a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Theology & Philosophy » Religion and Creative Experience

Religion and Creative Experience

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Sacred Hands, by Herbert F, Vetter

Religion and Creative Experience

by Charles Hartshorne

That man has a certain creative power is a commonplace nowadays. Making the most of this power is what is termed “living creatively.” Not only is creativity a widely recognized ideal for human action, it is also the first principle of the most daring and powerful philosophical system of this century, that of Whitehead, and Whitehead was preceded in this by other less notable philosophers.

For these philosophers, to be is to create; it is impossible to exist at all in absolutely uncreative fashion. From atoms to deity, all things in their degree and kind act creatively. I believe that we have in this rather new type of philosophy an intellectual basis for religion far superior to any other. Unfortunately only a few, even among professional philosophers, have as yet a clear idea of this way of thinking.

First, what is it to create? Whitehead takes as his primary example the process of human experiencing. His doctrine is simple: to experience is to create. What is the resulting product? Experience itself. Each experience is something new and unique, and to experience is always a free production of novelty. Bergson had already said this, but Whitehead makes it the central category of an ambitious system.

People have looked for freedom in action, and of course freedom must somehow show up in action. Still, the first stage of free action is the way in which we interpret or experience the world. Only you or I can determine our own way of feeling and thinking our environment. The utmost slave has some freedom here which none can wholly suppress while the slave is alive. No matter how others coerce or persuade, he or she finally must make a unique and unpredictable response to the stimuli others bring to bear.

It is vain to talk about psychological prediction as an absolute; for even after an experience has taken place not all the words in all languages could precisely describe that experience; and what cannot be said even afterwards certainly cannot be said in advance. Suppose that a person grows angry, as we have predicted. There are as many forms and qualities of angry experience as there are cases, and only more or less rough and crude descriptions of their differences are possible.

Every experience is in some degree an unpredictable novelty. The stimuli molding an experience are many: the five or nine senses are operating; memory is relating us, at least unconsciously, to thousands of incidents of the past; but this multiplicity of influences is to produce a single unitary experience. The effect is one; the causes, however, are always many. This vast multitude of factors must flow together to produce a single new entity, the experience of the moment. By no magic can casual laws derive this new unity from the previous multiplicity. Certainly, the many stimuli tell us much about the response, but it is a logical impossibility that they should tell us all. An emergent synthesis is needed to decide just how each item is to blend in a single complex sensory-emotional-intellectual whole, the experience. Any motives are either but items going into the synthesis, or else they are the synthesis. To experience must be a free act, or nothing intelligible.

Why is this not more generally realized? In part, because we have our minds chiefly upon the more important and exceptional modes of creativity, and so we overlook the humbler ones which are always there, like the man in Moliere who did not realize that he had been talking “prose” all his life. Freedom is always there, but the unusual kinds and degrees of freedom are not always there. While it is indeed important to distinguish between the higher and lower forms of freedom, we shall never understand life and the world until we see that the zero degree of freedom can only be the zero of experiencing, and even of reality. Apart from experience the idea of reality is empty, as some though not all philosophers admit. Accordingly, Whitehead proposes that we generalize, and take the free act of experiencing as the universal principle of reality. Not that human experience is the principle of reality, far from it. Human experience is only one form; from humans to molecules and atoms, we have a series of modes of organization; at no point can one say, “Below this there could be no experience.” If atoms respond to stimuli (and they do), how else could they show that they sense or feel? If you say that they have no sense organs, the reply is: neither do one-celled animals, yet they seem to perceive their environments.

Imagine the universe as a vast system of experiencing individuals on innumerable levels. Each individual is in some measure free, for experiencing is a partly free act. Thus creativity, emergent novelty, is universal. In this way we perhaps understand why the physicists have had to reformulate the laws of nature as statistical, and not absolute uniformities.

If all individuals act freely, what prevents the world from falling into hopeless confusion and chaos? How can there be even statistical regularities? Must not limits be somehow imposed upon freedom in order to make a world? How are the limits imposed?

