Why I Am a Panentheist

A friend of mine noticed that I mentioned in passing that I hold to a panentheistic view of God, and asked for more information. And so I thought I would share some things that I have already written on the topic. It turned out that there were several such relevant posts, most from many years ago, and so I decided to quote what I think are particularly interesting bits here, with links to the original posts for my friend and anyone else reading this to trace the excerpts back to their original context. I’ll start with a post called “Why Panentheism?” since it addresses precisely the question of why I hold the view that I do:

I don’t know that I, from my own human perspective, can sort out where Nature ends, or where God ends, or whether talking about either having an “end” really makes any sense. But by not positing a radical distinction between the two, I can note that most people would agree that there is a Reality that transcends us, which caused us to exist, and “in which we live, and move, and exist.” And so I think that helpfully moves things away from fruitless debates about “Does God exist?” to a discussion of “What is reality, how do we know, and how should we live in light of both what we know and the limitations on our knowledge?”

There is, in addition to this aspect of humility and recognizing the limits of my own and any human perspective on God and the cosmos, a theological aspect that relates to problems at the intersection of the anthropomorphic theism depicted in the Bible and the problem of undeserved suffering. And so, from a blog post that asked whether my view of God can “live long and prosper”:

To say that God once parted seas and flooded worlds and now helps Americans find parking spaces is, in my opinion, a move backwards and not forwards in our theological thinking. Indeed, that there are religious believers who will deal with the problem of evil by saying that God does not intervene to prevent genocides and rapes and starvation on a grand scale in order to allow room for free will, but who will then thank God for intervening to get them a job or help them find a bargain at the mall, is not merely disturbing but truly sickening.

In another post, I talk about God being a mystery rather than an explanation:

In a sense, all that we mean by “universe” really was encompassed within the Hebrew term elohim, the deity. While I would not go so far as to argue that the ancient Hebrew authors were advocates of panentheism, their worldview can be plotted on a trajectory moving in that direction.

That we are dealing with a trajectory and not an end point is important to note. Some Biblical authors still thought of God fighting with the sea monster to create, as was the norm in the wider Mesopotamian context. The furthest that the Israelites got was to think of all the deities – the storm god, the heavens and mother earth all wrapped into one God in the singular who is responsible for all the things these diverse deities were thought to do – fertility of womb and of soil, creation of life, blessing of households, and so on. But there is still much of the assumptions of pre-scientific polytheism in such a view of God, and it still attributes a personal purpose to forces of nature, to weather, to earthquakes, and so on.

Without the Hebrews’ insights into the unity of these divine/natural forces, the rise of modern science might never have been possible. The challenge to the theologian in the modern scientific age is to find ways of embracing science, one of Abraham’s children every much as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to find the next spot we can affirm on the trajectory of mystery that begins, but by no means ends, with the writings of the Biblical authors.

And in a post that responded to a challenge asking progressive Christians to write substantively about God, I explored the widely-used analogy between soul and body on the one hand, and God and cosmos on the other:

If we take seriously the depiction of God relating to the world as we do to our bodies, then assuming we consider personhood an emergent property rather than something inserted into us as a separate substance, there is no place where we can pinpoint our “self” if one removes the entirety of our bodies. The human person is a reality that emerges from the organization and interaction of the constituent parts that make us up, and is not to be found somewhere tucked in between the cells. And so, if we think of God as the highest order of emergence out of all that exists, then we can truly say, in good panentheistic fashion, that God is everywhere, and all things exist in God, and yet none of them simply is God. And when we think about the connections that come to exist between us, and emerge as something transcendent from the interaction, then we may say things such as “God is love” and really mean it.

In the past, I have used the analogy of two cells in a human body talking about their existence. One, an “atheist” or perhaps “ahumanist” says that it looks around and sees nothing but cells – they are born, they die, and that is it. The second says that sometimes it thinks that they are all part of something greater, like one big Cell. The latter is projecting its own image onto a transcendent reality that it cannot fathom. But it is intuiting something about the nature of existence that the first denies, and so is not entirely wrong, and is perhaps correct in important respects even though a cell can never have concepts or language to talk about what a human person is like.

And so this language points to a sense of being part of a Reality that connects and hangs together in ways that I cannot fathom from within the midst of it, but nonetheless intuit and affirm and believe…

This approach is a model that I find useful. But to take these as literal statements about God would be to mistake the way religious language functions. It is a pointer towards transcendent realities that we cannot speak of directly. But what these metaphors offer are ways of relating to and pointing to that transcendent reality we refer to as God, in ways that make sense in light of our current understanding of the cosmos and of ourselves. The symbols I am recommending will have a limited duration of usefulness. All human symbols do. But we cannot simply use older symbols when our understanding of the world has radically changed. We have no choice but to find new ways of thinking and speaking – being prepared to jettison them when the time comes.

