Is Divine Relativity Possible? Charles Hartshorne on God’s Sympathy with the World

by Henry Simoni-Wastila

Henry Simoni-Wastila isa graduate of the Division of Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.98-116, Vol. 28, Number 1-2, Spring – Summer, 1999. 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 theory of Divine relativity means that God not only knows but feels.

Hartshorne’s theory of divine relativity asserts that God is thoroughly related to human experience through a process of the feeling of feeling.1 Divine relativity means just that: "In the depths of their hearts all creatures . . . defer to God because they sense him as the one who alone is adequately moved by what moves them. He alone not only knows but feels . . . how they feel . . ." (DR: xvii). This understanding of God’s relationship to the world has been enormously influential in contemporary philosophy of religion, especially since the publication in 1948 of The Divine Relativity from which the above quotation was taken.2 Although the consistency of divine relativity with the understanding of simultaneity in modem physics is a recognized point of contention, the question I wish to ask is whether the theory of divine relativity is metaphysically possible.3 How could it be possible for God to know and feel the different experiences of radically distinct subjects with equal vividness all at the same time? On the surface, this question does not seem problematical for even humans can know opposites such as pleasure and pain or good and evil within the same instant. But the theory of divine relativity assumes a finer and deeper knowledge of reality than that evidenced by human knowing with its dependence upon sense experience and abstract universals. Divine relativity asserts that God knows without deficit the reality of the world. This divine omniscience is so intertwined with actuality; and so intimate ‘with the reality of the world, that it might be called experiential or even sympathetic knowledge. God is a mirror of the world, so to speak.4

As seen through the lens of divine relativity, the type of knowing postulated of divinity is infinitely stronger than the kind of knowing possible for human beings. This entails that God is in possession of the inner quality of radically diverse experiences of a multitude of subjects, while at the same time being in possession of an experience of totality. Although the thesis that God’s actuality is relative to the world is commendable for providing philosophical categories with which to picture both God’s compassion for suffering individuals and God’s immanence within the world, there is considerable reason to question the consistency of a being that simultaneously feels fragmentation and infinity. I will argue that the type of divine relativity developed in Hartshorne’s writings is not consistent. Divine relativity cannot solve the problem of how an infinite being could fully sympathize with a finite and fragmentary part of reality; an issue I will call the problem of radical particularity.5

I. General Aspects of the Problem

However much we recognize a profound ontological difference between elements of the world, including a fundamental difference between ourselves, many philosophers of religion want to say that God knows and empathizes with human experience in a way similar to divine relativity for several reasons: omniscience, a resolution to theodicy, and ontological unity. First God is thought to be omniscient. God knows all things. However, if God does not know what my experience is really like, then God does not have accurate knowledge of my realm of existence. As Hartshorne asks, ". . . [W]hat does it mean to know what sorrow is, but never to have sorrowed, never to have felt the quality of suffering. I find nothing in my experience that gives meaning to this set of words," (DR 55). Similarly, what does it mean to know what pain is without ever having experienced pain? Furthermore, having experienced enough pain to be able to know what pain is in general does not ensure the capability to know the precise nature and extent of a particular occasion of pain. Therefore, once one begins to posit divine relativity, it is hard to stop short of stating that God, in fact, feels the totality of existence. And Hartshorne does just that: "The eminent form of sympathetic dependence can only apply to deity; for this form cannot be less than an omniscient sympathy, which depends upon and is exactly colored by every nuance of joy or sorrow anywhere in the world (DR 48). We are faced with a choice between stating: (1) God only knows in general and abstractly what the world is, or (2) God knows the world intimately and subjectively; feeling without remainder the feelings of others. An adequate account of omniscience, therefore, seems to necessitate divine relativity.

In spite of the fact that Hartshorne universally posits a strong sense of relativity to account for omniscience (as well as for other reasons), I will argue that even Hartshorne is forced in important specific cases to attenuate his claims for a strong interpretation of divine relativity; one that says God feels in exactitude the experience of others. The ability to empathize with or to mirror ignorance, for example, does not seem compatible with a being who possesses perfect knowledge of abstract universals and concrete particulars. Even if God is thought of as having slightly less than perfect knowledge, the idea of God being able to fully appreciate ignorance seems categorically impossible.6 There are further problems for the theory of divine relativity. Could a human experience with all its subtle mixture of contentment and worry make sense to a being who has eternally existed in perfect peace and joy? Indeed, what would the experience of the passing of time or death mean for an eternal (e-ternal being?7 We will deal with these problems in more detail later.

Secondly; for religious reasons many wish to believe that God empathizes with creation and that people are not alone in the crush of experience. God is the balm that heals all wounds. The problem of theodicy can be solved, or at least relativized, this way -- there is no God completely distinct from this world who looks down coldly upon this cave-like existence. God is not totaliter aliter (entirely other). Rather, God empathizes with our lives. The patient suffering of pain is a good, and God should be part of that good. As Hartshorne writes in Man’s Vision of God: "Being ethical means acting from love; but love means realization in oneself of the desires and experiences of others, so that one who loves can in so far inflict suffering only by undergoing this suffering himself; willingly and fully" (MVG 31). This is one of Hartshorne’s best arguments for divine relativity and possesses, perhaps, the most immediate appeal.

