Chapter 5: A Critical Evaluation of Hartshorne’s Philosophy

Charles Hartshorne
by Alan Gragg

Chapter 5: A Critical Evaluation of Hartshorne’s Philosophy

"I have a certain faith in the rights and duties of rational metaphysical inquiry."

-- A Natural Theology for Our Time

In this final chapter, a brief critical assessment of Hartshorne’s philosophy will be our aim. This writer’s overall reaction to the total impact of Hartshorne’s work is overwhelmingly favorable and positive, but not uncritical. Hartshorne has a message that we all need to hear. For too long, he has been considered as something of a philosophical maverick or theological "sport" and has therefore been politely ignored. Fortunately, however, this situation is rapidly changing, and both philosophers and theologians are increasingly willing to give earnest attention to his thought. Some will be converted by the power of his reason to some kind of process philosophy and/or theology, while others will glean from him significant new insights to be incorporated into their own more traditional perspectives. But all who pay the price of diligent concentration upon his philosophy will be rewarded for their labors. No matter whether one finally jumps on the Hartshornian bandwagon or not, the most important duty is to hear him carefully and fairly. This is the chief reason why the bulk of this volume has been primarily exposition of his philosophical position, with critical comments being kept to a minimum. Now, however, some evaluation is in order.

Without intending to draw, in a definitely un-Hartshornian manner, a sharp distinction between philosophy and theology, we may first develop our estimate of the more philosophical issues in Hartshorne and then proceed to the theological ones.

Philosophical Issues

As suggested in chapter one, Hartshorne pursues metaphysics in the grand style. Because of his confidence in the powers of rigorous reasoning, he proceeds to paint a metaphysical landscape that is in principle as wide as reality. The result is an impressive metaphysical vision d la Whitehead. Moreover, in our age of anxiety, irrationality, and the absurd, it is exhilarating to behold a comprehensive metaphysics in which everything fits together in coherent fashion. Hartshorne’s trust in the wholeness of reason and the wholeness of man in the universe is a refreshing reminder that man may at least still hope that alienation and fragmentation are not the final descriptions of his existence. In addition, Hartshorne’s steady contention in the philosophical arena that metaphysics inevitably involves the question of God will not be regarded as insignificant by those who believe, as I do, that man and the world are incomprehensible apart from God.

Professor Langdon Gilkey has pointed out that a rational metaphysics such as Hartshorne’s makes two important assumptions concerning reason. First, it assumes that there is an objective rational or logos structure to the entire universe; and, secondly, it presupposes that human reason may accurately and adequately know this objective rational structure.1 Moreover, Gilkey correctly observes that the Hartshornian metaphysical sled encounters hard going on the contemporary philosophical and religious terrain, because many modern secular minds are unable to assume there is so much rationality to the world. It is assuredly true that there is today a widespread lack of philosophical faith in the universal logos structure of reality. However, if this skepticism concerning reason is really radical, then all genuine philosophical and religious thought is totally undermined, including Gilkey’s own important theological work. Many people are not as unrestrained in their confidence in reason as is Hartshorne, but the alternative to some faith in rationality is not another philosophy but none at all. Either one must share to some extent Hartshorne’s "faith in the rights and duties of rational metaphysical inquiry" or he must despair of the philosophical quest.

Furthermore, Hartshorne’s stress on change and process as ultimates undeniably highlights a much-neglected aspect of the whole of reality. Modern thought has been dominated by notions of eternal being, natural laws, and scientific determinisms, with the result that man’s creativity, hope, and awareness of freedom have been stifled. Moods of helplessness and pessimism have begun to prevail. Process philosophy is, therefore, a much-needed corrective of theological and scientific dogmatisms of eternal truths, fixed categories, and unchangeable permanences. However, it is possible that Hartshorne, in helping to recover the reality of becoming, does not do full justice to the nature of being; and this lack might become the object of further exploration by philosophers. For example, could there be some improvement in the statement of Harts. home’s belief in universal "self-creativity" as an ultimate, especially since this concept can hardly be said to be fully derived from man’s empirical experience?

An especially praiseworthy feature of Hartshorne’s metaphysics is his positive appreciation of nature or the cosmos. He relates man to his cosmic environment and expresses recognition of and appreciation for man’s kinship with nature. Thus he gives man a feeling of self-understanding as belonging or being at home in the world. In addition, Hartshorne following Whitehead, has furnished our age of pollution and environmental degradation with a metaphysical basis for developing a full-fledged philosophy of environment or ecology. The present ecological crisis is partially the practical consequence of the old Newtonian philosophy of nature as dead, insensitive, and mechanical; and Hartshorne’s panpsychism should aid man’s efforts to rethink his relation to the cosmos.