That should get the conversation started, but there is more that you can find on my blog (to say nothing of elsewhere) that relates to this topic, whether directly or indirectly. In particular see the recent discussion of panentheism in Reform Judaism. And here on my blog, see for instance my post asking whether panentheism is atheism, another exploring differences between panentheism and pantheism, and “Religion 2.0.“

 

 

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  • Brad Feaker

    The only ‘religion’ I give any thought to, at all, is the god of Spinoza, which closely resembles your thoughts in this post. And, indeed, the Hebrews did believe other gods existed, but ‘God’ was far more powerful than all the others.

    Exodus 23:13 ESV
    13 “Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.

    Exodus 18:11 ESV
    Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.”

    Very nice sir.

  • Nick G

    Without the Hebrews’ insights into the unity of these divine/natural
    forces, the rise of modern science might never have been possible. The
    challenge to the theologian in the modern scientific age is to find ways
    of embracing science, one of Abraham’s children every much as Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam

    Can you provide an argument for this claim? Sure, most of the pioneers of modern science were believers in one or other of the Abrahamic religions, but traditionally, and I think rightly, the ancient roots of modern scientific thinking are located primarily among the Greeks, not the Hebrews. It was certainly the Greeks and not the Hebrews who developed mathematics (on the basis of work by the Egyptians and Babylonians, and with a key later input from the Hindus, the “Arabic” numerals). And the Greeks had multiple views that incorporated the “unity of divine/natural forces”, from Thales of Miletus onwards (two of which, Platonism and especially Aristotelianism, were crucial in the development of medieval proto-science). Such views also appeared among the Chinese (the Tao), and in Hinduism and Buddhism, and probably other ancient belief systems I’m unfamiliar with. Which suggests that this kind of worldview is likely to be around in any sufficiently sophisticated culture. My hunch is that any such worldview would do to produce science, when combined with sufficiently advanced socio-technical systems, particularly in the area of information collection, storage, transmission and processing.

  • Nick G

    I can note that most people would agree that there is a Reality that
    transcends us, which caused us to exist, and “in which we live, and
    move, and exist.” And so I think that helpfully moves things away from
    fruitless debates about “Does God exist?”

    Yeah….no. Getting people to agree with a trivially true statement does nothing whatever of any use or interest. And as soon as one gives the notion of “God” the kind of content which most religious believers ascribe to it, it becomes obvious, in the absence of special pleading, that there is no reason to believe the concept is instantiated, and in most cases, very good reasons (such as the undeserved suffering you mention) to believe it is not.

    As for your “two cells talking” analogy, I’m underwhelmed. We know that cells in a human body are, indeed, part of a larger entity which has intrinsic functions, and intentional attributes, and we know a good deal about how such larger entities came to exist. There is simply no reason to believe that the universe is or ever will be such an entity, and the supposed analogy does not provide any.

    Edited to add: Incidentally, why do you give “Reality” an initial upper-case letter? It’s a common noun, not a proper one. If you intend this to make a semantic difference, then (a) you should make that clear, and (b) you would probably find that a lot of people then disagree.

    • I feel as though we’ve had this very conversation before. Why is what anthropomorphic theists say relevant to this discussion about a view that does not subscribe to those tenets?

      • Nick G

        Why do you pick out the one sentence in my comment that has any relation to “what anthropomorphic theists say” and ignore the rest?

        • Because that one sentence lay at the foundation of your dismissal of my point of view which doesn’t subscribe to, support, or even condone the fact that apologists for theism are prone to use arguments about broad concepts of God as though they provide proof of their specific doctrines and dogmas.

          • Nick G

            No, it didn’t. My dismissal of your point of view is based on the complete lack of any evidence or argument for it.

          • Once again, if intuition and analogy is disallowed a priori, then any talk of the transcendent is excluded by definition, which begs the question, as I’ve said before.

            What leads you to believe that the level of reality that you experience and relate to directly is the most transcendent and that there are not and cannot be emergent properties on a grander scale? Please don’t say “complete lack of evidence” unless you can explain what evidence would be available to cells, on my analogy, that would allow them more than an intuition of what it means to be human.

