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Frithjof Schuon on Christianity and the Bible

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Taken from The Fullness of God Chapter 9 – Keys to the Bible.

In order to understand the nature of the Bible and its meaning, it is essential to have recourse to the ideas of both symbolism and revelation; without an exact and, in the measure necessary, sufficiently profound understanding of these key ideas, the approach to the Bible remains hazardous and risks engendering grave doctrinal, psychological, and historical errors. Here it is above all the idea of revelation that is indispensable, for the literal meaning of the Bible, particularly in the Psalms and in the words of Jesus, affords sufficient food for piety apart from any question of symbolism; but this nourishment would lose all its vitality and all its liberating power without an adequate idea of revelation or of suprahuman origin.

Other passages, particularly in Genesis, though also in texts such as the Song of Songs, remain an enigma in the absence of traditional commentaries. When approaching Scripture, one should always pay the greatest attention to rabbinical and cabalistic commentaries and—in Christianity—to the patristic and mystical commentaries; then will it be seen how the word-for-word meaning practically never suffices by itself and how apparent naïveties, inconsistencies, and contradictions resolve themselves in a dimension of profundity for which one must possess the key. The literal meaning is frequently a cryptic language that more often veils than reveals and that is only meant to furnish clues to truths of a cosmological, metaphysical, and mystical order; the Oriental traditions are unanimous concerning this complex and multidimensional interpretation of sacred texts. According to Meister Eckhart, the Holy Spirit teaches all truth; admittedly, there is a literal meaning that the author had in mind, but as God is the author of Holy Scripture, every true meaning is at the same time a literal meaning; for all that is true comes from the Truth itself, is contained in it, springs from it, and is willed by it. And so with Dante in his Convivio: “The Scriptures can be understood, and ought to be explained, principally in four senses. One is called literal. . . . The second is called allegorical. . . . The third sense is called moral. . . . The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is, beyond sense (sovrasenso); and this is when a Scripture is spiritually expounded, which, while true in its literal sense, refers beyond it to the higher things of the eternal Glory, as we may see in that Psalm of the Prophet, where he says that when Israel went out of Egypt Judea became holy and free. Which, although manifestly true according to the letter, is nonetheless true in its spiritual meaning, namely, that the soul, in forsaking its sins, is made holy and free in its powers” (Trattato Secondo, I).

As regards Biblical style—setting aside certain variations that are of no importance here—it is important to understand that the sacred or suprahuman character of the text could never be manifested in an absolute way through language, which perforce is human; the divine quality referred to appears rather through the wealth of superposed meanings and in the theurgic power of the text when it is thought and pronounced and written.

Equally important is the fact that the Scriptures are sacred, not because of their subject matter and the way in which it is dealt with, but because of their degree of inspiration, or what amounts to the same, their divine origin; it is this that determines the contents of the book, and not the reverse. The Bible can speak of a multitude of things other than God without being the less sacred for it, whereas other books can deal with God and exalted matters and still not be the divine Word. The apparent incoherence in certain sacred texts results ultimately from the disproportion between divine Truth and human language: it is as if this language, under the pressure of the Infinite, were shattered into a thousand disparate pieces or as if God had at His disposal no more than a few words to express a thousand truths, thus obliging Him to use all sorts of ellipses and paraphrases. According to the Rabbis, “God speaks succinctly”; this also explains the syntheses in sacred language that are incomprehensible a priori, as well as the superposition of meanings already mentioned. The role of the orthodox and inspired commentators is to intercalate in sentences, when too elliptic, the implied and unexpressed clauses, or to indicate in what way or in what sense a certain statement should be taken, besides explaining the different symbolisms, and so forth. It is the orthodox commentary and not the word-for-word meaning of the Torah that acts as law. The Torah is said to be “closed”, and the sages “open” it; and it is precisely this “closed” nature of the Torah that renders necessary from the start the Mishnah or commentary that was given in the tabernacle when Joshua transmitted it to the Sanhedrin. It is also said that God gave the Torah during the day and the Mishnah during the night and that the Torah is infinite in itself, whereas the Mishnah is inexhaustible as it flows forth in duration. It should also be noted that there are two principal degrees of inspiration, or even three if the orthodox commentaries are included; Judaism expresses the difference between the first two degrees by comparing the inspiration of Moses to a bright mirror and that of the other prophets to a dark mirror.

