Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 9

9. God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.
—Alfred North Whitehead, (1861-1947) English mathematician and philosopher

Alfred North Whitehead was first a mathematician and logician who co-authored with Bertrand Russell Principia Mathematica, a colossally ambitious attempt to derive all mathematics from a small set of axioms using logic, which later was shown to be untenable by Kurt Gödel. However, Whitehead's philosophy and religious writings hearken more toward Eastern thought with the idea of dynamic reality, called Process Philosophy, rather than a static, object centered one.

Driven first by science (as seen with Dewey), the twentieth century saw tremendous and diverse changes in thinking about God and religion, and the idea which gained the widest traction, despite formidable historical hurdles, was that God is not impassive nor immutable. Especially after WWI, the God of St. Anselm and the theological notion of impassibility, were widely rejected by theologians and the laity alike. After the war an immovable mover made little sense; after democracy, a supreme being, likewise. And no one more ingeniously or reasonably initiated these changes in the west than Alfred North Whitehead.

For Whitehead, God does not stand impassively outside the system and remain independent of it—a last resort deus ex machina to hold it all together. Rather, God is an integral element in the whole and participates actively in its struggles and concerns.

Whitehead proposed a metaphysics which many theologians adopted. God and existence itself, are described as processes, activity. We find this echoed by many of today's physicists and cosmologists who prefer events to particles. Dividing the world into substances and qualities (particles and properties) is the commonsense way to cope with everyday life and individual scientific problems, but when looking at the ultimate nature of reality, Whitehead insisted "We must start with the event as the ultimate unity of natural occurrence."—particles are but instantaneous manifestations of the process.

So, what is meaningful is not attributes, but how God acts or relates to the rest of reality. Actualities (including ourselves) arrive from interaction with God in a primordial sense which is "the unlimited conceptual realization . . . of potentiality." But we (via each actual occasion) also relate in a consequent sense which is how God relates to physical reality. God prehends all actual occasions of the physical world as they emerge. Each occasion or event impacts God through this prehension (i.e. the non-sensory sympathetic perception of antecedent experiences). God is not impassive but actively changes. In this way God is not a concept apart from our temporal reality—the nature of God requires there be realities other than God. While God's existence is neither uncertain nor dependent on the actions of others, Whitehead poetically says, “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.” God is essentially in a give-and-take relationship with the world.

God affects us; and we, God—through God's understanding (prehension). As Whitehead imaginatively says, God is "the poet of the world." God suffers as we suffer. The description calls to mind J. D. Salinger's (son of) God as Seymour's "Fat Lady".

Obviously, the metaphysics is difficult to quickly summarize and I've omitted major portions, but it is built, not from a need for God, but from a rational view of reality. I think you can see that Whitehead's metaphysics leaves no room for the supernatural. Indeed, God is defined by what experientially is. Per Whitehead, apart from experiences "there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." I started thinking that Whitehead was the first quantum philosopher, and then recently discovered there are a number of books and lectures on quantum mechanics and Whitehead philosophy. The crazy thing about his work is that it appeals to hardcore scientists as well as Christian theologians who use it in an attempt to rescue Christianity from the blows received during the twentieth century.

Here are a few other prescient quotes by Whitehead on religion:
"Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science."
"Idolatry is the necessary product of static dogmas"
And a favorite, remember this is a mathematician:
"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."

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Big Myk said...

The other quote I always liked from Whitehead: "Religion is what a person does with his solitariness."

Big Myk said...

I have never really looked at Whitehead. My reaction to this post, however, was how much Whitehead sounded like Kazantzakis. I did some googling and, lo and behold, there are a lot out there who recognize Whitehead’s influence on Kazantzakis. Both Whitehead and Kazantzakis see God as actively engaged in the world, driving it forward. For Kazantzakis the entire evolutionary process is driven by God. God is constantly calling life forward out of comfort to be greater than it is: “Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God.”

The cry to abandon comfort and our old selves for something greater is also reflected in Jesus’ thinking, and there is the same urgency that we find in Kazantzakis. First, don’t look for comfort: "Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." Similarly, "If you wish to be my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me." Second, look forward not back: "Let the dead, bury their dead." And, "No one who sets his hands to the plow and keeps looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God." Perhaps Jesus would feel more comfortable with Whitehead than Anselm.

Two things about this process for Kazantzakis. One, there are no guarantees. The world is not heading inerrantly toward the Omega Point, as Tielhard, another process theologian, contends. Rather, the God of process is not all-powerful and depends on our efforts. The universe is open-ended and there is always an element of danger and surprise, for God as well as the world. Second, there is no set goal, except to move forward. For Kazantzakis, it is not the Grail that is important, but the quest itself. Says Bertrand Russell of Henri Bergson who held similar views, "there is no town, no definite goal, at the end of the road along which evolution travels."

For those who are tempted to despair of Catholicism, I happened to run across a blog of a priest who apparently teaches philosophy at a seminary. He concludes his post about Kazantzakis as Whitehead might have:

"[Christ] didn’t promise us ease; he promises us greatness. He promises an adventure in which we will have to spend our entire life, and every single breath aiming not for the easiest way, but the highest way, the utmost, and the best. Our goal is to reach the summit of life and of faith, and there, encounter the God who says to us: 'I am beyond, stand up!' [quoting Kazantzakis] … . When things start getting too easy, and when you start getting far too comfortable, when you start getting lukewarm in any area of your life here in seminary – be wary, it may no longer be Jesus walking by your side."

James R said...

I can't help compare your giant breath, "blowing through heaven and earth and in our hearts" to Camus' "dark wind blowing from my future." In the first case its God, in the second, death, but they may be the same. Both call us out of comfort. Both flatten our desires. And both writers call us to "stand up"—though Camus would credit man more than God.

Big Myk said...

I also thought of Camus, but a different line: [warning: plot spoiler] "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

Consider also George Santayana: "I believe there is nothing immortal .... No doubt the spirit and energy of the world is what is acting in us, as the sea is what rises in every little wave; but it passes through us; and cry out as we may, it will move on. Our privilege is to have perceived it as it moved."