          • Nick G

            Of course intuition and analogy are disallowed when it comes to assessing the truth of factual claims (but not in generating hypotheses), because millennia of experience show that they are not to be trusted. And that is not a priori. Specifically, such analogies between the human body and some supposedly “transcendent” reality have a long and disreputable history.

            What leads you to believe that the level of reality that you experience
            and relate to directly is the most transcendent and that there are not
            and cannot be emergent properties on a grander scale?

            The same complete lack of evidence (see below for the comparison with your “analogy”) that leads me to believe there are no leprechauns. In both cases, if evidence is found, I’ll revise my views. But in addition, as I have already noted, we know quite a lot about the mechanisms by which multicellular organisms came into existence: it appears to have happened many times, and research on intermediate forms (yeasts, slime molds, volvocine algae (and see multiple articles on the same blog) and so on is proceeding apace in discovering how it can happen, due to undirected variation and natural selection. Neither you nor anyone else has given any hint of an idea of how any “transcendent” (an empty piffle-word if ever there was one) “level of reality” could come into existence (or “emerge” synchronously). It’s just newage wish-fulfilment guff.

            Please don’t say “complete lack of evidence” unless you can explain what
            evidence would be available to cells, on my analogy, that would allow
            them more than an intuition of what it means to be human.

            Supposing cells were capable of collecting and assessing evidence, which they are not, there would be several lines of evidence available to them. To start with, they would find themselves constantly passing materials to each other, and would note that they are adapted to do so. (As are people to each other, and to a lesser extent to and from other animals, because we are part of greater social and biological wholes.) If they could investigate their own DNA and associated processes, they would also find that they share with the other cells of the body almost all their genomes, but that different parts of the genome are transcribed and translated in different cells, according to where they are in the body. They could also trace back their lines of descent, and find that they all derived from a single ancestor. And if you say that they couldn’t do these things, I’ll reply that they can’t talk to each other either: you can’t arbitrarily grant them one human-like ability and deny them others without making clear how ridiculously contrived and spurious the “analogy” is.

          • You are missing the point of the analogy, whether deliberately or unintentionally I cannot tell. We can see that there is a great deal of interaction among the things in the universe at all levels we can observe. But could cells ever get a sense of what the emergent properties are that characterize human existence? Cells could notice that there are chemical exchanges among them, but could not know what it is like to write, perform, or listen to a symphony as part of human experience, despite participating in those processes on the cellular level.

            You seem to take great pleasure in dismissing any openness to transcendence as a characteristic of the reality of which we are a part, but one could very easily respond with much the same insults. Whether leprechauns exist as part of our level of reality is obviously a fundamentally different question from whether there are emergent properties of the reality of which the things we observe (thus no leprechauns) are a part. And the insistence that there cannot be such is easily explicable in terms of a lack of imagination, reductionism, narrow-mindedness, and/or hubris with regard to your own understanding of all that exists, despite not having a way to investigate these questions directly any more than I do. Your arrogance about this that surfaces every time the topic comes up is very interesting – but what does it tell us, I wonder?

          • Nick G

            We can see that there is a great deal of interaction among the things in the universe at all levels we can observe.

            How profoundly deep, and deeply profound – at least at first sight. But in fact, there are many “levels we can observe” at which supposed “interactions among the things in the universe” turn out not to exist. The position of Saturn in the sky at the moment of your birth really doesn’t have an effect on your character. Water really doesn’t retain a “memory” of a substance dissolved in it, if diluted so that no molecule of the substance remains. Sticking pins in an effigy of a person really doesn’t cause disease in the part pricked.

            But could cells ever get a sense of what the emergent properties are that characterize human existence? Cells could notice that there are chemical exchanges among them, but could not know what it is like to write, perform, or listen to a symphony as part of human experience, despite participating in those processes on the cellular level.

            If you’re going to allow cells the ability to indulge in conversation, why deny them the ability to write symphonies? The analogy simply doesn’t do the rhetorical work you want it to do, as soon as anyone thinks to question it.

            Whether leprechauns exist as part of our level of reality is obviously a fundamentally different question from whether there are emergent properties of the reality of which the things we observe (thus no leprechauns) are a part.

