A Religious Philosophy of Golf: Golf and Alfred North Whitehead

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf 

A Religious Philosophy of Golf:

Golf and Alfred North Whithead

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was among the most influential philosophers of the modern era. Though Whitehead’s philosophical writings touch on several areas of the humanities (history, art, religion, education, natural science, social theory), theology emerged as the most receptive field for Whitehead’s philosophy. Whitehead’s influence may be easily attested by the continued popularity of a movement that he fathered, namely, process theology. What is presented below as a “religious philosophy of golf” is based largely upon Whitehead’s philosophy of religion, but the material will also reflect the thought of Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1995), the most influential philosopher of religion/theologian in the twentieth century.[1]

Paul Tillich or Paul Johannes Tillich, pencil drawing by Jackson Lee Ice, 7/14/1972 Alfred North Whitehead, pencil drawing, based on photograph, by Jackson Lee Ice, 8/23/1988

Remembering the influences of his youth in East Kent, England, Whitehead writes about not living far from Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas Becket, the Archbishop, was murdered by the followers of King Henry II.[2] Whitehead writes of Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) who preached his first sermon in the village of Minster.[3] He writes of the Norman architecture erected by the monks of Minster, and he writes of Sandwich.

Just beyond Richborough is the town of Sandwich. At that time it retained the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its Flemish houses lining the streets. Its town-records state that in order to check the silting up of the harbour, the citizens invited skilful men from the Low Countries–‘cunning in waterworks’. Unfortunately they failed, so that the town remained static from that period. In the last half century, it has been revived by a golf-course, one of the best in England.[4] I feel a sense of profanation amidst the relics of the Romans, of the Saxons, of Augustine, the medieval monks, and the ships of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Golf seems rather a cheap ending to the story[5]

It is unfortunate that a man who so highly valued “the adventure of ideas” (the title of one of Whitehead’s books) apparently never discovered adventure in the game of Golf. Golf is not, as Whitehead might have it, a profane game or a “cheap ending”; Golf represents the quest of the human spirit for the actualization of perfection. Golfers’ adventures are always different, which is why golfers never tire of playing the game even if their adventures are confined to the same course, but their adventures are always aimed at the utilization of their best possible skills. Ironically, perhaps because of his predilection for diversity and adventure, Whitehead advanced a wonderful axiology (theory of value) for understanding the merit of Golf.[6]

The Supreme God of Golf, and of all else, is Reality-itself, Energy-itself, or Becomingness-itself, and this High God of Golf aims at beauty. Beauty, in other words is the goal or purpose of God. As Whitehead contends, God lures the process of reality onward to ever higher actualizations of beauty; and, thus, “beauty is the one aim which by its very nature is self-justifying.”[7] The God of Golf is a God of Adventure, the very “processive” nature of reality, drawing golfers forward to ever higher levels of achievement.

The beauty towards which golfers are drawn manifests itself in two forms: a minor form and a major form. The minor form of beauty involves the absence of mutual inhibition among the components of the golfing experience. The experience is harmonious; the elements of the experience do not stifle or squelch one another. One’s round is comprised of a couple of birdies, a couple of bogies and fourteen parts rather than of ten triple bogeys and eight birdies. One hits a nice shot that lands close to a hole rather than a shot that travels quail high, hits the curb of a cart path, and runs up through a bunker onto the green. One finishes one’s swing posed in a balanced position rather than falling backwards. In a minor form of beauty there is “the absence of painful clash” or “the absence of vulgarity” among the elements.[8] Depending upon the level of harmony in the golfer’s game, his/her adventure on the course is more or less pleasurable.

In addition to an overarching harmony, the major form of beauty adds variety and intensity. The major form adds “Strength,” which, according to Whitehead, consists of both “Massiveness” (“variety of detail with effective contrast”) and “Intensity Proper” (“comparative magnitude,” significance, or importance).[9] At its best, the Golf swing is an expression of the major form beauty. The swing is symmetrical, rhythmic, and balanced at the same time it is powerful, quick, and sure. The swing starts out in one direction and ends in another. The golfer’s weight shifts to one side, and then to the other. The upswing begins with a blend of motion from shoulders, arms and hands followed by hips; the downswing begins with the hips followed by a blend of motion from shoulders, arms, and hands. In a drive, paradoxically, the ease of one’s swing produces greater speed. In a sand shot, the power of one’s swing produces a soft landing. Golf, as the adage goes, may be a game of opposites, but the opposites are united in overarching concordance. The golfer’s goal is to harmonize the intense contrasts so as to maximize the experience of beauty.

