HARTSHORNE, Charles (1897-2000)

by Robert Brow   (www.brow.on.ca)

Just yesterday I reviewed John B. Cobb and Clark H..Pinnock, Searching for an Adequate God, Eerdmans, 2000. To my astonishment this morning Tony Capon drew my attention to the Globe and Mail obituary of Charles Hartshorne (at the age of 103). I took great courage from the fact that "he wrote his last article in an academic journal" at the age of 98. That gives me, God willing, 22 years to pursue my addiction of reviewing the books that interest me (much cheaper than belonging to a golf club!).

The Globe and Mail obituary by Douglas Martin (October 26, 2000) was headed "Influential thinker 'proved' existence of God." And three years ago in an interview with The Austin-American Statesman, in Texas, Hartshorne apparently claimed he had found 16 proofs and these could be subdivided into 32 proofs.

I believe all proofs for the existence of God are nonsense. The plain fact is that the word God has dozens of different meanings. Consider for example :

God is the Absolute behind all our imaginings (Hindu Absolute Monism)
God is the being than whom none greater can be conceived (Anselm. 11th. Century)
God is the soul of this world (Hindu Modified Monism & Matthew Fox's Henotheism)
God is whatever we give as the explanation of the origin of our world (Popular Scientism)
God is the power and inspiration of our Aryan nation (Nazism)
God is the Judge before whom we will all have to answer (one form of Islam)
God may be the benign creator, but we have to deal with the evil spirits (Animism)
God is the Artist who brought the masterpiece of our world into being (Genesis 1)

It might be possible to prove that one of these meanings of the word "God" was the proper (orthodox) one for a particular group of believers, but that proves nothing for all others. And even less for those who do not want to use the word "God" at all (Atheism).

A proof for the existence of God can only get off the ground if we first anchor the word "God" in a referent. "This is what I want to talk about." Then we have attach metaphors to give the word meaning. Thus in Christian Theism we first define God as the Artist of our world (Genesis 1). Then we say that he is Personal, Trinitarian, Love, Spirit, King, Shepherd, Judge, etc.

But having said that, I want to honor Charles Hartshorne for developing a language-game (Wittgenstein) for the word "God" which has turned out to be astonishingly fruitful in our post-modern situation.

In western theology we had got stuck with the Greek philosophical definition that God is the one eternal reality that is timeless, immutable, and impassive. We combined that with the metaphor of a Judge deciding our fate in a Roman lawcourt. And we then had to struggle with how we could ever be forgiven (atonement) and given eternal life (salvation) by such a being.

What Hartshorne did was to turn things right around. "Let's look at it this way." That means changing the referent of what we are talking about. He claimed we can understand God because, like us, he is a social and temporal individual" (Man's Vision of God and the Logic of Theism, Harper & Row, 1941, p.230). We influence things around us, but God is the one who "influences all that happens" (Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, p.11). We assume that we can exercise freedom, and God is the fount of all freedom.

Having received that account of what Hartshorne and other process philosophers used as their referent for the word "God," it was easy to amend it to suit an evangelical account of what the Bible is about. Yesterday I noted how the contrast between the two models of process theism and openness theism is so helpfully discussed in Searching for an Adequate God, Eerdmans, 2000.

Hartshorne did not want to include in his process theism any possibility of God intervening unilaterally in our world. But we are equally free to use a model of God intervening when necessary to preserve our freedom. And we can also picture God as Trinitarian, three Persons united in eternal love, and concerned to perfect us for the perfect love of heaven. That does not contradict Hartshorne's vision, but it moves the process model in more biblical directions. It also means we can say the Nicene Creed. And go with Jesus' words "If you knew me, you would know my Father also" (John 8:19) and "Whoever is from God hears the words of God" (John 8:47).

But neither Hartshorne and other process theologians, nor Pinnock, Rice, Hasker and other openness of God evangelicals have given us a proof for the existence of God. God never uses logic to force us by a proof. If he did, it would deny Hartshorne insistence that God never coerces us.

Charles Hartshorne was wrong about his sixteen proofs for the existence of God but he left a far more important legacy. He made it easy for us to explain that God is love and woos and invites us into that love without infringing our freedom. That will prove to be immensely important for a theology of love and freedom in this new millenium.

model theology home | essays and articles | books | sermons | letters to surfers | comments