Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: Experience, Expression, & Metaphysics (part 3)

 [This is the third and last post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

Rational religious consciousness begins with the individual but necessarily expands to the universal. This is crucial for Whitehead’s theory of religion: it is not only individual solitariness - “Religion is world loyalty…equally individual and general…”

The rational religions had to re-evaluate the relation between religious experience and dogma. Just as the dogmas of science attempt to express the truths disclosed in sense-perception, so the dogmas of religion attempt to express religious experience.  All rational religions are based on “the concurrence of three allied concepts in one moment of self-consciousness”: first, the value of individuals; second, the value of all individuals for each other; and third, the value of the objective universe as a whole, which provides the content for the intuition of values.

All religious experience involves the intuition of an impersonal “character of permanent rightness” that is inherent to reality.  Evil is present in the world to the degree that conformity to this character is incomplete, for it “functions as a condition, a critic, and an ideal."

Whitehead then argues that to use language and to speak about anything necessitates metaphysics. Historians, scientists, and religious persons require metaphysical clarity – although religion has a greater need because of its claims to universal, permanent relevance. He defines metaphysics as: “the science which seeks to discover the general ideas which are indispensably relevant to the analysis of everything that happens.” A starting point for Whitehead’s metaphysics is that the universe is totally interdependent, yet every individual within the whole has its own value and experience. This connects to his definition of religion as solitariness and worldliness: “The world is a scene of solitariness in community…The topic of religion is individuality in community.”

We jump to the final chapter where Whitehead argues that religious dogmas must provide an adequate interpretation of life if they are to be maintained: “Religion starts from the generalization of final truths first perceived as exemplified in particular instances. These truths are amplified into a coherent system and applied to the interpretation of life. They stand or fall – like other truths – by their success in this interpretation. The peculiar character of religious truth is that it explicitly deals with values. It brings into consciousness that permanent idea of the universe which we can care for. It thereby provides a meaning, in terms of value, for our own existence, a meaning which flows from the nature of things."

Whitehead thus points to the importance of metaphysics in the formulation of religious knowledge or dogmas, which only have meaning within a metaphysical system. As such, the truth of dogmas are dependent on the truth of the metaphysical sphere of thought in which it arose.

Whitehead then argues that religious experience must be expressed into a common medium of sense experience within a religious community: action, words, and art, for example. Religious dogmas, or any other kind of expression, are necessary because they increase “vividness of apprehension” of general truths – but “a dogma which fails to evoke any response in immediate apprehension stifles the religious life."

This brings Whitehead back to his theory of religion as solitariness: if religious experience is individual solitariness, “Expression, and in particular expression by dogma, is the return from solitariness to society. There is no such thing as absolute solitariness.”  Thus, religious intuitions gain their universal relevance as they are expressed and verified in communities. Yet Whitehead cautions that all religious dogmas and metaphysical systems are usually incomplete in their grasp of full truth. Religions must proceed with humility, always willing to “amplify, recast, generalize, and adapt, so as to absorb into one system all sources of experience.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: The Evolution of Religion (part 2)

 [This is the second post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

Whitehead’s process theory of religion emphasizes the historical evolution of religion: religion is involved in the flux of history like everything else. Whitehead also adopts a view of religion that is basically progressive – in other words, religion generally developed on an upward trajectory towards ‘higher expressions.’ He calls this process the “ascent of man."

Whitehead provides his major definitions of religion early in the book, which are worth quoting at length: “Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts…A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended…Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things. This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact…Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…thus religion is solitariness…” What he means will become clear as we move on to discuss the evolution of religion from being a social phenomenon based on necessity and instinct with a tribal concern, to an individual phenomenon based on rationality with a universal concern.

Religion developed in four stages: ritual, emotion, belief, and finally rationalization. These develop in order towards greater religious importance, and different periods of religious history are characterized by varying degrees of emphasis on these four factors.

Ritual was the most primitive stage of religious evolution, which are types of organized behavior that are not directly related to survival. They also generate emotions, and in turn ritual and emotion reinforce one another. Whitehead writes, “In this primitive phase of religion, dominated by ritual and emotion, we are dealing with essentially social phenomena…a collective ritual and a collective emotion take their places as one of the binding forces of savage tribes. They represent the first faint glimmerings of the life of the spirit raised beyond concentration upon the task of supplying animal necessities.”