Nevertheless, another way to relativize suffering would be to place it in the context of a world linked to a transcendently blissful Being, a perfect jewel in a setting of good and evil. This Being would be a source of hope and the goal of unmitigated beatific vision toward which all seekers could, through love, direct their wills. Hartshorne’s position, too, incorporates this aspect of the divine, but, as I will argue later, at the cost of a systemic contradiction between two elements or poles of God.8

Thirdly; if God did not feel with us, if God were not "the fellow sufferer who understands," to use Whitehead’s phrase (PR 351), there would be an area of being distinct from God. If God is separate in existence, then there is a realm of being where God is not. Many philosophers of religion want to say that being must in some way actually be God or, at least, derive from God. The dilemma may be expressed in this way. If one focuses on the fact that the power of being (esse) of things ultimately comes from God, one can lose the being of the world in an acosmic pantheism. But if one focuses on the being that things have on their own (the being of beings), one can lose the being of God in an atheistic existentialism. If God does not mirror the world and thereby unify it, we are left with a fundamental dualism between different levels of being Contingent being would appear to possess its own arena and validity apart from God, making it independent of the Ultimate. Contrariwise, divine relativity can make sense of omnipresence, especially when seen in terms of Hartshorne’s understanding of the world being the body of God: "For God there is no external environment, the divine body just is the spatial whole; moreover, this body is vividly and distinctly perceived" (OOTM 94). However, the prima facie favoring of a monistic Whole or relative Totality must face a great deal of questioning before it negates a view of the world as a pluralistic and diverse many.

In the areas of omniscience, theodicy and omnipresence, divine relativity appears to have the potential to make significant contributions. Furthermore, the theory of divine relativity raises profound religious and philosophical issues related to the three areas in a direct and heuristically helpful manner. One could argue that one of the fundamental problems which many religions seek to address (although each with a different vocabulary) is articulated in the following questions: What kind of Being could know birth and death, ecstasy and terror, in the same instant? How can God or the Ultimate totally empathize with me in my joy and at the same time with others in their pain? How can God experience a thousand joys and a thousand sorrows in one drop of experience? Many philosophers of religion want to say that God empathizes with our deepest experiences, for otherwise people are, at their core, alone in the cosmos. Yet there are contradictory experiences within the cosmos that seem to prevent a sympathetic God.

This fundamental religious problem can also be cast in philosophical terms as the problem of radical particularity. We are radically particular and individual. How can the Infinite relate to us? How can God have empathy with a radically limited being? How can something that sees beyond all boundaries know what it is like to be something that is within boundaries and by compassion to mirror in exactitude that entity’s experience? In this essay, I will argue that a major problem with the idea of divine relativity is that it assumes both God’s exact knowledge of the whole, which is thus the One as it is a unified act of knowledge, and also precise knowledge of the fragmentary, concrete Many of experience. How can the master know the slave? How can the unbounded assume the mantle of bounded life? In other terms, the question is one regarding the precise parameters of the sameness and otherness of God and the created (or emanated) world.

There are, as far as I can tell, two areas of possible inconsistency with the idea of divine relativity. In the first, the assertion that God knows the experience of one element of the world while also knowing the experience of a second element of the world having the opposite sort of experience (for example, horror instead of ecstasy) seems inconsistent. Here, the problem is the relation between two parts of the whole. This is a problem not only if the elements are having opposite experiences but also if they are having merely different experiences. The problem of unifying otherness or difference is, even at this level, problematic.

Secondly, it seems inconsistent to say that God has knowledge of fragments of reality with their limits and finitude while also being in possession of knowledge of the entire reality of the whole. In this case, the relation between a single part, a fragment of the totality, and the entire whole is the problematic area. Ironically; Hartshorne’s position does not seem to incorporate his own insight into fragmentariness:

To describe our difference from God as infinite by calling us ‘finite’ is far too little. We are much his than simply finite. The entire vast cosmos may be (and I believe is) spatially finite, as relativity physics has made clear it may be. We, however, are the merest fragments of finite reality. Fragmentariness, not simply finitude, distinguishes us from deity. (DR 131, see also CSPM 235)

Could God sympathize with radical fragmentariness -- not just know what it is, but know sympathetically what it means to exist fragmentedly as we undoubtedly exist? If not, the divine cannot be fully related to the world. Because of the problem of radical particularity, any resolution to the problem of the One to the Many seems logically and metaphysically impossible working from the presupposition of divine relativity. On the other hand, it is also ironically apparent that the denial of divine relativity obstructs a solution to the problem of the One and the Many because the Many would remain isolated and there does not seem to be another way of unifying them.

If, in fact, divine relativity should prove to be inconsistent, the implications are important for theology as a discipline. Not only would a demonstration of the inconsistency of divine relativity make Hartshorne’s thesis of divine relativity and all that depends on it incoherent and also make Whitehead’s famous portrait of God as the fellow sufferer who understands inadmissible, but philosophers of religion would have to accept a different picture of the world. It would be a world of distinct subjects or atomic acts of consciousness whose knowledge of God would be separated by a subject-object distinction. Even worse, God’s knowledge of other subjects would itself be objective and not alive to the nuances of subjectivity. The goal of providing any meaning whatsoever to unity or to the One, as that which does the All together, would be futile. Radical pluralism, then, would be the only possible metaphysical position because internal relations would, in the end, be impossible.9 The implications go beyond whether or not a specific theory of God’s interaction with the world is possible and reach to fundamental theological and religious questions: Can God empathize with my suffering? Am I alone?

The type of philosophical theology that would result from the conclusion that God cannot feel human experience exactly or "from the inside" would, most likely, entail a transcendent God whose immanence was not empathetic but, if anything, objective. Ultimately, then, God would be conceived as Other and as Holy; perhaps as the "normative" Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition has asserted all along in its much maligned dogmatic theology; while leaving mystical assertions of identity and oneness suspect. Shockingly, however, also suspect would be theologies like those of Jesus (as far as scholars can estimate) and the writers of the Gospels and the Psalms for whom God knew the recesses of the heart.