Yet there seems to be a slight defect in Hartshorne’s treatment of man-in-relation-to-nature. He does not display sufficient realization of the distinctiveness of man in relation both to nature and to God. Hopefully, in further work he may yet strengthen this facet of his philosophy so as to give adequate recognition to the distinctly human features of man’s existence. To be sure, man is kin to the cosmos; but he is also very different from all other entities either natural or divine. Both human personality and human history are notions inadequately developed in Hartshorne’s writings. in the case of human personal identity, obviously, Hartshorne has not said the last word, although he has significantly illuminated portions of the topic that had been overlooked. Many thinkers will find his unitary or wholistic view of man a definite asset, and all those troubled by extreme behavioristic and materialistic views of man will be enheartened by his unyielding insistence on man’s irreducibly spiritual nature.

An important related characteristic of Hartshorne’ s philosophy is its emphasis upon aesthetics and the experience of beauty as inherent dimensions of cosmic and human reality. For this feature also he earns our gratitude. It is especially relevant for man in the modern age when science has robbed nature of much of its intrinsic beauty and Protestantism has denigrated the spiritual significance of man’s sensitive appreciation of our strikingly beautiful world.

In addition, we should mention Hartshorne’s philosophical interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. This interest marks him as a truly catholic-minded philosophical spirit at a time when many thinkers endeavor to pursue philosophy from a narrowly parochial perspective. Possibly Hartshorne’s example will give support to the efforts of some to liberate philosophy from its exclusively Western cocoon into a wider world of global human concerns and needs.

There are, of course, some unsolved problems and paradoxical elements in Hartshorne’s metaphysics, and he has candidly acknowledged them himself. We call attention to three such problems.

First, it is strange that process philosophy insists that all of the past is eternally real and "given" (for God, at least) in its entirety, whereas almost all of the past’s vast complexity is totally inaccessible to man. Obviously, the given character of all the past is not an empirically derived notion, and one wonders whether it is really indispensable for metaphysics. Many men would like to think that much of the past is both gone and forgotten, and Hartshorne has not fully persuaded me that God could not possibly feel the same way.

Secondly, there is an infinite regress entailed by the idea that every actual event is partially determined by a previous event. Accordingly, there literally never was a truly first event, and the world has had no beginning; the universe thus becomes an actually infinite reality with all the paradoxicalities involved in such a conception. This puzzle is directly related to the problem many theologians have with Hartshorne on account of his explicit denial of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or "creation out of nothing." It would appear that, without a "creation out of nothing," Hartshorne will continue to have great difficulty adequately allowing for God’s transcendence of the world. Nevertheless, every thoroughgoing metaphysics must assume or assert some eternal reality or realities, whether it be God in classical theism or the material universe in Marxism or the God-inclusive-of-the-world of Hartshorne.

In the third place, Hartshorne acknowledges a particularly thorny problem concerning the possibility of relations between entities in the present.2 Cannot two subjects both know each other in the present and thus determine each other’s reality to some extent? In order to answer this query, it seems that all one needs to do is to gaze intently and directly into someone else’s eyes. Yet process philosophy maintains that one entity, the object, must be completely unaffected by the knowledge relation.

This enigma is related to the puzzle that relativity physics poses for Hartshorne’s thesis. Modern relativity physics holds that there may be a definite cosmic past and a definite cosmic future but not a definite present. However, Hartshorne’s philosophy sharply distinguishes between a fully determinate past and the indeterminate future, and this sharp distinction seems to require a definite cosmic present as the razor’s edge between the past and the future.3 Apparently, God must have an objectively right frame of reference from which to determine the simultaneous present; but, of course, the notion of God has no place in physics.

The modern theory of relativity rests on the assumption that light always travels with a finite velocity; but, if it traveled with instantaneous or infinite velocity, there would be a place in physics for the idea of the present as the absolute simultaneity of certain events. Moreover, Hartshorne believes that God, as omnipresent, is instantaneously aware of all events as they occur in the universe. That is, for Hartshorne communication between God and the world is not subject to the same limitation as is communication between man and the world, namely, the limitation imposed by the finite velocity of light. Like Hartshornian metaphysics, Newtonian physics had an absolute present time, because Newton implicitly postulated God as the central cosmic observer of all natural events.

