Charles Hartshorne And Subjective Immortality

by Marjorie Suchocki

Marjorie Suchocki received her Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, in 1974, and is Dean Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont California.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 118-122, Vol. 21, Number 2, Summer, 1992. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Hartshorne’s fundamental position, writes the author, is that birth and death are the necessary boundaries to an existence that is fragmentary, and only God is capable of sustaining the infinite novelty that would be required for everlasting life.

(This article is a revised version of a lecture given on September 30, 1991 in Claremont, California during a conference celebrating Charles Hartshorne and the publication of The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, Vol. XX in The Library of Living Philosophers Series, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn [La Salle, IL: Open Court Press, 1991].)


Reading through the literature of Charles Hartshorne on the issue of immortality is a richly rewarding experience. His sense of the value and beauty of life in itself, and human life in particular, is filled with wonder and gratitude. His fundamental position is that birth and death are the necessary boundaries to an existence that is fragmentary, and only God is capable of sustaining the infinite novelty that would be required for everlasting life.

Often he gives us a polemic against everlasting life for mortals, and the polemic sounds very much like Luther’s argument for salvation by faith alone. Luther claimed that if works of love were necessary to merit God’s acceptance, then it was impossible to do real works of love. To the contrary, every work of so-called love done in order to merit God’s favor would in fact be no love at all, but merely a manipulation of another toward one’s own supposed good. As for Hartshorne, he understands the traditional view of everlasting life to be a place of rewards and punishments. Surely, then, to love another simply for the sake of eventually receiving a reward would be but a poor parody of love. But Luther and Hartshorne, while agreeing on the dilemma, find very different ways for resolving it. For Luther, God accepts us, and therefore we can live lives that indeed are loving, for we do not have to earn that which we already possess. For Hartshorne, eliminating everlasting life altogether releases us from the "future rewards and punishments" bind, and therefore frees us as well to love in and for the beauty and goodness that loving presently creates.

Also present in Hartshorne’s discussions is the gentle chiding that he gives to those who for whatever reason cannot accept the inevitability of death. The very fragility and brevity of life contribute to its beauty. Our small lives are bounded at either end with infinite time; we are like carbon become diamonds by the very intensity of pressure brought about as the weight of such infinity bears down upon our mortality. Hartshorne conveys the wonder of life that comes about precisely through its shining brevity. God alone has immortality.

And yet there are two tensions: the first introduced by a tension between immortality as "rewards and punishments" and immortality as a deeper concern for justice, and the second introduced by the opposition of objective to subjective immortality within Hartshorne’s own understanding. The vision of justice fades into mocking illusion unless there is more to our existence than what Hegel aptly called the "slaughterbench of history." Immortality as a realm where evil is overcome is a deeper reading than immortality as the trivial "rewards and punishments" Hartshorne so rightly rejects. The second tension holds the possibility of answering the first. If Hartshorne’s argument for God’s prehension of the subjectivity of an occasion holds, then regardless of his preference for objective immortality, he has provided the basis for subjective immortality and therefore the basis for the further possibility of justice.

With regard to justice, I can only agree that the vision of subjective immortality is absurd or selfish if in fact all persons are as privileged as most philosophers and theologians. The point is not that we die, nor that some of us die young, nor that others of us die painfully. Death, like life, comes in many ways; why not? Death is not the problem -- the problem is injustice. There are little children who are grossly mistreated, burned, battered, and continuously raped, who manage to survive physically, but do not survive psychically. Never having known love, they never learn to give love, and their lives are lived in a web of tragedy. There are countries involved in the madness of continual warfare, maiming and destroying their citizens young and old, who together live in continual terror. There are governments supported by systematic torture of their dissidents. The tortures are not restricted to a few moments in the prisoners’ lives; rather, the brutalized torturers are commissioned to exercise consummate skill in devising continuous torment. Holocausts, genocides, nuclear destructions -- how many miseries can people survive? The problem is not death. Many of these victims might -- and eventually do -- welcome it as a solution to the problem of life. The deeper problem is injustice. That there is no justice for many in this life is quite evident. But we believe in God; is God no more just than our own sorry histories? Is there no balm in Gilead?

