Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


A Natural Theology

for Our Time

The Open Court Library of Philosophy

Eugene Freeman, editor, 1967


Charles Hartshorne



Chapter Five: Epilogue:

Abstract and Concrete Approaches to Deity and the Divine Historicity 


It is hard to be certain, but apparently Dr. Bultmann holds that we cannot attribute anything like “historicity” to God.1  However, according to neoclassical (dipolar) theism or panentheism, only something extremely abstract can be purely eternal, and all concrete reality, even divine, is in a broad sense historical.  As Berdyaev, Heidegger, Barth, and many others have said or hinted, there is something like a “divine time.”

Of course God is unborn and immortal.  This is part of his being “unsurpassable by another,” which is by far the best simple explication of “God,” in addition to “the one worshipped.”  Only beginningless and endless duration is unsurpassable duration.  The unsurpassability itself, simply as such, is immutable; that is, God could not begin, or cease, to be unsurpassable.  Nevertheless, neither the concrete life of deity nor any life whatever can be immutable.  There are, however, various kinds of mutability.  Ordinary individuals may change by increasing, or decreasing, or remaining about the same, in value; God can only increase.  He cannot become inferior, even to himself, but he can and endlessly does surpass himself, as well as all others.  He is strictly all-surpassing.  This means that in some sense he has a past and a future.  What must be denied is only past and future in the deficient forms found in human life (for instance).  The past as much more largely forgotten than remembered, the future as poorly understood, or as cause of fretful anxiety, also the past as extending back of one’s own birth, or the future as extending beyond one’s own death—these and related deficiencies are not divine.  (Berdyaev is helpful here.)  But it is faulty analysis which identifies past and future as such with these deficiencies.

With Fausto Sozzini, Fechner, Pfleiderer, Lequier, Berdyaev, and others I reject as idolatry the identification of God with “the absolute,” “infinite,” “immutable,” or “neces-sary.”  God is on both sides of such abstract contraries, and only so can he be more than a mere abstraction.  He is finite and infinite, eternal and temporal, necessary and contingent, each in suitable and unique respects.  The Greeks tended to worship the eternal or necessary as such, but we need not do so.

How, Dr. Bultmann queries, do we derive the idea of God?  In several ways.  The recognition of ourselves as beings surpassable by others in power, wisdom, duration, and other positive traits yields, by simple contrast, that of the being unsurpassable by others.  “God” is the name for the one who is unsurpassable by any conceivable being other than himself.  Anselm almost but not quite discovered this.  He partly failed to do so because he thought, with late Greek thought, that God must be unsurpassable absolutely.  But on the contrary, the one whom all should worship needs only to be secure against rivalry by another.  That he can surpass himself is quite compatible with his being worshipped by all, so long as it is impossible that he should fail to surpass all others as well.

In the foregoing, the idea of God is derived in two ways.  First, from the understanding of ‘surpassable by others” one derives, by mere negation, the idea of “unsurpassable by others.”  True, one could, from the idea of “surpassable by self,” derive that of “unsurpassable by self”; and then one could put the two forms of unsurpassability together to constitute the idea of absolute unsurpassability.  And this is in effect what most metaphysicians have done.  But in this they were begging an important philosophical question: Is the notion of an absolute maximum of reality and value, in every sense unsurpassable, any more consistent than the pseudo-ideas of “greatest possible number” or “greatest possible magnitude”?  The antinomies which are deducible from the alleged notion of a “most real being” (the classical sense of “perfection”) should by now have taught us that this is another pseudo-idea, a mere absurdity.  Yet the idea of a being unsurpassable by another has not been shown to yield antinomies, and for all we know is not absurd.

The second mode of derivation of the idea of God is from the idea of worship as such.  Anselm saw that worship implies the absolute exclusion of rivalry between the worshipper and the worshipped.  (If we could conceive a superior to God we should either have to worship that superior, were it only a mere possibility, or else find ourselves unable to worship at all.)  To see this as clearly as he saw it was a sign of genius.  It was also a sign of genius (at best poorly understood by most modern philosophers) to see that this exclusion of rivalry implies not just the factual exclusion of nonexistence but the a priori exclusion of the bare logical possibility of nonexistence.  Why this great discovery was so little understood I have tried to explain elsewhere (in Anselm’s Discovery).