The two keys to the Bible are, as already stated, the ideas of symbolism and revelation. Too often revelation has been approached in a psychological, hence purely naturalistic and relativistic, sense. In reality revelation is the fulgurant irruption of a knowledge that comes, not from an individual or collective subconscious, but on the contrary from a supraconsciousness, which though latent in all beings nonetheless immensely surpasses its individual and psychological crystallizations. In saying that “the kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus Christ means not that Heaven—or God—is of a psychological order, but simply that access to spiritual and divine realities is to be found at the center of our being, and it is from this center precisely that revelation springs forth when the human ambience offers a sufficient reason for it to do so and when therefore a predestined human vehicle presents itself, namely, one capable of conveying this outflow.

But clearly the most important basis for what we have just spoken of is the admission that a world of intelligible light exists, both underlying and transcending our consciousness; the knowledge of this world, or this sphere, entails as a consequence the negation of all psychologism and likewise all evolutionism. In other words, psychologism and evolutionism are nothing but makeshift hypotheses to compensate for the absence of this knowledge.

To affirm then that the Bible is both symbolistic and revealed means, on the one hand, that it expresses complex truths in a language that is indirect and full of imagery and, on the other, that its source is neither the sensorial world nor the psychological or rational plane, but rather a sphere of reality that transcends these planes and immensely envelops them, while yet in principle being accessible to man through the intellective and mystical center of his being, or through the “heart”, if one prefers, or pure “Intellect”. It is the Intellect which comprises in its very substance the evidence for the sphere of reality that we are speaking of and which thus contains the proof of it, if this word can have a meaning in the domain of direct and participative perception. Indeed the classical prejudice of scientism, or the fault in its method if one wishes, is to deny any mode of knowledge that is suprasensorial and suprarational, and in consequence to deny the planes of reality to which these modes refer and which constitute, precisely, the sources both of revelation and of intellection. Intellection—in principle—is for man what revelation is for the collectivity; in principle, we say, for in fact man cannot have access to direct intellection—or gnosis—except by virtue of a pre-existing scriptural revelation. What the Bible describes as the fall of man or the loss of Paradise coincides with our separation from total intelligence; this is why it is said that “the kingdom of God is within you”, and again: “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” The Bible itself is the multiple and mysterious objectification of this universal Intellect or Logos: it is thus the projection, by way of images and enigmas, of what we carry in a quasiinaccessible depth at the bottom of our heart; and the facts of sacred History—where nothing is left to chance—are themselves cosmic projections of the unfathomable divine Truth.

God: A Process Perspective

One of the most interesting aspects of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is his notion of God. Sometimes obscure, his conception of a supreme being does not seem to perfectly fit into any traditional theistic or philosophical beliefs on the nature of such a being. The most startling fact about Whitehead’s God to anyone approaching it for the first time is that it is not omnipotent. Whitehead referred to God as a mere “accident of creativity. For Whitehead the ultimately real, that beyond which we can go no further in our investigation, which just is, is the reality of Creativity. From this conception all else flows, even God. To some, however, the idea of God is so tied to omnipotence that conceiving of him without this trait is not possible – God is either omnipotent and omniscient or he is not God. Thus, some have claimed Whitehead was mistaken in naming his supreme being God at all. I disagree. These people are still looking at Whitehead’s God through the lens of the traditional western philosophy, deeply tied to the legacy of Aristotle.

According to Whitehead, expanding on a concept from Plato, being is equated to power, and power comes from the ability to act and be acted upon. Thus, the greatest being would be one which has the greatest possible relation and interconnection to all actual entities. Aristotle’s unmoved mover, which sets the world in motion and watch it unfold, is inferior to the process God, which holds ultimate creativity, being interrelated to every actual entity and influencing their action with the intent of realising objectively good ‘subjective aims’. Of course, actual entities retain their own creativity, and are thus free to disobey God and not pursue their divinely imbued subjective aim.

