Multiplicities and Contrasts
Faith as Openness to Pluralism
by Jay McDaniel
The Categories of Existence
"There are eight Categories of Existence:
(i) Actual Entities (also termed Actual Occasions), or Final Realities, or Res Verae.
(ii) Prehensions, or Concrete Facts of Relatedness.
(iii) Nexūs (plural of Nexus), or Public Matters of Fact.
(iv) Subjective Forms, or Private Matters of Fact.
(v) Eternal Objects, or Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact, or Forms of Definiteness.
(vi) Propositions, or Matters of Fact in Potential Determination, or Impure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Matters of Fact, or Theories.
(vii) Multiplicities, or Pure Disjunctions of Diverse Entities.
(viii) Contrasts, or Modes of Synthesis of Entities in one Prehension, or Patterned Entities.
Among these eight categories of existence, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with a certain extreme finality. The other types of existence have a certain intermediate character. The eighth category includes an indefinite progression of categories, as we proceed from ‘contrasts’ to ‘contrasts of contrasts,’ and on indefinitely to higher grades of contrasts."
- Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22
Other articles of interest:
Turtles and Whales, Bradley Artson,
Dave Brubeck: Theology in 5/4 Time, Patricia Adams Farmer
Mothers of God,Teri Daily
God Sets Down the Melody, George Hermanson
Theology of Jazz, Monica Corsaro
Beyond Gun Culture, John Cobb
What are your favorite things?
For my part I like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. I also like brown paper packages tied up with the strings. Yes, these are a few of my favorite things.
I like them separately, when isolated from one another, but I also like them when they are linked, as in the lines of Rodgers and Hammerstein's song, forming contrasts.
I borrow the word contrasts from Whitehead. He liked them enough to include them in the eight fundamental categories of existence, identified at the outset of Process and Reality. He also included "multiplicities."
To be sure, Whitehead also liked actual entities and pure potentialities, subjective forms and propositions, societies and prehensions. But contrasts and multiplicities were among Whitehead's favorite things.
The more you get to know his thinking, the more you realize that a delight in contrasts and multiplicities is part of what it means to think in a Whiteheadian way.
Of course you don't need to be a Whiteheadian to think in a Whiteheadian way. One of my own favorite writers is Diana Eck, founder of The Pluralism Project at Harvard. She tells us in her autobiography that, when she went to India, one thing she learned was that it is all right to appreciate the manyness of things. Before she went to India as an undergraduate student, she was thinking that Oneness is superior to Manyness.
Indeed, she expected to go to India and become sensitized to a deep, underlying unity within or beyond all singularities and particularities. But what she discovered was a culture that had made its peace with diversity and contrasts, with multiplicities both human and divine. She realized that the monotheistic consciousness of her own upbringing had overemphasized unity and under-emphasized plurality. She discovered, in her words, the Manyness of God.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, later in life, she developed The Pluralism Project at Harvard, which is now a vanguard of inter-faith understanding and dialogue. She tells us that pluralism is not simply a name for diversity; it is a name for being engaged in the plurality of the world in constructive, life-enhancing ways.
That's the Whiteheadian spirit. Whitehead's philosophy is an invitation to recognize and take delight in multiplicities and contrasts -- multiple religions, multiple cultures, multiple personality types, multiple ideas. Yes, these were among his favorite things. Whitehead uses the word harmony a lot, but for him as for the Chinese, harmony is not sameness. It is richness of experience in the midst of diversity. It enjoys contrasts.
The word contrast can be misleading if we think it means conflict. For Whitehead contrasts are complementary not contradictory. A simple contrast is a patterned entity in which two things are juxtaposed or synthesized in a single feeling. The yin-yang diagram forms a vivid contrast in the Whiteheadian sense of "contrast." Contrasts occur when we see and feel things as different yet together, together yet different.
Most contrasts are a little more complicated. Whitehead calls them multiple contrasts or contrasts of contrasts. Consider the warm woolen mittens below. Each mitten has its own shape, color, texture, and tone. Each is filled with a wide variety of contrasts. A single mitten is a contrast of contrasts of contrasts. And when placed over one another they form still another contrast of contrasts of contrasts.
There is no limit to this kind of multiplicity. Whitehead writes: "The eighth category includes an indefinite progression of categories, as we proceed from ‘contrasts’ to ‘contrasts of contrasts,’ and on indefinitely to higher grades of contrasts."
Think of all the contrasts there are in the universe: visual, spatial, mathematical, aesthetic, kinesthetic, and, at least in the lives of living beings, emotional.
A baby in a womb begins her life with a sense of contrasts, namely the rhythms of her mother's breathing. It's like a drumbeat.
The vibrations of the atoms and molecules are contrasts as well. When you look at the world with Whiteheadian eyes, you see everything vibrating in its own way. Rocks and mountains, planets and stars, hills and rivers, people and penguins -- they are throbbing with energy.
The throbbings are contrasts that take time and make time. Time is not a Newtonian container in which things unfold, time is the unfolding itself and always it involves rhythms, vibrations, oscillations, contrasts. The entire universe is a network of contrasts and contrasts-in-the-making.
The making of contrasts is creative and is usually evoked by an awareness of already-existing contrasts. Often this evocation requires a disruption of the familiar in the creation of a new contrast.
This is what jazz musicians do when they play jazz standards. They play a familiar melody that everyone knows, and yet they play it in an unfamiliar and surprising way, working with the contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Listen to John Coltrane's version of My Favorite Things. He turns the cheerfulness of My Favorite Things into a frenzied search for improvised sound. He makes a new contrast.
You may or may not like Coltrane's version; some people find him hard to listen to. But I myself like him a lot, not so much for the beauty of the sound but for the beauty of the searching.