The harmony between the two derivations of “unsurpassable by another” is a confirmation of both.  There are also other ways of deriving the idea.

Are we objectifying or conceptualizing God in saying the foregoing?  No more than we make a man a mere object or mere concept when we say that any man is surpassable by others as well as by himself.  Those we love, other than God, are surpassable; God, whom we love, is unsurpassable, save by himself.  But in neither case are those we love bare surpassability, or bare unsurpassability, as such, the mere abstractions.  No individual whatever can be exhausted in a concept or definition.  And no still living individual has a determinate quality fully defined once for all, since each moment of life is creative and produces a new concrete version of the individual’s distinctive quality.  This creative inexhaustibility applies supremely to God.  And with him the qualification “still living” is needless, since he can never fail to be living.  So God is always, for that reason alone, more than any “object” to be pointed to (vorhanden).  But in addition, mere thought cannot give us even the past of an individual in its fullness.  Thought is schematic, giving at most an outline of reality.  Only perception or encounter gives us full concreteness, so far as we can possess it at all.  And with human beings this is not very far, since conscious human perception is also in various ways schematic.  Finally, since God is the inclusive concrete reality, he is least of all exhaustible by any concept or conscious human percept.


Concepts about God


But how does all this prevent us from having some abstract concepts about God, correct so far as they go?  I see nothing in Kierkegaard or Buber to justify the negative view here.  “Unsurpassability by another” suffices to distinguish the divine reality, whatever it may be in its fullness, from the character of any nondivine individual.  Insofar as we encounter God perceptually (and he, being ubiquitous, must be encountered somehow in all experience), we encounter, not mere unsurpassability, but something infinitely richer in determinations than this bare abstraction.  Yet, since abstractions need not pretend to be more than just that, I fail to see why they must be rejected just because unspeakably more is also true of what the abstractions, so far as they go, describe.

Dr. Bultmann was once asked, in my hearing, “What is the difference between the God of philosophy and the God of religion”?  His reply, which pleased me greatly, was, if I recall correctly, approximately this: “The God of philosophy is anyone’s God, the God of religion is your God and mine.”  I should generalize a bit more widely, and say, the God of philosophy, or at least of metaphysics, is any creature’s God, the God of religion is the God of humanity, or more concretely, our God now.  (Paul Weiss has expressed a somewhat similar distinction in his The God We Seek.)  Each man must relate himself to God if he wants the full value of belief, and no concept can capture the concrete quality of this “himself,” much less of the God of himself.  Since, on the neoclassical view, God is infinitely responsive to each creature, “my God” is far from being identical with the God of creatures in general, or even with the God of Abraham.  It is the same divine individual, but not the same individual in the same “state.”  (To reject such distinctions as inapplicable to God is merely one manifestation of the Greek error which I find in much traditional metaphysics.)  Concerning “our God” all talk is confessional, but not concerning the God of creatures in general.  For that God is inherent in all basic secular conceptions, and only intellectual inhibitions can keep the idea from being formulated.

Human beings are individuals who interact with or influence one another.  They thus form one another’s Mitwelt.  (I believe, and Buber seems to hint, that ultimately the Umwelt is entirely Mitwelt, a matter which need not be further considered here.)  But human beings do this in surpassable ways only.  Some do it for a longer time than others, or with more wisdom both in wielding and in responding to influences.  And some have less power than others to maintain their own integrity through a wide variety of Mitwelten or Umwelten.  That this power is, in all of us, limited or surpassable is the same as to say that we are born and die.  And with all of us the scope of our giving and receiving influences is less than cosmic, which is the same as to say that we are localized beings, “in space” but not ubiquitously so.  To say all this is already virtually to have, by contrast, the idea of an individual interacting with others, not for a time but always, not with some but with ideal wisdom, not with a mixture of love, hate, and indifference, but with unsurpassable love for all.  This is all included in saying that surpassable modes of interaction are intelligible only if unsurpassable ways are also intelligible.  And this already defines deity.  “Eternity” is implied just so far as it is required to exclude rivalry by another.  Analysis shows that self-surpassing and a superior kind of change are not only compatible with, but required by, this exclusion.

