An Introduction to Panentheism -- Theoblogging

Panentheism – Definitions

As I continue my meandering trip through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) for the Transforming Theology project, I come to Part three, which is simply entitled Panentheism. As Philip Clayton lays out his Emerging Christian theology, he places panentheism at its center. In chapter eight he introduces us to this concept that he will build on in subsequent chapters. In an earlier post I had referred to Dr. Clayton as a Process Theologian – he has responded in a comment that he would accept that title as long as I don’t hold him to any Process orthodoxy. I trust that in my comments here that I’m not assuming a Whiteheadian orthodoxy.

Chapter 8, which is the chapter under consideration here, is entitled “An Introduction to Panentheism.” We need to keep this word separate from a lookalike – pantheism. Unlike panentheism, which places emphasis on that middle syllable – en (which equals “in”), pantheism speaks of a full and complete merger of the divine and the universe. Panentheism seeks to preserve a balance between divine immanence and divine transcendence. Thus, while God is in the World, and the World is in God, God is more than the world.

In this chapter, as Clayton lays out his definitions, we’re introduced to the importance of infinity to the theological conversation. While traditional theism placed an emphasis on divine perfection, which ultimately required an unchangeable (immutable) God, a God separate and unaffected by the world. By moving our focus to infinity, new possibilities open up. In this setting, God is infinite, and the universe is finite, thus because the infinite includes the finite, so God includes the world. Clayton writes:

Thus, the essential infinity of God will require both that God include all other things within the expanse of the divine nature and that God as essentially infinite should be more than any of the finite things or sets of things contained within the divine being. (p. 119-120).

Why might we wish to move toward panentheism? One important reason for Clayton is its usefulness in engaging in a theological conversation with science. Traditional theism, which requires an interventionist God, is no longer viable. Science simply can’t abide by such an idea of an interventionism that would undermine the integrity of natural law. Panentheism also allows for a more cogent theodicy – defense of God in the face of evil.

Clayton notes that part of the criticism of panentheism is that it is too philosophically based. I must admit this is one of my own causes for resistance. It seems to impose a philosophical dimension on biblical theology, but I must admit that much of our classical theism is just as philosophically based. Perhaps it’s an issue of the starting point – sometimes it seems as if Whitehead has become the fifth gospel. That said, Clayton makes some good points in panentheism’s favor. Indeed, he suggests that it is when the concept is taken cumulatively, that is, taken together the arguments for panentheism seem to win the day.

What Clayton, and most panentheists with him, wishes to do is find a place between a strong monism (all is one) and deism, which places God so far outside the realm of the universe that God is simply not present. Once again we encounter “dipolar theism,” a concept that allows panentheists to preserve divine agency and personhood, while allowing for the concept of infinity. The analogy Clayton uses, one that he hopes is understood dialectically (two-way relationship), is a mind/body metaphor. Even as the Mind is to the Body, and the Body to the Mind, so God is to the world. God is the mind, the universe is the body. The value of this analogy – it “offers the possibility of conceiving divine actions that express divine intentions and agency without breaking natural law” (p. 128). This is key because in his attempt to imagine an emerging theology, one that can dialog with science, he wishes to preserve the integrity of natural law, while affirming the place for divine agency. Complete transcendence, would not allow for divine agency, except in the form of an interventionism that would compromise the integrity of the natural order, so by bringing into balance, transcendence and immanence, this integrity is kept in place.

I must say that I’m intrigued by this discussion, but I’m still trying to understand what it means for us as Christians. I have long found the idea of divine immutability (unchangeableness) of God difficult to comprehend. It seems to leave little room for a divine-human relationship, for God cannot be moved. While I embrace a transcendent God, it is difficult to conceive of a wholly other who remains distant from our realities. At the same time, to simply equate God and the universe leaves much to be desired. So, perhaps we have a way forward. One that recognizes the reality of emergence -- within science and in the church.


Anonymous said…
If feel like I'm back in Calculus class, afraid to ask a stupid question.

What type of infinity are you talking about? Time, space (small, large?) all possibilities?

This is how the world "feels" to me, but I never expect to comprehend it in my life. And I'm a scientist. We only understand the quantum world through mathematics, which is where you’re going.

The particle-wave duality of light is just as cool and inspiring.

Even works when you know the position of each particle-

This is why I like science. Mystery abounds.

David Mc
Hyeon Cho said…
As long as I know, Clayton is said to be one of Process theologists.
I expect their thoughts will be compatible with Disciples' theological backgrounds, though I don't know even basic priciples of both. :)

I am still trying to comprehend this because I come at it from a historical/theological perspective. I'm assuming that it is space/time infinity. Your background may make it easier to comprehend some of this.

Hyeon Cho, I would say that there is compatibility between Disciples/Process, especially since Disciples are less committed to traditional theological formulations.
Anonymous said…
I suggest you start with an astronomy course at a community college.

