Harvey Potthoff and Alfred North Whitehead

Prepared by Dr. Delwin Brown, October 2000, in consultation with Dr. Potthoff

In the fall of 1935, Harvey Potthoff took a leave of absence from his pastoral duties at Christ Methodist Church in Denver to study for one year at Harvard University. The highpoint of that year was Potthoff’s academic work and personal relationship with Alfred North Whitehead.

Potthoff vividly recalls arriving in Cambridge on a Friday evening, expecting to begin classes the next week. That very evening Potthoff learned, to his great dismay, that the class he especially wanted to take, from Whitehead, required the instructor’s permission. Early the next day Potthoff went to Emerson Hall unsure of what he hoped to accomplish. As expected for a Saturday morning the building seemed empty. Potthoff began looking around, thinking he might at least locate the office of Professor Whitehead. On the second floor he noticed a man walking slowly along the corridor in his direction. As the man came closer Potthoff was astonished to see Whitehead himself. “Are you Alfred North Whitehead?” he asked. “Yes I am,” the man replied. “Well, I need to talk with you if I may,” Potthoff said. Without hesitation Whitehead’s response was “let’s find a place where we can sit and visit” and led Potthoff down the corridor to a meeting room where they could sit down.

Potthoff wanted permission to take Whitehead’s course, and that was immediately granted. But Whitehead wanted to talk. “I am an Englishman, and I have just come to America” Whitehead said, and he told Potthoff that he wanted to know what it is like to be an American. Potthoff and Whitehead talked for two hours. Potthoff recalls that Whitehead was especially interested in the American West. When he learned that Potthoff was from Colorado, Whitehead immediately associated that with the Rocky Mountains. He pressed Potthoff for information about people in the West, their attitudes toward life and the general cultural milieu of American life in the West. Later in one of his books Whitehead wrote that he anticipated much of America’s cultural creativity would come from west of the Mississippi River. Reminded of this, Potthoff chuckled, “well, maybe I helped put that idea in his mind?”

In the fall semester Potthoff took a course from Whitehead (“Philosophy 3b1”). His paper for that course was entitled “The Influence of Cosmology Upon Theological Concepts.” In this paper Potthoff argued that the relationship of cosmology to philosophical theology is the “functional equivalent” of the relationship of natural law to cosmological theory, and thus that developments in cosmology will inevitably have an impact on theology, whether as a test of theological concepts or as a basis for them (pp. 8-13). He then showed how Plato’s cosmology influenced Augustine, and how Deism was instigated by the cosmology of Newton. As a framework for his analysis Potthoff noted that, logically, God may be conceived as either wholly transcendent, as transcendent and immanent, or as wholly immanent (pp. 4f, 29). In his four page conclusion (pp. 31-35) Potthoff suggested that modern cosmology-especially as rooted in Darwin, but also was formulated by Smuts, Noble, Hobhouse and C. Lloyd Morgan-was pushing theology away from a transcendent God toward a God that is wholly immanent.

In a hand written evaluation, Whitehead wrote that the paper was “excellent” and “very interesting,” adding: “I wish, however, you might have concentrated on the contemporary situation in theology with reference to the contemporary and historical elements determining its trend. You seem quite qualified for such a study.”

During the second semester Potthoff took a course from Whitehead on “the learned tradition” (Philosophy 32). Potthoff describes the course as Whitehead’s lectures on major figures in philosophical history as they reflected on the nature of the universe and appropriate human behavior. Potthoff’s paper for this second course has not been found, but his notes from both courses are in the Potthoff collection. Indeed, although Potthoff completed eight courses during the year he was at Harvard, only the notes from these two classes taught by Whitehead were saved, which may be an indication of the extent of Whitehead’s impact on Harvey Potthoff.

In his classes, Potthoff recalls, Whitehead always sat in a chair at the front of the room. The subject matter for each class session was something that Whitehead was working on at the moment. “It was always pure Whitehead,” Potthoff says, and he adds, listening to Whitehead “you had the feeling that you were being admitted into the holy of holies of the intellectual life.” But the reflections that Whitehead shared with the class were not ends in themselves. Potthoff says that Whitehead’s interest in each person was evident; his aim in teaching was to draw out of each student what was latent then.

