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God and the World

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During his years of teaching philosophy at Harvard University, Alfred North Whitehead aroused newly intense questions concerning God and the World. Here are some selections from Religion in the Making, Science and the Modern World, and Process and Reality. – Herbert F. Vetter

Religion and Science

During many generations there has been a gradual decay of religious influence in European civilization. Each revival touches a lower peak than its predecessor, and each period of slackness a lower depth. The average curve marks a steady fall in religious tone. In some countries the interest in religion is higher than in others. But in those countries where the interest is relatively high, it still falls as the generations pass. Religion is tending to degenerate into a decent formula wherewith to embellish a comfortable life. A great historic movement on this scale results from the convergence of many causes. I wish to suggest two of them.

In the first place, for over two centuries religion has been on the defensive, and on a weak defensive. The period has been one of unprecedented intellectual progress. In this way a series of novel situations have been produced for thought. Each such occasion has found the religious thinkers unprepared. Something, which has been proclaimed to be vital, has finally, after struggle, distress, and anathema, been modified and otherwise interpreted. The next generation of religious apologists then congratulated the religious world on the deeper insight which has been gained. The result of the continued repetition of this undignified retreat, during many generations, has at last almost entirely destroyed the intellectual authority of religious thinkers. Consider this contrast: when Darwin or Einstein proclaim theories which modify our ideas, it is a triumph for science. We do not go about saying that there is another defeat for science, because its old ideas have been abandoned. We know that another step of scientific insight has been gained. Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.

My second reason for the modern fading of interest involves the ultimate question of what we mean by religion. Religion is the reaction of human nature to its search for God. The presentation of God as an all-powerful arbitrary tyrant behind the unknown forces of nature awakens every modern instinct of critical reaction. This is fatal; for religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent. The psychology of modern civilizations is largely due to science, and is one of the chief ways in which the advance of science has weakened the hold of the old religious forms of expression. The non-religious motive which has entered into modern religious thought is the desire for a comfortable organization of modern society. Religion has been presented as valuable for the ordering of life. Its claims have been rested upon its function as a sanction to right conduct. Also, the purpose of right conduct quickly degenerates into the formation of pleasing social relations. We have here a subtle degradation of religious ideas, following upon their gradual purification under the influence of keener ethical intuitions. Conduct is a by-product of religion—an inevitable by-product, but not the main point. Every great religious teacher has revolted against the presentation of religion as a mere sanction of rules of conduct.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience. The vision claims nothing but worship, worship with the motive force of mutual love. The vision never overrules. It is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting. The power of God is the worship God inspires. That religion is strong which in its ritual and its modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.


Today there is but one religious dogma in debate: What do you mean by “God”? And in this respect, today is like all its yesterdays. There are three main simple renderings of this concept before the world.

  1. The Eastern Asiatic concept of an impersonal order to which the world conforms. This order is the self-ordering of the world; it is not the world obeying an imposed rule. The concept expresses the extreme doctrine of immanence.
  2. The Semitic concept of a definite personal individual entity, whose existence is the one ultimate metaphysical fact, absolute and underivative, and who decreed and ordered the derivative existence which we call the actual world. This Semitic concept is the rationalization of the tribal gods of the earlier communal religions. It expressed the extreme doctrine of transcendence.
  3. The Pantheistic concept of an entity to be described in the terms of the Semitic concept, except that the actual world is a phase within the complete fact which is this ultimate individual entity. The actual world, conceived apart from God, is unreal. Its only reality is God’s reality. The actual world has the reality of being a partial description of what God is. But in itself it is merely a certain mutuality of “Appearance,” which is a phase of the being of God. This is the extreme doctrine of monism.

It will be noticed that the Eastern Asiatic concept and the Pantheistic concept invert each other. According to the former concept, when we speak of God we are saying something about the world; and according to the latter concept, when we speak of the world we are saying something about God.

The Semitic concept and the Eastern Asiatic concept are directly opposed to each other, and any mediation between them must lead to complexity of thought. It is evident that the Semitic concept can very easily pass over into the Pantheistic concept. In fact, the history of philosophical theology in various Mahometan countries—Persia, for instance—shows that this passage has often been effected.