To answer that there are some moments of value in the reality of tortured lives seems but a poor substitute for a justice that somehow allows victims to participate in the wider and transforming reality of the God who receives, co-experiences, and transforms their suffering. Hartshorne argues with Whitehead that God is the "fellow sufferer who understands." Surely, in the light of injustice, it should be possible to consider that co-experiencing might work both ways: that God co-experiences our suffering with us, and that we co-experience its transformation in and therefore with God.

Hartshorne holds that God prehends our evil, and therefore contains our evil. He notes that this no more makes God evil than a house made of small bricks makes the house itself small. The house incorporates the bricks, but is more than the bricks; God incorporates our evils, but is more than our evils. The "more than" is decisive, for the evils God receives are like impulses that God then renders into a richness of contrast, supplementing evil with its ideal complement, and so achieving aesthetic harmony. Thus "the divine synthesis creates as much good as the state of the world makes possible" (ReM 7:106).

Is it not possible, for the sake of justice, that those who have been made so wretched through injustice might also taste this divine synthesis? Their misery has made this good possible; why is it so metaphysically impossible that they should experience the good with God if they are prehended into God? How can the universe be such that not even God can redeem its sorrows? It seems a strange anomaly if, in a thoroughly relational metaphysics, God alone in solitary splendor is the only one to experience the fullness of justice. One would question the justness of such "justice."

And so I come to the second point: it seems to me that Hartshorne, while using the terminology of objective immortality to speak of occasions in God, nonetheless lays the groundwork for subjective immortality in God. I base this not only on his writings, but on my first meeting with Charles in Hawaii in 1974, at my first professional conference. The excitement over the privilege of meeting him turned out to be an example of self-surpassability when we had our first conversation. I had written a paper for the conference arguing for subjective immortality in God, and Charles’ first words to me were that he agreed with my position.

The basis for that argument lies in Hartshorne’s consideration of the completeness of God’s prehensions of the world. God and only God is able to prehend another occasion completely; finite occasions necessarily "murder to dissect," and are capable of prehending only a portion of a predecessor’s satisfaction. Note the following quotations from Hartshorne’s various writings from 1952 through 1984: God is that one in whom prehensions are "wholly concrete. . . without eliminations of any kind" (ReM 7:109); "what we once were to God, less than that we can never be" (JR 32:101; also LP 252); ". . . if we can never be less than we have been to God, we can in reality never be less than we have been . . . That there can be no subtraction is, in my opinion, more certain than that there can be no addition" (JR 32:102, LP 253); "What in us is extremely partial, feeble retention of the past may in God be complete, ideally vivid and adequate retention" (OOTM 34). That Hartshorne considers God’s prehension to include the entirety of an occasion’s satisfaction in a way that is inclusive of its immediacy is demonstrated in the following: "[T]he satisfaction contains its process of becoming, so that to prehend a past satisfaction is to prehend the becoming, the subjective immediacy itself, of the past actuality . . . except for God, much of the past is dismissed as irrelevant and in this sense is indeed lost. But not for God, by whose adequate prehending actualities ‘live forevermore"’ (PS 93-94).

It seems, then, that God’s prehension of an occasion cannot prescind anything from the occasion, which indicates that the occasion’s own sense of its experience is also included. If so, then God’s prehension of the occasion is a prehension of the occasion’s subjective immediacy: the subject as subject is taken into God. The object for God’s prehension is not the dessicated remains of the subjectivity of an occasion, but the occasion as subject.

While Hartshorne thus holds that the completeness of God’s prehensions is such that the subjective immediacy is retained in God, it is clear that he does not associate this with immortality; to the contrary, he reverts to the language of objective immortality. He associates subjective immortality so fully with what he sees to be the tradition’s coercive way of demanding good action because of rewards and punishments that he has never considered immortality in any other light. Like omnipotence, immortality is a theological mistake. But unlike his ability to go around the theological mistake of omnipotence to find a new way of defining divine power, he never transcended his view of a defective immortality to discover the possibilities inherent in the completeness of God’s prehensions for providing a more adequate view of a defective immortality to discover the possibilities inherent in the completeness of God’s prehensions for providing a more adequate view of immortality. There is no evidence that he has ever related the issue of immortality to justice. But a retained subjective immediacy in God would in fact constitute subjective rather than objective immortality, and provide new grounds for considering the further possibility of an occasion’s everlasting participation in God’s overcoming of evil.