There are but two possible answers in a philosophy of universal creative experience. Either the various forms of experience scattered through nature miraculously limit or control themselves and each other and thus preserve a measure of harmony or mutual compatibility; or else some superior or at least cosmic, form of freedom furnishes a “directive” which ordinary freedom accepts or obeys. Without guidance, order seems a mere mystery. In a philosophy of freedom, only a superior form of creativity, to which all things respond and whose influence is given a certain priority, can furnish the guidance which orders the world.

This is one way of putting the argument for belief in God. Divine action is supreme freedom furnishing a general direction to all lesser forms of freedom, thereby giving the universe an order.

How is this cosmic direction imparted? How does the divine creativity act on the lesser creativities? How do lesser creativities act on each other? The answer which the new type of philosophy gives is as follows. Experience must have stimuli. We do not experience in a vacuum, nor does one simply experience his own experience of his own experience—experience of what? There must be objects of experience, data which are already there, ready to be experienced. If nothing is in the world but creative experience, what then are the objects which are experienced? Simply, previous cases of experience? Some of these are one’s own earlier experiences as one now remembers them. The rest are of other kinds.

The cells of one’s body are, I believe, constantly furnishing their little experiences which, pooled together in our more comprehensive experience, constitute what we call our sensations. The cells respond to, or experience, our experiences, as is shown by the influence our thoughts and feelings have upon our bodily changes. The stimuli always influence the response, but they never wholly determine it. Recall also that the stimuli are really earlier responses, experiences which had their own stimuli. Thus, what sets limits to the freedom of a response is simply previous, partly free responses which have now become stimuli. When two of us talk, each response of one becomes a stimulus to the other. Always there is a degree of freedom; and the limit upon the present act of freedom is the sum of past acts to which it is a reaction. Experience as emergent synthesis feeds on its own previous products, and on nothing else whatever. This is the only intelligible escape from a blind dualism of mind and matter.

What prevents anarchy, if freedom alone limits freedom? Keeping to our language of stimulus and response, what is needed to order the world is a higher level of response, which like every form of response becomes in its turn a stimulus—in this case, the supreme stimulus. Each individual in the world is in dialogue with its neighbors, influencing and being influenced by them; but each individual is also and above all in dialogue, largely unconscious no doubt, with the divine individual.

Is this not the traditional belief in God, in new verbal dress? It is, and it isn’t. The old view had some disturbing features, which our language avoids. It was usually said that while God influenced all things, nothing influenced God. For God there are no stimuli; hence when divine power influences or stimulates the world, it is in a wholly extraordinary way. God, in the old theory, does not respond, but merely creates, “out of nothing.” If we refuse to allow an analogy between ordinary creative action and the divine “creating” of the cosmos, we use a word the meaning of which we cannot provide. Our new philosophical doctrine is that even God’s creativity is a higher form of emergent synthesis, or response to stimuli. God influences us supremely because God is supremely open to our influence and responds infinitely delicately to all things, while we respond delicately only to changes in our brain cells. God contributes to our lives in superior fashion in equally superior fashion, of receiving contributions from us. Like the sensitive parent or ruler, God enjoys observing our feelings and thoughts and responds to them with a perfection of appreciation to which no parent or ruler can attain. Because only God can appreciate us, together with all our neighbors, in our full worth, we unconsciously respond to this appreciation as we do not to any other, and so the order of the world is possible despite the assumption that only freedom exists to limit freedom.

Consider now the advantages of this way of viewing God. Unlike the notion of divine creation as a purely one way action proceeding from God, our view does not threaten to deny the freedom or creativity of the creatures. How many theologians have talked as though God, being supremely free, produced individuals wholly without freedom? Individuals think they make decisions, but God, we say, has made all things, hence all decisions, but if God has literally and completely “made” my decision, how is it mine? Granted that we are willing to think of ourselves as absolute puppets whose every move is wholly controlled by deity, how could such puppets even have the notion of freedom form the theory that they are puppets controlled by the free decisions of God? Or would God, for them, be the great puppet—controlled by what? The entire view seems logically untenable. In our philosophy of universal freedom, no such divine monopoly upon decision making can be conceived. To create is to respond to the creative freedom of others; hence to be supremely creative is to respond supremely to that freedom.