Nevertheless, Hartshorne’s ideas do not necessarily conflict with physics, inasmuch as the whole notion of God fits nowhere into physical theories; but they do exceed or supplement what physics is able to conceptualize. The question seems to be entirely one of the validity of nonempirical metaphysical insights. Does metaphysics have powers of attaining genuine knowledge that is unattainable by ordinary physics? This is the issue. However, most modern philosophy is split into two camps over this very point. Of course, as far as Hartshorne is concerned, he is completely unwilling to allow physics or any other empirical science to fasten a positivistic strait jacket upon metaphysics, although he is perplexed by the special problem of a cosmic present that is necessary for metaphysics and unallowable in physics.

Theological Issues

Turning to the more specifically theological elements of Hartshorne’s thought, it is beyond doubt that his greatest contribution to contemporary theology and Christian thought is his massive and persuasive insistence upon the divine relativity. His ideas regarding God’s responsive involvement in the world, his ever-changing action upon it and reaction to it, and his own enrichment through history and human creativity must surely be accepted by Christians as authentic insights into the nature of the living God. The entire Christian message of creation, judgment, and redemption through Jesus Christ underlines God’s gracious and sensitive relationship to the world of his creatures. Hartshorne often suggests that his neoclassical God is much nearer the biblical and gospel message than classical Christian theology was, and on this pivotal point he must be accorded our agreement. A similar estimate must also hold for Hartshorne’s affirmation that the God who is lovingly aware of his world must inevitably endure suffering. The Christian message of the cross of Jesus Christ directly involves the clear implication that suffering and tragedy are more real for God than they are for man. The Vietnams of the twentieth century not only tear nations asunder but also wrench the heart of God.

Another related meritorious achievement is Hartshorne ‘s sustained and consistent interpretation of the entire cosmos of God, nature, and creatures in terms of love. Of course, it is quite possible that the ultimate source of his idea of the centrality of love in the universe is the historic Christian revelation. Nevertheless, few theologians or philosophers in history have more consistently made love a universal category for the interpretation of all existence than Hartshorne has. Although some will want to fault him for making too little of God’s justice and even wrath, still they should give patient and careful attention to his efforts to take the idea of the centrality of love with complete seriousness. Obviously, many Christians have only taken this central theme of the New Testament’s understanding of God halfway to heart. Hartshorne’s writings on this subject, as exacting to comprehend as they are, may have a purifying effect on the minds and emotions of some readers, as this one can bear witness. Furthermore, Hartshorne might also have enabled Christian theology partially to break the stalemate that has long existed over the problem of evil. His clarity and honesty have enabled him to build a convincing case for modification of the traditional notion of God’s omnipotence. It is difficult to see how he could be wrong in declaring that "omnipotence" cannot mean that God is literally all-powerful. For instance, almost certainly there are some things that not even God can do for me, such as make my decisions for me. Hartshorne’s neoclassical affirmation of the real but limited freedom of all creatures may lead to a fresh look at the whole issue of evil of which our century knows so much. Admittedly, it is bad news that Hartshorne postulates that evil will be forever with us and that there is no final redemption from it; but many traditional Christian versions of hell have implied that evil in the form of inconceivably brutal torture and suffering is the everlasting lot of most of the human race!

On the debit side of Hartshorne’s theological ledger, he does not appear to accord proper weight to the classically biblical and Christian conceptions of the holiness of God. True, his panentheistic deity does possess a certain degree of divine majesty, but it is attenuated in form. One feels a glaring omission in the lack of any real suggestion of God’s awe-inspiring and fascinating mystery such as was depicted so unforgettably by Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy. Granted that Hartshorne does occasionally hint that God might be the fire that burns as well as the sympathy that soothes, but this suggestion needs developing far beyond the level of a faint acknowledgment.

Additionally, does not Hartshorne have too optimistic an estimate of man’s nature and will? He properly asserts the reality of human altruism in spite of all egotism, but can he account for a stubborn perversity in man’s will, i.e., for rebellion against humanity and God? Like Whitehead, Hartshorne has very little to say concerning the biblical and existentialist themes of sin and guilt. Nothing in his thought seems to correspond to Plato’s famous portrayal in The Republic of ordinary men as cavedwellers in bondage, darkness, lies, and delusions. The history of the twentieth century confirms Plato’s judgment and suggests a possible source of information for making Hartshorne’s philosophy more realistic about the human condition.

Again like Whitehead, Hartshorne probably overstresses aesthetics at the expense of ethics and morality, even if his philosophy is unquestionably a healthy corrective of gross excesses of the opposite sort. There has been too much moralism in recent interpretations of Christian ethics, at least on the popular level. However, although Hartshorne understands quite well "the holiness of beauty," he is a bit nebulous and confused regarding "the beauty of holiness." May not God’s love cause him to make moral demands of his creatures as well as appeals to them, especially demands for justice, mercy, and humility? Along this same line, Hartshorne’s understanding of worship needs enlargement by the Pauline idea that one’s entire life of obedience to God may be an act of spiritual worship and sacrifice.

