Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Philosophy East and West, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct. 1978), 401-411.  Written in the author’s 81st year, it summarizes a lifetime of deep reflection on its topic. Being unable to reproduce all of Hartshorne’s transliterations from classic Hindu texts (e.g., the dotted “n” and dotted “s”), I apologize to those readers for whom that defect will prove an annoy-ance.  I trust there is no consequent loss of intelligibility.

Theism in Asian and Western Thought

Charles Hartshorne

Of the great religions at least three are commonly regarded as theistic: Judaism and its two offshoots, Christianity and Islam.  In some of its popular varieties Hinduism can fairly be called theistic.  Surprisingly enough, Professor T. R. V. Murti, an Advaita Vedāntist, once said, “India is the most theistic country of all.”  But another Vedāntist, Raja Rao, takes a rather unfavorable view of the idea of “God.”  For a strict follower of Śankara, Īśvara or the Lord is at best only a supreme form of māyā, not the true Reality.

Buddhism is commonly taken to be nontheistic. Yet Suzuki once remarked that he was not sure about this.  And if he was not, perhaps I cannot be.  The Mahayana often seems close to Advaita Vedānta, that is, to Śankara’s view that the highest reality is not like a person loving other persons, but is entirely beyond plurality and relationships, being nontemporal, nonspatial, untroubled pure bliss.  In a certain technical aspect, the Thomistic theory has similar implications, as when Thomas wrote that relations between the world and God are relations for the world but not for God, also when he interpreted God’s knowledge of the world as identical with his awareness of himself as eternal, immutable, impassible, or when he defined God as simple, pure actuality, totally devoid of unrealized potentialities.

In the West the appearance-reality contrast, though it emerged quite early—in Parmenides—did not have the importance it had in Asia (especially India).  Instead, a number of other dichotomies were used in the West to contrast the Eminent or divine reality with all else.  These dichotomies include the following:  contingent-necessary, effect-cause, passive-active, dependent-indepen-dent, relative-absolute, finite-infinite, muta-ble-immutable, extended-inextended.  The second or negative term in each contrast was the one applied to deity.  In the first three contrasts the second term may not seem, but really is, negative.  Thus “necessary” means “could not have been or be otherwise,” “cause” is the independent term in a cause-effect relation, and “active,” as it has been used theologically connoted “impassible,” incapable of being moved or influenced by another. God could influence or condition, he could not be influenced or conditioned in any way.

The logic of this famous “negative way” of characterizing deity was less than transparently consistent, to put it gently.  The categorical contrasts listed above are not such that one can take one of the contrasting poles off by itself and apply it to something.  The causes we know are equally, in some relationships, effects; the dependent things are also independent (of some things); and where there is activity there is passivity.  Only by passivity or by being partly an effect can an activity relate itself to, or take account of, other activities.  To know something is, as Aristotle saw, to be affected or influenced by it.  We are effects of our ancestors and part causes of our descendants, but it is the ancestors of whom we have definite knowledge, not the descendants.

If, as the negative theology held, God is to be distinguished by his independence, it must be because he is independent of every other reality, whereas a creature is independent of some others only.  Plato depended for his existence and thinking not one whit on our existence.  Similarly, whereas in a human person only some aspects are fixed or immutable (at least for a time-thus the gene structure of the person’s cells), and other aspects are mutable, in God all aspects are held to be forever fixed.

Such was the favored doctrine in classical Western theism.  The reason given was that it is better to be immutable than mutable, cause rather than effect, independent rather than dependent.  This implies a theory of value and, looked at closely, a strange theory.  It implies our inferiority in principle to our ancestors, even our remote subhuman ancestors, and it also implies the superiority to us of an insect that interests and thus influences us, or the sun that warms us, without our doing anything appreciable to the insect or the sun!  Worse, it implies that the versatile human sensitivity, of which all our empirical knowledge is a development, makes us inferior to the atoms that are so much less variously passive.  It is simply false that value is all on one side of the categorial contrasts and disvalue all on the other side.  To say that cause is good but effect bad is to say that speaking is good but listening bad, or writing books is good but reading them bad.  It is also to say that it is good that God causes and influences us but bad if our existence and actions make any difference to God.  Yet the theologians who implied this also assured us that God knows, loves, and cherishes his creatures!