This seems to reflect the traditional theistic answer to the problem of evil. Evil exists because beings are free to disobey God and pursue selfish aims. In this traditional solution however, we seem to lack an explanation of ‘natural’ evils, such as the existence of debilitating physical diseases which seem to afflict without prejudice, inflicting suffering on everyone including the virtuous and children. “Bone cancer in children, how do you explain that one?” the atheist demands of the believer. Whitehead’s metaphysics gives us a more satisfactory answer. All of reality is the interplay of actual entities, which each contain a smidgen of  creativity and free will. The lion that attacks the village, the cancer cells that refuse to obey orders and thus cause their holder, the water in the flood, all contain a freedom which cannot be wholly made subject to God’s will.

Whitehead’s God is both immanent and transcendent. Thus, Whitehead has been described as a panentheist, as his God is present everywhere in the world but is not limited to it. God has an immanent nature, dubbed by Whitehead as his ‘consequent nature’. This is the aspect of God just spoken of, which ‘prehends’ all actual entities and engages in a continual process of communication with and attempted influence of each actual entity. God, through his consequent nature, strives to draw all actual entities closer to him, in a process similar to how the Hindus describe each soul being reborn until it eventually achieves union with it’s source, the Godhead. However, the qualities of God are not exhausted by his consequent nature, he also has a ‘primordial nature’, which would traditionally be termed his transcendent quality.

The primordial nature of God is especially improtant in Whitehead’s organic philosophy, as it contains the ‘Eternal Objects’, Whitehead’s conception of platonic ideas, objects which exist irregardless of their actualisation in the actual world. Thus Whitehead echoes the Neo Platonists, who place all platonic ideas as ultimately being contained in ‘The One’. The primordial nature of God is understood by it’s intimate relation with the idea of potential. It contains the envisagement of all possibilities, all possible worlds, and holds in being the eternal objects of which the actual entities which make those possibilities take their being. However, were the primordial nature of God his only nature, he would be static, perfect, unchangeable being which is not actualised. It is only by the action of his consequent nature, working in process with actual entities, that God’s primordial nature is actualised and turned into real being, which is only possible in a state of process.

Thus, the consequent and primordial nature of God are intimately linked and ultimately inseparable, without the primordial nature there would be no ‘being’ for the ‘becoming’ of actual entities to enter into. Likewise, without the consequent nature there would be no ‘becoming’ to give the conceptual realities of eternal objects an actualised reality. This sentiment of being and becoming’s interdependence is echoed by Whitehead, when he writes

“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 that 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 not, as in Neo Platonism, perfect being which corrupts itself by entering into imperfect process. Rather, God maximises his being by sharing in creativity with a multitude of actual entities.

Whitehead never offers an argument for the existence of God. Like much of his metaphysics, it is not supported by any logical deductions or philosophical arguments. Rather, Whitehead presents God as a necessary aspect to his metaphysics. Whitehead presents his speculative view of reality, which conforms to all known fact, then let’s the readers decide for themselves if it offers a better understanding of reality than all other available options. If one is to accept his viewpoint, God is a necessary addition. Whitehead’s God is necessary for without him their would be no order to reality, and in a sense one could extract an altered version of the design argument from Whitehead. Actual Entities require an ordering power to structure their interactions, while ‘Eternal Objects’ require an ontological ground, which is offered by God’s primordial nature. Thus, God offers order amid what would otherwise be a well of chaos, in which any actualised state of being is impossible.

