Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”
It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made the spiritual somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole liturgical procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.
Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.
Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.
Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.
Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.
[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]
It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.
As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible, but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.
The problem is that moderns take corporeality to be metaphysically basic, and suppose the supernatural – and the mental – to be (if even real) something invisibly superfluous thereto. Then, believing they have a pretty good handle on the corporeal, and per contra no notion of how the spiritual or the mental might work upon the corporeal, they reject them altogether, and categorically – or else, shove them into an intellectual compartment hermetically sealed off both from quotidian praxis and from the rest of thought (which, when push comes to shove, amounts to the same thing). Gould’s notion that scientific and religious discourse constitute Non-Overlapping Magisteria is an exemplar of this latter strategy. It cannot be carried into practice – i.e., one cannot participate any one such magisterium – except by an implicit rejection of any others; for, a precept of one magisterium that is not true in the domains of some other can’t itself be really true, unless those other magisteria be false.
In the Episcopal Church of my youth, the transition from the profane worldly magisterium that everyone nowadays believes to be true to the sacred otherworldly magisterium that none of them seemed quite able to credit without cavil was called by presbyters and laymen alike “checking your mind in the vestibule.” They didn’t like to do it. Who would? Who would not rather worship with a clean heart and a clear mind? But they couldn’t. Almost none of them had ever been taught how to think about religion. Just like me!
To a man, they doubted. Seeing no way out of it, they counted doubt a virtue, rather than a defect.
It’s an honest mistake. Usually.
To be religious with a clear philosophical conscience, or do theology, or think coherently about minds or, therefore, anything else at all – and so, then, to live a fully human life, a good, rational and intelligible life, that has then a shot at meaning and significance – one must invert the Modern perspective: one must take the spiritual to be basic, and the corporeal to be something added visibly atop it – not superfluously, but superveniently. To the metaphysically competent religious mind, corporeality is like a scrim or veil draped over and taking its shape from a much more substantial – albeit invisible and intangible – spiritual aspect of reality.
Quite a few religious people manage this inversion in their guts, and sporadically. Few manage it with their heart, mind, soul and body, so that it can be maintained more or less continuously.
The objective of this post is to explain how I learned to think about spiritual realities in a way that did no violence to my intuitions about corporeality, or to what I had learned about it from my Modern education, so that I could begin to worship with my whole being, and without worrying about this or that difficulty.
The skeleton key for me was Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of becoming. It is the crux of his massive contribution to metaphysics in the realist Platonico-Aristotelian tradition [Whitehead understood his work (and indeed all Western philosophy) as footnotes to Plato; it has always seemed to me rather more like a coda that restates the original motif and ushers it home, integrating the important historical variations on its basic theme in a triumphant synthetic cadence].
Most of his predecessors had taken the perdurant atom or monad to be the basic component of reality. Whitehead’s great insight was that the career of a perdurant atom or monad is in fact composed of many diverse occasions or events – or, to use the term that emerged in physics contemporaneously with his philosophical opus, “quanta of action.” Each such quantum differs slightly from all others – including those in the monadic career of which it is a part – if only in respect to its historical locus, its node in the causal nexus. The different moments of a life have somewhat different properties; otherwise, they would not be different in the first place. Under Leibniz’ Identity of Indiscernibles, discernibles are ontologically disparate; so each quantum is an atom in its own right, sharing many properties – but not all – with its fellows. As it attains completion – as it takes the final form and character that define it as itself, and no other – each such quantum thereby takes its place as a node in the causal nexus. That nexus is the world as we know it, the spatio-temporal continuum, or, as Whitehead called it in a nod to Descartes, the “extensive continuum.”