The main difficulties which the Semitic concept has to struggle with are two in number. One of them is that it leaves God completely outside metaphysical rationalization. We know, according to it, that God is such a being as to design and create this universe, and there our knowledge stops. If we mean by God’s goodness that God is the one self-existent, complete entity, then God is good. But such goodness must not be confused with the ordinary goodness of daily life. God is undeniably useful, because anything baffling can be ascribed to God’s direct decree.

The second difficulty of the concept is to get itself proved. The only possible proof would appear to be the “ontological proof” devised by Anselm, and revived by Descartes. According to this proof, the mere concept of such an entity allows us to infer its existence. Most philosophers and theologians reject this proof: for example, it is explicitly rejected by Cardinal Mercier in his  Manual of Scholastic Philosophy.

Any proof which commences with the consideration of the character of the actual world cannot rise above the actuality of this world. It can only discover all the factors disclosed in the world as experienced. In other words, it may discover an immanent God, but not a God wholly transcendent. The difficulty can be put in this way: by considering the world we can find all the factors required by the total metaphysical situation; but we cannot discover anything not included in this totality of actual fact, and yet explanatory of it.

Christianity has not adopted any one of these clear alternatives. It has been true to its genius for keeping its metaphysics subordinate to the religious facts to which it appeals.

In the first place, it inherited the simple Semitic concept. All its founders naturally expressed themselves in those terms, and were addressing themselves to an audience who could only understand religion thus expressed.

But even here important qualifications have to be made. Christ himself introduces them. How far they were then new, or how far he is utilizing antecedent thought, is immaterial. The point is the decisive emphasis the nations receive in his teaching. The first point is the association of God with the Kingdom of Heaven, coupled with the explanation that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” The second point is the concept of God under the metaphor of a Father. The implications of this latter notion are expanded with moving insistence in the two epistles of St. John, to whom we owe the phrase, “God is love.”

Finally, in the Gospel of St. John, by the introduction of the doctrine of the Logos, a clear move is made towards the modification of the notion of the unequivocal personal unity of the Semitic God. Indeed, for most Christian Churches, the simple Semitic doctrine is now a heresy, both by reason of the modification of personal unity and also by the insistence on immanence. The notion of immanence must be distinguished from that of omniscience. The Semitic God is omniscient; but, in addition to that, the Christian God is a factor in the universe. A few years ago a papyrus was found in an Egyptian tomb which proved to be an early Christian compilation called “The Sayings of Christ.” Its exact authenticity and its exact authority do not concern us. I am quoting it as evidence of the mentality of many Christians in Egypt during the first few Christian centuries. At that date Egypt supplied the theological leaders of Christian thought. We find in these Logia of Christ the saying, “Cleave the wood, and I am there.” This is merely one example of an emphatic assertion of immanence, and shows a serious divergence from the Semitic concept.

Immanence is a well-known modern doctrine. The points to be noticed are that it is implicit in various parts of the New Testament, and was explicit in the first theological epoch of Christianity. Christian theology was then Platonic; it followed John rather than Paul.

The Quest of God

The modern world has lost God and is seeking God. The reason for the loss stretches far back in the history of Christianity. In respect to its doctrine of God, the Church gradually returned to the Semitic concept, with the addition of the threefold personality. It is a concept which is clear, terrifying, and unprovable. It was supported by an unquestioned religious tradition. It was also supported by the conservative instinct of society, and by a history and a metaphysic both constructed expressly for that purpose. Moreover, to dissent was death.

On the whole, the Gospel of love was turned into a Gospel of fear. The Christian world was composed of terrified populations.

“In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”; says Paul. “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”(II Thessalonians 1:8-9)

The populations did well to be terrified at such ambiguous good tidings, which lost no emphasis in the promulgation.

If the modern world is to find God, it must find God through love and not through fear, with the help of John and not of Paul. Such a conclusion is true and represents a commonplace of modern thought. But it is only a very superficial rendering of the facts.

As a rebound from dogmatic intolerance, the simplicity of religious truth has been a favorite axiom of liberalizing theologians. It is difficult to understand upon what evidence this notion is based. In the physical world as science advances, we discern a complexity of interrelations. There is a certain simplicity of dominant ideas, but modern physics does not disclose a simple world.

