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  • Religion, Solitariness, and the Bloodlands
  • Daniel A. Dombrowski (bio)

I. Introduction

One of the most controversial features of Alfred North Whitehead’s enormous influence on how philosophers and theologians think about God and religion is the close connection he sees between religion and solitariness in his classic work Religion in the Making (hereafter: RM).1 The purposes of the present article are: (1) to understand the connection White-head sees between religion and solitariness; (2) to understand why Whitehead’s view of this connection is so controversial; and (3) nonetheless to defend the close connection that Whitehead sees. Regarding this last purpose, I will appeal to authors who write from or about the “Bloodlands,” a term coined by the historian Timothy Snyder that refers to a large portion of Eastern Europe where, between 1933–1945, over 14 million individuals were murdered by either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In addition to Snyder, I will be engaging with the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz (as well as with Milosz’s communication with Jerzy Andrzejewski), who lived through this disastrous period in the Bloodlands.

II. Religion as Solitariness

The Whiteheadian view in RM that there is, at the very least, a close connection between religion and solitariness is in part a protest against the view of religion as a social fact or as public display. In addition to the pageantry of religion, there is something more important that occurs when someone is seized by the inwardness of a particular religious tradition. “Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life” of an individual (RM 16). Whitehead well realizes, along with John Donne, that no person is an island and that we cannot understand individuals apart from the social facts within which they have grown. However, collective emotion and societal influences leave untouched “the awful ultimate fact” that, in a sense, each of us is alone, especially when we die. To be alone, however, is not necessarily to be lonely or to be bereft of meaningful contact with others. [End Page 226]

“Religion is what the individual does with … solitariness” (RM 16), on Whitehead’s view. When stress is placed on the word “does” in this quotation, some misconceptions of his view can be avoided. Perhaps what one can do is to commit oneself to service of one’s family or community. Or perhaps what one can do is to imitate God, seen in Whitehead’s process terms, not as an omnipotent tyrant, but as a companion, a fellow-sufferer who understands (RM 17).2 In stronger terms, at times Whitehead suggests that there is more than a close relationship between religion and solitariness, there is an identity of the two: “religion is solitariness” (RM 17—emphasis added). What this means is that if one has never been solitary, one cannot be religious. On this account, religion is beyond collective enthusiasm, institutions, churches, revivals, sacred texts, rituals, codes of behavior, and other trappings or external manifestations. Rather, “what should emerge from religion is individual worth of character” (RM 17).

The earliest phases of religion do indeed tend to reduce it to a social fact or a tribal identity, fueled by herd psychology. But once efforts to rationalize religious belief are initiated, solitariness comes to the fore. Whitehead lists as examples of the solitariness that haunts the imaginations of religious believers scenes where Prometheus is chained to a rock, the Hebrew prophets protest and denounce unjust rulers, Mohammed broods in the desert, the Buddha meditates, and Jesus suffers on the cross. In each case, there is a sense that the solitary individual in question felt forsaken (RM 19–20, 28, 30). The great rationalized religions are the result of a religious consciousness that is universal rather than tribal. And it is precisely because of such universality that solitariness is introduced. The universality of rationalized religion signals both a disconnection or detachment from immediate surroundings and the search for something that is intelligible and everlasting in the midst of the flux. Once again, religion consists in the cleansing of one’s inner parts and in what one does with one’s own solitariness (RM 47, 58, 60).

It is easy to see why...


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pp. 226-239
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