II. Divine Relativity and Internal Cognitive Relations

Part of the impetus for the idea of divine relativity comes from Hartshorne’s interpretation of the Thomistic theory of knowledge in which the knower is in an internal cognitive relation to the known. The thing known is in an external relation to the known -- the knowing does not constitute the essence of the object. The knower must be related to the object, not the other way around. In the Thomistic doctrine, this applied to all knowers except the Supreme Knower: "It was indeed the Thomistic doctrine that in knowledge, apart from God, it is the knower who is really related to the known, not the known to the knower. . . . In knowing, we enjoy relation to things that are what they are without regard to the fact that we know them" (DR 7). Hartshorne, however, extends human epistemology to God, meaning that in order for God to know everything, God must be related internally to all. An "absolute" mind, Hartshorne concludes, would be unrelated to known things and hence not a mind at all. Hartshorne is counter-intuitive, saving that, not only is God relative to the known, but more related to the known than are human knowers. God’s knowledge of the world is relative. Hartshorne thus disagrees with the Thomistic notion of divine thought:

God knows all things, but in such fashion (it was held) that there is zero relativity or dependence in God as knower, and maximal dependence in the creatures as known. Divine thought is the sheer opposite of thought in general, in that it endows its terms with all their being and nature. . . . It is this alleged reversal cognitive relativity in God that I wish to challenge. . . On the contrary, the fallibility and incompleteness of our knowledge consists in the drastically restricted scope of certain aspects of its relativity. (DR 8-9)

But God’s knowledge is different: ". . . it is precisely the ideal case of knowledge, knowledge absolute in certainty and complete adequacy to the known, that must in some other aspects be literally and unrestrictedly relative" (DR 9). The tradition had often conceived of God as omniscient while at the same time internally distant from what is known. For Hartshorne, God is in fact literally relative (absolutely relative) to all that can be known. We are merely relatively relative in the sense that we know only a small portion of what can be known.

Implicit in the hierarchy of knowers is Hartshorne’s scale of being in which at the bottom there is minimal relation to others. His example is the oyster which is not related to much of the world. In the middle are humans who are related to a greater range and type of experience. And at the top is the "eminent individual" (DR 48) who is related to and therefore can know all. As Hartshorne states, the idea of sympathetic knowing has much in common with Whitehead’s account of knowing and causation as prehension or as a "feeling of feeling" (DR 29). Hartshorne connects the ideas of relative and absolute in the act of knowing: "Unrestricted or literal relativity; so far from being the mere de facto character of our inferior human knowledge, is rather the precise ideal of knowledge in its most absolute meaning" (DR 10). The single case of absolute knowledge that the tradition sought is found only in the case of absolute relativity. Only by remaining faithful to the requirements of relativity can we conceptualize God as the absolute knower, as omniscient.

An analogy with John Searle’s Chinese Box (MBS) might prove helpful. In his attempt to combat computational, algorithmic views of artificial intelligence, Searle concocted the idea of the Chinese Box, a machine that knows how to communicate in Chinese. It would operate like a computer. Inputs of conversational Chinese are entered and processed, resulting in outputs of conversational Chinese. These results are so authentic that one could not tell the difference between what the Box says and what a native speaker would say; that is, the Box can pass the Turing test. Inside the Box is a person who does not know a word of Chinese. He or she is able to respond to inputs by using hundreds of volumes of dictionaries, grammars, etc., for responding to various characters that are seeing input before them. Thus, if the Box could work (and Searle says it could not), it would produce conversational Chinese, that is, the Box would "know" Chinese.

Searle’s coup de grace is that the person inside the Box, although producing Chinese, would not really know what the conversation is all about. Those who attack the Chinese Box idea, however, respond by saying that the Box as a whole does understand Chinese. Searle responds that the person in the Box can be thought of as the correlate of the CPU, the Central Processing Unit of the computer (in this case the Box), and it does not understand, really, what is being said, which it should. Searle’s opponents might then say that the understanding of Chinese is in the rules and dictionaries given in the Box and the functioning of the whole. Searle would respond by saying that this contradicts the ordinary language meaning of "knowing a language," but nevertheless, the point here is one about the type of knowledge in the person operating the Box. Does the person really know Chinese? We would say no, for the person can give no meanings to the words. He or she is just following rules.

In a similar manner, Hartshorne is asking about the kind of knowledge that God has of the world. Is it merely a factual report about what has happened in the world, or does God’s knowledge participate in the actuality of the world? Just as we would say that the person in the Chinese Box has no real knowledge of Chinese, Hartshorne would say that God does not have real knowledge of the world unless God is a sympathetic knower. As we saw, Hartshorne asks whether we or God could know what sorrow was without having ever felt that tinge of melancholic sadness (DR 56). Many linguists and computer programmers would say that the knowledge of a natural language can never be reduced to dictionaries and grammars. On analogy; Hartshorne would say that God’s knowledge of the world is never abstract but always concrete and participatory. As a result of his understanding of what it means to possess knowledge, Hartshorne concludes God not only knows but feels. Divine knowledge of the world presumes that God feels what everything else feels, so much so that, to use words Hartshorne does not, we are rivulets poured into the ocean of God’s encompassing feeling.

