a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Theology & Philosophy » Theistic Humanism

Theistic Humanism


Theistic Humanism

by Charles Hartshorne

The question is, do we live for ourselves and other human beings alone, or do we live for something in principle superior to humanity? The word “alone” is important. No one can help living for oneself and others, for no one is completely indifferent to his or her own fate and no one is wholly without fellow feeling. In the Judeo-Christian religion, and to a considerable extent in all religions, we are expected to love ourselves and are admonished to love their neighbor likewise. So far, humanism is an element in religion in general. One might think that theistic religion can only add; besides loving humanity love also God, but this will not do. God is so conceived that there can be no mere also. God is not just another object of devotion “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with thy strength.” How could language say more plainly that God is the total object of loyalty. There is to be nothing in the person which is not love of God. How, then, can there be love of self and neighbor? Only in one way: if we are all entirely included in the divine reality. If pantheism meant only that there is nothing outside God, then in my opinion pantheism would be religiously imperative. Historically the term has had further meanings which I do not wish now to consider but which have given it unpleasant connotations. Theism does not add an additional object of devotion to those of humanism; it claims to make explicit the full context of the ordinary objects. It claims to reveal what human beings really are, namely members of the divine life. There are, for theism, no people outside God to love, but only people in God who would be bare nonentity except for this status in the divine.

This means that theism fully and without residue embraces humanism, except for the latter’s negations. Any form of theism of which this cannot be said is merely a perversion. It may be that many an orthodoxy is tainted with such perversion; I have here no concern with what is orthodox or heretical, apart form the orthodoxy that God is to be loved as total object of loyalty. In my opinion this is entirely capable of justification by secular philosophy, without appeal to revelation. There is no reasonable way to conceive God as merely another important reality besides the ordinary ones. Such a reality would be as ineffective in meeting the requirements of philosophical rationality as in fulfilling those of high religion. It would be one more item to explain, not the universal principle of explanation.

Theism is not an alternative to humanism as a positive system of values. It neither adds nor subtracts, except in a subjective sense. Subjectively it adds consciousness of what unconsciously, according to the claims of theism, must already have been there in experience. It makes the implicit explicit, that is all. It makes clear what the humanity we love not only is—but alone could possibly be—namely some portion of the content of the cosmic Life. Let us attempt to sketch some of the advantages of lifting this implication into consciousness, rather than leaving it to unanalyzed, unsymbolized feeling.

If humanity is a final end in itself, not constitutive of a superhuman life and value, what then? The most glaring difficulty is that of transience. Our experience is ever fleeting. That we die is hardly the essential aspect of this transience. Anyone’s youth is already dead when he/she is middle-aged. Indeed, each yesterday is dead today. Yesterday I was in heaven; today I have discovered that this joy was based on an illusion; today I am in grief. What good now is that having been joyous a short time ago? A few faint echoes in present consciousness are all that is left of tens of thousands of past experiences, many of them vivid and rich when they were present. Compared to this wholesale loss of values, death, wars, pestilences are minor threats to the meaning of our lives if we think rationally about our existence. We talk of posterity, children, works of art and of science, and practical achievements as means of handing on value to the future, but all these are beside the main point. Nothing has value save experiences, and every experience is fleeting, a bubble about to burst. If, even for me, youth is already lost, save for a few evershifting echoes in the present, will it not be even more lost in posterity, which will not even have these echoes?

The problem of transience is that of unity of value through time. Each present has value, but only while it is present, it seems. Most of us strive not merely to be happy just now, but to be happy through as much of a long life as possible and this we desire for our children and friends as well. Where, however, in what present, is there such a thing a “happiness throughout a long life?” Actually there seems to be only happiness now, whatever the now may be. Thus value seems, from the human standpoint, to lack unity through time. We aim at total value: at the very least, happiness of lives, and this cannot be actual in human terms. Still less can the happiness of humanity, through the generations, ever be an actuality. Only happiness now seems real, but it is not happiness now that satisfies us as a goal. Indeed, happiness now is not a goal, but rather the satisfaction gained in pursuing the goal. Happiness is not presently aimed at, but the joy of aiming.

There is another problem, that of unity through space. One lives partly for self, partly for others, but how can our purpose be thus split up? What is the overall or total objective? We speak of the general welfare. But in what experience is the general welfare an actuality? Who really cashes in on the “happiness of humanity?” Surely no human being can do this. How can one add together one’s happiness and that of every other person into a greatest happiness of humanity. Yet, unless we are selfish, must we not in principle live for some such inclusive happiness even though no such happiness seems to exist. There is only my happiness, your happiness but not a happiness consisting of mine and yours.