            “What leads you to believe that the level of reality that you experience and relate to directly is the most transcendent and that there are not and cannot be emergentmagical properties on a grander scale?” There are in fact plenty of observational reports of leprechauns and similar magical beings so if anything they are more plausible than your “transcendent Reality” (with a still-unexplained capital “R”). Modern-day believers in such things tend to babble about “levels” (or “planes”) of reality (sorry, “Reality”) just as you do. I was arguing with a believer in demonic possession on “Dispatches on the Culture Wars” a few weeks ago. She made a reference to string theory in response to my scepticism, and I thought she was probably pointing to the fact that parts of science are beyond empirical test*. Turned out she thought demons could be beings from a different universe, close to ours on one of string theory’s hidden dimensions! You just want your own emergent/magical/supernatural fantasies granted an epistemological status you deny to those of others. They are not logically impossible, any more than trans-dimensional demons or leprechauns – there’s just no good reason to believe in either.

            hubris with regard to your own understanding of all that exists

            As I’ve already said, show me some evidence and I’ll revise my view. You don’t even try, because you know you can’t. And my degree of arrogance says nothing at all about whether “panentheism” is any more than a newage fad, particularly suited to those who can’t manage to believe in conventional religion, but can’t quite let go of it either.

            *And string theory is, of course, considered dubious or plain unscientific by a lot of relevant experts.

          • If you think that human personhood emerging out of the configuration of cells that make up a human body is “magical” in a pejorative sense then this conversation is not going to get very far. The same goes for your attempt to treat panentheism, a viewpoint with a long history, as “a newage fad,” and to liken a liberal Christian stance of the sort that challenged so many aspects of ancient religiosity to belief in demonic possession.

          • Nick G

            Emergence is not magical, but it is a term used with a wide range of meanings. Sometimes it is defined in an epistemological or even subjective sense: a system being said to show emergence if some property of the whole cannot be understood through knowledge of the parts. That has the disadvantage that what is “emergent” now may turn out not to be later. I prefer an objective sense: most simply, that the whole has properties the parts do not. In that sense, a volume of fluid has emergent properties of temperature and pressure, which are not possessed by the molecules constituting it. It is also possible to restrict the term so that only some such properties are described as emergent. But waving the term around without definition and as a justification for evidence-free speculation, as you do, reduces it to the same level as burblings about magic and the supernatural. Something having a long history does not prevent it being a fad in its current form; and you have given no argument whatsoever – and at this stage that must be taken to signify that you have none – why panentheism should be given any more credence than demonic possession.

            Oh – and I’m still waiting for an explanation of that upper-case “R”.

          • The capital R has been explained numerous times. It is a way of making clearer that I am referring to Reality as a whole, in its entirety, rather than using it in any other sense.

            You seem to think that dismissal and insult are substitutes for engagement and argument. What kind of evidence can there be, apart from (1) recognition of emergence at other levels of existence, and (2) intuition? I can fully understand why you might well say that you cannot know and don’t care whether you are part of a whole that is greater than yourself, but that does not appear to be your stance. You seem to be claiming to know that you are not, and seem to be claiming that things like intuition and the valuing of the whole of something (or someone) in a manner that reflects something beyond the value calculable based on constituent parts, are silly undertakings. And yet you come back and state that stance over and over, as though you actually do believe that there is some inherent meaningfulness to this pseudo-engagement. I am curious how would justify your own approach to blog commenting in a manner that does not undermine the very stance you purport to hold…

          • Nick G

            You seem to think that dismissal and insult are substitutes for engagement and argument.

            Self-awareness is not your strong point, is it?

            What kind of evidence can there be, apart from (1) recognition of emergence at other levels of existence, and (2) intuition?

            It’s not my responsibility to find evidence for your fantasy.

            You seem to be claiming to know that you are not

            No, I have never said that. If you wish to dispute that, kindly point to specific places where I have done so. What I have said repeatedly is that there is no good reason to believe in panentheism, any more than there is in demonic possession or leprechauns.

            seem to be claiming that things like intuition and the valuing of the whole of something (or someone) in a manner that reflects something beyond the value calculable based on constituent parts, are silly undertakings

            Nor have I ever claimed either of those things. Again, if you dispute that, kindly point to specfiic places where I have done so. In the context of rational enquiry, intuition can certainly suggest hypotheses, but it is not and cannot be evidence for them. As I have already said, millennia of experience show that intuition and analogy are not to be trusted. And of course I value people beyond what is calculable from the value of their cells. In that instance, and others, we know that the whole has emergent properties which we value beyond the value we place on its parts. In the case of the universe, we have no reason to believe that is the case.

            I am curious how would justify your own approach to blog commenting in a
            manner that does not undermine the very stance you purport to hold…

            If you could bring yourself to stop consistently misrepresenting my stance, you might be less puzzled.

