Think of religion, not as organized religion, but rather as an impulse and intuition within the human heart. It is what a person does with his or her solitariness. It includes an intuitive sense of a 'rightness' in the depths of things, a feeling of being linked to what is universal, a cosmic piety that includes a sense of God, not so much as an external power but as the living unity of the universe itself, holding things together.
The primary virtue is not boldness or proclamation or a desire to convert others. It is rather, as Whitehead says in Religion in the Making, "sincerity, a penetrating sincerity." The religious impulse is a sincere sense that, all things considered, all things matter, all things are important, all things have value for themselves - value worth respecting. Religion, beginning with solitariness, unfolds as world loyalty.
Consider also that this impulse is capable of verbal formulation and of being nurtured by communities and rituals. The religions of the world are, or can be, its earthen vessels for solitude, intuition, and loyalty. But recognize as well that the verbal formulations can always be questioned and the dogmas critiqued. The historical versions of religion, understood as contexts for nurturing the religious sensibility, can evolve and change over time. This means that religions of the world are always religions-in-the-making. And it means that doubt and questioning are a companions to faith. Sincerity includes sincere doubts.
If this is how you understand religion, Whitehead would agree with you. These are some of the insights you will find in his book, Religion in the Making, published in 1926. It consists of four lectures first delivered at Kings Chapel in Boston of that year. The purpose of this page is introduce aspects of his thinking and encourage independent thinking of your own about what "religion" is and can be, oriented around four questions.
What is Whitehead's perspective on religion in his work 'Religion in the Making'?
How does he understand God in 'Religion in the Making'?
How does he approach the connection between religion and metaphysics in 'Religion in the Making'?
What significance does 'Religion in the Making' hold for post-evangelicals and individuals who have been wounded by authoritarian forms of religion, and who want to understand religion, at its best, as a way of living that includes questioning, self-criticism, and a welcoming of new ideas.
- Jay McDaniel
Religion as Cosmic Piety
The cosmos oriented piety about which he reflects in Religion in the Making is itself a living factor in his own thought. It is not something that appears only in those sections where religious themes are openly and explicitly treated, but is much more an indispensable, characteristic, and necessary feature for his cosmology itself….Whitehead is a religious thinker precisely because he is concerned to find general answers to fundamental cosmological questions.
Welker, M. (1986). COSMIC PIETY IN WHITEHEAD’S WORKS. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, 7(3), 121–131. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27943692
Religion as Solitariness and Surrender to the Universal
Alfred North Whitehead
"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion. "Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms. They may be useful, or harmful; they may be authoritatively ordained, or merely temporary expedients. But the end of religion is beyond all this."
"The moment of religious consciousness starts from self-valuation, but it broadens into the concept of the world. ..In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe...The spirit at once surrenders itself to this universal claim and appropriates it for itself."
Religion as a Sense of Rightness, and a Knowing beyond Words
Katelyn Carver Boston University, 2013
In his second lecture, “Religion and Dogma,” Whitehead identifies the assignment of value as the quintessential consideration in human experience. The difficulty here, however, is one that Whitehead recognizes himself: how does one attribute value? Is the attribution of valuation completely subjective? Does it depend upon fluctuating circumstances? In answer to these challenges, Whitehead suggests that the recognition of relative value lies in the acknowledgement of a universalized “character of permanent rightness…in the nature of things” (50).
However, he fails to definitively characterize either this sense of “rightness” or the value to which it points as ultimately subjective or objective in nature, making it difficult to concretize such a model of value derivation. In an attempt to clarify this issue, Whitehead appeals to the essential element of experience, claiming that there are things a person can know beyond the capacity for articulation.
The Emergence of Religion
Katelyn Carver Boston University, 2013
Whitehead charts the emergence and development of religion in human societies via four factors: ritual, emotion, belief, and rationalization.
The presence of ritual predates recorded history, representing the predisposition of the human body to exhibit repetition, the subsequent attachment of emotional significance to these patterns, and the desire to evoke these emotions deliberately via established reenactments. However, the essentially social phenomenon of ritual, according to Whitehead, cannot be sustained without an intellectual undergirding of belief in some mythos that both explains and reinforces the emotional provocation of the ritual itself. From this point, a religion can remain content with its chosen myths outside of higher synthesis, or it can progress toward a more unified ethical conduct through the rational organization of beliefs by appealing simultaneously to “the direct intuition of special occasions, and to the elucidatory power of its concepts for all occasions” (21).
