- Whitehead's Religious Thought: From Mechanism to Organism, from Force to Persuasion by Daniel A. Dombrowski
Whitehead's Religious Thought: From Mechanism to Organism, from Force to Persuasion
ALBANY, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017. 184 pp. incl. index.
Most theisms and atheisms share an assumption about what divine action would look like; if God is real and acts in the world, then God acts through intervention, invading the mechanistic world as an alien agent. Whitehead's Religious Thought takes dead aim at this contention, arguing that such conceptions of divine intervention emerge from and reinforce a problematic dualism that permeates western (a) theological discourse. Throughout his text Daniel A. Dombrowski links dualistic conceptions of human experience with metaphysical dualism, but also argues that materialistic or mechanistic conceptions of the universe all presume the same basic constituents: machines and ghosts. Materialism rids the world of ghosts and gods, leaving only the machines. As a process philosopher, Dombrowski follows David Ray Griffin's lead and begins his critique of dualistic metaphysics by taking issue with the mechanistic conception of matter (3). The theological and anthropological challenge is not figuring out how to insert consciousness into a mechanistic world, but rather, recognizing that conscious experience is only the most well organized example of experience. Experience permeates nature throughout (7). For readers, resistant to Whitehead and his philosophy of organism, panexperientialism is a high bar to get over. For Dombrowski and his interlocutors, save John Rawls, it is a metaphysical answer to the problem of dualism. This transition from mechanism to organism (MTO) is the launching point for all the arguments that follow.
Chapters 1 and 2 engage Griffin, Nathaniel Barrett, Isabelle Stengers and Charles Hartshorne, focusing attention on the possibilities for better understanding divine agency, human experience, and the natural world when one abandons a thin mechanistic metaphysic. Panexperientialism entails the ubiquity, not only of experience, but of values. The world is rife with aesthetic experience, adventure, suffering, change and tragedy. These are not just human responses or interpretations of mechanistic phenomena. The upshot of this organismic metaphysic is that divine action, like human action, exemplifies these same qualities. God participates in such a world as a member; God does not intervene as an outsider. While appreciative of her Whiteheadian [End Page 499] critique of classical theism, Dombrowski contends that Stengers goes too far in her desire to be rid of God entirely. In a world of subjects striving toward richer experiences, we do better to envision the role of God as the "supreme agent" (48) who works to persuade "the world toward as much order and beauty as are possible given the multiple spontaneous powers that exist in the world." (46) Dombrowski's theological point is not that divine and human agency are identical, but that a Whiteheadian (or Hartshornean) conception of divine action offers an ideal toward which human actors may strive, an ideal not available within classical dualistic (a)theisms. As he makes the point in his concluding chapter, humans are neither helpless "before irresistible divine grace," nor "helpless before the mechanism of nature." (144)
The central strength of the first two chapters grows out of Dombrowski's broad appreciation of, not only Whitehead's entire philosophical output—too many works in process philosophy choose to focus exclusively on either the metaphysical system presented in Process and Reality or on Whitehead's more historically and aesthetically attuned works—but also the broader tradition of classical process thought that includes Charles Hartshorne. Process philosophy, Dombrowski argues, offers a theistic alternative to the tradition of classical theism, an alternative that enables equally rich religious and ethical engagements. While he pays requisite attention to God's primordial and consequent natures, he artfully takes up only as much process jargon as is necessary for his central theological case. Partisans of process philosophy might balk at the omission, but outsiders will appreciate his incisiveness. The opening chapters do not tarry on defense of the process conception of God, but characterize God as a prime actor within the larger natural organism. Thus, God's modus operandi is persuasion, not force. God is not...