Since the logic of classical theism is at best unclear, it is not surprising that it led to no enduring consensus.  Spinoza made the first great break with (one strand of) this tradition.  He returned to the Stoic view that not only is God eternal and non contingent in every respect, but also so is the world he creates and (in a strange sense) knows.  There simply is no contingency, and what are called events or changes are items in a fixed whole that, to be seen truly, must be seen from the standpoint of eternity.  All freedom or creativity in the genuine sense of determining what previously was indeterminate or merely possible is excluded by this doctrine.

I call this Stoic-Spinozistic view classical pantheism.  Like classical theism it tried to treat God as exclusively necessary and immutable, though it did face the logical requirement that divine knowledge must embrace and cannot be simply independent of what it knows.  Yet Spinoza thought that the divine dependence upon the world (a dependence not made less real by his using another word for it) is acceptable because it is not dependence upon anything contingent or merely temporal.  The dependence is so absolute that it can be called something else, the relation of the Substance or God to its “modes” or “necessary modifications.”  These are not changes produced in God by anything in any way independent of God; they are, as it were, modifications of an unmodifiable reality.  (Although Spinoza said that God was extended spatially, he did not say that God endures.)  Happenings in the world are to God as the sides of a triangle are to the triangle.  Spinoza thus assimilates relations of extreme abstractions and relations of the most concrete realities, actual events.  Naturally the world was not convinced by this attempt to overcome the paradoxes of the theistic tradition, since it retained the basic paradox and added new ones.  The basic paradox is in the idea that the world and God are exclusively on opposite sides of categorial contrasts—as though one pole of a contrast could retain its meaning without the contrast, and hence the other pole, also applying.

After Spinoza, classical theism was more and more firmly rejected by philosophers, in favor either of agnosticism or of some form of theism which conceives God as both eternal and temporal, both necessary and contingent, both active and passive, both cause and effect.  The nonskeptical, “panentheistic,” or “neoclassical” alternative to the medieval doctrine first appeared more than three centuries ago in the Socinian theology.  Post-Kantian idealisms were the earliest philoso-phical versions, apart from some hints by Hume’s Cleanthes.  Schelling and Hegel, however, were only temporarily and mildly impressive to religious persons.  At best their views were unclear or ambiguous.  Reasonably clear forms of neoclassical or “process” theology have begun to appear in the last 120 years (Fechner, J. Lequier, W. P. Montague, Whitehead).  Until Whitehead they went largely unnoticed.

In this new theism, instead of trying to exalt God by making him violate the essentially polar structure of categories, one attributes God’s unique excellence to the eminent or unsurpassable way in which he is on both sides of ultimate contrasts—except of course the contrast excellence-nonexcellence.  (And in a sense God is on both sides even of that contrast to the extent that the creatures are really his, taken into his own life as cherished data of his awareness.)  Thus the divine reality is both necessary and contingent, for (a) its existence is necessary, meaning that the divine essence (unsurpassa-bility by another) could not fail to be actualized somehow, but (b) the particular how of the actualization remains contingent, could have been otherwise.  Thus the divine essence is realized in divine accidents, but the class of such accidents could not have been and could never be empty.  A particular creature, by contrast, exists in accidental states the class of which could have been empty.

Although God, like the creatures, has both essence and accidents, yet there is a difference in principle and not merely in degree between God and anything else.  For not even the individual essence of the creature is unconditionally necessary.  The category of necessity does, however, apply to creatures, and in two ways.  Our ancestors were necessary to us, and that there be some creatures or other (that God be actually and not merely potentially creative) can be taken as strictly necessary.  Morris Cohen, the teacher of almost a generation of American philosophers, taught me something by his “principle of polarity”—though, being an unbeliever, he did not apply it to deity.  The neoclassical or process view is that all concrete realities, including God, are dipolar, though only God is dipolar in an unsurpassable way.

