Charles Hartshorne (June 5, 1897 – October 9, 2000) was a prominent American philosopher and theologian who is considered one of the most important philosophers of religion and metaphysicians of the twentieth Century. He developed a neoclassical concept of God and a modal argument for the existence of God that was a development of St. Anselm's ontological argument. Hartshorne is also credited with the development and popularization of process theology during his time as a professor of philosophy of religion. His unique ideas about the nature of God and human life were both highly praised and harshly criticized. He did not believe in an omnipotent and unchanging God, but in a loving, dynamic Creator who shares in the feelings and suffering of His creation.
Charles Hartshorne (pronounced, "harts-horn") was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, in 1897, as the son of a minister, Francis Cope Hartshorne, and Marguerite Haughton. He had an older sister and four younger brothers. Hartshorne became interested in philosophy while reading the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Matthew Arnold in high school. These authors convinced him to break away from the orthodox Christianity of his parents and discover a more reasonable theology.
He attended Haverford College from 1915 to 1917, where he continued his philosophical studies and read Josiah Royce's The Problem of Christianity. This book also had a profound effect on Hartshorne, as it led him to reject the theory of psychological egoism and see human existence as something dependent on a greater whole. This was an important idea in Hartshorne's later theology.
Hartshorne left Haverford and spent two years in the Army as a hospital orderly in France during World War I. After returning to the United States, he resumed his studies at Harvard University, where he obtained three degrees in only four years: He earned his B.A. in 1921, his M.A. in 1922, and his Ph.D. in 1923. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, a 300-page work entitled The Unity of Being, in only 35 days. While at Harvard, he also became acquainted with the renowned British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.
After earning his doctoral degree, Hartshorne pursued further studies in Europe. He attended the University of Freiburg, where he studied under the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and the University of Marburg, where he studied under Martin Heidegger. In 1925, he returned to Harvard as a research fellow. There, he and Paul Weiss edited the collected works of Charles Sanders Peirce and spent a semester assisting Whitehead. He came to have great respect for Peirce's work, and Peirce's pragmatic philosophy would have a profound effect on Hartshorne's later work.
In 1928, after finishing his work at Harvard, Hartshorne was hired as a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago. However, his philosophy of religion too often conflicted with the rest of the department's faculty, and he was appointed to teach at the Divinity School, where he developed his highly influential theories of process theology and influenced a new generation of theologians. While in Chicago, he married Dorothy Cooper, who would continue to help him throughout his career as an editor and bibliographer. They had one daughter, Emily.
In 1955, he accepted a position at Emory University, where he taught until he was forced to retire in 1962, due to age restrictions in university policy. He then moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where he continued to teach for many years as a professor emeritus. He remained in Austin until his death in 2000.
In addition to these universities, Hartshorne was also appointed as a special lecturer or visiting professor at Stanford University, University of Washington, Yale University, University of Frankfurt, University of Melbourne, and Kyoto University.
Hartshorne also had a lifelong interest in ornithology. He recorded bird songs and published a book on his research into the life and songs of birds entitled, Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song.
Hartshorne's contributions to the philosophy of religion are unique in both his reliance on the traditional arguments of medieval philosophers, such as St. Anselm, and his unorthodox views, such as process theology. He was one of the few modern philosophers to defend theism and develop a wholly theocentric philosophy throughout his career.
Throughout his career, Hartshorne argued for the existence of a benevolent God. Although he preferred the ontological argument for the existence of God, he saw all the various arguments (ontological, cosmological, teleological, etc.) as mutually reinforcing, rather than competing, theories.
Hartshorne argued against those who denied the existence of God based on a lack of scientific evidence. Referring to Karl Popper's definition of a hypothesis as a theory which can be disproven, not one which can be confirmed, he argued that there are no scientific facts which are incompatible with the existence of God. Therefore the question of God's existence is beyond scientific experimentation. It is, rather, the study of philosophy and metaphysics, he said, which can shed light on theological problems and the various arguments for or against God's existence.
Hartshorne focused his metaphysical discussion on the distinction between "necessary" beings and "contingent" beings made by St. Anselm in Chapter Three of his Proslogion. According to Anselm, there are certain things which must exist and certain things which may or may not exist. According to Hartshorne, it is impossible to conceive of a preeminent being, such as God, existing only contingently, because such a being is necessary, not contingent. Therefore, if God's existence is at all possible, it is necessary; He must exist.
Hartshorne broke away from the traditional view of God as an omnipotent, unchanging being and developed a highly influential concept of a God of limited power who is constantly becoming. Although most scholars claim that Hartshorne developed his theories on his own, his ideas share much in common with the intellectual movement known as process thought, spearheaded by Hartshorne's former colleague, Alfred North Whitehead.
In Hartshorne's process theism, God and the world exist in a dynamic, changing relationship, and God is a di-polar entity. While traditionalists have viewed God as unchanging rather than changing and active rather than passive, he saw that God could be both permanent and changing and both active and passive. Within each pair of contrasting characteristics, there are both good and bad elements, and God always embodies the best elements of each. He is absolute and unchanging in his goodness, but not stubborn; he is dynamic and flexible, but not fickle. God's polarity consists of an abstract pole which contains elements that never vary, such as God's self-identity, and a concrete pole which refers to the organic growth in God's perfect knowledge of the world as the world itself develops and changes.
