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Home » Biographies » Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne

The Harvard Square God

By Herbert F. Vetter

Part V

Drawing by Michelle Bakay based on a photograph by Don Viney, 1981

Drawing by Michelle Bakay based on a photograph by Don Viney, 1981

Charles Hartshorne is our fifth person to be celebrated as a philosophical interpreter of a new world view which includes a new view of God.

His relation to Harvard Square, especially to the other four Harvard Square philosophers—Peirce, James, Hocking, and Whitehead—is both pervasive and important.

Hartshorne was born north of Pittsburgh in 1897 in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, where his father was an Episcopal clergyman. He received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1921, his M.A. in 1922 and his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1923. He says it was his first teacher in philosophical theology, William Ernest Hocking, who introduced him to the idea of a God not in every sense absolute, and yet in the religious sense perfect. When he returned to Harvard in 1925 after postgraduate study in Europe, he was a research assistant in the Department of Philosophy and was asked if he would edit the papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, which were in the department’s possession. Then knowing little of Peirce, he later invited a fellow philosopher, Paul Weiss, to join him in the vast task. Together they edited the definitive initial six volume Collected Papers published by Harvard University Press.

Hartshorne’s admiration for William James includes not only the psychologist and philosopher’s impact on world thought but his literary genius, and the fact that he was a great man and not just a great intellect. As for Whitehead, Hartshorne is a primary living interpreter of the Anglo-American philosopher’s thought. While working on the Peirce papers, he was Whitehead’s teaching assistant and frequently visited the home of Professor and Mrs. Whitehead. In 1946, when Charles Hartshorne was teaching philosophy at the University of Chicago (and when I was in the College there), I had the good fortune to buy his early classic, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. Then, during my years of graduate work, I not only chose to take various courses with him—including courses of individually directed research—but also became more personally related through The First Unitarian Church of Chicago where he and his wife, Dorothy, were church members. Inasmuch as I was the church’s Director of Student Work, I sometimes invited him to speak at our weekly Channing Club meetings or to be one of the speakers at our series of William Ellery Channing Lectures presented on campus at the University, which was just across the street from the Church.

On the basis of what I first learned in these years, I discovered that Charles Hartshorne is the Einstein of religious thought. For three quarters of a century thus far, his primary attention has been given to the idea which includes all ideas—the idea of God. He has applied severe canons of logic to the idea of God in the great systems of thought old and new, East and West. He has placed before us the exact and exhaustive alternatives between which we may—and indeed must—choose. His own conclusion is that the all-inclusive actual-potential Whole is literally the ever-living and eternal God. Listen for yourself, then, to these words of Charles Hartshorne:

Secular knowledge supports the religious idea of God if, and only if, by religion is meant something quite distinct from what has passed as orthodox theology.

My conviction is that a magnificent intellectual content—far surpassing that of such systems as Thomism and positivism—is implicit in the relgious faith most briefly expressed in three words: God is love.

Under present world conditions it may seem peculiarly difficult to conceive of divine love. but divinity is not the privilege of escaping all sufferings but the exact contrary of sharing them all. Faith in love is not belief in a special kind of magic. Social awareness is the essence of God and the human ideal.

Love is desire for the good of others, ideally all others. Being ethical does not mean never injuring anyone; for the interests of others may require such injury. 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 inflict suffering only by undergoing suffering oneself, willingly and fully.

Love involves sensitivity to the joys and sorrows of others. The ultimate motive is love, which has two equally fundamental aspects, self-love and love for others. Neither is ever in human affairs totally unmixed with the other.

God is not the being whose life is sheer joy and beauty, but the cosmic sufferer.

The cosmos is held together by love. Cosmic being is cosmic experience, is cosmic sociality or love. Love is the highest wisdom and the most far-reaching power.

All meaning implicitly asserts God, because all meaning is nothing less than a reference to one or other of the two aspects of the cosmic reality, what it has done or what it could do—that is, to the consequent or primordial natures of God.

The world as preserving its identity through all transformations is infinitely endowed with power to assimiIate variety into unity. Indeed, the world in this sense is identical with God . God is the self-identical individuality of the world somewhat as a person is the self-identical individuality of his or her ever changing system of atoms.

Does this not introduce tragedy into God? Yes, existence is tragic for God. It is tragic for any being that loves those involved in tragedy. And this is why we can literally love God, because we are parts of God’s internal life.

God is the socially differentiated whole of all things which only love of all things can explain. We are parts of God, God as a unity in variety.

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