It is time to ask, “What parallels to the foregoing kinds of theism can be identified in Asia?”  And at least an apparent parallel is to classical pantheism.  I am thinking of a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism called the Hua-Yen tradition, as represented by Fa Tsang, in medieval China.  The fact that Fa Tsang did not have a term corresponding to the word “God” should not mislead us.  For Spinoza’s use of this word is suspect, and I maintain that what Spinoza effectively has in his system is only the modes, whose rigid interconnectedness he calls God, Nature, or Substance.  “How,” asked a contemporary of Spinoza, “are the modes in Substance?”  “As drops of water (or was it waves?) are in the sea.”  This metaphorical reply, about as helpful as Thales’ dictum, “All things are water,” betrays a lack of any real doctrine of the divine uniqueness.  Substance, says Spinoza, necessitates its modes as a triangle necessitates its angles.  Not only does he thus assimilate relations of extreme abstractions to those of supposedly concrete actualities, but also he makes Substance functionally superfluous.  For if each mode is necessitated by Substance, the mode logically requires and so strictly necessitates Substance, and therewith all other modes.   So why not say directly that each mode necessitates every other?  Where all is necessary, genuine distinctions disappear, because the entire content of the whole is in every part. 

Now consider Fa Tsang.  He says that all things interpenetrate, each thing influences every other.  (I am here considering only the cosmology, not the Buddhistic doctrines about meditation and enlightenment, or the merely secondary role for Buddhism of conceptual theories about reality.)  Things are interdependent, thus each thing implicates the cosmic system and is nothing-emptiness, śūnyatā—in itself.  Each thing is, from one point of view, nonbeing, and from another it is all being.  Thus each thing is every other thing.  Logically this seems to me to duplicate Spinoza’s cosmology.  Nothing can ground alternative possibilities if anything you please requires every other thing to be what it is.  And what validity can there be to distinctions between this and that?  So we achieve serenity, for no matter what happens, it is all one.  Is there nothing of this in Spinoza?  About thirty years ago a book appeared called Spinoza and the Dead God in which the author, named Melamed, interpreted Spinoza as a Buddhist.  I thought the book hilarious, but also not without its point.  Now that I know something about Fa Tsang I see still more point.

Another, and perhaps closer, parallel to Western forms of theism occurred in India.  Madhva, a Hindu thinker influenced, I assume, by the earlier and more nearly orthodox Rāmānuja to depart from the austere nondualism of Śankara, has a system that rather closely matches medieval classical theism.  According to him there are five distinctions:  between God as supreme soul and lesser souls, God and a body, one nondivine soul and another, one body and another, one nondivine soul and a body.  One can find these five distinctions in European scholasticism.  In both traditions the distinctions are real at both ends and are not relations of appearance and reality.  In both parts of the world there was a problem of understanding how these radically distinguished types of entity could form a coherent whole.

A difficult and for me crucial question is this, “What Asian parallels are there for my dipolar or process theism, also called panentheism?”  In India, Rāmānuja did say (as Plato said) that the supreme Reality is both Soul and Body, the cosmos being the divine body.  And Rāmānuja so defines “body” that it need not mean, as it apparently did for Madhva, a reality different in principle from soul or mind.  By a soul’s body we should mean, Rāmānuja says, that collection of entities over which the soul has most direct power or control.  Since the supreme Lord has such power over all things, the totality of non divine things is the divine body.  So far so good. But this is still not dipolar theism.  For the dipolar view, fully thought out, insists that the soul’s power or influence over the body, even in the divine case, is not the whole truth; there is also a reverse influence of the bodily members upon the soul.  There is thus interaction between nondivine things and the divine reality.  As I read Rāmānuja, he denies this.  He does say that the supreme Lord is immutable.  Of course, tautologically, the essence of God is immutable, but this is an abstraction, in my view, not the supreme actuality, which includes also the divine accidents, the class of which cannot be empty.  The essence is merely what all possible divine accidents have in common, the “somehow” common to all possible “hows” of divine actualization.

