Through out much of Christian history, at least in the west, the emphasis has been on God's transcendence. Karl Barth spoke of God as "wholly other." But does such an understanding of God provide us with a full understanding of the nature of God. Process Theology, which Bruce Epperly espouses, offers us a panentheistic vision of God, a vision he also finds present in Celtic theology and spirituality. Here in his third installment of a series of posts on Celtic spirituality he speaks directly to the issue of panentheism, which shouldn't be confused with pantheism. I invite you to read and offer your thoughts on his vision.
Celtic Theology and the Promise of Panentheism
Bruce G. Epperly
The lenses through which I interpreted Celtic spirituality in my recent text The Center is Everywhere: CelticSpirituality for the Postmodern Age are process theology and an ancient saying, attributed to a variety of sources, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” I believe that Celtic spirituality exemplifies a world-affirming, relational, and creative theology and spirituality that can provide a home for seekers and give inspiration for a lively, world-transforming Christian faith.
To assert that “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” is to affirm the following:
- All things exist in the center of God’s care.
- God inspires all things from the inside as well as through relationships.
- Everything is cherished within God’s circle of love.
- God lovingly influences me and desires my well-being; God lovingly influences and desires the well-being of all creation.
In the biblical tradition, these insights are captured in passages such as:
- "Where can I go from your spirit? . . . If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (Sheol), you are there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)
- “Nothing in all creation, will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)"
- "In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
All things are shaped, treasured, and embraced in God’s experience. The light of the world, as John 1 asserts, enlightens and moves creatively within each and every thing.
Theologians have described this relationship in terms of panentheism, an awkward term for the belief that God and the world are intimately related and that God and the world interpenetrate one another in such a way that God is present in all things, and the world is present in God. In other words: “God in all things, and all things in God.”
Traditionally, the relationship of God and the world has been understood in terms of the polarity of immanence and transcendence, and presence and distance. Many traditional theists believe that that God is beyond the world, untouched by the world’s pain and temporality. If God intervenes in the world at all, it is from outside – supernaturally – in acts of unilateral power. Whereas traditional theism emphasizes transcendence, pantheism focuses on immanence; God and the world are virtually identical in nature.
Panentheism, in contrast, synthesizes the insights of both immanence and transcendence. God is in the world and the world is in God. But, God is also more than the world. God’s intimacy is grounded in God’s differentiation. God shapes the world with creative possibilities; God also transforms the world within God’s experience. This dynamic interplay has led some philosophers such as Charles Hartshorne to describe God as the World Soul, whose energy moves within all things and receives things, similar to the relationship of mind and body, envisaged by holistic medicine.
Celtic spirituality captures the vision of panentheism. On one the one hand, Celtic spirituality affirms the intimacy and ubiquity of God/Christ. The Prayer of St. Patrick affirms:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouths of friend and strange,
Christ in everything in see,
Christ in every eye that sees me.
We lived in a God-filled universe in which as one Celt proclaims “I lie down with Christ and Christ lies down with me, I lie down with the Spirit and the Spirit lies down with me. I lie down with the Creator and the Creator lies down with me. I lie with the Trinity and the Trinity lies down with me.” Differentiated yet interconnected, and unique yet intimate, God shapes every moment of my experience. More than that, my experience matters to God: the Celts recall God’s presence in every task from building a fire to milking a cow or going on a journey. Holiness is revealed in “thin places” where God and the world dance with one another in abbeys, groves of trees, and craggy rocks. God hears, protects, and reveals, seeking the well-being of every pilgrim – and we are all pilgrims – in a world that is often filled with danger and uncertainty.
Our fate matters to God. Ever-present, God touches us and we touch God. Whether we imagine God as the spirit or mind of the universe or the womb of life, God is near, lovingly embracing all things, and lovingly embracing you and me.
All healthy theology and spirituality are joined in the quest to live what we affirm. “Lived panenetheism” is a matter of cleansing the doors of perception, as William Blake affirms. It involves awakening to the holiness and wonder of every moment in living and dying. In terms of spiritual practices, it involves embracing rather than denying the world. It involves breathing in the wonder of life, opening your senses to the holiness of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. It involves pausing and noticing the infinity resident in every moment of experience, whether thoughts, emotions, dreams, encounter, or relationships.
We are children of impermanence, arising and perishing like the grass of the field. Yet, we are also reflections, revelations, and incarnations of the love that creates the galaxies, supernovas, and infants. As the Gospel of Thomas proclaims, “Cleave the wood” – “open your heart” – and I am there. God is in all things, lovingly inspiring them and creating in relationship with their own freedom and creativity. All things are in God, whether joyful or painful, embraced, transformed, and healed. This is the spirit of panentheism; the spirit that brings holiness to every encounter and a trust that God is with us and what we do matters in God’s quest to heal this good earth.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, speaker and retreat leader, and author of 22 books, including The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spiritualityfor the Postmodern World; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; and Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living. He may be reached for engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org.