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity proposes that people are psychologically determined and not free. He argues that freedom is an illusion.

A belief in freedom cannot endure without intellectual justification. And without a belief in human freedom, an open, free, democratic society cannot endure. Authoritarianism (political, religious, etc.) is rooted in a deterministic view of man. Whitehead’s view of reality expressed in his concept of the self is the most important philosophical defense of freedom and creativity in the twentieth century.

The problem of evil is seen in a new light in two ways: reality consists in a vast multiplicity of active agents whose decisions or selections affect the events of the world and destructiveness is a part of the nature of any creation. The Whiteheadian view is that the world consists of actual entities (and complexes of actual entities) which have a measure of self-determination means that what is actualized is open to these entities. Since God does not determine the events, he is not responsible for their actions. God’s transcendence does not entail his determination of all things but his prehending of all things into one creative experience. Destructiveness is a part of creativeness. Process entails moving from the old to the new, the past fades, the present is momentary, the future rushes in. Absoluteness, permanentness, and the eternal unchanging are abstractions. The concrete is in flux, relative and specific. Moral destructiveness is attributed to the complex entity called the self. But this destructiveness is but a part of the general destructiveness that is a part of reality. The Whiteheadian view of the world permits us to understand the desire for immortality and the nature of immortality in a new way. The desire for immortality is in part the need for temporal events to embody value and for this value to have sustained realization. Every event, including the highly ordered complex of actual occasions called the self, has value. Its value lies both in its own uniqueness and in its everlasting contribution to God in the creative advance into novelty.

My Whiteheadian view affirms both objective immortality and subjective immortality. By objective immortality I mean that each event in the universe forever effects the course of events since they are the data base of all subsequent events. Also they are prehended by God and hence obtain an everlastingness in God. Immortality entails a transformation of each event, a conformation of that event with the eternal order and an everlasting union with God.

By subjective immortality I mean that the subjective feeling (which in persons includes consciousness) is retained in God. Each temporal feeling, transformed into that feeling in God, is everlastingly immediate in God. The immortality of an event is that it becomes a living, ever-present fact in God. Each event of a person is ". . .that person in God." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 350) I agree with Hartshorne that immortality includes the subjective immediacy of persons: personal consciousness is retained. We can never be less in God than we have been.

I see no reason why subjective immortality cannot include an indefinite addition of experiences. Which is to say that I do not find Hartshorne’s and Ogden’s arguments against this persuasive. The additional experiences of the transformed person in God will conform to his subjective aim. This final unity of purpose and aim is what I take heaven to be.

Each reader must judge for himself/herself whether the above insights are reflective of their religious experiences and fruitful for their own understanding. Whitehead’s views are a source for much contemporary theological discussion. If this book has piqued the reader’s interest, then the writer’s purpose has been achieved.