Whitehead employed several terms for these irreducibly basic quanta of action: actual occasions, actual entities, actual events. In using the word “actual,” Whitehead agreed with Aristotle’s insight that being is acting. Actual occasions are not static, but dynamic; not dead, but alive. They are all furthermore intensional, are about things other than themselves: namely, first, their causal inputs, obtained from their past by their feeling or grasping – their “prehension” – of the moral and aesthetic character of that past; and second, of their consequences, the states of affairs that typically arise from such occasions as they have decided to be (these intensions being what Aristotle called the final causes of things, and what we might call their meanings, intentions, or purposes). As feeling in and for themselves the aesthetic character of their causal inputs, comparing and evaluating them, and differentially emphasizing and integrating the properties of those inputs in their own constitutions, actual occasions are “concrescences” of the forms present already in their predecessors; they are then all, and throughout, aesthetic and moral operations. Thus Whitehead called the completion of each quantal process of becoming the final “satisfaction” of its original and originating nisus toward its own realization of aesthetic and moral goodness.
That nisus toward the Good, inherent more or less in all things essentially and radically, they derive from all their forebears, who share in it, but most and in the first instance from their palmary incipient prehension, which is of, and indeed from, God, who as First of all things is first in every instance of becoming. Whitehead called it the “initial aim.” In the process by which each occasion of being forms itself, then, the first and most important causal datum is Plato’s Form of the Good.
Whitehead analyzed concrescence into several phases – these being, he emphasized, disparable in thought only, and not really, given the atomic nature of the actual occasion – but only two concern us here: the process of becoming, and its completion in the state of having become. Call the former “act” and the latter “fact.” It is just here, with the distinction between the process of an act of becoming and its completion, that we arrive at a way to reconcile the spiritual and the mental with the corporeal – and, thereby, to correct and complete, and thus redeem the Modern understanding of corporeality by reintegrating its discoveries with the perennial, fundamentally spiritual philosophy common to all prior eras. It is simply this: the spiritual and the mental, and indeed the vital, characterize the act of becoming, while the corporeal characterizes the fact. The corporeal, then – and, more broadly, the actual – are the end products of processes of becoming. Facts are as it were the fossils of acts.
Until an act is completed in fact, it can play no part in the causal nexus; cannot be in a world. For, the world of a thing is an aspect thereof, and until that thing is itself actual, none of its relations to other things can be yet definite, or therefore real. Worlds are constituted of related facts; their constitution is effected by acts. Acts then are not so much constrained by their worlds as vice versa. Of such is creaturely freedom.
How does all this help us think about spiritual realities – about supramundane, immaterial influence upon mundane life? A concrescing event, that as incompletely actual is not yet integral with its actual world, is therefore not limited to causal inputs arising from that world. It can prehend forms that were never yet apparent in its mundane history, but rather only in God, and then implement them in its own constitution, thus introducing them as suggestive data to its historical successors. This is no more than to say that new things can happen. A truism, surely. But if it is indeed true that novelty occurs, as obviously it is, it can come to pass only in virtue of some influence upon the becoming of this world – some literal influx – from without it. For anything to happen other than exactly what has already happened, never yet apparent forms must somehow make their appearance in history. Creaturely acts are the means of creative ingression to the world of the Divine Ideas. Creaturely agreements with the Divine Lure Providentially given them at their inception – such as they are, and despite their defects – are the effects and creative instruments of the Divine Act.
The startling implication: the spiritual, the mental, the vital – this moment of life that you are now experiencing – is supramundane. It is prior to the world in which you find yourself. That world is not your prison, but your raw material; and as you work with it to decide what and how you shall now be, you have at your creative disposal all the resources of God and his angels.
The spiritual is prior to the corporeal; and your life is spiritual first, and corporeal second.
Once grasp this principle, and all the Modern difficulties with the notions of religious life vanish.
Whitehead’s account of becoming blesses materialism. It allows the materialist account of corporeality to stand – preserving its magisterium – while providing it a metaphysical basis in the process of becoming, and bringing it to agreement with our experience and with tradition. This is to rescue it. As being the medium of all our devices, our own experience of becoming is after all more basic than any theory we might devise. And it is ineluctable. Theory that disagrees with it – that under its own terms rules out or fails to comprehend any of its aspects – must be false. A theory that rules out religion rules out man. To rule out man is to rule out theory.
Our experience is the only evidence we can possibly have about what it is like to become. To treat that experience as indicative, then, is the acme of epistemological prudence and humility. And adequacy to quotidian life is the fundamental epistemological threshold of verisimilitude.