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From U.S. News & World Report, February 23, 1998, 61, 65.

A Hundred Years of Thinking about God: Charles Hartshorne: A Philosopher Soon to Be Rediscovered

Gregg Easterbrook

“The reward for living is the living itself,” says Charles Hartshorne, and he should know, since he has been doing it for 100 years.  The centenarian Hartshorne is an academic philosopher, an unsung hero of the culture wars.  John Silber, chancellor of Boston University, puts Hartshorne among “the top 10” 20th-century American philosophers.  Others have described him as the century’s foremost philosopher of theology.  Yet Hartshorne is little known because his work violates perhaps the strongest postwar intellectual taboo: He believes God actually exists.

In the milieu of “postmodernism,” the general outlook dominant at top universities during the postwar era, few ideas have been less welcome than serious arguments supporting God.  “No form of thinking has been more out of vogue in this century,” says George R. Lucas Jr., executive director of the American Academy for Liberal Educa-tion, a scholars’ group.  That, however, may be changing.  Increasingly, the most basic contention of postmodern-ism—that life is a meaningless accident—is coming under fire. Hartshorne’s specialty of “metaphysics,” or the search for higher truth, may make a comeback.  Hartshorne’s own work may be poised for the sort of rediscovery that often happens a few decades after a great thinker’s death—except that Hartshorne is still alive.

In Hartshorne’s philosophy, even somewhat unorthodox assumptions about God lend support to contentions that creation has purpose and that pure truth exists.  “Without God, how can we know what is true?” Hartshorne has asked.  “Human beings barely know themselves, after all these centuries of inquiry.  There must be a larger reality with a higher understanding of truth than ours.”


Reason and faith.

Born in 1897 in a small Pennsylvania town, Hartshorne was the child of an Episcopal minister descended from Quakers. “No one in my family disbelieved in religion, and no one disbelieved in evolution, either,” he says.  These two seemingly conflicting views came to inform Hartshorne’s work, most of which concerns the application of rationality to theological questions.

Though Hartshorne might have used his Quaker lineage to avoid the draft, he volunteered to serve in the war.  That’s the Great War—Hartshorne is a veteran of World War I.  After discharge, he studied at Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, one of the last academic philosophers to be a celebrity.  Just before the Depression, Hartshorne was hired to teach philosophy at the University of Chicago.  There, he ela-borated Whitehead’s late-in-life idea called “process theology,” which holds that God cannot see the future and therefore changes in response to human actions.

If the future could be known superna-turally, Hartshorne reasoned, then God would already be fated to do whatever brings about the foreseen: Even the Maker would lack free choice.  But if the future does not yet exist, it is a non-thing, unknowable even to a deity.  Working from the second assumption, Hartshorne con-cluded that a changing God is involved in an ongoing process of responding to humanity. This, he felt, could explain leading puzzles of theology, such as how the wrathful God of the Old Testament became the compassion-ate Maker of the Bible’s second half.

Using the logic of process theology, Hartshorne rejected unbelief as “an egotistic view that nothing can be larger than a human being.”  He argued, “What we need is to make a renewed attempt to worship the objective of God, not our forefathers’ doctrines about him.”  Such ideas simultaneously offended upper aca-demia, where unbelief is often taken as a badge of intellect, and offended Christianity, by suggesting the Maker has defects.  “It is amusing that many academic elites look down on process theology as too religious, when to orthodox religion Hartshorne is a radical,” notes Robert Kane, a University of Texas philosophy professor.

Completed work.

During his career, Hartshorne wrote some 20 books and oversaw restoration of the thought of the 19th-century philosopher of logic Charles Sanders Peirce.  Some of Hartshorne’s best work, including his Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, was not published until after he turned 80.  His daughter, Emily Goodman, a New York attorney, says that when Hartshorne retired from teaching, he showed her several unfinished manuscripts squirreled away in various boxes and drawers.  “He told me, ‘If I die, find someone to complete my work,’” Goodman says. “Instead, he completed it.”

Hartshorne had a second career studying Charles Darwin’s favorite topic, natural selection among birds.  He acquired enough standing as an ornithologist that he could have been tenured in zoology, Silber of Boston University says.  Hartshorne’s 1973 book, Born to Sing, argues that some bird species have evolved the ability to appreciate melody and now warble partly for the sheer pleasure of it.  “Musicians who have listened to birds believe this much more than ornithologists, who are terrified of being accused of anthropomorphism,” Hartshorne says.  “Having studied thou-sands of hours of birdsong from around the world, I am convinced some species pos-sess an aesthetic sense, however limited compared to ours.  It is part of human egotism to believe that only we have active minds.”

Today, Hartshorne lives in a small house in Austin, Texas, where a live-in assistant cares for him.  His wife of 67 years, the former Dorothy Cooper, died in 1995.  She was a classically trained soprano, and Hartshorne cherishes memories of times he would sit in their living room and she would sing Mozart to him, alone.  “I felt magnifi-cently privileged,” he says.

His body now frail, Hartshorne rarely ventures from his house, which has the darkened feel of aging.  He spends his days rereading his own work (“I admit this gives me pleasure, even when I find errors”) and writing letters to the editor on such favored topics as feminism (for), capital punishment (against), bicycles (for; Hartshorne never owned a car and became hopelessly lost on the few occasions he attempted to drive), red meat (against; Hartshorne attributes his longevity partly to vegetarianism), and pacifism (once for, now against: “Hitler made it impossible to keep believing in pacifism, which was one of the many terrible things he did to the world”).  He says his main reflection on a full 100 years of life is that “we live in a century in which everything has been said.  The challenge today is to learn which statements to deny.”

Hartshorne does not shy from contemplating his own mortality.  He takes what he calls a “modest but positive” view of death—that consciousness ceases to exist but each person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences are “eternally and vividly remembered by God.”  To memorize and honor everything that has ever happened is, Hartshorne thinks, God’s ultimate role, the infinite divine memory representing a reserve of metaphysical truth to which any person may contribute.

“I had a happy, idyllic, old-fashioned childhood,” Hartshorne says, his voice tired but not weary.  “Go to the town where I spent that childhood, you will not find my happy hours there.  Yet they remain definite constituents of a divine reality about which true statements can still be made.  My happy childhood was a gift my parents and the world offered to God.”  Someday Hartshorne’s thoughts will be understood to number among these gifts, too.

Ideas for our time

Twentieth-century American philosophy has been largely dominated by dueling schools of thought

Positivism recognizes only those con-cepts that can be empirically verified. It gets high marks for banishing the polysyl-labic mumbo jumbo that plagued 19th-century philosophy, but it also defines the spiritual out of existence.

Analytical theory treats ideas as word structures divorced from any larger reality. Though internally neutral, analytical theory is often called on to support the “post-modern” philosophical contention that truths are only “contingent claims,” with nothing ultimately right or wrong.

A currently unfashionable third school of thought is metaphysics, which holds that higher truths exist independent of culture or context. Because it contemplates transcen-dence, metaphysics has been scoffed at by postwar academia. Charles Hartshorne is among the few philosophers to have carried the torch for this idea.

Posted June 4, 2009

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