          • Rob don’t tolerate intolerance

            Oh dear, such dogma and closed mindedness

          • Nick G

            Oh dear, such vacuity and empty mindedness.

          • Rob don’t tolerate intolerance

            Not from me, obviously – I guess you’re looking in the mirror. There is a sea of empty-minded simplistic anti-theistic prejudice and nonsense on this board. Think harder, stop being a lazybones.

          • Nick G

            On the contrary, you managed to demonstrate those qualities in a single sentence, and have now done so again. You have made no attempt to substantiate your accusations, so either you know you can’t, or you are too lazy to do so. Both your comments have been merely sneers empty of significant content, so your vacuity and empty mindedness are obvious. I won’t bother to reply to any further comments of yours unless they contain something in the way of actual argument.

          • Rob don’t tolerate intolerance

            Utter rubbish. I only resist attacks on others – sorry if your bigotry being challenged hurts and challenges you away from intellectual laziness

      • Tim

        You probably have. Nick is one of the people I’ve blocked for reasons that are probably apparent to you.

  • Tim

    Good post. I am also a panentheist.
    The shorthand way I tend to think of it is kind of like the Force from Star Wars, but more personal.

  • Love this post 🙂

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I’m not clear. As I understand panentheism God is seen as intimately connected to creation which derives from and is inseparable from him, but God is not derived from or to be identified with creation in the way you seem to be describing: in panentheism while creation is dependent on and inseparable from God, it doesn’t work the other way around and God is still prior to and exists independently of creation. Your article seems a lot closer to pantheism, although I may have misunderstood.

    • I’m simply agnostic about questions that I think are beyond what we can hope to know or comprehend. Pantheism tends to envisage God as simply all that is without any emphasis on any emergent or transcendent aspect that goes beyond the sum of the parts.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        Thanks.

  • Illithid

    I found myself nodding along as I read, but keep thinking “but why call it ‘god'”? I might almost think that the answer to “is panentheism atheism?” is “yes, but it doesn’t want to admit it.” I really like the interconnectedness of the universe, and the idea that we’re all made of stardust may be the coolest thing ever. I’m just not sure that using religious language adds anything substantive to the discussion. Maybe it just helps some people be more comfortable?

    • I think that the argument is a problematic one even in relation to pantheism, never mind panentheism. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2012/03/why-be-an-atheist-rather-than-a-pantheist.html

      If a reality exists that may well be infinite, but which at the very least exists before us and brought us into existence, why not use the term “God”? I think the question comes down to the language one finds appropriate if not indeed necessary for pondering the mysteries of existence.

      • Illithid

        Perhaps it’s that the word “god” implies a person, a thinking entity one might communicate with, having goals and such. It reminds me of the Gaia hypothesis. I thought it an intriguing idea to compare the Earth’s ecosystem to an organism, just as an analogy for its interconnectedness and homeostatic properties. But Gaia isn’t a person who could know we’re here or have an emotional reaction to what we do (AFAIK). Same goes for the universe.

        I suppose that what might be called the “religious impulse” just isn’t much present in me. Maybe that’s why I don’t put a religious spin on what seems to be a grand and awesome but also uncaring cosmos. I know it’s amazing and I love being part of it, but I also know it could kill us all tomorrow and it doesn’t seem like it would notice.

        But hey, whatever makes your watercraft buoyant. It’s not like you need my validation. 🙂

  • Chris Eyre

    I’m a mystic, and the god-concept which makes most sense of the mystical experience is panentheism (I didn’t set out to be a mystic, it was thrust upon a reasonably happy 14 year old atheist many years ago, but was *so* good an experience that I went looking for a repeat…). Most mystics will report something like radical immanence, and research has shown that experienced meditators tend to experience a reduction in activity in the part of the brain which distinguishes “self” and “other”; from my POV, the sensation of breakdown of that barrier never entirely goes away. Besides which, mystical experiences are *massively* self-verifying. The result is an absolute conviction in – er – now, it was really clear to me *then*…

  • Dick Beery

    Interesting post, but I was turned off by the statement at the beginning where you said: “But by not positing a radical distinction between the two, I can note that most people would agree that there is a Reality that transcends us, which caused us to exist, and “in which we live, and move, and exist.” I for one and there are many others who would not agree with this. There is nothing that transcends us. This is a construct of human thought and not based on any scientific principle.

    • The view that nothing real exists beyond one’s own mind and thoughts is very much a minority viewpoint, and so I think my statement stands regarding what most but not all would agree with.