The character of Shivas Irons in Michael Murphy’s popular book, Golf in the Kingdom, recognizes the harmonious demands of Golf. In an exposition of his own philosophy of Golf as a means of self-discovery, Shivas, in his Scottish brogue, says,

In gowf ye see the essence of what the world itself demands. Inclusion of all our parts, alignment o’ them all with one another and with the clubs and with the ball, with all the land we play on and with our playin’ partners. The game requires us to join ourselves to the weather, to know the subtle energies that change each day upon the links and the subtle feelin’s of those around us. It rewards us when we bring them all together, our bodies and our minds, our feelin’s and our fantisies – rewards us when we do and treats us badly when we don’t. [10a]

Golfers aim at putting “it” all together for a glorious, harmonious, experience.

The golfer’s realization of beauty, in both the minor and major forms, equates to an actualization of “perfection,” and it is the lure of beauty in perfection which motivates golfers to play. The perfection may be fleeting and far too infrequent, but Golf feeds the human spirit with morsels of hope. Success may be rare, but the goal is what lures players onward, and failure simply provides golfers with another attempt at perfection.

Perfection cannot be construed as immutable, i.e., static, stable, permanent or unchanging. As Whitehead contends, “… no static maintenance of perfection is possible.”[10b] “Life refuses to be embalmed alive.”[11] The becomingness and perishing of actuality, the finitude of actuality and the infinitude of possibility, prevent the permanence of a particular temporal perfection. Suppose that one were to hit “the perfect shot,” a hole-in-one, on a par three measuring 135 yards. The shot could only be perfect for a particular round when the pin was at a specific location and the wind was blowing in a particular manner. In other words, if one hit a similar shot on another occasion, when the pin was in a different position, when the weather was different, or on a much longer par three, then the shot would not be “perfect.” Since reality is process, the perfection of that reality is an ever changing endeavor. What is perfect for one occasion may not be perfect for another. Perfection may entail a straight shot, a hook, a draw, a cut, or a slice. It may entail a drive, a hybrid, a long iron, a chip, a flop, a sand shot, or a putt. Perfection is whatever it takes, from whatever lie one has, to attain a beautiful or pleasing result. Perfection is always relevant to a particular frame of reference.

A golfer’s realization of beauty also entails the good. As Whitehead writes, “The real world is good when it is beautiful,” and “any system of things which in any wide sense is beautiful is to that extent justified in its existence.”[12] The good of an experience, he insists, resides in the power of many components “fortifying each other as they meet in the novel unity.”[13] The greater the harmonious intensity, the better the occasion, the closer one’s ball lies to the hole, and the lower one’s score.

Via negativa, if goodness is equated with beauty, evil may be generally characterized by the absence and inhibition of beauty (the ugly). Evil is “overruling, retarding, hurting.” [14] Evil involves a “destructive agent” among high pursuits.[15] Evil appears when “things are at cross purposes,”[16] when “the characters of things are mutually obstructive,”[17] when something new comes along “at the wrong season” so as to cause “regression, inhibition or delay,”[18] when there is “the class of vivid feelings, denying to each other their proper expansion.” “Evil is the violence of strength against strength.” [19] There are three types of ugliness or evil: destructive discord, the dominance of destructive discord and the evil of triviality.

The golfer is all too familiar with destructive discord. Mud whompers, hosel rockets, skankers, two groovers, and a wide array of misguided shots are often the result of destructive discord. A “mutual destructiveness” jumps into one’s game, preventing the elements of one’s swing from retaining their requisite “strength.”[20] One’s shoulders are out of harmony with one’s clubface. The putt looks like the ball will go right when it really breaks left. One’s weight is on the left side at the point of the swing when it should be on the right side. One’s swing is off plane – too upright or too flat. One’s clubface is too open or too shut. One’s body is going one way while the clubhead is going another. The discord destroys the “strength” or varied intensity of an entire experience.[21] There appears “the intense evil of active deprivation,” draining the experience of its potential beauty, perfection, and goodness.[22] The destruction that results from the golfer’s discord is never entirely pleasing and can be demonstratively violent.