III. Divine Relativity and the Soul-Body Analogy

Hartshorne uses the analogy of a human being feeling the experiences of its cells for God’s participatory knowledge of the world. This is an further extrapolation of the idea of divine relativity; and it is found perhaps most fully developed in Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Referring to Plato’s depiction of a "world soul" in the Timaeus, Hartshorne posits that just as people have a mutual relationship of response and reaction between the cells of their body and themselves, there is a similar mutual relationship of feeling between God and cell-like elements within the world: atoms, cells, people. Hartshorne describes the soul-body analogy for the relationship of God and world as follows:

The world as an integrated individual is not a ‘world’ as this term is normally and properly used, but ‘God.’ God, the World Soul, is the individual integrity of the ‘the world,’ which otherwise is just the myriad creatures. As each of us is the supercellular individual of the cellular society called a human body, so God is the super-creaturely individual of the inclusive creaturely society. Simply outside of this super-society and super individual, there is nothing. (OOTM 59)

Inclusive hierarchies of sentient beings are possible. An animal, for example, is composed of cells, which are further composed of atoms, all of which can feel. All of these -- animals, cells and atoms -- are thus called "organisms" by Whitehead, one of Hartshorne’s main sources for his psychicalism. "Aggregates" of cell-like organisms such as stones or trees are unfeeling collections of entities which can feel. Of course, the analogy breaks down at several points as Hartshorne acknowledges (OOTM 134), but the important aspect of this psychicalism is that there is a mutuality of feeling between God and elements of the world.

Basically, the soul-body analogy is the familiar theory of divine relativity explained by a helpful picture. In that theory, God has a supreme and even transcendent power to know and feel the experiences of others, In the soul-body analogy; this is also evident. The relation between the divine soul of the world and cellular organisms is closer than that between human beings and their cells: "There can therefore be no special part of the cosmos recognizable as a nervous system. The whole cosmos must everywhere directly communicate with God, each member furnishing its own psychical content its feelings or thoughts) to the Soul" (OOTM 135). In the soul-body analogy; God’s knowledge of the world is transcendent in that it transcends human knowledge of bodily events because God is attuned to all while we are attuned to only our nervous system (and even that knowledge is imperfect). There is a "two-way bridge of sympathy" between the soul of the world (God) and the elements within the world. As Hartshorne asserts: "Infallibly and with unrivaled adequacy aware of all others, God includes others -- not, as we do, in a mostly indistinct or largely unconscious manner, but with full clarity and consciousness" (DR 110).

God’s complete knowledge of the world is required for an important aspect of God’s relationship to the world. This aspect is the provision of a goal or a "subjective aim" for individuals within the cosmos. In order for God to be the principle of limitation which limits chaos by providing ordered patterns, God must have two sources of information: knowledge of the empirical situation (what is actual and knowledge of the best way it can be directed to the Good (what is possible). The better the information, the better the goal or "lure" that can be provided. Since the goal defines the Good for individuals within the world, it must be based upon perfect, or at least the best possible, data.

Regarding knowledge of possibility, we can, for present purposes, avoid discussing the well-known difference between Whitehead and Hartshorne as to whether God has a primordial vision of all eternal objects (possibility), as Whitehead asserts, or whether God derives eternal objects from the world, as Hartshorne does. In either case, God would have knowledge of all the possibility that was knowable and hence God could provide the best goal for the individual. Thus, the second field of knowledge required by God in order to provide an optimal lure for actual entities, that of possibility; is not problematic for our present concern.

In order to provide a lure for the Good, God must have knowledge of what is actually occurring in the world. Hartshorne mentions why this field of knowledge is necessary: "Does not ethical or practical infallibility belong with cognitive infallibility?" (DR 127). It is hard to imagine God providing a subjective aim (or goal) to individuals if God had no sense for the exact amount of pain, for example, the individual could bear without breaking down. Hartshorne’s theory of divine relativity allows God to know in exactitude the experience of the individual whereas a denial of divine relativity does not. In order to provide an "infallible" guide for actuality; a "divine lure," God requires cognitive infallibility; an in-depth knowledge of the world, precisely what only divine relativity and the assertion that the world is the body of God can fully explain, or so it is claimed.

The rationale for divine relativity is clearly found in all the aspects of Hartshorne’s thought we have discussed. Specifically; it is found in the assertion of the internal relation of the knower to the known, the soul-body analogy, and the knowledge of actuality required by God to provide a lure to the Good. For these reasons, the idea of divine relativity is usually accepted by Hartshorne without dwelling on the contradictions of the theory which we identified earlier and will now expand upon. The thesis that Hartshorne has maintained through many decades is forcefully and clearly articulated from his early work in The Divine Relativity to later books such as Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method where he writes: "God cannot face his own death, whether nobly or ignobly; but he can face any and every real death threat "with full participation in the sufferings of those whose death is in question" (CSPM 263). Using Berdyaev and Whitehead as support, he castigates a "mere spectator God" who surveys human suffering while remaining in a state of happiness.

Interestingly, however, Hartshorne himself balks at the absoluteness of his own principle of relativity: "God knows fully and feels fully . . . what our unhappy fears are like for us, and this without being afraid for himself"(CSPM 263, original italics). What does it mean to fully experience fear or the suffering inherent in dying while not being afraid or mortal? Could a being fully appreciate the terror of murder, for example, while confident of continued existence and the metaphysical impossibility of death? And could such a being commiserate with fear while safely cognizant of its inability to be harmed? Hartshorne, I think, cannot answer such questions and admits as much in a statement, which, though parenthetical to the prior statements I have cited, indicates just how far we are from an analytically clear understanding of divine knowledge: "If this [knowing fear without being afraid] is a paradox so is any idea of adequate knowledge" (CSPM 263). Although Hartshorne has not articulated the inconsistencies of the idea of divine relativity as openly as we did earlier, it seems that he is willing to take recourse in something like a spectator God who remains in "mere happiness" (not fearing) just as much as Plato denied existence to forms of negative elements of the world such as mud. If Hartshorne’s position could be interpreted as a middle position between full divine participation and mere observation, divine sympathy could be seen as true sympathy without a mirroring of particular existence.

