The Divine Relativity

by Charles Hartshorne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

In The Divine Relativity, Charles Hartshorne states that he aims to show that God can be conceived without logical absurdity and that the idea of God does not involve self-contradiction. Some theologians have spoken of the nature of God as paradoxical or mysterious because belief in the Deity implies faith in a being that is both absolute and unchanging and also part of the relativistic, shifting universe. Hartshorne maintains that allowing this kind of paradox contributes to atheism because it allows contradiction at the center of faith. He argues that analysis of the definition of God can solve the apparent problem of self-contradiction.

Hartshorne writes that God is relative in most aspects because God exists in relation to his creation. This is in the nature of God’s existence as a subject rather than as an object. The subject, which knows things, is relative to the object, which is known. Because God knows all things, God must be relative to all things. Hartshorne labels the supremely relative nature of God “surrelativism.” God is also relative as a social being because persons in a society are defined by their relations to other persons, and God is related to all persons.

The belief that the perfection of God is inconsistent with divine relativity is caused by mistaken thinking in the tradition of the absolute. In the intellectual tradition that has come down to Christianity from antiquity, unchangeability and a lack of relation to other things have been considered superior qualities, while dependence and contingency have been considered inferior qualities. Therefore, this tradition has portrayed God, the being superior to all things, as of necessity absolute and beyond relation and change. However, Hartshorne argues, the relative may legitimately be regarded as superior to the absolute. A person, perceiving an object, is superior to a mere object. The person is affected by the perception, though, and exists in relation to the thing being perceived. The object exists independently of the perception and is therefore not relative to it. Hartshorne maintains that the long tradition of the superiority of uncaused, independent beings is an error and that the relative is, in fact, superior to the unrelated and unchanging. God, the supreme being, must be the most relative of all.

While God is related to all things and therefore the most changing and relative of all beings, he is at the same time the most absolute, according to Hartshorne. Individuals are abstract to the extent that they have enduring qualities that do not relate to any particular time or circumstance. Abstract qualities such as goodness and wisdom consistently characterize God. These are the qualities that give God reliability, because they are the same in all particular connections between God and the world. The omniscience of God means that God knows all facts and therefore does not vary according to any set of facts. Hartshorne argues that God is not only the most relative of all beings in most aspects but also the most absolute of all beings in the aspect of consistency and reliability of abstract attributes.

Hartshorne maintains that the attributes of God are expressions of the types of relationships God has with the world and with humanity. For this reason, he argues that errors about the attributes of God inherited from the religions of the past have led to misconceptions about God that have had negative effects on the ways that people act in the world. The supposed otherworldliness of God has led people to avoid the task of human welfare in favor of seeking entry into Heaven. The separation of divine influence from divine sensitivity to human affairs has led to power worship. Asceticism has prevented churches and believers from recognizing the proper combination of the physical and the spiritual, leading to an inability to deal with the problems of marriage. Abstract moralism has led to an underemphasis on charity and on creative solutions to social problems. Optimism about the ultimate nature of the universe has resulted in the failure to deal realistically with matters such as war and tyranny. Obscurantism, the dedication to paradox and logical contradiction, has prevented clarity in religious and daily lives. These misconceptions about God, in Hartshorne’s view, stem from the failure to recognize God’s relative nature.

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