In European dipolar theism, as early as in F. Socinus, the divine knowledge of our free acts is conceived as contingent upon those acts, which might have been otherwise.  Thus there are in God contingent effects the causes of which are contingent happenings in the world.  The same pattern is unmistakable in Jules Lequier in the last century in France, and later in Whitehead.  This is what is meant by the latter’s assertion that God “physically prehends” the world.  Our free decisions influence God, and his responsive decisions influence us.  A clear statement of such a view in the best-known Indian philosophies is hard to find, though one can perhaps read it into the Upanisads or the Bhagavad-Gītā.

A Hindu sect (Vaisnava Vedānta of the Bengal School) that seems to have a dipolar view of deity was founded by Sri Jiva Gosvāmin.  According to a disciple the view is that “God is full and has no room to grow, but it is a mystery that he grows without cessation.  In this process of never-ending augmentation all the values of joyful delight that are realized remain conserved with Him for all time.”1  (This recalls Fechner’s dictum that God’s perfection “is not in reaching a definite or limited maximum but in seeking an unlimited progress. . . . The whole God is the maximum not only of the whole present but also of the entire past; he alone can surpass himself, and does it continually.”2)  A monk named Mahānām Brata Brahmachāri belonging to this sect once came to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate, and wrote a clearly acceptable dissertation (from which the preceding quotation about Sri Jiva Gosvāmin is taken).  In our first interview he told me that love was his basic principle.  To my query, “What do you mean by love?” he replied, “It is the consciousness of consciousness, and the feeling of feeling.”  Since Whitehead’s category, “feeling of feeling,” is my basic principle, I was delighted with this reply.  It implies dipolarity, assuming that God loves his creatures.  For, if he feels our feelings he cannot be uninfluenced by them and must be effect as well as cause.

Robert Whittemore, who went to India to find out to what extent Hinduism is open to a panentheistic interpretation, came to the conclusion that Hindu scriptures are ambiguous as between a merely monistic and a panentheistic rendering.  The monistic doctrine of Śankara is not an obligatory philosophical reaction to those scriptures.  The parallel to the relation between medieval theism and the Bible suggests itself.  Fewer scholars of the Biblical texts than formerly are today ready to swear that the God of Genesis or Isaiah or the Book of Job or the Gospels is the God of Thomas Aquinas.  Indeed, perhaps most would deny this.  In both East and West the love of tradition is strong but not invincible.  Śankara, like Thomas, achieved a kind of official status, yet Rāmānuja, like the more obscure Socinians, defended a somewhat contrasting view, and later many others, in East and West, moved toward a less one-sided interpretation of the Eminent Reality.  Even Madhva said that nirguna Brahman, the Supreme without Qualities, is not the true highest being, which is rather saguna Brahman, the Supreme with Qualities.  One need only see that these qualities must involve contingency to have dipolarity.

One religion so far not mentioned is Zoroastrianism, which posits two superhuman beings, one good and one bad.  The good spirit is ultimately superior in power but not simply omnipotent.  In popular Christianity some such duality is found, save that the evil power is divinely created and as created was originally good.  In an extinct religion, Manichaeism, the evil power was the creator of nature.  (That this religion has died out is to the credit of our species.)  In some brands of Hinduism, and in popular Buddhism, there are suggestions of supernatural beings who live to destroy and do harm.  Supernatural sources of evil as well as of good are often hypothecated.  What should we learn from all this?

The safest inference I take to be this: there is something wrong with the idea of omnipotence, if the word is used to mean that divine fiat can determine the details of what happens, or that, although we think we decide our actions, in reality all actions are determined by the one supreme Actor.  The alternative is simply to take seriously the idea of multiple creaturely decisions.  Before you or I decide anything something concerning our actions is really undetermined, even by God, and we, not God or demons, settle the otherwise unsettled.  The Socinians, Lequier, and Fechner took this view, and what Peirce and Whitehead have done is to generalize it for all creatures, creatures as such.  Only with this generalization does the view do the job assigned to it, that of making it, in principle, intelligible, how there can be suffering as well as wickedness in a divinely created cosmos.