After a few months during which Potthoff enjoyed discussions with Whitehead both in and outside of the classroom, Whitehead asked one day about the possibility of his staying on at Harvard, presumably (though Whitehead did not explicitly say so) to do work on a doctorate. Nothing could have been a greater intellectual adventure than further study with Alfred North Whitehead, but there was one problem. Potthoff was on a leave of absence granted very reluctantly by Bishop Ralph Cushman who was not particularly sympathetic to liberal ideas in general or a Harvard education in particular. As a condition of his leave of absence, Potthoff had committed himself to return to Christ Church after a year at Harvard. Potthoff had no choice but to explain the circumstances to Whitehead. Whitehead replied immediately that he understood the nature of commitment and respected Potthoff’s decision to return to parish ministry in Denver, Colorado.

Near the end of Potthoff’s year at Harvard he wrote down his feelings about Whitehead so that later he would “be reminded of some of his greatness.” (A copy of this document, dated May 21, 1936, is included in the Potthoff papers at Taylor Library.) Potthoff wrote: “Whitehead seems to live in this world and yet above it…. He enjoys the moment in its immediacy and is saddened by…its passage. Yet, he is always alert and anticipates with zest that which lies just ahead. Never have I known anyone so alive to life…. Whitehead never seems to doubt the marvel and wonder of the universe, and his whole soul is wrapped up in the effort to know it better and to be more worthy of it.” Later in the same document Potthoff wrote: “Whitehead has attracted me as no other person ever has…. He shows in his life just how beautiful and interesting life can be. I hope that I shall always be able to preserve some of the glow coming from his personality.”

In a recent conversation Potthoff insisted, “Whitehead’s interest in me nurtured my own approach to teaching and to relating to others generally.” If Potthoff is right about Whitehead’s impact on him, then indirectly Whitehead has also nurtured the hundreds of the students and friends whose lives have been affected by Harvey Potthoff. One example of Potthoff’s Whitehead-like care for people, and its consequences, will illustrate. After Potthoff had returned from Harvard to pastor Christ Church, some young people in his congregation brought to him one of their classmates at the University of Denver. The young man had fled Nazi Germany with his parents and had settled in Denver. Although of high school age, he had such a lively mind that his teachers at East High School encouraged him to go immediately to college. Potthoff took to the young fellow, and he responded gratefully. The two meet weekly for well over a year, discussing religion, theology, ethics, history and, perhaps curiously, the nature of causality. The young man never forgot those intellectual explorations or the mentor who took an interest in him and his questions. Many years later an influential book was dedicated “To Harvey Potthoff, for sufficient causes.” The book is Art and Act: On Causes in History, by Peter Gay, Durfee Professor of History at Yale University.

If Whitehead influenced the way Potthoff dealt with people, he has also had a determinative impact on Potthoff’s worldview. It is a wholistic, cosmic vision. In conversation Potthoff quoted Peter Gay to the effect that “every human being…acts in his world in obedience to the portrait he has made of it” (p. 32). Potthoff sees the emergence of a wholistic cosmic vision as being essential for human survival and flourishing. For Potthoff this vision is rooted in Whitehead, but he also sees it emerging in the physical sciences, in medicine (Harvey Potthoff’s brother was a physician), and he finds it in the appreciation of wholeness and beauty characteristic of Native American traditions. For Potthoff the question now is whether the Church will remain floundering in mediocrity, or step forward to become a vehicle for the growth of this new vision in our time.

Alfred North Whitehead is certainly not the only or “sufficient cause” of Harvey Potthoff’s nurturing personality and his wholistic intellectual vision. As a student at Iliff, Potthoff was also deeply influenced by William Henry Bernhardt’s functional analysis of religion. It is clear, however, that Whitehead has for all the years since 1935 served as Harvey Potthoff’s model and mentor. As Potthoff put it recently, “I never got over Whitehead.” And generations of students have never gotten over Harvey Potthoff either. As a result, through him Alfred North Whitehead has deeply influenced their lives.

The spirit of Alfred North Whitehead, manifest throughout Harvey Potthoff’s pastoral and teaching career, is amply evident in the documents contained in the collection of the Harvey H. Potthoff Papers in the Taylor Library at Iliff School of Theology.