Traditional metaphysics was too enamored of the supposed idea of an absolute, immutable maximum to follow out the inherent logic of the idea of unsurpassable individual (or unsurpassable subject of interaction—they are really the same).  It was held that while ordinary individuals interact, God’s superiority is that he acts only, and does not interact.  Unfortunately, this destroys all analogy between God and creatures, and it contradicts the very meaning of worship and related religious ideas.  Nor is there any justification for the notion that interaction, as compared to simple action, indicates a weakness.  Man’s sensitivity to influences is just as superior to that of the lesser creatures as is his power over them, and analysis shows that the two superiorities belong logically together.  Similarly, the gulf between us and God is no less shown in the limitations of our responsiveness to, than in those of our power over, others.  But metaphysicians for two millennia almost unanimously missed all this and dogmatized instead about the “superiority of agent to patient,” or of cause to effect, immutable to mutable, self-sufficient or independent to dependent.  This procedure was, I believe, equally bad as philosophy and as theology.

I do not know how far Dr. Bultmann is aware of the radical break between this new kind of metaphysics and the old.  One thing is sure: if the new kind is wrong, it must be for partly new reasons.  For the new, unlike the old, makes no leap from time to mere eternity, from the relative to the merely absolute, from interacting individuals to an impassible one, from the dependent to the wholly self-sufficient.  The new issues, whatever they are, are less simple.  Only a fresh inquiry can deal with them.  I do not find this inquiry in Heidegger, whose career I have followed since I first heard him lecture at Freiburg in 1924.

How far all this is even intelligible to one brought up largely in the German tradition I can scarcely guess.  But at least two German writers seem to be largely on my side, Fechner (in the great chapter on “God and the World” in his Zendavesta) and Pfleiderer (in his Grundriss).  Heidegger’s hint that not mere eternity but infinite temporality may be the key to the idea of God I take, with Ogden, to point toward panentheism.2  But I think it is a mistake, for reasons given above, to restrict theology, as Heidegger seems to do, to confession, to deny natural theology altogether.  It is only religion, concrete dealing with God by concrete groups or individuals, that is nontheoretical, and a sheer addition to any metaphysics.  But abstract dealings with God, claiming to be no more than that, are another matter.

If I have called God an “individual,” this is with the understanding that, as the unique because unsurpassable individual, he is also absolutely cosmic or universal in his capacities, interacting with all others, relevant to all contexts, and in this sense absolutely universal—the only strictly universal individual, or individual universal.  (This is by no means Hegel’s “concrete universal”; for God as concrete is unimaginably more than God in his bare individuality.  The concrete is God as in some contingent actual state related to some actual state of the world.)  “Being” is God as enjoying creatures: the creatures he does enjoy are the actual beings, along with the enjoyment itself as the inclusive being; the creatures he might enjoy, along with the possible ways in which he might enjoy them, are the possible forms of being.

It is truly amazing how superior Anselm’s definition, when clarified to allow for self-surpassing, proves itself to be as guide to metaphysical and theological problems, compared to the more usual definitions in terms of simple perfection or absoluteness.  Amazing indeed, considering how nearly unanimously natural theologians have preferred these other definitions!  And critics of natural theology have done much the same.  They too have supposed that Deity must be the transcendental snob, or the transcendental tyrant, either ignoring the creatures or else reducing them to his mere puppets, rather than the unsurpassably interacting, loving, presiding genius and companion of all existence.


1 This Epilogue is republished by permission from the Union Seminary Quarterly Review 20 (1965) pp. 265-270, where it appeared in conjunction with a discussion between Rudolf Bultmann and Schubert Ogden.

2 Sein und Zeit, 8th edition, 1957, p. 427; English edition, London, 1962, p. 499.


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Posted April 5, 2007


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