The closest Hartshorne comes to opening the question of immortality (and it is not very close at all) occurs in two letters which are in his files at the Center for Process studies, the one to Alan Anderson in 1986, and the other to John Kennedy in 1989. He writes to Anderson, "you presumably know that for me objective immortality in the consequent nature of God is the essential [emphasis Hartshorne’s] immortality, whatever may or may not happen upon or after our death." And to Kennedy he writes, "Immortality. I have no interest in a continuation of my sequence of experiences after death, but am dogmatic only against an infinite or unending sequence. Objective immortality in divine prehending seems to me all that is appropriate for homo sapiens." The qualifying phrases are "whatever may or may not happen" and "am dogmatic only against an infinite or unending sequence." Here Hartshorne seems to raise the possibility of other options, but he never explores them. Yet the subjective immortality arising from his own position on God’s retention of the occasion’s immediacy would rule out any infinite or unending sequence of new occasions added to the former temporal series, since the locus of subjective immortality would be the divine concrescence. It may be that Hartshorne’s replacement of the singular divine concrescence with a divine series of concrescences prohibited him from seeing the new, nonlinear form or immortality made possible by the retention of the occasion’s immediacy in God.

Subjective immortality alone, of course, cannot answer the question of justice. The further problem is to define within the parameters of Whitehead’s metaphysics how it is that the completed actual occasion, through its own transitional creativity (Whitehead maintains that the appetition for the future is a mode of creativity), is united to God in such a way that it participates in God’s feelings of its own transformation. The prehended occasion must be incorporated into the unique divine concrescence, co-experiencing God’s ongoing internal life according to its capacity, even as God had co-experienced its own. Divine consciousness would be multifaceted, embracing the consciousnesses of every reality that had included this as its subjective form. Through this incorporation into God’s consciousness of the divine concrescence, the prehended subject would participate in God’s transformation of its suffering.

In Hartshorne’s view, objective immortality within the life of God includes the subjective immediacy of the occasion so retained. Including the subjective immediacy, this "objective" immortality also includes consciousness in those cases where consciousness is the subjective form of immediacy. If the conscious immediacy of the subject is fully retained in God, this constitutes subjective, not objective, immortality. It remains, then, to go beyond this simple retention to show how the occasion in God, now as a part of God, participates experientially in the whole. There may yet be a balm in Gilead.

Hartshorne References

IP: "The Immortality of the Past: Critique of a Prevalent Misinterpretation," The Review of Metaphysics 7/1, 1953.

LP: The Logic of Perfection. La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1962.

OOTM: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

JR 32: "Time, Death and Eternal Life," The Journal of Religion 32/2, 1952.

PS 10: Hartshorne, Cobb, Ford: "Three Responses to Neville’s Creativity and God," Process Studies 10/3-4, 1980.

Hartshorne Works Consulted

1952: "Time, Death and Eternal Life," The Journal of Religion 32/2.

1953. "The Immortality of the Past: Critique of a Prevalent Misinterpretation," The Review of Metaphysics 7/1.

1956: "Life and the Everlasting," unpublished sermon delivered at United Liberal Church, October 28,1956. On file at the Center for Process Studies.

1962: The Logic of Perfection. La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1962.

1978: "The Acceptance of Death," Philosophical Aspects of Thanatology, vol. I. New York: Arno Press. 1978.

1978: "A Philosophy of Death," Philosophical Aspects of Thanatology, vol. II. New York: Arno Press. 1978.

1980: "Three Responses to Neville’s Creativity and God," Process Studies 10/3-4.

1984: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

1986: Unpublished letter to Alan Anderson on file at the Center for Process Studies.

1989: Unpublished letter to John Kennedy on file at the Center for Process Studies.