Of the four lectures, this is the most technically well-executed in that it describes the processes of religious development and transformation across temporal and cultural epochs with clarity and conciseness. It conveys a simple model of emergence without neglecting the complexities of religious experience.
Whitehead's Understanding of God in Religion in the Making
by John Cobb in "A Christian Natural Theology"
reprinted from Religion Online
Whitehead recognized, in Science and the Modern World, that metaphysics alone could not go "far towards the production of a God available for religious purposes." (SMW 249.) Certainly this applies to his own doctrine as there developed. But Whitehead also indicated that a metaphysical doctrine is "a first step without which no evidence on a narrower experiential basis can be of much avail." (SMW 250.) Now that he had himself taken the first step, he noted, "What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis." (SMW 257.) This conviction on his part led quite naturally to the investigation of religion. This investigation of the evidence from religion combined with further metaphysical reflection provided the material for Whitehead’s second series of Lowell Institute Lectures, delivered the next year, and published as Religion in the Making.
A slight but significant shift takes place in Whitehead’s understanding of the relation of religion and metaphysics between the two books. In Science and the Modern World, metaphysics was to complete its work and thereby provide a first step in the knowledge of God to which additions could be made from religious experience. In Religion in the Making, however, Whitehead proposes that religion "contributes its own independent evidence which metaphysics must take account of in framing its description."(RM 79.) This change may be largely verbal, since metaphysics may here be conceived more broadly to include the whole of speculative philosophy,(See the definition of metaphysics in the footnote, RM 84.)but the emphasis is more on reciprocity and less on the dependence of religious knowledge on prior philosophical doctrine.
Nevertheless, most of what Whitehead tells us about God in Religion in the Making is primarily based on the further development of his philosophical thought. He does not import into his philosophy any doctrines that have emerged into dominance in particular religious traditions. For example, he devotes considerable attention to rejecting the view that religious experience provides a basis for affirming that God is personal.(RM 62-66.)He does affirm that religion yields evidence "in favor of the concept of a rightness in things, partially conformed to and partially disregarded."(RM 66.) Religion also contributes "the recognition that our existence is more than a succession of bare facts. We live in a common world of mutual adjustment, of intelligible relations, of valuations, of zest after purposes, of joy and grief, of interest concentrated on self, of interest directed beyond self, of short-time and long-time failures or successes, of different layers of feeling, of life-weariness and of life-zest." (RM 80.) Whitehead proposes, then, that philosophy should take account of these dimensions of human experience, but it does not appear that they should be particularly restrictive or prescriptive in the further development of the doctrine of God.
In the more purely philosophical sections of the book Whitehead repeats, supplements, and alters the position he stated in Science and the Modern World. The repetition and supplementation is illustrated in the following passage: "The universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but . . . this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God." (RM 119-120.) Fundamentally this is a simple restatement of the argument in the earlier book. However, at one point it suggests an element that was unspecified there. God is a "completed ideal harmony." In other passages this is stated in a variety of ways. God is said to hold "the ideal forms apart in equal, conceptual realization of knowledge," -- so that "as concepts, they are grasped together in the synthesis of omniscience.(RM 153.) God is a conceptual fusion of values, "embracing the concept of all such possibilities graded in harmonious, relative subordination." (RM 157.) Thus, we find that the way in which God functions as the principle of limitation is by ordering the infinite possibilities of the eternal objects according to principles of value. It is by the addition of this "ideal conceptual harmony"(RM 156.) to the other antecedent circumstances out of which a new entity arises that some measure of harmony and order is maintained in the universe. Otherwise there could be no actual world.(RM 104, 157.)In these quotations we can see that the envisagement of the eternal objects, which was referred, in the first Lowell lectures, to the underlying substantial activity, (see earlier in this ch.) is here attributed to God. This envisagement is not something additional to his function as principle of limitation, but it explains how that principle operates. In commenting earlier on the attribution of envisagement to the underlying activity, I noted that it could not be understood as having any of its usual anthropomorphic connotations. Since the underlying activity was regarded as not being actual, it was hard to understand what might be meant by its function of envisaging. Even if in the earlier book the envisaging had been attributed to God, the situation would not have been changed, since Whitehead wrote in Science and the Modern World that "God is not concrete (SMW 257.)and that certainly meant, not actual. However, in Religion in the Making a remarkable change has occurred without explanation. God is consistently referred to as an actual entity.(RM 90, 94, 98, 99, 152.)This is not a rejection of the view that he is the principle of concretion (or limitation) but the affirmation that it is an actual entity that performs the function of providing the limitations that make concretion possible. Hence, envisagement can be understood as a way in which an actual entity is conceptually related to ideal possibilities.