Intrinsically, i.e., in and of itself, discord is destructive of beauty, perfection, and goodness.[23] Discord, in isolation, is “destructive and evil.”[24] The stronger the discordant elements in an experience, “the further the retreat from perfection.”[25]

However, golfers know that smaller measures of discord do not necessarily destroy a shot and, in fact, may enhance the resulting beauty. Shots hit slightly fat may roll closer to the hole than those hit flush. While discord may be described as intrinsically evil, small doses of discord may be so extrinsically beneficial that they must be counted good rather than evil. Small portions of discord, upon further consideration, may be deemed merely apparent evils.

There are golfers who line up far to the right of their target, in a discordant fashion, and yet draw the ball back to their target. If they did not line up in a discordant fashion, they would hit the ball way left of their target (at least for a while). There are golfers who terminate their swings abruptly, curtly, even violently, but if these golfers actually finished their swings more beautifully, the result would indeed be ugly (at least for a while). Those who line up their putts to the left, with some other discordant adjustment, can hit the putt straight. A measure of discord, then, may lead to benefits that outweigh the intrinsic destruction. The statement that destructive discord “constitutes the meaning of evil,” then, is “much too simple minded.” “Qualifications have to be introduced…. “[26]

Further, transitions to a better swing may require golfers to introduce “some admixture of discord.”[27] The motivation for such transitions may require a “frustration of the prevalent dominance,” and discord provides such frustration.[28] One must become disappointed with one’s current swing before he/she is inclined to improve, and disappointment involves discord. “Progress,” Whitehead writes, “is founded upon the experience of discordant feelings.”[29] “The transcendence of mere clarity and order is necessary” for excitement, adventure, and progress.[30] The discord may constitute a “tragic evil” that becomes “a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact.” Tragic evil at least discloses an ideal of higher perfection — “What might have been, and was not: What can be. The tragedy was not in vain.”[31] Discord can be beneficial for progress and can be referred to as extrinsically good even though it is intrinsically evil.

While experiences with destructive discord may not be considered perfections, experiences with a measure of destructive discord may be contributing to or aiming for higher perfections. There are “higher and lower perfections,” and there are “perfections beyond perfections.”[32] In Whitehead’s view, “an imperfection aiming at a higher type stands above lower perfections.”[33] Discord in an experience can rescue “the whole from the tameness of a merely qualitative harmony” which is “comparatively barren of objects of high significance” and which is “a debased type of harmony, tame, vague, deficient in outline and intention.”[34] By rescuing experience from a merely qualitative harmony “discord enhances the whole.” Discord substantiates “the individuality of the parts” and brings into emphatic expression “their claim to existence in their own right.”[35] Discord can supply “the positive feeling of a quick shift of aim from the tameness of outworn perfection to some other ideal with its freshness still upon it,” and, in this sense, “the value of discord is a tribute to the merits of imperfection.”[36]

Every golfer who has ever worked on his/her game knows that getting better may first require getting worse. Golfers who aim toward higher perfections practice for the sake of improvement, but they know that the higher beauty may require the introduction of what, at least initially, appears discordant. One’s handicap may go up before it can drop to its lowest level. If one is working on the wrong thing, the dominance of destruction can overpower attempts at improvement and send one on a journey filled with disappointment and suffering. Yet, if one be working on the right thing, the resulting higher beauty is worth the initial ugliness.

So, while discord may take the form of “horror or pain,” Whitehead contends, it may also “take the form of freshness or hope.”[37] Discord lies behind both “the height of evil” and “the height of beauty.”[38] Chaos cannot strictly “be identified with evil,” and disorder should not necessarily be associated with “the bad.”[39]

Destructive discord, then, while intrinsically evil, does not define evil. Rather, as Whitehead contends, the fundamental definition of evil is “destruction as a dominant fact in the experience.”[40] When the “destruction of the significant characters of individual objects … dominates the whole, there is the immediate feeling of evil….”[41] The dominance of destructive discord is intrinsically evil, and in that it brings “the anticipation of destructive or weakened data for the future,” it is also extrinsically evil.[42] It constitutes a “gross evil,” contributing little or nothing of merit.[43] Thus, the dominance of destructive discord is evil in an absolute or unequivocal sense.