IV. Contradictory Elements of Divine Relativity

We can now look in more detail at some of the problems with the theory of divine relativity by starting with inconsistencies which are evident, though not prominent, in several of Hartshorne’s own writings. In Man’s Vision of God Hartshorne discusses the idea of dipolarity: "Any changing enduring thing, indeed, has two aspects: the aspect of identity; or what is common to the thing in its earlier and later stages, and the aspect of novelty" (MVG 109). Applying this to God, Hartshorne is comfortable saying that there is an immutable element in God, namely God’s righteousness and wisdom. Yet God is also changing as the world changes and sympathetically reacting to the world. For Hartshorne, dipolarity does not divide the divine into two natures. Rather, God’s unity is preserved:

Thus there is God in his essential, and God in his accidental, functions. The only way such distinctions can be made conceivable is in terms of time; the essential being the purely eternal, and the accidental being the temporal or changing, aspects of the divine. The unity of God is preserved in principle in the same way as that of a human person, but here, as always, the difference is between a partial and a maximum realization of the principle. (MVG 234)

In this context Hartshorne begins to ask whether his idea of divine relativity, which presupposes a dipolar aspect of God containing absolute and relative natures, can unify itself. It can, he says. In the Thomistic tradition, this question was raised in terms of the simplicity of God (MVG 111). Hartshorne agrees that he must give up divine simplicity (in the Medieval sense), but he is more than willing to do that because, for him, simplicity was directed against relativity from the beginning.

Nevertheless, Hartshorne’s response seems inadequate. He has not shown how dipolarity is consistent with the unity of God when faced with the problem of radical particularity. This failure also applies when he tries to base dipolarity on temporal differentiation, because using time to distinguish moments of divine experience would require a fundamental reworking of the notion of eternity, which Hartshorne has not done. The eternal and temporal aspects of God remain as distinct as the immutable and changing poles as a result of stress fractures caused by problems with divine relativity. Thus, although Hartshorne argues for divine unity, his arguments, I will seek to show, are vitiated by problems surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of elements of the world from within God.

Hartshorne’s understanding of love as relation is the foundation for his conception of divine relativity. Whether love must be conceived this way seems open to debate, but the power of his concept of God remains. This theology of love develops into an uncannily powerful theory, but a theory whose contradictions are obliquely beginning to become revealed:

The two strands in theology, then, are as follows: There is the popular or operative religious idea of the God of love, perfect in lovingness, and hence all-understanding and everlasting, so that nothing has ever been or ever can be deprived of his love while existent at all. Then there is the set of secular concepts by which this religious idea has usually been interpreted: pure actuality, immutability, impassivity, uncaused causality. (MVG 128)

When the thesis of divine relativity is reset in terms of divine love, a love which seems to require sympathy, the thesis, which at first seemed counter-intuitive (for many are accustomed to thinking of God as transcendent and impassible), becomes transparently benign. Yet even in this passage, there is a duality between the relative nature of God and the abstract nature of God. Holding the two aspects of God, relative and absolute, together involves a major contradiction, even with Hartshorne’s reworking of the ideas of actuality and immutability. A further contradiction is within the relative pole. If God experiences the suffering and the joy of the world, does God also experience personal sin or ethical failure? Hartshorne is forced to ask if God knows and must experience the quality of evil:

Does this imply that God must experience wickedness through himself being wicked, as he must experience conflict by himself suffering from it? I reply that conflict is positive in a sense in wickedness is not. . . . [God] is not qualified by the privative element essential to moral evil, namely blindness to the interests of others. (MVG 196)

Therefore, it does not seem possible for God to "be" evil. In more traditional terms, God cannot experience the evil inherent in sinful action.

In later writings, such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, there is a similar ambivalence, this time about the experience of inferior emotions:

". . . God is losing in the sense of feeling, with unique adequacy, the feelings of all others, entirely free from inferior emotions (except as vicariously participated in or sympathetically objectified . . ." (DR 39, original italics). Even human beings, according to Hartshorne, do not feel the feelings of all of their cells. Yet God must know the processes within each cell because, as he says here, God feels the feeling of all others. If anything, God should feel the pain and anxiety of a human body and brain more than the actual person, for God feels the feelings of the person as a whole as well as feeling with "unique adequacy" all of the body’s cells. God, then, par excellence, should feel more deeply the pains and inferior emotions of the world.

In an attempt to cover these kind of cases, Hartshorne makes a distinction between different senses of inclusion. God experiences the act of doing evil in the sense of discord, but not the ignorance of the concerns and needs of others. But then the problem is that God does not know, empathize or relate to human ignorance, one of the most important conditions which we experience because it constantly restricts our ability to cope with the demands of life. If God cannot relate to our situation of ineradicable ignorance, in what manner can we say that God truly knows us? This problem is in fact the same question we discussed earlier; namel~ whether God can understand radical individuality and particularity. Here this problem is applied to the specific cases of ignorance and evil. The answer Hartshorne offers is that God is qualified by aesthetic not moral or cognitive evil. But human beings an qualified by moral and cognitive evil. How does God know and empathize with humans in their lived existential situation? Hartshorne can only answer in terms of aesthetic evil, that is, under a different umbrella. I find this contradicts divine relativity

It is clear that Hartshorne would say minimally that God is affected by our experience to a great extent. But does this level of compassion imply that God also feels exactly as we feel so that there exists an identical moment of the contingent within Divinity? Is God a mirror to the world? How far is Hartshorne willing to take the relativity thesis? As we have seen, because God is supremely relative, affected by others in the best possible way, and feels the experiences of others better than any other, God does mirror the experience of the world. But since there are mutually contradictory elements of experience in the world, it would seem impossible for God to feel one person’s pain and someone else’s happiness simultaneously. It would also seem absurd to say that God experiences my fragmentariness, my radical limitation, and at the same time experiences something more, for experiencing something more is precisely what my fragmentariness cannot accomplish. Divine relativity, as delineated by Hartshorne, cannot overcome the problem of radical particularity.