In seeking to render a concluding evaluation of Harts-home’s theological significance, the most salient feature in my mind is the clear conviction that he is more dependent upon Christian revelation than he admits and that his theology could gain in needed concreteness by a still more explicit appeal to Christian revelation. To take the most important case, where did Anselm obtain his formula for God as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" if he did not, as Karl Barth says he did, derive it from meditation upon the meaning of the Christian revelation of God? Hartshorne’s translation of this Anselmian formula for God is "the Unsurpassable One," which he acknowledges was partly derived from the demands of worship.4 But whence has the Western world obtained its idea that God is worthy of adoring love and ultimate devotion? It has come from the Hebrew-Christian revelation of the sovereign Creator God who is at work in nature and history for his own glory and for man’s good. This is the fundamental basis for the worship of God in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Therefore, it appears that Hartshorne’s metaphysical vision is, in a way that he does not fully realize, partially parasitic upon revelation as God’s self-disclosure to man.

Accordingly, some of the basic presuppositions of Hartshorne’s philosophy are assuredly molded by the Christian vision of reality. Indeed, what is his serene confidence in the objective rationality of the world and the powers of human reason to discover it but an unrecognized expression of the belief that both forms of rationality are gifts of God, the Creator of both man and the world? His faith in metaphysical reason appears to rest upon a prior and more ultimate faith in God. If so, it would not be inappropriate to characterize his thought as similar to Anselm’s in being a form of "faith in search of understanding." Though he rightly insists that his philosophy be judged by the standards prevailing in secular philosophy generally, he might be in fact more of a Christian philosopher than he has ever admitted.

For developing our thesis that Hartshorne’s theology needs supplementation by explicit appeal to Christian revelation, we may refer to several of his own important statements. He writes:

The concrete whole we are unable to know, but metaphysics can give us its most abstract principle, and with that, together with fragments of the whole which we get from science and personal experiences, we can be content.5

Moreover, he repeatedly affirms that the God of our world and us creatures today cannot be known at all through any metaphysical proof and only partially through science, Scripture, religion, and personal experience. He also says that, for any knowledge of God beyond "the bare outline of the dimensions of his being," we must look to empirical science and theology.6 This, says he, is the reason why purely philosophical theology can say nothing about such pivotal religious doctrines as sin, grace, and forgiveness. Moreover, this also seems to be the basis for his assertion that "the highest knowledge is not metaphysical, but empirical . . . "7 Nevertheless, he labels as "negligibly small" our total knowledge of divine reality gained from all the available empirical sources.8

Such assertions as those just cited appear to be Hartshorne’s clear confession that, in order to be supremely interesting for man, his metaphysical knowledge of God requires supplementation from empirical sources, including Christian revelation. And if this is a legitimate interpretation of the meaning of such statements, then there seems to be no irresolvable conflict between Hartshorne’s metaphysical God and Karl Barth’s triune God who is only known through his self-disclosure to the world through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, if Barth’s God is correlated with the concrete aspects of Hartshorne’s God, then it also seems that Hartshorne must agree with Barth’s dictum that theological knowledge of God can gain nothing from metaphysics. A parallel statement from Hartshorne would be something to the effect that God’s concrete actuality is not deducible from his abstract essence or from his previous actualities.

It is somewhat ironical to suggest that Hartshorne’s God lacking in concreteness; but, at least from the standpoint of Christian theology, this is precisely the verdict that has been reached. And it seems that Hartshorne might be willing to acknowledge the justice of the decision. Besides the statements quoted above, he confesses that he has very little to say about Christology and is genuinely perplexed by such traditionally Christian ideas as individual survival after death and petitionary prayer.2 May not the Christian revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, illuminate his darkness and ours about these and other enigmatic mysteries? Are there not some points of identity between the God of Hartshorne’s philosophy and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?


1. Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God .Language (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs.-Merrill Company, 1969), pp. 210-14.

2. The Divine Relativity, pp. 98-99.

3. A Natural Theology for Our Time, p. 93.

4. The Logic of Perfection, p. 113.

5. Ibid., p. 15.

6. Man’s Vision of God, p. 345.

7. Ibid.

8. A Natural Theology for Our Time, p. 77.

9. "A Philosopber’s Assessment of Cbristianity," pp. 175-79.