In the idea of multiple decision-making there is an implication of chaos and conflict.  Why should A’s decision harmonize with B’s, which B and not A determines, and which cannot be known to A until too late?  By the time B’s decision is made and known to A the joint occurrence of A’s and B’s decisions will have already produced consequences that neither of them could have precisely intended.  Add the divine decider and the principle still holds.  Attempts to conceive some divine magic that enables us to genuinely decide and yet God to decide our decisions are, I feel quite sure, attempts to talk without saying anything, or to evade an issue we ought, as candid thinkers aiming at clarity, to face once for all.  Multiple freedom is the only answer to the question, “Whence suffering and conflict?”  Suffering is, broadly speaking, an aesthetic evil.  Moral wickedness (deliberate inflicting of harm, or choice of lesser among possible goods) is not explained by the general principle of multiple decision-making.  But this form of evil is confined to animals with a high level of consciousness and awareness of moral principles.  It seems implausible that animals with this higher kind of awareness could all infallibly act morally rightly rather than wrongly, any more than they could infallibly find the truth in interpreting evidence.  Infallibility, cognitive or volitional, is a divine attribute.  Even an infallible creator cannot produce infallible creatures.

It is not clear why a cosmic conspiracy, or a Satan, should be required to explain the facts.  Evil does not require cosmic coordination, for it is essentially anarchic, egocentric, or ethnocentric.  Good, however, does require a coordinating agency, not indeed to determine the details of good actions or results, but to set limits to the tendency toward chaos inherent in multiple freedom.  The laws of nature are the way we try to think these limits.  They are not, as Laplace thought, strictly determinative of details, but they do limit what can happen.  (Here Peirce, Boutroux, and Bergson were prophetic of the later physics.)  Like political and moral laws, natural laws forbid rather than command; they say what shall not happen.  Within these negative limits creatures decide their own and each other’s careers.  The cosmic coordinating agent can be thought of as aiming exclusively at good.  In this way one does some justice to the dualistic motifs of Zoroastrianism, taking them as warnings against the excesses of the omnipotence doctrine, which was always a more or less overt denial of creaturely freedom and, indeed, of the goodness of God.  For the really good respect the self-determining, the creative freedom, of others.  And from this the risk of conflict and mutual frustration cannot be eliminated.

How far this explanation of evil can be found clearly stated in Asia I do not know.  I do know that Western thought achieved clarity in this matter only recently, and only in some circles.  It was always a weak view that tried to explain evil by purely ad hoc assumptions about human action, while supposing a total absence of decision-making elsewhere in nature.  A strong philosophical theory must take creativity or partial self-determination as a universal category, eminent in God, noneminent but unusually great in our species, and present in less and less degree as one goes down the scale of creatures toward atoms and particles.  The statistical laws that are now the operative ones in physics, and indeed in all science, in principle harmonize with this idea, though I think it will be necessary to admit some qualifications to the laws of quantum physics in application to organisms, especially the higher types, and most of all homo sapiens.  Wigner and some other important physicists have suggested that such qualifications are not to be ruled out.  Contemporary microphysics has not yet achieved omniscience, even about the least elements of nature, much less about protozoa and metazoa.

With Herrlee Creel, I take Confucianism to be vaguely theistic, but with the focus on ethics, not theology.  Chinese thought tends to be this-worldly, and so in a sense does process theology.  There is much in Neo-Confucianism with which a process philosopher need not quarrel, putting aside the male chauvinism that it shared with much Western and also Indian thought.  The Confucians sensed the extremism, the one-sidedness, of the Hua-Yen doctrine, but they did not, I incline to think, ignorant of their work as I am, correct it with an equally definite doctrine.  Universal interpenetration is a definite assertion, erroneous in my opinion, but at least definite.  The extreme opposite view, universal independence, is also definite, but if possible more obviously erroneous.  It is the “middle way,” the genuine golden mean, that is hard to make definite.  I have the impression that the Confucians gave some good hints in the right direction here, but I doubt if they achieved the clarity that Western thought is beginning to arrive at, especially in Whitehead’s system, with which Chu Hsi’s has been compared.  What is lacking on the Chinese side, I imagine, is a comparable degree of definiteness, such as one finds in Leibniz in early modern times, and Peirce and Whitehead in recent times.  (I have tried to remove some ambiguities and inconsistencies in their work.)