That God is an actual entity rather than a nonconcrete principle also allows for the attribution to him of many other characteristics which would have seemed out of place in the earlier book. Whitehead speaks of God as having purpose,(RM 100, 104, 158, 159.) knowledge,(RM 154.) vision,(RM 153.)wisdom, RM 160.) consciousness, RM 158.) and love.(RM 158.) This is remarkably personalistic language, and it is interesting to note that it all occurs in the more philosophical part of the book rather than where he is surveying the evidence of religious experience. There, as we noted, he insists that religious experience does not justify our speaking of God as person. He further criticizes the Semitic conception of God as personal creator of the world.(RM 70-71.) He even denies that religious experience provides adequate warrant for affirming the actuality of God, since "the Eastern Asiatic concept of an impersonal order to which the world conforms" is given equal status with other doctrines.(RM 68-69.) Apparently the basic reason for the change in tone and language is that the function of providing limitation to ensure order and value could be assigned only to an actual entity. Once God is regarded as an actual entity, the use of personalistic language follows naturally, for our basic clue to the nature of an actual entity is given in our own immediate human experience.(See ch. I.) God is, however, a very special type of actual entity. He is contrasted with all others by virtue of being "nontemporal." (RM 90.)"The definite determination which imposes ordered balance on the world requires an actual entity imposing its own unchanged consistency of character on every phase." (RM 94.) "He must include in himself a synthesis of the total universe. There is, therefore, in God’s nature the aspect of the realm of forms as qualified by the world, and the aspect of the world as qualified by the forms. His completion, so that He is exempt from transition into something else, must mean that his nature remains self-consistent in relation to all change."(RM 98-99.)
A problem arises when we press the nontemporality of God. Does God confront every new temporal entity with his ideal envisagement of value in just the same way? Would he confront them in the same way even in another cosmic epoch in which space-time were not a four-dimensional continuum but had three or five dimensions? If so, it is hard to see how, after all, he functions as the principle of limitation. That Whitehead seems to have recognized this is indicated by the following passage. Speaking of God, he writes: "He is the binding element in the world. The consciousness which is individual in us, is universal in him: the love which is partial in us is all-embracing in him. Apart from him there could be no world, because there could be no adjustment of individuality. His purpose in the world is quality of attainment. His purpose is always embodied in the particular ideals relevant to the actual state of the world. Thus all attainment is immortal in that it fashions the actual ideals which are God in the world as it is now. Every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God. He then passes into his next relation to the world with enlarged, or diminished, presentation of ideal values."(RM 158-159.)
This passage also points to the final new element in the doctrine of God in this book. God is understood as being affected by the world. In an earlier quotation this relation was described as including "the aspect of the world as qualified by the forms." (See previous page.) The envisagement of the actual entities as well as of the eternal objects is now attributed to God rather than to the underlying substantial activity. There is interaction between God and the world. God makes possible order and value in the world, the world then acts upon God, and God’s new relation to the world is affected. Thus, the general principle of the interaction of actual entities is applied to God who now appears as the supreme actual entity.
In Science and the Modern World, we encountered four metaphysical principles: the underlying substantial activity and its three attributes -- eternal objects, actual entities, and the principle of limitation. In Religion in the Making, subtle but important changes have occurred in the understanding of these four elements in the philosophic system. First, the underlying substantial activity is now called creativity (RM 90.) and plays so minor a role in the analysis that it has barely been mentioned in the preceding account. This in itself might be a merely verbal change or a change of emphasis. But, in fact, it is much more than that. We are no longer invited to compare Whitehead’s thought with that of Spinoza. We read no more of attributes and modes, and the tendency toward monism of the earlier book gives way to an emphatic pluralism of actual entities. Whereas substantial activity was that of which all the other three were attributes, creativity is accorded no such favored place. Complete interdependence of the four principles is stressed rather than the primacy of any one.( RM 90-93, 156-157.) Second, since God is now conceived as an actual entity, we might consider the four metaphysical principles as reduced to three: creativity, eternal objects, and actual entities including God as a special case. If we do so, however, we have to remember that there is a major philosophical difference between God and the temporal actual entities. After Religion in the Making, nothing really new is added to the doctrine of God. He is an actual entity who envisages and orders the realm of eternal possibilities. He adds himself to the world as the vision of ideal possibility, from which every new occasion takes its rise, thereby ensuring a measure of order and value in a situation that could otherwise be only chaotic and indeed could achieve no actuality at all. The world, in its turn, reacts upon him so as to affect the way in which he, in his turn, acts upon it. All the ingredients are here. But many questions remain unanswered. What finally is the relation of God to creativity? How does God make available to each occasion its appropriate ideal? What status have the eternal objects in relation to God’s envisagement? How does the world in its turn act upon him? How can this be harmonized with the doctrine that God is nontemporal? These and other questions we can take with us to the greatest of Whitehead’s philosophical writings, Process and Reality.