In both cases, the question of unity of value through time and of such unity through space, humanity apart from anything superhuman does not furnish what seems implicit in our purposes, but humanity does furnish the clue to the nature of the unity involved. The clue in the case of time is memory, in the case of space is sympathy. Both are perhaps only one basic function, since memory is a sort of sympathy with one’s past experiences. There are, we have said, a few faint, ever changing echoes of past experiences in present experience. Experience is not absolutely evanescent. True, nearly all the vividness of the tens or hundreds of thousands of previous experiences is lost to us now, it being plainly impossible to crowd them into a human present except in the form of exceedingly dim or subconscious memories. Thus, there is no effective unity of value through time in simply human terms, but there is a principle operative which, in a radically superior mode of operation, would constitute an effective unity. If the attention span could expand just as fast as new experiences were actualized, so that memory need not be pale or subconscious but could be wholly vivid and distinct, then indeed having been happy through a long life would be an actual value in the present. The goal of striving would be achievable. Similarly, whereas our sympathy with our neighbors in space is slight, everfluctuating, there might be a sympathy not thus restricted, but effectively participant in the lives of all the denizens of space. A life whose present always preserved consciously all lives no matter how remote in the past and no matter where in space would be one whose value included and made actual the total general welfare we aim to promote as humanists. All the humanist values would be accepted, but it would no longer be an excruciating and unrelieved paradox how out of these values a general or total good could be formed by means of which the relative importance of various ends could in principle be measured.

In my opinion, a theism which understands itself (there has not been too much of such theism, I dare to think) will realize that “God” stands for something that, whatever other aspects it may have, conforms to the above stipulation. The divine life “inherits” all our experience, in its full vividness of individuality, and cherishes it forevermore. This is not well expressed by saying that we become mere means to the divine self-realization or fulfillment. For we enjoy our fleeting experiences as contributory to the divine experience, and it is good that such an experience was realized; or, here is a good experience and whatever may come it will be at least something that it has occurred, but for whom will it be something that has occurred. Not, save fleetingly, for ourselves. Not for posterity. What will they have of my experience? Besides, there might not always be a posterity? The only way to make conscious what is involved is to make conscious the implication that though we forget, not only others but even ourselves, our own precious experiences, there is that which never forgets and which always treasures our achievements of joy and beauty. A something which will be our definitive posterity and heir. To lose this something is only to love that which makes sense out of our aims. People have loved all sorts of fantastic things because they thought these things made sense out of their aims. How can we separate ourselves from our aims, or our aims from their implications? Only by self-misunderstanding can we fail to love God, if God is the aim of all our aims.

What practical value is there in all this? From one aspect, the answer has just been hinted at. If we do not see the reasonable aim implicit in all our aims, we set up an unreasonable one. We try to think of something less than deity as the inclusive and imperishable good. We pretend we will never die, we try to build indestructible tombs; we half forget humanistic values while we dream of a heaven “beyond the bounds of space and time;” we try to think of the state as the sole important heir of our achievement; we dream of human omnipotence and all-sympathetic goodness, while the modest powers and virtues really open to us are not cultivated. Everywhere we seek something perfect or quasiperfect, something lasting or quasi lasting, some inclusive or quasi inclusive good. Everywhere, too, we are disappointed and frustrated in this search (except as we find God). Still worse, the real human possibilities are overlooked. We long for the perfect and the abiding and the inclusive. This longing is either just stultified, repressed, and the whole zest for life weakened in apathy or cynicism; or it is expressed; and if expressed, then either through illusion, through some more or less dangerous idolatry, or through truly finding the One whose Life really abides and really inherits all our achievements, and really is perfect in its power of making a synthesis of these achievements, doing with them all that their value permits.

The divine perfection is not simply the inclusiveness of the divine sympathy in time and space, but the ideal way in which the “data” are woven together in a total experience than which no experience of those data could be more beautiful. True, this beauty cannot be our conscious possession, but those who die for a cause and do not themselves enter the promised land do not necessarily die discontented. That the land will be entered is the sense of our aim, not that we shall enter it. That the other who enters is not even human but radically superhuman—well, it is a strange doctrine that we can only love our equals. We can only have the love of equal companionship with equals, but there is another love, love of the one whose sympathy for us is infinitely more complete than even our self-sympathy. How shall one not love One whose love for us is the ideal which our self-love could never approach? God loves all our past, which we almost entirely fail vividly to recall, and all the dim depths of our present potentialities for the future, of which we are only slightly conscious. In love for the One who loves all, our love for all can be entirely included and unified. This humanism, past forms of theism have all too often failed to elucidate. Perhaps, after all, it is the future, more than the past, which must show what both humanists and theists have really been driving at.

“Theistic Humanism,” written in 1950 and here published for the first time.

Series Navigation<< Religion and Creative ExperienceThe Modern World and a Modern View of God >>

Notable in UU History
Ephraim Peabody

Peabody, Ephraim (1807-1856)

Ephraim Peabody was born in Wilton, New Hampshire, March 22, 1807. His father, Ephraim Peabody, was ... Read More

Soule, Caroline Augusta White (1824-1903)

Known as the first Universalist missionary, Caroline Augusta White was born in Albany, New York on ... Read More
Lucy Stone

Stone, Lucy (1818-1893)

An ancestor of Lucy Stone arrived in Massachusetts in 1635, and a grandfather was a captain ... Read More
William Ellery Channing II

Channing, William Ellery II (1818-1901)

Biographical Introduction The transcendentalist poet was born in Boston, the son of Dr. Walter Channing of ... Read More