The “en” in Panentheism

Panentheism has become a popular theological approach for many prominent theologians today. I think the reason for this is that it skirts many of the difficulties in classic theism, pantheism, and deism. It can also, in many cases, find a happy friendship with scientific understandings. The key theological issue, of course, in panentheism is, what does the “en” in panentheism mean? The traditional characterization of panentheism is that the world is “in” God but God is also, in some way, more than the world. But what does it mean that the world is “in” God? Various metaphors are employed to give a tacit feel for this. Some include “the world is the body of God”, “the world is like a sponge in the ocean(God)” Augustine, “we are like fish in the sea(God)”, “God is the soul of the world” Plato, and one of my versions “Author/Story”. While these metaphors offer a rough and ready picture of what is meant when it comes to the theology they must be explicated. And those explications can have dramatic consequences for things like divine action, prayer, sense of self and community, personal piety, etc. One of the difficulties in navigating panentheistic thought at the outset is the way terms “in” and “God” are juxtaposed in different ways and often in the same system of thought. Etymologically panentheism means pan – All, en – In, theism – God. All-In-God. However, systems of thought espousing to be panentheistic often reverse order to “God-In-All”. While this might seem a trivial difference at first it is not. The consequences of this variant become apparent when the details of the theology come out. What it comes down to, in my view, is whether the “in” is qualified or not. It seems to me that many so called panentheistic systems focus on the issue of “God-In-All” rather than “All-In-God”. Examples of this can be found in Niels Gregersen’s typology of panentheism in “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being”. He suggests three types: soteriological, expressivist, and dipolar:

The first version I call a soteriological panentheism because the world’s being “in God” is not taken as given, but as a gift. It is only by the redeeming grace of God that the world can dwell in God; not everything shares automatically in divine life. Wickedness and sin, for example, have no place in the reign of God. This in a classic Christian perspective the world’s being “in God” does not so much state a general matter of fact, but is predicated only about those aspects of created reality that have become godlike, while they still remain a created reality. Only in the eschatological consummation of creation shall God finally be “all in all”.

This surely reflects a strong distinction between God and the world where the “en” in panentheism is qualified.

Another form of panentheism I call a revelational or expressivist panentheism. This idea came up in the context of early-nineteenth-century German idealism in order to overcome a purely anthropocentric concept of God. The point here is that the divine Spirit expresses itself in the world by going out of God and returning to God, enriched by the experiences of world history. This kind of theology can be seen as a universalized but also as a secularized version of the received Christian view. In fact. the term “panentheism” emerged in the context of post-Hegelian philosophical theology.

Clearly another qualified “en” where God and the world are ontologically distinct.

Finally, we have the dipolar panentheism of Whiteheadian process theology. Here God is assumed to be in some aspects timeless, beyond space and self-identical, while in other aspects temporal, spatial, and affected by the world. While dipolar process theism is conceptually worked out in terms of panentheism, the two aforementioned models of thought can be termed panentheistic only in a strict sense.

At first, the process model of panentheism would seem to be an unqualified version. However, this is drawn into question when one looks at the Hartshorneian theology of God that Griffin feels most process thinkers adopt. In Hartshorne’s theology God and the world have separate “lives” with there own distinct “occasions of experience”. In this view God is a living person. However, God is affected by the world and the world is affected by God through their prehensions of each other. It would appear that in process thinking the “en” in panentheism is not an ontological or “substance” one like Augustine but a perceptual or “feeling” one. If this is true, it is not a qualified version but one where the “en” seems a bit strained. Gregersen’s essay also acknowledges another more “substance” oriented version of panentheism which he illustrates as “a ball in a bowl” but claims that most would agree this does not work in talking about the God-world relationship. I disagree. While this substance metaphor should not be taken literally, I believe something akin to it has the same legitimacy as the other approaches. To me it is the only one that has all the advantages of a monistic system where the ultimacy issue, so important to the idea of God can be preserved. I call this view an aspect monism. However, I do not think that the “ball in the bowl” is a good metaphor for panentheism. That substance metaphor creates too much isolation. Augustine’s “sponge in the ocean”, I think, offers a much more vivid image of the world immersed within and permeated by God. Although Philip Clayton seems to align himself to a great degree with process thought I have feeling that he has something like this in mind here.

In summary, in this version of emergentist panentheism human minds appear as partially isolated or partially independent pockets of divine thought and purpose, receiving their separate identity thanks to the constraining conditions of natural law, material composition, and biological drive — and perhaps also through their own free agency. A fuller theological account could then describe the manner in which God as it were reconnects with these isolated pockets of intentionality by addressing them via the sphere of human/divine interaction we call the realm of spirit, including personal religious experience, culture, art, philosophy, and theology itself.

It seems to me that in order for a panentheism to be successful in overcoming the deficits of a class theism, it must remove the strong ontological distinction between God and the world while still maintaining some sort of distinction. That in my view is the challenge of panentheistic thought. If the thoughts and actions I experience are really, in some sense, both mine and God’s thoughts and actions in communion, this can be a difficult concept to be grasped, especially for the Western mind. It does offer, however, both a unity and diversity that is so appealing in panentheism. It places God within the world and self in the most intimate way as a partner exploring what it means to live with its struggles and joys, as well as seeking a spiritual depth that is there for the exploration. It easily accomodates the kenotic incarnation schemes found in Christianity, Hinduism and other systems that are the bedrock of much in theistic sentiment. Perhaps it should be of no surprise that the notion of a “living God” is so prevalent in both primordial and subsequent religious thought.

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