V. Contradictions in Dipolarity and Dual Transcendence

Partly to provide a way of conceptualizing God’s transcendence over evil, and in part for other systemic reasons which we need not cover now, Hartshorne is forced to introduce a dualistic account of the divine nature. He, like Whitehead, will have a "dipolar" God, but in a different way.10 For Hartshorne, the dialectic is between the abstract and the concrete: "The supreme in its total concrete reality will be the supereminent case of relativity, the Surrelative, just as, in its abstract character, it will be the supereminent case of nonrelativity -- not only absolute, but the absolute" (DR 76).11 These two poles are not said to be separate entities but are, rather, aspects of a unified divine essence. Hartshorne has tried to find a moment of transcendence in the absolute pole of the divine essence. Whether the level of transcendence achieved is adequate is problematical, for this allegedly transcendent pole remains relative to the world. Since there are no eternal objects or pre-existing forms in Hartshorne’s view, the function of the abstract pole of God cannot be solely one of the valuation of such entities as it is for Whitehead. This is perhaps the reason why God must always have a world for Hartshorne, otherwise the mind of God would be empty. The fact that Hartshorne can give little meaning to the "absolute Absolute’s" functioning apart from contingency indicates strongly that there may be a failure in his theology to account completely for what many theologians have thought of as the transcendence or holiness of God.

The dipolarity of God can be described in terms of causation, Hartshorne conceives of God, not only as the cause of the world, the first cause, but as the "effect of all" (DR 80). This a clear similarity to Whitehead’s consequent nature of God which prehends the entirety of the universe. Just as Hartshorne claimed that God is not only the knower of all, but known by all, he now claims that God not only causes all (in a supreme but non-determinative sense), but is the supreme effect of all. By being the effect of all, God prehends or feels all that is and in this way has perfect knowledge. God is all-inclusively omniscient. As supreme effect God does seem to mirror the world.

In his idea of "dual transcendence," which is later terminology for dipolarity, Hartshorne attempts to hold together the two aspects of his thought about the divine nature. One aspect of God "exists" in perfection. This is the abstract nature of God which can be known to exist by the second form of Anselm’s ontological proof. The second aspect of God is the concrete, self-surpassing God fully related to the world. This is God’s "actuality," never fully perfected, for that is a meaningless idea, but always fully inclusive. How do they relate and form a single entity? They are unified by using the principle that the concrete includes the abstract: "[B]y the old Aristotelian principle, the abstract or general is real in the concrete or particular, not separately. Hence transcendent or universal relativity includes all that is positive in transcendent absoluteness or independence" (CSPM 233; also DR 46). As Aristotle thought concerning forms and individuals, the general is real only in the particular. This seems coherent enough: "No rule of logic forbids saying that a thing has a property and also its negative, provided the positive and the negative properties are referred to the thing in diverse aspects. The same reality may in one aspect be universally open to influence, and in another aspect universally closed to influence" (CSPM 233). The sheer existence of God is the absolutely transcendent, for only it can be known a priori. The actuality of God is the relatively transcendent which means that God is related to each individual in a way that transcends the capacity of any other to relate to beings different from itself.

As the unified personal Deity combining absolute and relative transcendence (the relative is the locus of the personal concrete pole), God is "unsurpassably inclusive and also unsurpassably integrated or unified. He is the all as an individual being" (CSPM 236). Certainly, it seems possible, in general, to attain systematic unity by positing two aspects of the Ultimate which are connected by a principle able to relate those two aspects. Nevertheless, in the form in which it is presently articulated, it does not work. We may grant that since Plotinus, God has been thought of as a unity, as the One. But Plotinus also postulated a level of Nous, the Divine Mind, in which multiplicity was known. This division between the One and the Divine Mind, however, remains difficult to make systematically consistent. In Hartshorne’s theology, which excludes some particulars such as inferior emotions or ignorance from divine experience, it is particularly difficult to see how the All could be "an individual being." The claim that the concrete contains the abstract cannot overcome the problem of radical particularity. In part, this is because the contradiction resides at the level of the concrete -- there are incompatible concrete experiences. And in part, this is because the inclusion of the abstract is the inclusion of an aspect of God that is not consistent with those emotions and experiences that are contained in the concrete aspect of God.

This leaves Hartshorne with the contradiction (a mystery of the sort he railed against in The Divine Reality) that God is "utterly independent of this All," yet internally related to all (DR 88-89). In both dipolarity and dual transcendence, God’s experience is not merely the experience of the world. God possesses not just our limited experiences of joy; but has a divine bliss, a real and existing joy independent of the world. By utter independence, Hartshorne is providing a conceptual apparatus that could describe God’s transcendence, just as relationality offers us a framework for understanding immanence. But for reasons that we have touched upon, this conceptual framework is not adequate in portraying God’s relationship to the world. Hartshorne does not often comment on the dialectical and almost contradictory nature of his di-polar God even when clearly evident as in the following: "God, on the other hand, in his actual or relative aspect, unqualifiedly or with full effectiveness has or contains us; while in his absolute aspect he is the least inclusive of all individuals" (DR 92). What holds together the relative, which is radically inclusive, to the absolute, which is radically Other, the least inclusive?12 Hartshorne’s understanding of transcendence and immanence thus continues to be tenuous at best. Ultimately, Hartshorne’s view of God as absolute and relative has an unresolved problematic How can both sides of the dipolarity of God be held together?