This is part of the creative life. Part of life's adventure is looking for contrasts, making contrasts, seeking contrasts, and enjoying contrasts when they occur, even if they last only for a split second.
In Whitehead's philosophy the Journey in whose heart all journeys unfold also takes delight in contrasts. This Journey is the One of whom Rabbi Bradley Artson speaks in his Constellation of Process Theology: the sacred whole of the universe, whom religiously-minded people tenderly address as God. Faith in God is trust in this One.
But the One is not simply a one. The One is a living reality, a Journey, inwardly composed of the many journeys that are occurring in the universe. Just as a mother is partly composed of the developing embryo within her womb, so God is partly composed of the unfolding events of the universe. When we, as living cells in the embryo, pray to the One we are praying to the Mother of whom we are already a part.
"It is as true to say that God is one and the world many, as it is to say that the world is one and God many," says Whitehead in Process and Reality. God is "just as much a multiplicity as a unity." (348,350).
The Mother is also more than us. She also has a life of her own, like any mother. In Whitehead's philosophy her subjectivity includes a divine appreciation -- divine gratitude -- for the uniqueness, the singularity, of each galaxy, each star, solar system, planet, atom, molecule and, on our small planet, each and every life. The Mother loves them all and loves them each. There's a wideness in her mercy.
Faith as Openness to Multiplicity
Wouldn't it be nice if we all became a little more grateful for the all and the each? Wouldn't it be nice if we shared in the spirit of God's gratitude for the singularities and pluralities of a vibrating, interconnected world?
So many of us are inclined to demonize others in the interests of valorizing ourselves or our group. Religions, including nationalism and atheism, are especially prone toward self-valorization. It is a hiding from multiplicity. We want the bright copper kettles but reject the warm woolen mittens. We want the people who are like us but not the people who are not like us. We are afraid to say both-and.
God knows better. God does not say "yes" to one kind of person and "no" to another but rather "yes" to all people, each in his or her uniqueness, as they have beauty in their own right and can become carriers of love. The Journey is enriched, not depleted, by the differences. The multiplicities are part of her Journey.
God as the Deep And
Imagine someone who wants to share in the divine Journey with a feeling for multiplicity. She would have a both-and spirit. I think of my own mother, now 96. She has the spirit. She's a both-and person.
Of course there is no need to absolutize words like "both" and "and." Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes "God" is a profane word, leading to great tragedy. People love and they also kill in God's name. There are contradictions in life.
Still, in some contexts, "both" and "and" can be the holiest of words. When you are in mother's presence you feel listened to and accepted. She does not need to interrupt with an agenda of her own. And if you want to explore ideas with her, she is open. She can accept many different ideas, without assuming that some must be "right" and "others" wrong. I think that, in my mother's context, the openness is part of her faith in God. Often she says that she feels God as an encircling presence in whom everyone is enfolded.
For my mother, faith is trust in One in whose heart all singularities are sheltered. For my mother, the One is not so much a deep end as a deep and. From her I have learned to think of God, not so much as a policeman in the sky, but as the And within whose life all creatures unfold.
Sometimes We Must Say No
Make no mistake. Sometimes we must say Either-Or. Sometimes No is as holy a word as Yes.
I think of the prophets of the Bible: Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus. They had prophetic imaginations. The could say No to injustice and Yes to a hope that, in the future, the world might become more just, more sane, more compassionate, more hospitable to the stranger. Their leaning toward love was a leaning toward justice: respect for the preciousness of life and the needs of the forsaken.
I also think of a book written by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini dealing with the moral injury from which soldiers suffer when they have committed atrocities of violence. There is evil on both sides: in the violence suffered by the victims and the violence suffered by the soldiers who are injured by their acts. Certainly there's violence in those who create the policies that give rise to the violence in the first place. The book is called Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injuries After War.
In the presence of such violence we cannot be happy sailors in a sea of naivete. There's wisdom in Julie Andrews' cheerful version of My Favorite Things and there's wisdom in John Coltrane's anxious searching for a Love Supreme that is sometimes so absent in our world. It is important to be honest about the absence, about the places in life where the love is broken by violence. As Jesus puts it, we must be gentle as doves but also wise as serpents.
But the very critique of violence has its value precisely in a hope for a world with more Both-And and less Either-Or. A world which is a hospitable home for all kinds of people, all kinds of plants, all kinds of animals, all kinds of landscapes, all kinds of waterways.
We process thinkers speak of this world as an ecological civilization. The better hope for our world, actually the only hope, is that we grow toward this kind of civilization and that we become people with spacious hearts. Like my mother.
Or like the recently deceased process theologian, Kathlyn Breazeale, who found herself saying the word "but" too much, and decided that every time she was about to say "but" she would switch to "and." It was a spiritual practice for her, and it had practical consequences. You'll get a sense for her wisdom if you read her Mutual Empowerment: A Theology of Marriage, Intimacy, and Redemption.
Kathi was a feminist. Shouldn't we all be? Isn't there something infinitely more embracing about the Journey in whose life we are all included, than can ever be contained in the narrow, greed-driven, power-preoccupied world of patriarchy? And isn't there something crazy about the heterosexist, anthropocentric, eurocentric, racist, consumerist, diversity-aversive, coltrane-neglectful world in which we live, bent upon destroying itself in a culture of rape and violence.
Isn't there some way to say No to the violence and Yes to the multiplicity, the contrasts, the joy, the life? If we are sheltered by And, can't we join in the anding? Shouldn't we all become, in the words of the Episcopal priest Teri Daily, mothers of God?
It's not for the faint of heart. It's for those who can say Yes and No with confidence. Yes to multiplicity and no to violence.