- The “Never Ending Poem”: Some Remarks on Dombrowski’s Divine Beauty
Just about a decade ago, at the very beginning of what has proven now to be a staggeringly long midlife crisis, I wrote a little book about the religious significance of boredom. (I think of this as yin to the yang of more commonplace considerations of the religious significance of beauty.) That book concluded with a brief meditation on “waiting,” in which I distinguished between waiting for meaning and the more proactively creative exercise of waiting on meaning. Daniel Dombrowski’s splendid book on Charles Hartshorne’s aesthetics is of the latter sort, a real service to meaning, both a careful attentiveness to meaning as it is embodied in Hartshorne’s writing and the insightful extension of the latter’s arguments in Dombrowski’s own polished prose.1 I want to express my feelings of gratitude for Dombrowski’s first rate hermeneutical achievement and indicate how delighted I am to be able to participate in a discussion of this book.
Just about a century ago, near the end of what had proven to be a frustrating but brilliant philosophical career, Charles Peirce warned that all of our talk about God, about the divine nature and properties, was shrouded in vagueness, indeed, that we “only wildly gabble about such things.”2 I tend to agree, and so that probably makes me one of those classical theists who Hartshorne criticized as being “overly influenced . . . by the tradition of negative theology.”3 As a result of such influence, I run the risk, as Dombrowski describes it, of putting a “human veto on the wealth of divine life.”4 This is a risk that I am prepared to take, but only because I want to avoid what for me is the bigger one of domesticating the divine mystery by training it to terms supplied by an admittedly subtle and sophisticated brand of process metaphysics. In any [End Page 207] event, while I do not reject them as intellectual father figures, it is not primarily Augustine or Aquinas, but once again Peirce who inspires my defense of a more classical theism, while also reinforcing my predisposition to respect what a negative theology is designed to teach us about God. Moreover, the historical connections between Peirce and Harsthorne are so immediately tangible that it ought to be easy enough to place these two great thinkers in conversation with each other on the topic of divine beauty, thus facilitating my own more immediate interaction with Dombrowski and his book.
The advantage of bringing Peirce into dialogue with Hartshorne (although my remarks will not be perfectly confined by this strategy) is that it will both supply me with a critical perspective on Hartshorne’s aesthetic and expose the genuinely valuable insights embedded in that perspective. What I have called Peirce’s “theosemiotic,” his conception of the world as being “perfused with signs” and as constituting God’s “great poem,” clearly resonates with Hartshorne’s description of a “never ending poem” that is divine in nature.5 I want to join Dombrowski in continuing to articulate and defend such a point of view, albeit while preferring some of the features of Peirce’s own particular formulation of it to that of Hartshorne. I want to wonder out loud about the extent to which classical theism is really incompatible with such a view (while Peirce has sometimes been labeled as a process thinker, I do not agree—unless that label is understood to be extraordinarily vague). Finally, there are aspects of this general perspective, embraced by both Peirce and Hartshorne, that are worrisome for me, such as the rigidly coherentist conception of beauty that it involves, and the risk it carries of using beauty as a cloak to obscure the reality of evil and of human suffering.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God) is St. Ignatius of Loyola’s famous motto formulated for the members of his Society of Jesus. Yet that phrase seems also to capture perfectly the spirit of Charles Hartshorne’s theological aesthetic as Dombrowski has portrayed it in his book. It is important to observe...