Religion and Metaphysics
Alfred North Whitehead Religion in the Making
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.
A Role for Metaphysics
One mistake philosophers often make when they teach or write about the religions of the world is to assume that religion is primarily about philosophy, i.e. about the beliefs people hold regarding the nature of things. Many years ago, Ninian Smart (1927-2001), himself a philosopher, identified seven dimensions of religion, of which belief is but one. The seven dimensions of religion are:
Practical and Ritual: the practices and ceremonies of a religion.
Experiential and Emotional: the feelings and experiences of the followers of a religion.
Mythic or Narrative: the stories and symbols that convey the beliefs and values of a religion.
Doctrinal and Philosophical: the teachings and concepts that explain the worldview of a religion.
Ethical and Legal: the rules and guidelines that govern the behavior of a religion's adherents.
Social and Institutional: the organization and structure of a religion's community and authority.
Material: the objects and places that represent or express the sacredness of a religion.
Various religions emphasize some of these dimensions over others. A preoccupation with the fifth dimension, doctrinal and philosophical, is characteristic of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity. In many religions, rituals and ethics are more important than beliefs, myths and stories convey wisdom not found in doctrines and philosophies, and community is more important than "correct belief."
With these seven dimensions in mind, it can be troubling in reading Whitehead's remarks below. He appears primarily concerned with the philosophical aspect of religion (the fifth dimension) and how it might shape and provide guidelines for the vital, emotional side (the second dimension). In the tradition of Kant's "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone," Whitehead emphasizes the importance of making religion "rational." Hence his insistence that religious individuals, or at least those with a philosophical mindset, recognize what he calls the "metaphysical background" of their beliefs and that they subject their own beliefs to "dispassionate criticism."
The matter is further complicated by the fact that, today, the very concept of "religion" is contested by those who think it does not apply to the great ways of Asia, or two indigenous traditions around the world, where the word "religion" itself has no exact parallel. The word is, after all, a western (Latin-based) word; and for many people in the West, influenced by modernist individualism, the word suggests either private belief or "organized religion" in which private belief unfolds. This is why some people, including process theologians, prefer the word Way to the word "religion" in describing, for example, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, and Native American traditions. A 21st century version of Whitehead's Religion in the Making might better be called Ways in the Making.
However, it is also important to remember that some people, particularly conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews, grow up in settings where subjecting beliefs to criticism is considered anathema, where doubt is viewed as a sin, and where philosophy is rejected because it relies on reason and freedom of inquiry, rather than, for example, sacred scripture or unquestioned beliefs presented by clerics. For them, the idea that religion can be "in the making" is novel and refreshing. The very title of the book invites eight insights:
Doubt can be a companion to faith.
Religious beliefs against experience and reason. Stale and potentially destructive beliefs can be discarded.
Healthy religion includes a sense of adventure: a welcoming of new ideas, including those that come from science.
Metaphysics, understood as a probing into the depths of things, has a place in religious consciousness.
Current generations can play a role in reconstructing their religion for new generations.
Progress is possible, even in religion
To these six ideas a seventh can be added, to which many post-evangelical and post-fundamentalists Christians now turn in the "open and relational" traditions of Christianity. Whitehead's philosophy offers a springboard for thinking of God in fresh ways: not as a tyrant in the sky, threatening reward and punishment, but as a cosmic life, the unity of the universe itself, understood as a nurturing spirit seeking the well-being of the world and its many creatures. The kind of religion into which many have been born as been authoritarian not nurturant in spirit. Whitehead's metaphysics, particularly as developed in a later book, Process and Reality, offers a way of thinking of God as love.