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.”

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