This di-polar concept is part of Hartshorne's panentheistic view of God as an all-encompassing, all-knowing, and all-feeling entity. God is not identical with the world, as in pantheism; God retains His independent self-identity that transcends the earth, but the world is also contained within God. The feelings and experiences of all created beings, including their suffering, are also felt and experienced by God. Thus, each entity, from human beings down to the smallest particles, is a center of divine value. Moreover, Hartshorne opposed the traditional anthropocentric view of the world, which places more value on human life than that of animals and other less-sophisticated beings.
Hartshorne accepted the idea of a perfect God but maintained that classical Christian theism had held to a self-contradictory notion of perfection. He even sympathized with atheists who rejected the idea of a perfect and omnipotent God who allowed evil and suffering to exist in the world. Thus, he sought to develop a concept of a God whose existence was both necessary and compatible with the events in the world, attempting to break a perceived stalemate in theology over the theodicy problem. For Hartshorne, perfection meant that God could not be surpassed in his social relatedness to every creature. God is capable of surpassing himself by growing and changing in his knowledge and feeling for the world. Furthermore, God's omnipotence does not allow Him to know the future, because this would not allow for the freedom of His creatures. Hartshorne saw evil and suffering not as a creation of God but an inevitable by-product of freedom and random chance.
Hartshorne acknowledged a God capable of change, as is consistent with pandeism, but early on, he specifically rejected both deism and pandeism in favor of panentheism, writing that "panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism except their arbitrary negations."
Hartshorne summed up his views on death and the afterlife in his theory of "contributionism." He did not believe in human immortality or any conscious reality after death. He believed that human life was meant to be lived on earth, within a finite time and space, and that one should not seek to gain or experience anything more than physical life, such as a reward in Heaven. He saw traditional beliefs in an afterlife as essentially the product of self-interest and believed that one should live to contribute as much as possible to posterity. To Hartshorne, a person's life was like a beautiful painting or a poem. It has a beginning and an end, but it exists forever in that those who live on can observe it and benefit from it.
Hartshorne's philosophical and theological views have received praise and criticism from many different quarters. Positive criticism has underscored that Hartshorne's emphasis on change, process, and creativity has acted as a great corrective to static thinking about causal laws and determinism. Several commentators affirm that his position offers metaphysical coherence by providing a clear and logical set of concepts.
Hartshorne has also been an important figure in upholding natural theology and offering an understanding of God as a loving, personal, and dynamic being. He also placed an interesting emphasis on affirming that the God who loves the creation also endures suffering. These ideas have helped to make the idea of perfection and the divine rationally conceivable to many skeptics. Hartshorne is also appreciated for his philosophical interest in Buddhism and in stimulating others in new approaches to inter-religious co-operation and dialogue.
Others indicate that Hartshorne's egalitarian anti-anthropocentricism has placed a valuable emphasis on appreciating nature, as evidenced in Hartshorne's love of birds. His emphasis on nature and human-divine relationships to the world has encouraged the development of theologies about pollution and resource degradation and a philosophy of ecology. Allied to this has been Hartshorne's emphasis on aesthetics and beauty. In his system of thought, science and theology achieve some integration as they each provide data for each other.
In Hartshorne's theology, there is no literal first event in the universe, and the universe is thus regarded as an infinite reality. This has led some to point out that, as Hartshorne has emphasized that every event has been partly determined by previous events, his thought is susceptible to the fallacy of the eternal regress.
Other critics question the adequacy of panentheism. The point of tension in Hartshorne's theology is whether God is really worthy of worship since God needs the world in order to be a complete being. Traditional theism posits that God is a complete being before the creation of the world. Others find that his argument about God's perfection is flawed by confusing existential necessity with logical necessity.
Hartshorne's thought has received especially strong criticism in classical Protestant and Evangelical thought. In these theological networks, Hartshorne's panentheist reinterpretation of God's nature has been deemed incompatible with Biblical revelation and the classic creedal formulations of the Trinity. Critics argue that Hartshorne does not offer a tripersonal view of the Trinity and, instead, his interpretation of Christ has some affinities with the early heresy of the Ebionites. Hartshorne has also been criticized for his denial of divine foreknowledge and predestination to salvation and his devaluing of Christ's miracles and the supernatural events mentioned in the Bible.
Other criticisms are that Hartshorne gives little attention to the classical theological concepts of God's holiness and that the awe of God is an undeveloped element in his writings. Alan Gragg criticizes Hartshorne's highly optimistic view of humanity, and hence its lack of emphasis on human depravity, guilt and sin. Allied to these criticisms is the assertion that Hartshorne overemphasizes aesthetics and is correspondingly weak on ethics and morality. Others have indicated that Hartshorne failed to understand traditional Christian views about prayer and survival of the individual in the afterlife.
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