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In Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) accuses traditional theology of making a number of mistakes. Although he calls the mistakes theological, they involve what Hartshorne takes to be errors about both God and the world. Corresponding to each “mistake” are Hartshorne’s proposed alternative concepts of God and the world.
-- Donald Wayne Viney
The technical expression for God as being unchangeable in all respects is immutability. Interestingly, the central argument for thinking of God as immutable does not come from the Bible but from Plato’s Republic. Plato (427-347 BCE) argues that everything that changes must change for the better or for the worse. If it changes for the better then it is not yet perfect, but if it changes for the worse then it is no longer perfect. In either case, change implies imperfection.
Hartshorne replies that some forms of value do not admit of a maximum. Just as it is impossible to speak of a greatest possible positive integer, so it may be impossible to speak of a greatest possible beauty. The fact that Mozart’s music achieved a new level of beauty does not mean that there was nothing left for Beethoven to do. Another analogy is interpersonal relationships. We consider it a good thing to be flexible in our responses to other persons. The ideal is not unchangeableness, but adequate response to the needs of others. It is true that stability and reliability of character are desirable. But this means, in part, that the person can be relied upon to respond in ways appropriate to each situation, and responsiveness is a kind of change.
Hartshorne’s proposal is to distinguish God’s essence and existence (which are immutable) and God’s actuality (which is mutable). The essence of God is the divine character as supremely powerful, wise, and loving. The actuality of God is the particular states of this divine character as God interacts with non-divine beings. For example, a good ornithologist can identify any bird she happens to see—one could call this the essence of the good ornithologist. But the particular experience that the ornithologist has—say, of seeing this scissortail at this place and time— depends not upon her essence but upon the contingencies of the world. The ornithologist’s particular experience is her actuality. Analogously, God’s essence could be unchanging even as God ideally responds to a dynamic universe.