Whitehead, Religion in the Making

Alfred North Whitehead, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 145 pages.

Religion in the Making, a collection of lectures delivered by Alfred North Whitehead in 1926, lives up to the implications of its title: it is a text of process, of liminality and contradiction that is by turns accessible and opaque. It is introductory even as it assumes certain levels of knowledge; it is useful, but the exact end of that use is often amorphous. With this in mind, two modes of critique and analysis for this work emerge. The primary route of dealing with Religion in the Making is as a publication unto itself. The secondary consideration is of the text as itself in progress, as a particular point of reference within an ever-changing field and, more specifically, as a precursor to the fully developed metaphysics of Whitehead’s 1929 opus, Process and Reality. In treating Religion in the Making as a complete work in its own right, this review will focus largely on the summarization and critique of the text in isolation from its successor, as well as its predecessor, Science and the Modern World.In the opening lecture, “Religion in History,” 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. Likewise, it is a commendable introduction to the text as a whole with regard to the foundation it lays for further discussion.

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. This argument is tenuous in theory, though largely confirmed in lived experience, which in turn raises another criticism of Whitehead’s writing: the imperfect balance between theory and practice in the content of his lectures. In Whitehead’s defense, the field of metaphysics is often more concerned with explication than application. Nevertheless, Whitehead spends a great deal of time developing theoretical models that seem appealing; however, their practicability is poorly defended in the context of the modern culture in which these crucial “lived experiences” are meant to take place.

Later in the second lecture, Whitehead argues that rational religion requires a metaphysical structure to provide recourse against overly specified or dogmatic representations of religious experience. Thus, Whitehead affirms an immanent model of the universe that supports the reality of complex interrelationships disclosed by quantum physics. Whitehead makes a convincing argument against transcendence by pointing out that metaphysics is concerned with and unable to rise above the actual world, which would be a requirement for any meaningful treatment of transcendence. Thus, in assuming an immanent foundation of being, a greater universality is uncovered as the divisive elements of apparently conflicting dogmas are integrated within relationship. The implication of interfaith cooperation here is admirable, particularly for its time, but because the mention is so cursory, charges of assimilation and unfounded reductionism would not be indefensible.

Whitehead’s third lecture, “Body and Spirit,” follows from the metaphysical bias of the previous lecture, asserting that “religion requires a metaphysical backing” to prevent the strong emotions it evokes from undermining its authority (71). Whitehead argues that religious experience affirms a reality that is “through and through interdependent,” relating individuals to one another within community (74). From here, Whitehead begins what appears to be an early foray into the development of his metaphysics, which—as is his custom—employs jargon to a degree that severely limits his audience and in many instances confuses key points in his metaphysical framework, particularly for those unfamiliar with his philosophy. Beneath the sometimes stilted vocabulary and sentence construction, the heart of Whitehead’s proposal dwells in the division of reality into actual entities that are real and that proceed within time toward novelty, and ideal entities which are not themselves real but that characterize reality. The real and the ideal are then mediated through acts of creative synthesis by an actual entity existing outside of temporality—an entity that Whitehead deems to be functionally synonymous with the God of rationalized religion. Whitehead typifies this God as being the “measure of the aesthetic consistency of the world,” participating in each component part of reality and structuring the endless possibilities of being into some form of order (86). Thus, God works to counter chaotic confusion through balanced contrasts of limitation and opportunity, definiteness and infinitude, exclusion and inclusion so as to harmonize the whole of reality.

In this third lecture, two of the most problematic contradictions of this text emerge. First, Whitehead’s conceptualization of relationality as the foundation for valuation, and thus significance, is presented as definitionally rooted in the synthesis of contrasts. However, Whitehead asserts that evil—the opposite of a God oriented toward what is “good”—is revealed when “things are at cross-purposes” and it is through the incompleteness of overall conformity that evil enters the world (84). However, complete conformity would require assimilation, and thus the eradication of the differentiation that is essential for contrast to occur. It is possible—perhaps even probable—that Whitehead is referencing a cyclical continuum of individual parts being synthesized into wholes ad infinitum. However, his language here is troublingly indefinite and opens the doors for contradictions within his argument that could potentially compromise the integrity of his metaphysics as a whole.

Second, Whitehead maps a human world that is characterized by progress, affirming a largely scientific worldview. He also affirms that God is immanent, and that God is therefore within and reflected through this world as it exists in flux. Despite this, Whitehead defines God as being above change, a description which proves contraindicative to the immanent, synthesizing entity known as God that is confined to the ever-changing natural world within Whitehead’s model. This discrepancy as to the nature of God is distressing not only for the contradiction it suggests, but also for the conflicting implications it has for the categorization of Whitehead’s worldview as naturalistic or otherwise.

In his closing lecture, “Truth and Criticism,” Whitehead summarizes the assertions from his previous lectures, noting that the universal generalizations of religion stand or fall based upon their applied successes in life. In using metaphysics to judge the success of a given dogma, human beings often encounter frustration at the inability to properly express the general truths that underpin religious belief. This frustration can lead to an overzealous desire to cling to the more specific expressions of dogmas, a trend that diminishes the interrelational paradigm of creative synthesis by trading ambiguous universality for specialized dogmatic assertions. Thus, Whitehead proposes that it is expression for its own sake, rather than absolutely accurate expression alone, that is sacramental in its contribution of singular knowledge to the universal whole. Dogmas therefore function not as inspiration in their own right, but as “clarifying modes of external expression” that return the solitary individual to the community (122). In this spirit, Whitehead proposes that religion points toward the discernment of relation as the aim of existence itself, and that the affirmation of relationality is the only way in which value—the central factor of experience—can be deepened via the synthesis of the actual and ideal within God.

Ultimately, in charting the development of the ever-evolving function of religion in human life, Religion in the Making fulfills its titular task honestly: it is a text-in-progress, comprised of developed ideas alongside fledgling hypotheses and reflecting a developing philosophy as it coalesces and shifts in the making. Unfortunately, this honesty is sometimes achieved at the expense of clarity, applicability, and consistency within the claims of the text itself. It is relevant here to note that the contradictions present are likely markers of the early stages in Whitehead’s development of his metaphysics, considering that many of the assertions in question are later revisited and clarified in Process and Reality. Nevertheless, the metaphysical structure described by Whitehead here lacks internal consistency, and so Religion in the Making cannot be responsibly used alone to elucidate its subject matter. Thus, Religion in the Making is a useful work that grapples admirably with deep questions, makes salient points, traces an ongoing process of philosophical development, and ultimately works within the same metaphysical framework as its author endorses: not in isolation from other texts, but in relation to them.

by Katelynn Carver
Boston University, 2013

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