What Whitehead identifies as the “evil of triviality” results when there may be an unwillingness to introduce a measure of destructive discord for the sake of developing a higher beauty.[44] Whitehead describes the evil of triviality as “loss of the higher experience in favour of the lower experience.”[45] Evils of triviality occur when experiences that could have contributed more to the promotion or exhibition of beauty fail to do so. The experiences, by reason of their failure to contribute to the promotion of beauty, become trivial or unimportant in relation to creative advance toward higher forms of beauty. They could have attained, or at least strived to attain, a higher perfection, but they settled for a minor value instead. As an example of the evil of triviality, Whitehead writes about a man who

is degraded to the level of a hog, with the accompanying atrophy of finer elements…. The evil of the final degradation lies in the comparison of what is with what might have been. During the process of degradation, the comparison is an evil for the man himself, and at its final stage it remains an evil for others.[46]

The man degraded to the level of a hog commits the evil of triviality by becoming less than what he could have become.

Golfers who could practice and improve their game, who have the time and physical capability to work on their game, and, yet, who elect not to, commit the evil of triviality. Golfers who do not prepare, who do not bother to read their putts, who are too uncaring or too lazy to get another club when they should, commit the sin of triviality. Golfers who chose not to learn or obey the rules, who violate etiquette and show no couth, like Whitehead’s hog, defile or trivialize themselves. In Whitehead’s view, if they persist in their triviality, they are in league with the devil, the “Homogenous,” representing a deadening conformity that leads to decadence.[47]

This triviality, according to Whitehead, may be extrinsically evil, but it is not intrinsically evil. The fact that an experience is trivial does not mean that the experience is in itself evil. The man degraded to the level of a hog “is no more evil than a hog,” and “a hog is not an evil beast….” The golfer who settles for bogey is not evil, but it is an evil that he is willing to do so. The state of degradation “is not in itself evil, except by comparison with what might have been.”[48]

Furthermore, although trivial experiences may be extrinsically evil, Whitehead does not appear to think that trivialities are always extrinsically evil. In fact, Whitehead suggests that trivial occasions may be extrinsically beneficial for the creative advance.

… The struggle with evil is a process of building up a mode of utilization by the provision of intermediate elements introducing a complex structure of harmony. The triviality in some initial reconstruction of order expresses the fact that actualities are being produced, which, trivial in their own proper character of immediate ends,’ are proper means’ for the emergence of a world at once lucid, and intrinsically of immediate worth.[49]

Although trivial experiences may be relatively devoid of strength in themselves, they may establish a sense of order amidst chaos and thereby become building stones for greater perfections.

As golfers learn how to play, they incorporate fundamentals, such as how to grip the club, how to align themselves, and how to shift their weight. These fundamental skills are trivial in themselves, but they provide the building blocks for a beautiful golf swing. For beginners to become successful, they must master the fundamentals. Focusing their attention too quickly on other issues may thwart the achievement of greater beauty. What may appear trivial is actually very important.

The “evil of triviality,” therefore, should be distinguished from triviality in general. The evil of triviality refers to only a particular type of triviality which is extrinsically evil, that is, evil in comparison with what could have been. Whitehead did not label this particular type of triviality, but I have proposed the label “undesirable triviality,” an experience that is less beautiful than it could have been.[50]

Unfortunately, Whitehead was not a golfer, and he might find my application of his philosophy to be as great a “profanation” or as “cheap” an ending as Royal Saint George Golf Club in Sandwich. Regardless, I find in Whitehead’s aesthetic axiology a framework for understanding my passion for the sport. I have experienced all kinds of beauty in Golf, and I have also experienced destructive discord and unnecessary triviality. I feel the lure of Whitehead’s God toward major beauties, higher perfections, and greater goods.


