The Divine Relativity

by Charles Hartshorne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

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

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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 related. The relationship between the knower and the number two is strictly internal to the knower (who is more knowledgeable than previously) but external to two (which is unchanged by having become better known by someone).

Saint Thomas Aquinas held that typically in cases of knowledge, the knower is internally related to the known (is changed in at least the sense of being more knowledgeable than before) and the known is externally related to the knower (is not itself altered by its having become known). The great exception, Thomas contends, is God and the objects of God’s knowledge. The objects of God’s knowledge exist because they are caused by their knower, and God is not changed by knowing them.

Hartshorne argues as follows. First, God knows all truths, including such logically contingent (could-have-been-false) propositions as “There are humans.” Because what God knows is true and “There are humans” might have been false—there might not have been any humans—what God knows is internally related to the contingent fact that there are humans. The same of course applies to everything that God knows to exist provided that they might not have existed—every apple, table, and grain of sand, for example. God’s knowledge is internally related to everything that exists contingently. Second, it is a necessary truth that if God exists, God is omniscient. “God’s being omniscient” does not vary in worlds in which God exists, but because what distinguishes one world from another is what exists in those worlds, what God knows to exist differs from world to world. Therefore, the content of divine omniscience varies from world to world.

Hartshorne infers from these two points that God has two distinct aspects: being omniscient, which is an abstract, world-invariant aspect, and having the particular knowledge God has, the particular content that God knows because our world rather than some other world exists. God’s being omniscient is externally related to the world (where the world is everything that exists besides God) but God’s omniscience, having the content that it does, is internally related to the world.

It is not clear that Hartshorne’s argument succeeds. It is a necessary truth that the number two is even and a contingent truth that two is the number of hands that were part of Plato’s body. Two is even in every possible world but two is not the number of Plato’s hands in every possible world. There are, for example, possible worlds so unfortunate as not to contain Plato (were one of them to exist, Plato would not). It does not follow that there are two aspects of the number two, one corresponding to (or being) two’s absolute essence and another corresponding to (or being) two’s being the number of hands Plato had.

A Perfect Being

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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. God’s concrete omniscience, for example, includes as part of its content those contingent propositions that are true in the actual world. Further, in Hartshorne’s view, future-tense propositions lack truth value; they are neither true nor false until the time comes to which they are tensed. For example, “A woman will be elected president of the United States in the year 2020” is tensed to the year 2020. Thus God’s knowledge any time before the year 2020 will not contain knowledge that a woman will be elected president of the United States in 2020, even if a woman will be elected then. According to Hartshorne, God’s knowledge is always growing. At no time is God’s knowledge surpassed (no one else knows, at any given time, everything true at that time), but it is surpassable (God will know more tomorrow than God knows today). It is, of course, controversial that future-tense propositions lack truth value; for example, it seems a necessary truth that “Either some eclipse will darken London tomorrow or not,” and if it is true, then one of its elements, “Some eclipse will darken London tomorrow” and “No eclipse will darken London tomorrow,” is true and one is false.

In addition to these abstract arguments, Hartshorne makes abstract considerations, one of which concerns divine love. His claim is that if it is true that God loves Susan, then the relation being loved by God cannot be a relation that is external to God. It must include something in God that might not have been there, some divinely internal state directed toward Susan that favors Susan’s well-being and that might not have existed because Susan might not have existed. Such a state, Hartshorne contends, is contingent (it is a state that God might not have been in) and affective (it involves feeling as well as knowing).

Hartshorne’s neoclassical or process monotheism is sometimes called pantheism, but it is not strictly pantheistic (it does hold that all things are contained in God but denies that God is identical to the collection of all things) or standardly monotheistic (it does not distinguish sharply between God and creation). Its main theistic competitors are classical monotheism and what might be called new classical monotheism. Classical theism, Hartshorne’s target of critique in The Divine Relativity, holds that God is eternal (atemporal, possessed of no temporal properties) as well as immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and existentially independent of all else. New classical theism holds that God is temporal. It adds that God is immutable in the sense that God cannot lose any essential properties; losing any essential property would involve cessation of existence and God’s existence is not dependent on the existence or activity of anything else. New classical theism agrees with neoclassical theism that God can be affected (be in relations to created persons that are internal to both God and created persons) and have emotions. New classical theists tend to continue to take God to be a substance, not a series of processes, and to reject the idea that viewing God as having a necessary and a contingent aspect is the best, or even a coherent, way of regarding God as temporal (everlasting rather than eternal, existing at all moments rather than existing but existing at no moment). Readers of The Divine Relativity should keep two questions in mind: (1) Are the alleged contradictions in classical monotheism real or merely alleged? (2) If they are real, is neoclassical theism a better way of avoiding them than is new classical theism?


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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 supreme reality. It also gives a critical evaluation of Hartshorne’s thought and a valuable, if somewhat dated, bibliography.

Hahn, Lewis, ed. The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne. La Salle, Ill: Open Court, 1991. Twenty-nine essays on Hartshorne’s philosophy with his replies and his intellectual biography.

Pailin, David A. God and the Processes of Reality. London: Routledge, 1989. A presentation and defense of Hartshorne’s views.

Pittenger, Norman. Process Thought and Christian Faith. New York: Macmillan, 1968. An introduction to the thought of Hartshorne, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. A defense of a view that is close to classical theism, much closer at any rate than is process theology.

Towne, Edgar A. Two Types of New Theism: Knowledge of God in the Thought of Paul Tillich and Charles Hartshorne. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. A detailed examination into the thought of Hartshorne and Tillich.

Viney, Donald W. Charles Hartshorne and the Existence of God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. An explication of Hartshorne’s arguments for the existence of God, based on an argument derived from Saint Anselm that God’s conceivability implies God’s existence, plus arguments to establish God’s conceivability.

Wierenga, Edward. The Nature of God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. An excellent discussion of the divine attributes that defends an essentially classical standpoint.

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