Perhaps Whitehead, through his abstract and at times obscure cosmology, sought to defend ‘the God of the poets’ against a sustained attack from the impersonal and wholly abstract ‘God of the philosophers’. Though Whitehead’s God completes his complex conception of reality, he is more in line with the layman’s understanding of God than the likes of Spinoza or Bradley. God is not some impersonal absolute which simply is, but never becomes, which is every action, but doesn’t act. Rather, God is an intimate, immediate reality, present in every being, attempting to influence them in a loving way, but never through force or coercion. There is a place for mystical experience, as mystics enter into a loving relationship with the equally loving God. There is also a place for free will, as described above, and even prayer, as subjects enter into communication with the ever present consequent nature of God, petitioning a positive influence on their lives, which can be influenced through the subjective aims given by God. However, our aims and the objectively good aims sought by God are often mutually exclusive, and so the role of God in aiding us could better be understood as influencing us to see the good, and deal with whatever sturggles we may face along the way. Of course, Whitehead never expresses these sentiments, but the important point is that Whitehead rebels against the philosophical abstraction of God and returns to a loving, action oriented being.

 

Alfred North Whitehead and Process Philosophy

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It is rather unfortunate that 20th century philosophy is remembered chiefly for two main schools of thought. One was the analytic turn towards logic and eventually the study of language, pioneered by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. The other was a move towards existentialism and postmodernism in the continental school. Each was motivated by a rejection of even the possibility of ever answering great questions on God, morality and metaphysics, and instead took a subjective turn. This was spurred on by Marxist theory on the continent, for the analytical school it was guided by a general distrust of metaphysics and philosophising of the kind done by Hegel, a disdain for the elaborate metaphysicsal systems seen to greatest effect in the school of German idealism and Neo Hegelians.

While these two trends dominated the century, there were nevertheless some great thinkers who fall outside of these two poles, chief among them being Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead is best remembered for working with a young Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. After his early focus on mathematics, he turned to the study of the philosophy of science, his contributions to this field are also notable, as he  would publish a unique and working theory of relativity. In the final period of his career, Whitehead was offered the chance to become head of the department of philosophy at Harvard, which he duly accepted. Whitehead turned his great mind to the field of speculative philosophy, and over the next eight years he would create his unique philosophical school of thought, culminating in the publication of Process and Reality. Whitehead created what he called the Philosophy of Organism, but which has since been more popularly called Process Philosophy.

Process philosophy breaks with the Western tradition instituted by Aristotle and discards the notions of enduring substance and matter, instead taking process itself as being ultimately fundamental to the nature of reality. Whitehead terms it “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” to wrongly take some part of reality as ultimately fundamental. This fallacy is committed when someone sees reality as being made up of tiny bits of matter, beyond which there is nothing more fundamental. In breaking from the long tradition of substance metaphysics, which takes parts of the world as separate and imagines them to exist independently, Whitehead also breaks from traditional philosophical language, which is “thing” oriented in nature, and introduces a variety of new terms to help understand his process oriented Metaphysics.

Whitehead claims reality is fundamentally made of Actual Entities, in his own words “they are the final real things of which the world is made…. God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space.” Whitehead’s Actual Entities are similar to Leibniz’s monads, but, while the monads of Leibniz are “windowless”, Whitehead’s Entities could be said to be all window, they are temporal events which flow into one another, and prehend one another. The many become one, and are added to by one. Whitehead’s vision of reality is thus holographic in nature, every entity mirrors every other, including those of the past which have gone through Concrescences with other Actual Entities to create the current ones, thus gaining Objective Immortality, as they live on in all future Actual Entities.

The theory of organism provides a solution to the problem of the relation between mind and matter. We are wont to think that mind and matter are two distinct facts of experience influencing each other in some way. But how can any mutual interference be possible if they are separated from each other? The problem can be solved only if mind and matter interact by a relation of process. Nature flows into the mind and flows out transformed by it into the objects of perception. Here, neither of the two is more real than the other. The perceiver and the perceived form one continuous process. There are no subjects and objects differentiated from one another. The perceived universe is a view of itself from the standpoint of its parts that are modified by the activity of its whole being. There is a continuity of process between mind and matter. Thus, Whitehead is commonly labelled a panpsychist, though modern process philosophers use the term Panexperientialism to clarify his thought, as Whitehead himself says experience is prior to consciousness, and not vice versa. This means, in a very real way that the whole universe is in a state of conscious interaction with itself, an object is nothing but a continuous process of actual occasions as we experience them in their externalised condition. There is no fixed object anywhere. An event is a series of actual occasions revealed in perception as demonstrated in a molecule for a few moments. Objects are more complex formulations of such events, they are the coming together of Actual Entities into societies.

