Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere.

I’ve been reading “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, and am a member of the Cosmic Campfire book group which is a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, which is studying the book over the next few weeks.

I strongly recommend the book, which is an examination via accounts which include a lot of personal experience from a set of first rank theologians who have a liking for panentheism. For those who don’t know the term, panentheism holds that the material universe exists within God, and God pervades every aspect of it – but God is not equivalent to the material universe (i.e. coterminous with it) – that would be pantheism, with which panentheism is often confused. Pantheism would hold that God is wholly invested in the material universe with no remainder, while panentheism holds that there is a remainder; often the statement is made that the investment in the material universe maintains immanence while the remainder maintains transcendence.

I introduced myself in the reading group in these terms:-

Hello, my name is Chris, and I’m a mystic and a panentheist…

OK, couldn’t resist that. It feels right, in a way, considering some of the other introductory posts I’ve read. I’ve been part of the Homebrewed community for years, and recently added the Liturgists, so I come from both strands.

I also feel the need (particularly after reading around two thirds of the text) to add that I am not now nor have I ever been an Evangelical (though I’ve spent a while trying to be part of Evangelical churches). Maybe with a small “e”…

And, particularly as Mike Morrell [note – he is one of the group facilitators and asked if any members were previously atheists] asked the question, I used to be an atheist. In fact, after pushing 5 years of Sunday School (preacher’s kid) the 9 year old me decided that he was an atheist, and that everyone else should be too (so I suppose that’s an “evangelical atheist” – Dawkins and his like weren’t around in those days, otherwise I’d probably have been a fan). Which didn’t go down well with Sunday School and (as I failed miserably to realise at the time) was a collossal embarrassment to my father – and to my mother, a frequent soloist with the choir).

Then, at 14, I had a peak mystical experience out of the blue. I’d done absolutely nothing to encourage something like that, and had no conception that something of the sort was possible – so I went to see my doctor, saying that my brain seemed to be broken (I was also suddenly experiencing an overdose of empathy and compassion, neither of which had much troubled me before that). Apparently the brain wasn’t broken, so, given that the experience was better than sex, drugs and rock & roll (none of which I’d experienced at the time – hindsight speaking there), I went out looking for (a) language in which to talk about it and (b) a means to get more of the same.

Christianity was not my first port of call. Indeed, almost anything else looked like a better bet to me, though I did happen on F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism, a Study and Anthology” shortly afterwards, which at least persuaded me that it was possible to be a Christian (of sorts, at least) and a mystic. Courtesy of sampling a lot of traditions, I finally found a praxis which at least seemed to make repeats more likely (although the absolute pinnacle experiences still seem to me to be given not worked for).

However, Christianity was what I was born into, was ingrained in the history of the society I lived in and was accessible even in the small town where I lived. It was an easier language than learning a whole alternative civilisation. In addition, I becaue convinced that Jesus was a mystic, and was (for me) the clearest expositor of how to live as a mystic, and I fell in love with Jesus – or, at least, my best construct of who Jesus was. But I was hugely put off by the Church in all the forms I’d experienced, not least because accepting being part of that meant that I’d have to accept its history and current activities.

Then, when I was moderating the Christianity section of a religious discussion forum back in the 90’s, a couple of Anglican lay readers told me (without conferring) in no uncertain terms both that I was a Christian and that I regarded my input stopping WWIII erupting between fundamentalists and liberals, atheists, Jews and Muslims as a “pastoral mission” (I denied both of those at least three times, FWIW, before grudgingly accepting…)

So I’m definitely a mystic. I’m open to the possibility that “panentheist” isn’t the best label, but haven’t come across a better one. And I suppose I’m a Christian – I attend an Anglican church, and that’s where most of my praxis originates these days. But around 90% of Christianity would have reservations about that, in which case fine – I’m a follower of Jesus. Not a very good one, but a follower nonetheless.

In the week to come, we’ll be looking at the first essay in the book, which is by Philip Clayton. I am slightly in awe of him; he was doctoral advisor to Tripp Fuller, who is the originator and mainstay of Homebrewed Christianity, and has appeared many times on the Homebrewed podcast. He’s notable for being able to take Tripp’s positions apart thought by thought and challenge them theologically and philosophically, and sometimes to render Tripp speechless. If you’ve listened to many Homebrewed episodes (and I recommend that you do), you’ll appreciate quite how amazing a feat that is.

The essay is titled “That of God in Every One”, and Prof. Clayton’s personal statement would be “there is that of God in every one”, which I think catches fairly reasonably the insistence on omnipresence and immanence which is a feature of panentheism. To me, however, this does not go nearly far enough to capture my own experience. I think my own personal statement would be “there is nothing which is not God”, which is a more radical statement of omnipresence and of immanence. Perhaps, though, he is doing a form of what he does so convincingly in another of his books “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” where he repeatedly makes use of the phrase “not less than…”, and I would certainly affirm that God is not less than present in everyone.

He goes on to think in terms of what I might call “original kenosis”, a term used by some process and relational theologians (notably, in my recent reading, Tom Oord), which suggests that God withdraws the fullness of that-which-is-God in order to “make space for” creation. He suggests that this “opens the door to a pervasive immanence”. Again, I cannot really square that with my own experience, which is of radical immanence at every level of existence down to the subatomic and below even that (God all the way down, rather than turtles?). That has led me to suggest previously a concept of “original incarnation”, in which God creates out of Godself, giving over parts of God’s power to creation; not a “creation ex nihilo” but a “creation ex Deo”. Of that, Jesus is, of course, the primary examplar, the person most fully knowing himself as one with God whose words or thoughts (and the working out of those in practical living) have impinged on me.

Yes, there is a kenosis in every instance of incarnation, in that God withdraws the fullness of himself (or the individual withdraws himself, which may be the same thing); at the height of a peak mystical experience, I have been at a point several times where I could, perhaps, have let go the last shreds of individuality and merged completely with the All, or the All could have moved a little further and encompassed me absolutely – but there would then be no individuality left. I fancy that the wording in Philippians 2 refers to such an act of withdrawing back to individuality, though I could be wrong. Peter Rollins has captured, perhaps, a little of this in suggesting that it is the loss of oceanic oneness which creates the individual consciousness, and this should be regarded as no loss, as there was previously no individual to lose anything; I demur slightly from this, as that oceanic oneness is available via (at least) mystical experiences and can be returned from – and yes, there is then a sense of loss, and it is a real loss…

Prof. Clayton also states “Only the freedom to challenge orthodoxies can bring transcendence down to earth”. I think that is overwhelmingly true, and that when transcendence does come down to earth in mystical experience, it is inevitably going to mean that even a half-decent expression of that state is going to challenge orthodoxies. However, orthodox concepts can be re-examined, as both he and I have done with kenosis and I have done with incarnation.

Indeed, orthodoxy has to be challenged in respect of transcendence. The conventional picture of God of much of Western theology since Augustine has been of a God so transcendent as to be unapproachable, beyond any possibility of experience, and if beyond any possibility of experience, also too far removed to be a factor in most modern lives. Being a mystic, of course, I don’t just want to open the door to pervasive immanence, I want to throw the door open wide and live and move and be “in Him”.

One Response to “Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere.”

  1. Energion Editor Chris Eyre on Panentheism – Process Theology at Energion Says:

    […] Energion Editor Chris Eyre discusses panentheism. Read it on his blog, […]

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