This is similar to the question we asked earlier: How can God know the fragmentariness of a human person while simultaneously knowing the totality of unfragmented being? It could be that no explanation of these questions is possible, that this is just the essential nature of reality. Supporters of divine relativity might use the example of parental love to show how this could be. We observe that a parent can feel a simultaneity of conflicting emotions when one child dies while another is saved in a single tragic accident. Here the parent feels the emotion of joy for the safety of one child and sorrow for the loss of the other. How could one person feel both at the same time? It seems impossible, yet to deny that it happens involves a denial of our basic, indubitable, ordinary world. By analogy, God knows our experience yet is in complete bliss simultaneously.13

The analogy with the parent breaks down, however, because only God can fully sympathize with others. Parents, however much they love and sorrow for a child, are separated from their offspring by an ontological abyss. But God, according to Hartshorne, feels fully even contradictory emotions. Yet even if we were to grant to human beings the capacity for full empathy of emotion, it would still be impossible for a single human being to feel contradictory emotions. A human being could not be in a state of ecstatic joy and a state of existential boredom at the same time. Perhaps, however, we should not read human emotional limitations into an infinite being. Perhaps it would be possible for God to contain more than a single person could. But what would it mean for God to experience the extremes of all emotions simultaneously? Considering that emotions are exclusionary (joy excludes sorrow, boredom excludes excitement), is it metaphysically possible for any being to contain such radically different experiences? We can conclude that there are contradictory aspects of Hartshorne’s dipolar God and the theory of dual transcendence.

We are left with several telling questions. Do apparent contradictions in the concept of an absolute-relative God imply that it is a self-contradictory idea? And we are still left with a question of singular importance for religious life. Does God mirror the world? After all that has been said, it is still possible to claim that the concept of divine relationality is powerful and reflects important religious sentiments.14 It certainly dulls the edge of the theodicy problem by removing the sense of injustice immediately apparent in the idea of a blissful God creating suffering humans. However, the idea of a Wholly Other God immersed in total bliss also has mythic and mystical support. Just as there are ways to support a conception of an empathetic God, there are ways that a conception of a blissful God can relativize the problem of evil. In conclusion, even though Hartshorne himself questions divine relativity in the case of inferior emotions and ignorance, we have seen that, for any particular experience, the assertion that the relative nature of God knows that experience by feeling it in exactitude is unwarranted.

VI. Conclusion

Perhaps the way to resolve the contradictions inherent in the theory of divine relativity would be to give up the suggestion that God feels the feelings of the world in exactitude. This is, of course, one of the pillars of Hartshorne’s complex, admirable and justly influential theology. Nevertheless, such drastic surgery may be necessary to save the whole.

As a result of the problem of radical particularity, we are forced then to consider the possibility that God does not know our experience as it is. That would seem to be the most basic sort of knowledge that a worshipful God should have, since God’s knowledge is not sympathetic, then perhaps in some fundamental way we are alone. John McDermott suggests, in an extreme way, such a state of human existence when he writes: "In short, I believe that the being of being is to be disconnected, ontologically adrift, casting a net here, a hook there and all the while confusing a strategy with a solution" (PAPA 11). While I would not go that far, I think McDermott’s statement accurately describes what is at stake in deciding whether or not God has participatory knowledge of the world. The impossibility of divine relativity, should it in the end be shown to be inconsistent, would, I think, be theologically disconcerting.

On the other hand, finding a unitary principle for the manifold of discreet entities, which includes human experience, is made problematic by a denial of divine relativity because the relative nature of God did at least that unify the world into an ordered and organic whole. However, a failure at identifying a metaphysically coherent concept of unity does not entail that there is no principle of goodness above or within the cosmos. What I have shown is that how the relative nature of God is presented in neoclassical theism may have to change, not that there is no God, nor that all conceptions of God are impossible or meaningless.

More specifically, how do we reconceptualize the three concerns of traditional theology which seemed to call for divine relativity if, in fact, the thesis that God feels the world is not acceptable? My results regarding divine relativity are tentative, but there are already ramifications for the attributes of omniscience and omnipresence as well as for the problem of theodicy. Omniscience may have to be conceived as objective knowledge, at least to some extent. By removing the requirement of divine relativity we would be free to develop a conception of God that could have objective knowledge of the world. This is precisely what I believe Whitehead’s position entails, at least in the details of the system but perhaps not in the more general observations of Part V, the conclusion of Process and Reality. William Christian’s interpretation of Whitehead agrees that divine knowledge of the world is of the objective type (IWM).

It is questionable whether theodicy depends upon a God who suffers. On the contrary, as long as this world can be shown to be, or is consistent with being the best possible world, theodicies can be rationally maintained even if God is thought to exist in perfect bliss. Omnipresence, however, would have to be interpreted differently than implying that God was a mirror of the world or that the world was God’s body. However, God could be thought of as Creator, Source or Being-itself without God having to mirror the activity and passions of the manifold of being.

Must God be thought of as transcendent and holy? It would seem that theologies which support divine relativity’5 have the burden of proof in showing that the immanental or sympathetic aspect of their theologies can make metaphysical sense. Otherwise, God’s relationship to the world must be primarily one of transcendence. However, making a claim that God is related to the world solely by being holy or transcendent, which means something like "separate," has its problems too. It is not clear what a relationship based on absolute otherness or separation would mean especially in the relationship between God and the believer, which many describe as a relationship of love, worship and intimacy. It would, therefore, be premature to characterize God as the Wholly Other just for the reason that there are metaphysical problems with the theory of divine relativity.



