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Charles Hartshorne – Does God Grow With Experience?

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Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) – Image via Wikipedia

Charles Hartshorne  (1897-2000) was an American theologian who developed Alfred North Whitehead‘s idea of an organic, interactive process into a version of Process Theology.

Wikipedia traces his views to the ancient Greek Heraclitus, who emphasized change with his famous line, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus also believed that religious signs could be received through the oracle at Delphi. But Hartshorne’s theological system arguably adds a bit more to the picture than mere change and signs (we don’t know what Heraclitus fully believed in because only fragments of his work survive).

Hartshorne upholds the idea that God has a separate existence but is also present in the world. To me this is explained by the already existing ideas of transcendence and immanence (not imminence). Wikipedia explains Hartshorne’s view:

One of the technical terms Hartshorne used is pan-en-theism, originally coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1828. Panentheism (all is in God) must be differentiated from Classical pantheism (all is God). In Hartshorne’s theology God is not identical with the world, but God is also not completely independent from the world. God has his self-identity that transcends the earth, but the world is also contained within God. A rough analogy is the relationship between a mother and a fetus. The mother has her own identity and is different from the unborn, yet is intimately connected to the unborn. The unborn is within the womb and attached to the mother via the umbilical cord.¹

However, Hartshorne took on classical theologians by taking a more Jungian approach to God. For both Jung and Hartshorne, God is not omniscient but learns as s/he goes along. Unlike classical definitions of God’s perfection, Hartshorne believes that being perfect does not entail knowing everything. Rather, it means knowing and feeling more through experience.

God is capable of surpassing himself by growing and changing in his knowledge and feeling for the world.²

Myself, I think this is a flawed view, one born of a lack of intellectual humility. It’s fine to try to understand God and the workings of God. But whenever a human being makes some kind of definitive statement about knowing God, that’s where I draw the line.

However, if someone says they believe that God has certain qualities and behaves in such a way, I can take them far more seriously. In my view, everything comes down to belief in one way or another. But not everyone appreciates this idea. The human mind is easily hoodwinked into confusing belief with knowledge.

The statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens

The distinction between belief and knowledge goes back to another ancient Greek, Plato. Plato, however, held a different view than mine. He believed that knowledge (as justified true belief – episteme)³ was superior to:

  • an opinion that seems to be or may be true but is accepted on the basis of a weak argument (dogma)
  • popular belief (doxa)

By way of contrast, I maintain that for a rational, reflective mind, everything comes down to belief—true, false or partly true belief. We may say we have reason to believe but, as human beings, we can never really know. We have to believe.4

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hartshorne

² Ibid.

³ This type of knowledge is differentiated from knowledge of a craft (techne). And some scholars rightly ask, what does full “justification” for episteme require? See a good discussion here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/

4 To defend this view I’d probably have to go into a lengthy philosophical argument, and this entry is not the place for that. However, if anyone wishes to further discuss in the comments area, I will try to outline my position (providing I felt that the discussion was positive enough to justify the time and energy spent on it). I say this because I tried to explain my position once at the David Bowie site with a bookish “intellectual” hooked on a particular philosopher and found that I was just wasting my time and energy. As with most unproductive internet debates, we don’t always carefully read or reply to things we don’t understand, perhaps cannot understand, or consciously or subconsciously do not wish or believe it necessary to understand. And some apparently just want to win an argument rather than learn and grow from it. I’m not saying I’m immune to this pretty common situation. But I don’t waste time and energy if I see myself falling into it.

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