David Mc
pclayton said…
Dear Bob,

Again, thanks for your perceptive comments on ADVENTURES IN THE SPIRIT. You rise above the thicket of details and focus on the urgent issues for Christian believers and for the church.

I'm not interested in panentheism as a foreign philosophy, a straight-jacket into which one shoves Christian belief. But from my early days as a Christian I so clearly remember the contrast between the biblical descriptions of God, most of which I found (and find) immensely attractive, and the framework of much classical (Patristic) theology, which didn't seem able to convey the nature of the relational, gracious God. If process theologies can only loosen the hold of that old language of "God as substance," that will be enough for me.

How can we as Christians NOT be interested in a "relational" theology for a "postmodern" world? Or in talk of God as "the supremely related One" (Marjorie Suchocki, in God, Christ, Church)? One does not need to accept the process philosopher Whitehead hook, line, and sinker in order to gain a fuller understanding of his or her faith through process ideas.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes me excited about the language of panentheism: God contains all things within Godself, in eternal relationship, but God is also more than all created things.

-- Philip Clayton
Steve said…
Congratulations, Bob, not only on another perceptive book review, but on claiming the further attention of P Clayton. Quite a significant accomplishment!

BTW, I bet Clayton's resistance of panentheism as straitjacket moves you even closer to it. We'd be happy to have you--finally.

My study of cosmology/epistemology suggests that no one is without one. The issue is which one makes the most sense? Your concern that panentheism "seems to impose a philosophical dimension on biblical theology" may overlook the fact that no theology, biblical or otherwise, is without its own philosophical dimension. So there is no need to attempt to do theology without one; it would be impossible.
Anonymous said…

These really aren't the same things Steve. Cosmology is a brance of science (astronomy).

Bob should know by now I'm generally the skeptical type.

Ideas and theories are maintained and reshaped the best data and discoveries to date and by peer review by the best minds on the subject. You can agree or not to the logic without need for faith.

By the way, overhauling the Hubble was the greatest thing to happen this year.

Keep those heroes in your prayers as they return from their mission.

David Mc
An astronomy class might be worth taking!

Philip, thank you again for the comments. I do think a relational theology is key. Along that line, I'm wondering if you could speak to the way in which your views relate to Moltmann's -- my personal favorite theologian. Or, how this relates to the open theism of John Sanders, et al. His is future oriented, but the language is a bit different. I'm looking forward to the upcoming chapters because I think they're lifting up the issues I need to wrestle with.

Steve, yes, I think if I don't have to become Whiteheadian that might help!
Anonymous said…
Moltmann was practically a Nazi turned around due to the kindness of his captures. Didn't they see the value of torture?

oops, wrong subject, sorry-
David Mc
Anonymous said…
Bob "An astronomy class might be worth taking!"

I can't suggest this more. I'd like to take one again. Mine was over 30 years ago. They were still speculating about if a black hole was possible.

I dropped out of school in 10th grade. When I lost my job, the unemployment office talked me into a GED and a nursing program. I took astronomy my first semester.
It was mind expanding to say the least. Oh, yes, community college is no joke.

I'm not a nurse now, but I'm quite accomplished in chemical research.

David Mc
Anonymous said…
ooah, this conversatiom really boring,
actually did you know who is god??
oaah, sorry this my link

Mystical Seeker said…
I would strongly recommend John Haught's book "God After Darwin". He definitely shows a great deal of sympathy with process theology, and I think he does an admirable job of conveying the philosophical.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, I'll look into it.
I wanted top thank you for the Badfinger link, but you don't allow anonymous. I hope Bob doesn't mind--

Oh yeah, thanks Mystical.

Hey, do you remember..?

David Mc
Mystical Seeker said…
The song "Hocus Pocus" by Focus is one of the all time great rock instrumentals. :)
Anonymous said…
I just ordered a used hard cover John Haught's book "God After Darwin". for 11.99 free shipping from ebay and it all goes to Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota.

You got me thinking of a concert I went to 35 years ago. I just googled it and found someone who recalled it much better than I. As I read it, it all came back. Google's cool.

I had just turned 18. May have been the greatest concert ever. There was a freaky coincidence that made it feel like God was smiling down on us too.

David Mc
Zeteo said…
You wrote: "At the same time, to simply equate God and the universe leaves much to be desired."You probably know a lot more about panentheism that I do, since I'm a recent explorer of it as a concept of God. However, I have never understood panentheism to 'simply equate God and the universe' but rather to infer that the universe is within God (as in 'in Him we live, move, and have our being). Is this a misunderstanding on my part?
Zeteo, I can see why you might be confused by the statement. The referent should be pantheism (merger), not panentheism, which takes a middle path.
pclayton said…
Dear Bob,

We were hosting a national conference of denominational leaders here (at which Sharon Watkins, among others, was present) and I missed the chance to respond to your questions about Moltmann and Sanders while the thread was warm. There are close parallels there, as you'll see later in the book. Let me wait until you get to those sections to respond.

-- Philip Clayton

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