The combination of mathematics and careful measurement of natural phenomena has produced a sharper logic in the West than Asia has until recently possessed.  This has not saved the West from great mistakes, but it has its value.  In Whitehead we have at last what has hitherto been lacking, a philosophical system by a characteristic Western thinker, mathematician, logician, and physicist, who yet is close to the Buddhist ideas of “no soul, no substance” and “mind only,” but who avoids both the extreme pluralism of the Theravāda and the extreme monism of the Hua-yen doctrine of universal interdependence.  (Whitehead sometimes verbally asserts this last, but in his technical concepts of prehension, creativity, and time he qualifies it.)

In one respect Whitehead’s system is probably too pluralistic, if an apparent discovery of quantum physics known as Bell’s Theorem is correct.  There are a priori philosophical reasons for suspecting that it is correct.  I have never been very happy about the relativistic view, accepted by Whitehead as well as Einstein, that there are mutually independent contemporary events, contem-porary but not simultaneous.  It is this idea that Bell requires us to revise.  According to one physicist, Capra, science is now approaching, though it could never quite reach, a complete monism like that affirmed by Oriental mystics.  But another physicist, who takes a “revised Whiteheadian” view, retains a definite pluralism.  It is neither a doctrine of mutual independence nor one of interdependence, but of one-way dependence only, so far as single events are concerned.  Only individuals, sequential groupings of events, can interact.  However, this solution of the one and the many has yet to be evaluated by physicists or philosophers.

Western theism has exalted our species in comparison with the rest of nature.  In Asia, especially China, there was never the hard and fast line between human and subhuman that was drawn in the West.  This is one reason for the prevalence of vegetarianism in much of Asia, as compared to Europe.  The West is more appreciative of this aspect of the Orient now than it used to be.   In general the Chinese sense of the naturalness of man, and of the general wisdom of nature, is congenial to a process philosopher, as is the focus upon becoming rather than mere being.

One final comparison.  The Hindus speak of creation as the dance of Siva, or as divine play.  There are two ways of interpreting this, one of which seems much more acceptable than the other.  The unacceptable interpretation makes playful creation a form of omnipotence, deity simply, though capricious-ly, determining worldly happenings.  This is the tyrant idea of deity.  The other interpretation takes divine decisions as determining only approximate or statistical outlines, leaving details to the nondivine agents.  But the point of calling the operation play is to reject by implication anything like the absurdly rationalistic view best expressed by Leibniz when he declared that God in creating looks over all possible worlds and gives the nod to the best possible one.  In this superbly unreasonable piece of rationalism, Leibniz combined the omnipotence fallacy with an equally unacceptable theory of possible worlds as no less completely definite than the actual world, lacking only some mysterious something called existence or actuality.  What possible worlds lack is precisely definiteness.  As Whitehead says, “definiteness is the soul of actuality.”  Possibility, as Peirce insisted, is incurably lacking in definiteness or particularity.  There are no possible particulars.  And there is no basis for the notion that a world could be such that no better world was possible.  Rather, there is an open infinity, with no definite maximum or optimum, as creativity keeps adding new actualities, and the “objective immortality of the past” (Whiteheadalso Bergson by implication) preserves the additions.

The term “play” vividly suggests that there can be no unique reason for a particular act.  Life’s problems are not like equations each with but one solution.  The intention, “Let us talk pleasantly and kindly together,” gives two people a reason for not insulting each other, unless in friendly jest, but it could not narrow down the possibilities to a definite set of sentences to be uttered and a precise tone of voice and distribution of emphases in the uttering of them.  Reasonable motives always, and this by logical necessity, leave open options as to their implementation.  This was why Kant’s definite duties were all negative, and his positive duties (for example, promote the happiness of others) are all indefinite or, in his quaint rationalistic language, “imperfect.”  Living cannot be reduced to deductive inference, and this is true for God as well as for thinking animals.  “This is the best possible thing, therefore I do it” can apply only to a class of possible acts, not to a single definite one.   Finally, sheer nonlogical decision must come in.  Even mathematicians make such decisions when they decide what statements to treat as postulates and what as deducible theorems.  This is in the logic of what they are doing and cannot be overcome.  Creation must in this sense be play.  The idea of divine play was therefore a profound theological insight, which was denied not only to Leibniz, but to Spinoza, Aristotle, and many other Western rationalists, and was at best only vaguely hinted at by Plato.  But it is, in other words, explicitly affirmed by Whitehead.