1. For further definition of "the problem of radical particularity," the position from which Hartshorne is criticized later in this article, and for more detailed discussion of Hartshorne’s theory of divine relativity, please see my "Omniscience and the Problem of Radical Particularity: Does God Know How to Ride a Bike," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 42(1997), 1-22, and "Divine Passibility and the Problem of Radical Particularity: Does God Feel Your Pain?," Religious Studies 33 (1997), 327-347.

2. To take just two examples, John Russell (JRPP) uses Hartshorne’s theology to stress psychicalism’s societal and psychological aspects. He also notes the unification of the cosmos that occurs as a result of complete inclusion "Within deity, then, we encounter the inclusive, unifying source of reality" (130). Russell also stresses the full mutuality of feeling and sentience between God and the universe. William Hill responds to Hartshorne’s theology more critically, stating that relativity implies a God "who needs the world as much as the world needs him" (GT57). In place of a universally relative God, a more Thomistic, transcendent picture of God is offered.

3. Bowman Clarke, for example, notes a problem with "an absolute notion of simultaneity" as well as with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, "as God inherits physical energy from the world through prehension" (IJPR 40), 61-74

4. The image of "mirroring" (and later "reflecting in exactitude" is not Hartshorne’s but my own. The image helps identify the specific nature of the claims included within the theory of divine relativity. It also aids in locating some problems.

5. I find it quite surprising not to have found in the literature even a tangential analysis of this metaphysical problem with Hartshorne’s philosophy of religion, especially because it relates to the very possibility or impossibility of divine relativity.

6. We will discuss the case of ignorance towards the end of the section, "Contradictory Elements of Divine Relativity?"

7. The case of death will be discussed in the section "Divine Relativity and the Soul-Body Analogy."

8. See the section entitled "Contradictions in Dipolarity and Dual Transcendence."

9.1 am here assuming that materialistic attempts to unify the cosmos fell because the problems faced by the hypothesis of divine relativity apply a fortiori to a physical attempt to conceptualize unity.

10. Whitehead’s division of the divine essence into a primordial nature that values eternal objects and a consequent nature that prehends the world is different, but it is similar in that there is an element unrelated to the world and one that is related to the world.

11. In addition to the absolute-relative dipolarity in Hartshorne, there is a dualism that operates on the side of the relative level: the God of joy and the God who suffers. Most theologians would say there may be an infinite of joy (Hindu ananda) but not of suffering (which could perhaps be merely the privation of being.

12. We might pause to ask whether the distinction between absolute and relative poles in God is a formal or material distinction. That is, is it just how we (formally) look at God or does God really (materially) contain these two poles or moments? In either case, Hartshorne’s system has a contradiction, which, although attempting to create a balance of transcendence and immanence, remains unresolved.

13. A problem with Hartshorne’s position regarding God’s experience of anandic bliss is that the abstract non-relative side of God, at some points, is not allowed a separate level of transcendent experience. It cannot experience if it is merely an abstraction. In other places Hartshorne lets the abstract side have its "radically higher bliss," its own level of experience.

14. There is an aspect of Tillich’s theology similar to Hartshorne’s relativity thesis. Tillich briefly discusses the idea of divine relativity as God’s participation in human experience. He notes the mystical and christological aspects that support the idea, as well as its powerful use in response to the theodicy question (ST 270). He notes that there is an aspect of God that does not suffer, that transcends the realm of creaturely, determinate existence, and this is God as being-itself. Thus, Tillich concurs that the idea of patripassianism was rightly rejected by the church at the time of the Christological debates. Tillich, however, also states that as "creative life" God does include the finite realm and even nonbeing (although earlier he said that, "being-itself transcends nonbeing absolutely". Tillich, like Hartshorne, does not realize the dialectical, contradictory nature of what is being said. As being-itself, God transcends contingent being, but as "divine life" God experiences the realm of contingency in a panentheistic manner.

15. See Cedric I. Hepler, SLJT, John Stacer, TS. and Paul Fiddes, CSG, among others. Stacer, for example, argues for an all-knowing, all-present, all-loving" God who "knows our human evil and the suffering it brings" (SLJT 447).


CSG Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

GT William J. Hill, "Does Divine Love Entail Suffering in God?" in God and Temporality. edited by Bowman L. Clarke and Eugene T. Long. New York: Paragon, 1984.

IJPR 40 Bowman L. Clarke, "Two Process Views of God," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 40(1995), 61-74.

IJPR 42 Henry Simoni-Wastila, "Omniscience and the Problem of Radical Particularity: Does God Know How to Ride a Bike?" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 42 (1997) 1-22.

IWF William Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University, 1959.

JRPR John M. Russell, "Spirit, Sympathy, and God: Hartshorne on Psychicalism," Journal of Religion and Psychical Research. 1994: 123-131.

MBS John Searle, Minds, Brains and Science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984.

PAPA John McDermott, "Ill-at-Ease: The Natural Travail of Ontological Disconnectedness," Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 67 (1994).

RS Henry Simoni-Wastila, "Divine Passibility and the Problem of Radical Particularity: Does God Feel Your Pain?" Religious Studies 33 (1997) 327-347.

SLJT Cedric L. Hepler, "The Death of Classical Theism: Divine Relativity," Saint Luke’s Journal of Theology 1968, 4-20.

ST Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Vol. I. Chicago University Press, 1951.

TS John Stacer, "Divine Reverence for Us" Theological Studies (1983),438-455.