Whitehead speaks of an Ingressive evolution of the actual occasions from possible forms of experience which are known as Eternal Objects. The eternal objects Ingress into the formation of actual occasions. These eternal objects are not concrete existences but abstract possibilities of the evolution of the actual occasions. They are Whitehead’s more abstract version of Plato’s forms, non actualised possibilities which make reality as we experience it possible. The number 3 is an eternal object, as is a possible musical pattern. These Eternal Objects exist in God’s Primordial Nature.

What spurs on this endless process of creation, this evolution of Actual Entities into more complex stages of becoming. Whitehead uses the term enjoyment to describe the motivation of the process. Actual Entities interact and form concrescences for the enjoyment of the act of creation, as they evolve into more complex societies and achieve objective immortality within the greater process. Fundamental to reality is Creativity. This concept of creativity takes on a similar role to the Will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, it is all that is fundamental to reality and pervades the cosmos in it’s influence, it is the driving force behind the process. Even God, generally seen as the ultimate metaphysical existent, is for Whitehead a mere non temporal accident of the ultimate of Creativity. As Whitehead explains, “In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents. It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident”

This neatly introduces the concept of Whitehead’s God, and God in process philosophy generally. Whitehead’s brief descriptions of God’s role has since inspired the rise of it’s own school of process theology. Whitehead turns the concept of God on it’s head by introducing a temporal God to his system, who is not all powerful, but instead co operate with and coaxes along Actual Entities in a certain direction. Whitehead’s God is panentheistic, or Dipolar, in that it contains two natures.

The first aspect of God is the Consequent Nature of God, which is the God in the world aspect we most immediately experience, this is God entering into the world through the prehensions of actual occasions. This is akin to the classical God of theism, which acts on the world, but his power is limited in that each Actual Entity retains freedom in it’s activity. God is more like a loving mother, encouraging and supporting each entity along it’s journey than it is like the authoritarian father figure of the Abrahamic religions. Whitehead is not specific on how significant the effect of God is on the world, but he does give to each Actual Entity Subjective Aim which is their fundamental motivation in moving forward. For Schopenhauer, the Subjective Aim is the same in all, the kernel of the Will to Live. We can rather suppose the idea found in much religion and mysticism, that the subjective aim is the aspiration of the universe to realise it’s perfection in union with the Absolute or Godhead.

The other, more theoretical nature of God is his Primordial Nature. As it is more fundamental to the metaphysics of Whitehead, this aspect is discussed more in Process and Reality. As mentioned, the primordial nature of God contains the Eternal Objects which, so to speak, provide the being for the becoming of existence. This is the impersonal, trans-temporal aspect of God which is the ground of being.

It is easy to see why theologians have been drawn to the model offered by Whitehead as a way of understanding God. Within a framework of process philosophy, many of the age old theological problems are better understood. For Whitehead, God cannot be held responsible for the problem of evil, this is true because God is not the creator but the principle of limitation, who provides the conditions necessary for the manifestation of the universe. The process of reality is like a jazz session, multiple musicians play their instruments off each other, originally there is chaos, and there is often bad music created by the individual musicians often conflicting aims, but great music is created when the musicians work in tandem to express their creativity. We are once again reminded of the fundamental reason for this whole process to Whitehead, which is one of enjoyment. Whitehead frees us from the nihlistic, fatalistic obfuscations of modern philosophy and gives us a way of seeing the world which keeps a special place for reverence to creativity, novelty, beauty and freedom

 

One of my favourite modern Whiteheadians, who also writes excellently on Nietszche and Schopenhauer, is Peter Sjöstedt-H. You can follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/ontologistics