In its classical forms theism was not a definitive success.  It was too pluralistic and dualistic in Augustine, Thomas, or India’s Madhva, and too monistic in Spinoza, Hegel, or Royce.  But is Buddhist nontheism a definitive success?  Is “escape from birth and death” or from suffering a sufficiently positive ideal?   I am thinking of the almost theistic sounding Buddhist text, “There is an eternal being, unborn and undying; were it not so we could not ourselves escape from birth and death.”  And will it do to regard the totality of life as having its sole value in the way it makes possible, through many reincarnations, to replace life entirely by something called nirvāna?  If all things are impermanent, why does this not render all achievement, including that of becoming enlightened, completely vain?  Is the solution of the problem of the ephemeral status of all things to be found in some symmetrical doctrine of interdepen-dence, or is there a better way of dealing with time’s arrow and the contrast between the settled past and the open, indeterminate future?  “Dependent origination” and the goal of bringing all things to buddhahood suggest asymmetry, but the relation of this to nirvāna is sheer mystery, so far as I can see.

I believe that at its intuitive core (often partly betrayed by theologies) theism has an ultimate truth, a truth that properly relates unity and diversity, novelty and permanence, and causation (including whatever truth there is in karman) and creative freedom.  It can agree with Buddhism that what is usually meant by “personal immortality” is beside the point; but it has no need for reincarnation.  It does not assert universal interdependence, for two reasons:  we depend only on our ancestors, not our descendants, and we depend for our very existence on God, who could have existed without us.  For the process interpretation of theism, life consists of really distinct and additional creative acts or self-determining experiences that have as their data previous instances of the same principle of creativity and that offer themselves as data for all future instances, whatever instances there may be, and above all for the Eminent Creativity.

Whereas the Buddhist tries to will directly the good of all, the theist wills above all the good of the Eminent One by whom all are cherished.  So the theist, too, wills the good of all, but in such fashion that the whole of reality, an ever-growing unity, is taken as both inclusive object and inclusive subject of love.  Like the Greeks, the Buddhists and many Hindus think that there is something simply beyond love.  The theist does not; he holds that social relatedness applies not only among the members of the cosmic society but also between any member and the cosmic whole or inclusive reality.  The entirety becomes eminently personal.  And the perishing of all creatures is also their becoming data for the love that cannot forget or cease.  The precious moments of life “perish and yet live forevermore.”  Whitehead retains what Berdyaev claims is unique to Christianity, its full acceptance of the elements of tragedy inherent in life as such, for these tragedies qualify the Eminent life itself, the “fellow sufferer who understands.”  Whitehead and Berdyaev independently explain suffering through creaturely freedom (plus, in the human case, egocentricity and greed) and attribute suffering also to God.

In the three preceding paragraphs lan-guage is stretched to its limits.  This brings me to Professor Liu’s remarks about the need to transcend the merely literal uses of words.  I appreciate the wisdom in these remarks.  But I think also that language can mislead us even when it is used to state the limitations of language.  What cannot be said by one language in one state of culture may differ somewhat from what cannot be said by another language in another state of culture.  Intellectual progress is partly linguistic, and the great discoveries of the West, increasingly contributed to and shared by the East, in various sciences, using that word broadly to include logic, mathematics, and linguistics, have not left the limitations of language exactly where they were in ancient China or India, or for that matter in ancient Greece or medieval France or Britain.  Wisdom is both more and less than literally expressible knowledge; and the line between the two is not completely fixed, once and forever. 



1 C. Hartshorne and W. L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God (The University of Chicago, 1953), p. v.  Various parts of this annotated book of readings are relevant to the present essay.

2 Hartshorne and Reese, Philosophers Speak of God, p. 252. 

Posted April 5, 2007

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