In The Divine Relativity, Charles Hartshorne’s concern is with the question “What can most reasonably be meant by the religious word God?” He thinks that classical theism—the monotheism developed and defended by such philosophers and theologians such as Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Avicenna, and influenced significantly by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus—is as much Greek as Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. He also regards classical theism as an incorrect restatement of the central religious concepts—particularly the concept of God—as philosophical categories, and he endeavors to show that his assessment is correct.

His concern is also to offer a restatement of the central monotheistic concepts, one cast in process philosophy rather than substance philosophy terms. A substance is something that has properties, is not itself a property, endures through time, and retains its identity over time, despite change of its nonessential properties. A process, for a substance philosophy, is simply a matter of a substance gaining a property it lacked or losing a property it had. For Hartshorne, there are processes, but not substances; he takes a process (not, of course, as defined by substance philosophy) to be the basic sort of entity, of which everything else, God included, is made. He takes his restatement to be a significant move toward making philosophical theism accord well with contemporary natural science, theology, and philosophy.

Notions of God

In Hartshorne’s view, God has an abstract absolute essence or immutable character but is also “surrelative,” or supremely relative. Just as the concrete includes and exceeds the abstract, so the changeable (the relative) includes and exceeds the absolute. God, Hartshorne says, is constituted of social relationships. The purpose of The Divine Relativity is to explain and defend these neoclassical and puzzling notions.

Hartshorne claims that the traditional notion of God as immutable, uncaused, independent, and absolute is self-contradictory and that the notion of a deity who is changeable, caused, dependent, and relative is not worthy of worship. He proposes a medium between these extremes, a concept of God that he takes to be logically consistent and that he believes describes a being who is worthy of worship—a notion of a God who has two aspects. Hartshorne believes that if it is logically possible that God exists, then it is logically necessary that God exists. From this, it follows that if one establishes that there is a concept of God that is logically consistent, one has established half of an ontological proof that God exists.

One central element in Hartshorne’s view is the distinction between internal and external relations. For convenience, assume that the number two is a necessarily existing abstract object. If one comes to know that the number two is even, this knowledge does not make the number two change. If knowing is a relationship between the knower and what is known—for example, between the self and the number two—then it is an external relationship. If one sits on a soft chair, the chair becomes indented in a way in which it previously was not; in this instance, the chair is changed (it is indented) and the sitter has changed (he or she is now seated) and so the relationship is internal—both items are different as a result of having become...

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A Perfect Being

Hartshorne also offers this argument: A perfect being will either contain within itself all imperfect beings or it will not. If it does not, then there is something more perfect than it is, namely the whole composed of the perfect being plus all the imperfect beings that exist. This whole is more perfect than the perfect being because it contains all the things that exist, or all the reality there is, whereas the most perfect being does not. If the perfect being does contain all imperfect beings, then there is a possible whole that would be more perfect than it. The reason for this is as follows: For any collection X of imperfect beings, there is a collection X* of imperfect beings that is better than X. Because every collection of imperfect beings can be surpassed by another, it is logically impossible that there be a best possible collection of imperfect beings; any such collection is surpassable by another, which in turn is itself surpassable. Therefore, the whole composed of the perfect and all imperfect beings is not itself unsurpassable in perfection. The perfect being would be unsurpassable in perfection. Therefore, the whole composed of the perfect being and all imperfect beings is not perfect. Whether the perfect being does or does not include all imperfect beings, it is not the perfect being. Here, Hartshorne argues, is a dilemma that process theology escapes.

In this argument, two criteria for perfection seem to be used. One considers a being to be perfect if it has all the desirable properties in the highest possible degree. This, at any rate, is what the classical tradition being criticized meant by perfect being. The other criterion considers a being perfect if it contains everything that exists. Historically, the French philosopher René Descartes’s idea of a perfect being was one who met the first criterion, and Baruch Spinoza’s idea of a perfect being was one who met the second. However, it is not clear that satisfying both criteria is anything that any defensible notion of perfection will require, and the dilemma can be escaped by simply denying that satisfying the second criterion is a legitimate part of the notion of a perfect being.

Hartshorne’s way of dealing with the dilemma is to ascribe to God both a surpassable and an unsurpassable aspect. God’s abstract nature (what is true of God in all possible worlds) is unsurpassable in principle....

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Sources for Further Study

Bainger, David. Divine Power in Process Theism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. A critique of process thought, especially regarding its notion of divine omniscience.

Cobb, John, and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. An explanation of process theology by two of its leading proponents.

Connelly, Robert J. Whitehead vs. Hartshorne: Basic Metaphysical Issues. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. A comparison of the thought of Hartshorne on the temporality and atemporality of God with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, a great influence on Hartshorne.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. Analytic Theism, Hartshorne, and the Concept of God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A critical examination of Hartshorne’s approach to the nature of God by a prominent American philosopher.

Gragg, Allan. Charles Hartshorne. Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1973. This excellent overview of Hartshorne’s professional life and thought covers the influence of Whitehead on Hartshorne’s career, Hartshorne’s views on what is real, his account of what it means to be human, and his argument on the nature of...

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