To reduce religion to a few simple notions seems an arbitrary solution of the problem before us. It may be common sense; but is it true? In view of the horrors produced by bigotry, it is natural for sensitive thinkers to minimize religious dogmas. But such pragmatic reasons are dangerous guides.

This procedure ends by basing religion on those few ideas which in the circumstances of the time are most effective in producing pleasing emotions and agreeable conduct. If our trust is in the ultimate power of reason as a discipline for the discernment of truth, we have no right to impose such a priori conditions. All undue simplifications of religious dogma are shipwrecked upon the rock of the problem of evil.

As a particular application, we may believe that the various doctrines about God have not suffered chiefly from their complexity. They have represented extremes of simplicity, so far as they have been formulated for the great rationalistic religions. The three extremes of simple notions should not represent in our eyes mutually exclusive concepts, from among which are to choose one and reject the others.

It cannot be true that contradictory notions can apply to the same fact. Thus reconcilement of these contrary concepts must be sought in a more searching analysis of the meaning of the terms in which they are phrased.

God and the World

The notion of God as the “unmoved mover” is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as “eminently real” is a favorite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism. When the Eastern world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.

In the great formative period of theistic philosophy, which ended with the rise of Mahometanism, after a continuance coeval with civilization, three strains of thought emerge which, amid many variations in detail, respectively fashion God in the image of an imperial ruler, God in the image of a personification of moral energy, God in the image of an ultimate philosophical principle. Hume’sDialogues criticize unanswerably these modes of explaining the system of the world.

The three schools of thought can be associated respectively with the divine Caesars, the Hebrew prophets, and Aristotle. But Aristotle was antedated by Indian and Buddhist thought; the Hebrew prophets can be paralleled in traces of earlier thought; Mahometanism and the divine Caesars merely represent the most natural obvious, theistic idolatrous symbolism, at all epochs and places.

The history of theistic philosophy exhibits various stages of combination of these three diverse ways of entertaining the problem. There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the rule of Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.

Apart from any reference to existing religions as they are, or as they ought to be, we must investigate dispassionately what the metaphysical principles here developed, require on these points, as to the nature of God.
In the first place, God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. God is their chief exemplification. The final summary can only be expressed in terms of a group of antitheses, whose apparent self-contradiction depend on neglect of the diverse categories of existence. In each antithesis there is a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast.

It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.

It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as the world is one and God many.

It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.

It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.

It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.

It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.

Thus God is to be conceived as one and as many in the converse sense in which the World is to be conceived as many and as one. The theme of Cosmology, which is the basis of all religion, is the story of the dynamic effort of the World passing into everlasting unity, and of the static majesty of God’s vision, accomplishing its purpose of completion by absorption of the World’s multiplicity of effort.

Thus the universe is to be conceived as attaining the active self-expression of its own variety of opposites—of its own freedom and its own necessity, of its own multiplicity and its own unity, of its own imperfection and its own perfection. All the “opposites” are elements in the nature of things, and are incorrigibly there. The concept of “God” is the way in which we understand this incredible fact—that what cannot be, yet is.

God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.

Creation—A Continuous Process

It was a mistake, as the Hebrews tried, to conceive of God as creating the world from the outside, at one go. An all-foreseeing Creator, who could have made the world as we find it now what could we think of such a being? Foreseeing everything and yet putting into it all sorts of imperfections, to redeem which it was necessary to send his only son into the world to suffer torture and hideous death; outrageous ideas. The Hellenic religion was a better approach; the Greeks conceived of creation as going on everywhere all the time within the universe; and I also think they were happier in their conception of supernatural beings impersonating those various forces, some good, others bad; for both sorts of forces are present, whether we assign personality to them or not. There is a general tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things, and moments come when we can work with it and it can work through us. But that tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things is by no means omnipotent. Other forces work against it.

God is in the universe, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts. But this creation is a continuing process, and “the process is itself the actuality,” since no sooner do you arrive than you start on a fresh journey. Insofar as we partake of this creative process do we partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is our immortality, reducing the question of whether our individuality survives death of the body to the estate of an irrelevancy. Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.