Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VI)

This is the sixth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The sixth essay is by Cynthia Bourgeault, and she titles it “I am not a space that God does not occupy”, which I find maybe a little too apophatic for my own taste. However, when you contrast that with the response she quotes “There is nothing of God that indwells the human person” it is easy to see where she is coming from, and, of course, mystics have always tended towards the apophatic, given the extreme difficulty of conveying mystical experience in human language.

She has major reservations about the term “panentheism”; I have a certain amount of sympathy there, as I do too – but her reservations are about the “pan” and the “en”, because apparently pantheism is a terrible thing and the “en” doesn’t adequately distinguish panentheism, whereas I have reservations about the “theism” bit. Most of the time, I find that the associations of the word “Theist” are with the interventionary supernatural God who functions rather like a cosmic-level superhero, and, to be honest, I can’t cope with a God-concept which includes wearing one’s knickers outside one’s tights. That said, “panentheism” is a well-known term these days which captures as nearly as any single word my experience, so I’m content to wear it as a label, at least for the time being.

What she prefers is Raimon Panikkar’s “Cosmotheandrism”. I was unfamiliar with Panikkar before reading her essay; Panikkar is a Catholic theologian who has concentrated on interfaith and cross-faith concerns, and I was taken with his words “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian”. Having spent significant time investigating (as much as possible from the inside) several Eastern traditions myself, I like the idea that you can, perhaps, have multiple languages of expression, and it’s clear that he made that his life’s work. I will obviously need to study Panikkar rather more in the future. However, I don’t much like the term he coins – it incorporates cosmos and God, but promotes mankind at the potential expense of the remainder of existence in general and life in particular, and loses the unitive aspect of pantheism and panentheism.

That said, I completely fail to see trinity (in the conventional Christian sense) in his location of Jesus between the extremes of complete separation from God (but as God’s son) and identity with God. Trinity involves three persons, for a start, and this looks very like a species of modalism. Not being personally worried about being heretical, I don’t reject modalism as a concept, but tend to be reluctant to apply the label “Trinity” to something so obviously modalist. I also have a reservation about Panikkar’s concept just from the point of view of peak mystical experience – while the poles of nothingness/insignificance and union with God are definite insights, they are sometimes present at the same time – OK, they are also sometimes extremely rapidly cycling between each other (and the apparent coincidence of opposites might be just an inability to perceive so fast a cycling), but this does not seem to me to be the mutual kenosis, one emptying into the other and then receiving it back which Bourgeault sees Panikkar as suggesting. I note that while this could be viewed as a form of hypostatic union, it is a union of two rather than three.

Where she quotes Panikkar as suggesting that Jesus was not a monotheist, however, she lose me completely. The bridging of the supposed divide between the human and the divine is, for me, exactly the point of panentheism, in expressing mystical consciousness. Indeed, “bridging” is too weak a term for me, I’d use “erasing”. Assuming that I’m right in identifying Jesus as having an overwhelming mystical consciousness, his offence would not be a lack of monotheism, it would be the erasing of the dualism between man and God, the “ego eime” and not just the use of “Abba” or the term “son of God”. But then she comes on track again by identifying us all as sons and daughters of God, and Jesus as the examplar of the man/god relationship (and, of course, for me, the creation/god relationship). Was he actually the first non-dual consciousness? I don’t know, but I’m confident that’s what he was, for at least extended periods and probably, on some level, for much of his life. I know this to be a possibility for at least some of us.

Is she, I wonder, right in identifying us as being at the commencement of another axial age, when such consciousness becomes widespread? I don’t know. I’d certainly like to think so – and note that whereas in my youth, a vanishingly small proportion of the population could attest to having had a mystical experience, in recent polls the proportion has climbed tantalisingly close to the 50% which would be, I think, the breakthrough point.

When I posted my first comments on the book, someone suggested that I would like Bourgeault’s essay a lot. I think I probably do, after initially seeing only the problematic parts from my point of view. I still have a very well developed, as she puts it “rational mind running its perception-through-differentiation program”.

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