Friday, June 8, 2012

Charles Hartshorne on Immortality

Charles Hartshorne was a professor of philosophy who died a few years ago at an age of more than one hundred years and who, in his long life,  produced much scholarship, establishing himself as the leading exponent of process theology.   This is the theory that God is a limited and emergent being.   Recently, I read Hartshorne's  Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), a book intended for laymen and one which I highly recommend.

Hartshorne traces the origin of the concept of an omnipotent God to the infusion of Greek philosophy into early Christianity.  He finds little evidence for it in the Bible.  It is the concept of an all-powerful God, he notes,  that accounts for the problem of evil:   Why is there so much suffering in the world if it was indeed created by an omnipotent and benevolent deity?
One brief paragraph is especially worthy of quotation because it epitomizes Hartshorne's process theology:   " For God, too, reality develops, and for God, as for us, the end is not yet.   Indeed, though there may be an end to our cosmos, as well as our species, there can be no end of the divine-creaturely process, out of which even laws are born "  (p. 94).
A similar mistake involves the concept of immortality, the assumption of an eternal period of life following our deaths.   What Hartshorne finds to be eternal is the reality of our past.   My past life will always exist in much the way that the Civil War or Julius Caesar can always be said to have existed.   Hartshorne explains this concept as follows:   " Whitehead has put the matter in terms of his doctrine of 'the objective immortality of the past.'   Once an event has occurred it is a permanent item in reality.  The 'accomplished facts' that constitute the past cannot be de-accomplished or nullified.   If they could, historical truth would be impossible or meaningless " (p. 34).
In other words, Hartshorne explains that  " If we are truly mortal animals, then our lives are finite in time as well as in space.  What is indeed immortal (the reality of the past) is precisely this finite series of experiences and deeds.   Death subtracts not an iota of the lives we have already enjoyed before the moment of death " (p. 36).
In answer to the objection that this concept of immortality is not satisfying, Hartshorne quotes Sigmund Freud's observation that " The world is not a kindergarten " (p. 37).   As Hartshorne elsewhere explains, an all-powerful God who determined  all the minutiae of all that has happened and can happen would be a God who would not allow us any existence as conscious beings on our own.
Some of Hartshorne's common sense would be good mental medicine for Christian fundamentalists.   Innumerable times I have heard them say that all that happens in this world is an expression of the will of God.   Then,  a few minutes later, they proceed to affirm their belief that Jesus Christ, who is God, will return at the end of time to judge this world and all that has happened in it.   In other words, they would have God return to judge his own deeds.


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