Look at another difference between the usual theistic doctrine and our view. If God creates by sheer fiat, out of nothing, why does God not make a world wholly good? I suggest that the very problem is false. We do not need to worship any such all-determining creator in God. Of course, a worshipful God must have the supreme cosmic, or perfect, form of creative power. To say that in God is the perfect or infinite form of creative response to the freedom of others is to imply that God has the freedom of others to respond to. Why, then is there evil in the world? Because the making of the world is not a simple act of deity, but a fusion of divine and lesser acts, all in their fashion self-determining, creative or free.

As Lequier said, a century ago, God has created us creators of ourselves. Does such a view “limit” the power of God? This way of putting the question prejudices the answer and is to be rejected. To exert power, in our view, is to respond to the responses of others in such a way that the new response becomes in its turn a new stimulus. In this philosophy the word power has no other meaning which could be used to describe God. So we need not limit God’s power to make room for the freedom of the creatures or to explain evil; we need only take care that when we speak of divine or perfect “power,” we have a meaning for the word.

This meaning will take care of creaturely freedom automatically. If all creatures must be free, then no divine directive could do more than set boundaries to the possibilities of discord and disorder in the world. Absolute order could in no way be guaranteed, not because God is weak, but because it would not be strength to abolish creaturely freedom and with it any world upon which the strength could be exercised. The problem of evil in its classical form is a pseudoproblem, due to the misuse of words. Millions of people over the earth do not believe in God, they would tell you, chiefly because of evil. The book of Job hints at my position.

Believing in God does not necessarily mean accepting traditional religious views, such as the notions of personal immortality heaven, and hell. Personal immortality seems rather a rival to belief in God than a logical consequence of it. It is God who never dies, not humanity. Our sphere of action is on this planet, or eventually in this solar system and perhaps galaxy, between birth and death. As Robert Frost said, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

Is it an intelligent view that the only value our lives will have after they are over is in the faint echoes and influences which may linger in human memory and human life? Can we really live merely for posterity, from a long-run point of view? I believe not. And if you say that we live partly for our own sakes, for the sheer joy of living, then I reply, “yes, indeed, but I am speaking of ‘the long-run,” and in the long run, we and our joys are, from the naturalistic point of view, not there at all. If you say, we live merely for the present moment, I reply, not even the higher animals can do that, and from a rational point of view, once the future is brought in, is it not arbitrary to stop at one’s own death, or that of one’s grandchildren?

As each of us lives on, from time to time some of our cells die. But what of it? We do not hesitate to suppose that the cells are there chiefly for our benefit, and if some of them die, do we not go on, and is not their contribution to our experience in some degree preserved in our memories? After all, the parts are for the sake of the whole. We readily see and accept this where we are the wholes, but is it not rational to say the same even where we are the parts and not the whole? Each of us is at least a part of humanity; but is that the ultimate whole of which we are parts? Is not humanity itself a fragment in space-time?

Only a cosmic life, it seems, can be the real whole for the sake of which all exists. We humans are such egoists that we try every trick, and every evasion to miss the point; yet I cannot but think that if our species survives long enough, we will at last weary of these evasions and accept the obvious principle that the inclusive reality must contain all the values, but then must not the inclusive reality be the proper object of worship, the real divinity? Some say, God is our highest ideal, but what about the cosmos? Does a fragment set the goal for the entirety of things? Our view of God may be our highest ideal, but must not God propose the ideal, the directive, for the cosmos?

The laws of nature are there to show that the ultimate directive does not come from human beings. Were we consulted in the setting of these laws? We guess the divine or cosmic ideal as best we can from observation, reasoning, and intuition. Traditional religions have treasured some of the results of past efforts in this direction.

We should neither ignore these treasures nor assume their correctness. Human fallibility has seen to it that they contain many a confusion, one-sidedness, or self-serving illusion. All worship has been haunted by the specter of idolatry. Each generation must wrestle anew with the mixture. Is it not a pity to worship less-than-God?

“Religion and Creative Experience,” The Unitarian Register and the Universalist Leader, June, 1962.