Persuasion

Alfred North Whitehead, unlike most 20th century philosophers, wrote extensively about God, and incorporated him/her/it into his view of the world. He especially valued the late works of Plato which imagine the creator of the universe as persuasive rather than determinative. He admits that Plato never developed this crucial insight in logical detail, but he credits him with a fundamental understanding which strips the creator of notions of power derived from human tyrannies: God is not Trump determining his own reality, but rather a decent democrat who leads, but remains in partnership with her constituency.

Whitehead saw Jesus as the practical exemplar of Plato’s insight: he comes to persuade and convince, even to the extent of accepting suffering and death in order to do so. In that sense he is the incarnation of the persuasive God. He goes further and argues that a truly persuasive God must be open to persuasion, and therefore change, because she cannot determine the response of the universe and must therefore adapt to it. If this seems utterly heretical to some believers, JS finds it curiously similar to the story told of God in the witty and imaginative book of Genesis. The Hebrew “yehee”, meaning “Let (there) be” can be seen as persuasive rather than as an absolute command. God is depicted as having to adjust his intentions because human beings are not persuaded that his command is good for them. And even when he shares with Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he is subjected to an argument which forces him to hold his hand if he finds ten decent citizens. If Bible readers try interpreting the scripture in the light of Whitehead’s view of God, they may ask how they were ever persuaded to think it witnessed to an immutable, omniscient, omnipotent tyrant.

Whitehead realised that divine persuasion could not be limited to human beings, or animals or even viruses, for if the ultimate constituents of living things are totally determined then living things will also be. He therefore boldly insists that the events which are smallest elements of the universe are also persuaded by God rather than determined by imposed laws. The laws of physics are descriptions of what usually happens rather than prescribed behaviours. The persuasion of God is addressed to molecules and men. JS has benefitted from Whitehead’s radical description of what scientists have often treated as inert matter, which invites him to accept that all elements of the universe no matter how small are capable of responding to God and each other. He begins to see how much theology, philosophy and science has been distorted by an authoritarianism derived from our political institutions. Why are we so keen on commands, obedience, imposed laws, submission, not to mention the forms of flattery called prayer books? When the prophet Ezekiel abases himself before the appearance of God, he is told, “Son of Man, stand on your feet and I will speak with you.” (Ezekiel 2:1). JS gives God a round of applause.

Whitehead’s originality is his seeing the universe as composed not of clumps of matter and bits of mind, but of events which relate to other events in ways which are more like the relationships of persons than the collision of snooker balls.

– JS reflects on his morning walk as being very eventful: The sun shone brightly but the temperature was sub-zero, as he tackled the path alongside the potato fields. It was mainly ice with just a narrow strip of grass at the edge to provide grip for the walker. The constantly changing relationship between his feet and the ice made for sudden slips and frequent grotesqueries of balance. His attention was distracted from his own safety by the sight of three roe deer browsing some bushes on the other side of the field. As he watched one of them caught his scent, looked up, located him, and jumped over the bushes, followed by the others, into another field, where they were no longer visible. Another slip on the ice recalled him to the path, where he was immediately aware of a robin, flying upwards almost at his feet, disappearing into a hedge then performing the same routine again, clearly hoping for a relationship in this frozen environment that might bring it food. All these events of relationship were only the ones he noticed; the constantly changing relationship between his eyes and his surroundings happened so quietly he was able to ignore it. Similarly with the functioning of his lungs and heart. Similarly the encounter of the ice and the surrounding milder air which produced the deadly skin of water on top of the ice. –

Reality consists of events whose relations with each other create and recreate the world in the present.

But why bring God into all this? Because in a world of inter-relationships we can see God as the supremely – related one who persuades events into the harmonies which we call law, beauty, justice, and peace. Some people, conscious of this persuasive harmony, attribute it to “One who is not the universe” because they know it does not arise wholly from the elements of the universe, or from themselves. That is a leap of faith, but at least for Whitehead, not an irrational leap, since such a God supplies a beginning and an end, a stimulus and final adjustment to all the events of the process of evolution.

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