God as the Most and Best Moved Mover: Hartshorne's Importance for Philosophical Theology

By Viney, Donald Wayne | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

God as the Most and Best Moved Mover: Hartshorne's Importance for Philosophical Theology


Viney, Donald Wayne, The Midwest Quarterly


IN FEBRUARY 1981, the American philosopher-ornithologist Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) visited the University of Oklahoma where I was a graduate student. In the school paper his book, The Divine Relativity, was referred to as "The Divine Reality." Hartshorne remarked, "Any number of authors have talked about the divine reality. How many have seriously considered the divine relativity?" I do not recall my response, but the correct answer is that, prior to the twentieth century, few thinkers seriously considered the divine relativity, and those who did were largely ignored. According to traditional metaphysics, what it means to be divine is to be the creator that is, in all respects, beyond time, change, finitude, and contingency. In addition, God is unaffected by the world; this is the central meaning of impassibility, a word whose Latin roots mean "lack of suffering" (Creel, 11). This theory, which Hartshorne calls classical theism, can be summed up in a word: Absolute. To be "the Absolute" is to be the eternal, immutable, infinite, necessary, and impassible creator. According to this theory--construed alternately by its adherents as about the divine nature or as a theory about appropriate language to use about God--the phrase, "divine relativity" is a contradiction in terms.

For over a thousand years, classical theism was at once the default position of anyone claiming to be orthodox as well as the target of anyone wishing to question the existence of God. Alternatives to classical theism were belittled--by theists and their critics--as unworthy of attention, for any concept of God diverging from classical theism was regarded as less than genuinely theistic. As Daniel Dombrowski says, "very often atheists and agnostics assume without argument that classical theism just is theism" (1996, 11). This results in the spectacle of otherwise intelligent people arguing from false alternatives. Happily, classical theism increasingly finds itself on the defensive as there is growing knowledge of and widespread sympathy for the idea of a creator that is, to a greater or lesser extent, affected by the creatures. The later writings of the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) were the initial impetus and guiding inspiration for this change. Arguably, however, Hartshorne's life work, which is indebted to Whitehead, was the single most important factor in dissolving the consensus that an entirely absolute deity should be considered normative for theology.

Hartshorne observed that, "We have a population that inclines, in the majority, to be religious, but that shies away from any attempt at rational discussion of religious issues" (1984, 13-14). He maintained that there is progress in philosophy of religion but newspapers, and often even periodicals of general interest, don't report it (1997, 73). The object of this essay is to redress these grievances by exploring the seismic shift in theological thinking and the arguments that support it. Beginning with an explanation of classical theism, we shall see its tensions with some of the dominant ideas about God in Scripture. The theological appropriation of certain aspects of Greek philosophy was instrumental in creating these tensions. Thus, Hartshorne's criticisms encourage a reassessment of the biblical witness as well as a fresh look at Greek thinking. The final section of the essay outlines central elements of Hartshorne's constructive proposals for philosophical theology. This article is an exercise in Western and near-Eastern intellectual history. Far Eastern versions of theism were equally dominated by the absolutistic bias, but the situation is complicated and deserves separate treatment.

The Elements of Classical Theism

Classical theism is an ingenious synthesis of Western monotheistic traditions and certain Greek philosophical ideas about perfection. From Jewish monotheism, it embraced the concept of God as the creator of the universe. …

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