Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand'ring bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me prov'd, I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
A Line by Line Analysis
Joanne Diaz and Abram Van Enge
The context of Shakespeare's sonnet is a marriage ceremony. The hope—the proclamation—is that the love between the partners can be steadfast and unchanging: "an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken." Love, says the sonnet, need not be "time's fool;" it can be like a pole star, fixed in the heavens, appearing almost stationary in the sky compared to other stars, and thus a guiding light and point of reference. Even as rosy cheeks may lose their luster, this love—this pole star—remains unshaken.
Might a similar hope also apply to the living unity in which the universe unfolds, to God? Can the encircling compass of life be like a pole star, too? Or, by contrast, is this unity forever changing with time, arbitrary and fickle, such that the idea of a constant love in God is but wishful thinking?
A marriage between two people on Earth can be temporal and unshakable, says Sonnet 116. Is God's love for the world unshakeable, too?
Process theologians are known for their idea that God and divine love are temporal but not fickle. As they see things, the future is open for God, meaning that when new events occur in the world, they are also new to God. God knows what is possible in the future, but not what will actually happen until it does. This means that, in a spirit of love, God adapts to each new situation, both receptively and actively. When living beings suffer, God suffers with them at that moment—not before—and then responds by offering new possibilities for creative solutions to what has occurred. God changes and is always changing.
Yet within the human heart exists a desire and hope that this way of being on God's part is itself constant and unchanging, loving and faithful. Indeed, it is covenantal, as in a marriage covenant. No matter what happens in the world, so the hope goes, the divine mode of being remains, in its own way, fixed and unmoved.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 speaks to this hope, capturing the feeling that love can be constant. Among process philosophers, Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) offers a way of affirming Shakespeare's insight. Hartshorne proposes that God has both a changing and an unchanging aspect. In traditional theism, God is often described as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and, above all, immutable or unchanging. In this view, God is perfect and therefore cannot change because any change would either be a move towards imperfection or away from it. God is considered to be wholly "actual," meaning there is no "potential" for change or growth in God.
Hartshorne challenges this conception of an entirely immutable God, arguing that it is inconsistent with the nature of reality and with the idea of a loving, relational God. According to Hartshorne, God is not a static being but a dynamic, relational one, continually affected by the events and experiences of the world. Here's how Hartshorne describes the two aspects of God:
The Unchanging Aspect: This is the "abstract" aspect of God. God's essential nature, character, and principles are unchanging. For instance, God's love, wisdom, and commitment to goodness never change. This aspect preserves God's perfection and guarantees that God's basic nature is reliable and constant.
The Changing Aspect: This is the "concrete" aspect of God. In this aspect, God is in a continual process of becoming, influenced by the ever-changing events and experiences in the world. Hartshorne thought that God's knowledge changes as the world changes, meaning that God knows the world in its current state, including all its potentialities and actualities. This allows God to respond to the world in a dynamic way, and it also means that God can be affected by what happens in the world, thereby allowing for a real relationship between God and creation.
Interpreters of Hartshorne are left with the question: Is the abstract and unchanging aspect of God as "real" as the concrete and changing aspect? Does this aspect of God exist "merely" as an abstraction, primarily in the human mind? Or is there a constancy in God's own life that is changeless amid the change? If the latter, then the abstract aspect of God might better be called the constancy of God. It is like a river that is constantly changing but remains constant in its change. In God's case, Hartshorne suggests, the constancy is love.
Shakespeare's sonnet raises this question with regard to marriage. If we imagine two people who are faithful to their vows, who love each other through all tempests, the constancy of their love is more than an abstraction; it is part of their existence and identity. They are in time but are not "time's fools."
To be sure, very few marriages match this ideal. But Hartshorne's idea of divine love, with its abstract and concrete nature, provides an image of the ideal they might try to emulate and approximate: a constancy by which two people are affected by one another's lives, sharing in one another's destinies, unaltered by the alterations and impediments, adapting to new phases of their marriage.
We must be honest, though. When it comes to human-divine relations, the covenantal relations do indeed have impediments: namely, human sin. Here, sin is the violence we humans inflict on one another, on other animals, on the Earth and, in so doing, on God. For life on earth is indeed part of God's ongoing life, and what affects us on Earth likewise affects God. God is not above or outside the universe, God is the living unity, the Consciousness, of the universe.
Hartshorne's idea is that God is lovingly faithful to the Earth and its living beings (and to life anywhere else, too) even as we humans are by no means faithful to God. We have let impediments get in the way, and we are the impediments. The marriage is broken in so many ways. The hope of process theology is that we can reorient our lives toward a love that is unshakably constant in its grace, that seeks the well-being of life itself, and that suffers the consequences of our violence, even as it is a pole star guiding us into a better way. Can the marriage be redeemed? That is not clear. What is perhaps clear, though, is that the pole star has not disappeared from the night sky, and it also dwells in the human heart as a perpetual invitation to walk in love.