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“Panentheism” Is Not a Four-Letter Word!

I gather from what I hear and read that some Seventh-day Adventists might be uncomfortable with panentheism, the idea that “everything is ’in’ God and that “God is ‘in’ everything. This would be unfortunate because on at least one occasion even the Apostle Paul pictured God along these lines. Quoting one of their own poets to some of the philosophers in ancient Athens, he referred to God as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28. NRSV]

It is true that the word “panentheism” is an umbrella term which covers a wide range of concepts and practices and all those who have checked the Internet know that some of them are silly and superstitious. Yet this is not the case in serious Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology today.

In these contexts, the word refers to attempts to think through a conceptual alternative to identifying God and the universe too closely (pantheism), on the one hand, or separating them too thoroughly (deism), on the other. This try for a third option is what panentheism is all about and we should focus on it instead of getting stuck on spatial metaphors like “in,” “out,” “up” or ‘”down.”

Also, figures of speech, such as the universe as God’s “body,” or God as the “Mind” or “Womb” of the universe, help some and hinder others and we should use or not use them accordingly. Again, the purpose of panentheism is to find a path between opposite and erroneous extremes.

Although I don’t agree with everything every panentheist says [Nobody does!], some of its recurring themes strike me as especially congruent with Seventh-day Adventist thought. Here are six of them:

1. Panentheism rejects pantheism.
2. Panentheism rejects deism.
3. Panentheism rejects contra-naturalism.
4. Panentheism rejects body/soul dualism.
5. Panentheism rejects determinism.
6. Panentheism rejects radical individualism.

We can give these six recurring themes positive expression as follows:

1. Panentheism holds that God is intimately related to but more than the universe as a whole.
2. Panentheism holds that God interactively participates in our lives today.
3. Panentheism holds that God’s interactive participation in our lives today works with — not against or contrary to — the “laws” of nature.
4. Panentheism holds that each human person is an integrated and indivisible unity of physical and spiritual factors.
5. Panentheism holds that — within very real limits — normal, healthy and adult human beings can exercise self-determining freedom and that, the more responsive they are to God’s interactive participation in their lives, the freer they are from the bad things in their pasts.
6. Panentheism holds that our relationships, both those we choose and those we don’t, plus what we elect to do with these relationships, make up who we are.

I use the word ”contra-naturalism” because people often misunderstand when panentheists say that they reject “supernaturalism” and “interventionism.” Panentheists do not deny that God transcends the universe; indeed, this is why they distinguish their position from pantheism. Neither is it their view that today God never interacts with us in surprising or miraculous ways. Rather, their point is that in interacting with us God never contradicts or violates — works against or contrary to — the universe’s habitual way of doing things, what we often call “laws” of nature. This is why I think the word “contra-naturalism” more clearly conveys what they are against than do the terms “supernaturalism” and “interventionism.”

Some events might appear to us to contradict the “laws” of nature. This is because there are many things that we do not understand. For example, it is likely that even some very intelligent people in previous generations would have initially thought that our ability to speak to friends and relatives on the other side of the world with cell phones is supernatural in the extreme even though today we know that it is wholly natural. This shows how little the distinction between the “natural” and “supernatural” actually contributes!

What, then, about “miracles?” If, with people who were otherwise as different as David Hume and C. S. Lewis, we think of them as events that contradict the “laws” of nature, panentheists hold that they don’t happen. But if with Scripture we think of them as “signs, ”wonders” and “powers,” events that prompt awe and gratitude in harmony with these “laws,” they happen all the time.

Thought of in these terms, an unexpected recovery from a serious illness is a “miracle,” but so is the birth of a healthy baby. In panentheism the bad word is “contradict,” not “miracle.”

Panentheists often ask us to put this all together by thinking about the primary features of any moment of ordinary experience. First of all, there is the rushing river of the past that includes everything that has happened from the very beginning of all things to this juncture. Secondly, there is the influence of this moment of our experience on everything that subsequently will occur, even though its impact is usually so small that we wrongly think that it is negligible. Between this “input” and “output” many positive alternatives come to us about how we might respond to what we have inherited. And then there is the measure of freedom we have in that moment to choose among these options.

Panentheists usually put special emphasis upon the many positive alternatives that come to us in each moment of experience, thinking of these “gifts” from God that can liberate us in varying degrees from the tyranny of the bad things in our pasts. In other words, they generalize to all people the reports of many poets, artists, musicians, authors, scientists and prophets that their most creative contributions come to them as surprising gifts, that these insights were not merely the results of their talent, training and effort

Panentheism often begins with what is closest at hand—our own experience—and extrapolates from it to what happens in decreasingly powerful ways as we move down the scale of life. How far down our extrapolations can justifiably go is something that panentheists debate. Some go down as far single cells and others go “all the way down” to whatever the “bottom” is.

This does not mean that all things have consciousness like our own. But it does meant that, to modify a phrase Quakers use in a different context, there is “that which is of consciousness” in far simpler entities than many have long thought. What’s more, consciousness differs in degree, not kind.

Interesting and important debates also continue among panentheists as to whether God’s relationships to the universe are “necessary” and “essential.” This would mean that it is impossible to conceive of God without a creation — a universe — of some sort that can be the object of God’s love.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to make much progress on this issue because we have inherited words like “essence,” “nature” and “substance” from ancient worldviews that many now find inadequate on wholly secular grounds even though they have always been somewhat alien to Biblical ways of thinking. Yet as we have seen with the word”contra-naturalism,” it is often difficult awkward to come up with new and better terms.

When using these inadequate words, most panentheists hold that God’s relationships with the universe are essential and necessary whereas many others believe that they are neither. I am among those who try to split the difference in holding that for God these relationships are essential but not necessary. These, then, are three different “models” of God.

What I’m trying to say is that in God own constitution of God’s own identity—not as something different from or subsequent to God’s own specification of who God is—God “chooses” not only “to be” but “to be with others.” In other words, God has never been “home alone” and never will be. This would be at odds with whom God most basically chooses to be.

Perhaps a story will help. When I was nine or ten years old, I asked my father, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, while we were driving around Honolulu in his prized 1950 sky-blue Desoto with a Fluid Drive Transmission and leather upholstery, what would happen if someday we discovered that all along God hadn’t actually loved everyone as we had thought.” “Well,“ he replied after only a brief pause, “in that case wouldn’t God have turned out not to be God after all?”

Although I immediately answered “yes,” it took me a bit longer to figure out what he had in mind. It eventually dawned on me that he believed that God’s love for others, not merely God’s love within the Trinity, but God’s love for others, is part of the very identity of God. If we remove God’s love for others from our understanding of who God is, we are not left with a self-absorbed, indifferent or even hostile God. We are left with no God at all!

Although neither of us knew it at the time, my father’s answer was my very first lesson in panentheism and it was excellent!

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