At the level of ritual and emotion, there was an “incipient rationality” that eventually generated myths, which primarily served to explain ritual and emotion. This third stage of belief formation was significant: “For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances.”  However, at this stage, religion remained a social phenomenon.

The final stage emerged slowly as myths were historically and rationally evaluated, re-organized, and turned into beliefs with universal relevance. The result was rational religion, which required a more complex stage in the development of human consciousness. The age of rationalism over the last six thousand years finally introduced solitariness into religion. The various great religions of the world are a result of transforming pre-existing traditions through rational reflection, special intuition, metaphysics, and ethics.

Rational religions moved away from communal towards individualistic forms. While communal forms of religion had fostered social unity, they had lost their ability to stimulate progress and had to gave way to individual forms of religion.

Especially through travel, humans developed the ability to think beyond their local context. An individualized world-consciousness was thus facilitated over a social consciousness. The latter is more concerned with preservation, while the former is more disengaged, and thus, rational. Whitehead explains: “The great rational religions are the outcome of the emergence of a religious consciousness which is universal, as distinguished from tribal, or even social. Because it is universal, it introduces the note of solitariness…The reason of this connection between universality and solitariness is that universality is a disconnection from immediate surroundings. It is an endeavor to find something permanent and intelligible by which to interpret the confusion of immediate detail.”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: Introduction (part 1)

[This is the first post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's excellent little book, Religion in the Making.  The book is his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.  Keep in mind that this book was written in 1926 - there are traces of Eurocentrism and colonialism present here, but overall I think his ideas are nevertheless fascinating.]

We will begin with a brief biographical overview of Whitehead and summary of his historical significance before diving into the text for today. The British mathematician, logician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861 in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England. His family was rooted in the Church of England, although before WWI Whitehead generally considered himself agnostic. However, after WWI, he considered himself religious and a theist, but did not align himself with a particular tradition. He developed interests in physics as well as theology and read widely in these areas.

After graduating in 1884 at Trinity College, a constituent college of University of Cambridge, he became a fellow at the school, teaching and writing mathematics there until 1910. Although he wrote a number of significant books on math, his most important was the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1st edition), co-written with his former pupil Bertrand Russell. This work is widely read and considered to be the most important works of mathematical logic and philosophy since Aristotle’s Organon. It should also be mentioned that Whitehead’s other most famous student was the widely influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes and Whitehead mutually influenced each other’s work, with Keynes largely agreeing with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

A second significant period of Whitehead’s life was from 1910-1924 at University College of London where he worked on physics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education. His third major period was his time at Harvard University where he taught philosophy from 1924 until his retirement in1937. It was during this time that he fully developed his metaphysical system that he had been working on since 1920, which he called the “philosophy of organism” but which has become more widely known as “process philosophy.” His philosophy is heavily influenced by Plato, Henri Bergson, and William James. Especially through his assistant at Harvard, Charles Hartshorne, who taught at University of Chicago, process philosophy stimulated the development of process theology. This was particularly important amongst Christian liberal theologians in America like John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki (all former professors at CST/CGU). But process philosophy has also attracted some Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu philosophers and theologians. Furthermore, process philosophy has also been increasingly influential in sections of the European scientific community and amongst Chinese philosophers.

Based on the Lowell Lectures in 1926, Religion in the Making was published between two of Whitehead’s more widely read texts, Science in the Modern World (1925), and his magnum opus based on the famous Gifford Lectures in 1929, Process and Reality. How consistent Whitehead’s thought is between these three texts, especially in the area metaphysics and his doctrine of God, is debated by Whiteheadian scholars to this day. Regardless of the perfect consistency between the three, my sense is that they are largely get at a very similar metaphysical vision, though elements may be lacking here and there. In the preface to RM, Whitehead links it closely to SMW in his general “train of thought.” In other words, he applies his same philosophical analysis first to the history of science in SMW and then to the history of religion in RM. He later did the same in 1933 with Adventures of Ideas for society, politics, economics, and culture. In the next post we will move on to discuss Whitehead’s RM.