[1] I agree with Whitehead that Creativity or “Becomingness-itself” is a more accurate description of reality than Tillich’s “Being-itself.” I agree with Tillich, however, that “Reality-itself” (what he called “Being-itself”) is the correct definition of “God.” In Whitehead’s philosophy God is a structural element of Creativity. Creativity, in other words, is more ultimate in Whitehead’s philosophy than his God. Students of Whitehead have argued that Whitehead did not want to establish Creativity as God in order to avoid making God responsible for evil. I do not find that recognizing Creativity or “Reality-itself” as God necessarily makes God culpable for evil. As to Tillich’s influence, Thor Hall, in his Directory of Systematic Theologians in North America, requested that the 554 theologians who responded to his questionnaire indicate who they would regard as their “Major Mentor.” The person of Paul Tillich was most frequently cited. While John Calvin was designated forty-seven times, St. Augustine fifty-one, Karl Barth seventy-six, Karl Rahner seventy-eight, and Thomas Aquinas eighty-seven, Paul Tillich was designated 123 times. (Thor Hall, Directory of Systematic Theologians in North America as cited in John J. Carey, ed., Kairos and Logos: Studies in the Roots and Implications of Tillich’s Theology (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1984), p. xvi, n. 2.) Hall’s questionnaire also asked the respondents to list their major teaching texts or sources. The full bibliography included 575 different authors with almost 1,000 titles. The author most often cited as a source for teaching was Paul Tillich with seventy-seven references over the nearest second, Karl Barth, with only fifty-five. Moreover, “the particular work most widely used as a textbook among North-American systematic theologians in the twentieth century is Tillich’s three-volume Systematic Theology.” (Thor Hall, Systematic Theology Today: The State of the Art in North America, Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1978, 1: 93-93b, 1: 94.)

[2] Saint Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until is martyrdom in 1170. Followers of King Henry II, upset by Becket’s defiance, murdered Becket inside the Cathedral. When Geoffrey Chaucer published his stories (Canterbury Tales, c. 1370), he set them in the mouths of pilgrims who were traveling to Canterbury in order to visit Becket’s shrine.

[3] Augustine of Canterbury should not be confused with Augustine of Hippo.

[4] He is referring to Royal Saint George’s Golf Club, home of several Open Championships.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, “Autobiographical Notes,” in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 4-5.

[6] See R. Maurice Barineau, The Theodicy of Aflred North Whitehead: a Logical and Ethical Vindication (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991), pp. 97-119.

[7] Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933; reprint edition, New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 266.

[8] Ibid., p. 266.

[9] Ibid., p. 253.

[10a] Michael Murphy, Golf in the Kingdom (New Yok: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 66-67.

[10b] Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas., p. 274.

[11] Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 339; see also Modes of Thought, pp. 87-88.

[12] Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas, p. 268, 265.

[13] Ibid., p. 275.

[14] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925; reprint edition, New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 192.

[15] Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926; reprint edition, New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 93.

[16] Ibid., p. 94.

[17] Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition, Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 340.

[18] Ibid., p. 223.

[19] Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 275.

[20] Ibid., p. 256.

[21] Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 260.

[22] Whitehead, “Mathematics and The Good,” in in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951), p. 679.

[23] Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 263.

[24] Ibid., p. 257.

[25] Ibid., p. 256, 257

[26] Ibid., p. 259.

[27] Ibid., p. 266

[28] Whitehead, Modes of Though (New York, Macmillan, 1938; reprint edition, New York: The Free Press, 1966), p. 87; Adventures of Ideas, p. 263.

[29] Whitehead, Adventures of ideas, p. 257.

[30] Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 79.

[31] Whitehead, Adventures of ideas, p. 286.

[32] Ibid., p. 257.

[33] Ibid., p. 257; see also p. 264.

[34] Ibid., pp. 283, 264.

[35] Ibid., p. 282.

[36] Ibid., p. 257.

[37] Ibid., p. 266.

[38] Ibid., p. 261.

[39] Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 112; Modes of Thought, p. 79.

[40] Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 259.

[41] Ibid., p. 263.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., p. 286.

[44] Whitehead, “Mathematics and the Good,” p. 679.

[45] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, p. 92.

[46] Ibid., p. 94.

[47] Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985,– 1:136.

[48] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, p. 94.

[49] Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 340-41.

[50] R. Maurice Barineau, The Theodicy of Alfred North Whitehead, p. 110.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

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