Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (IX)

This is the ninth 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!

(Those who are wondering where my seventh and eighth reactions are; please be patient. The book study had an interview with Matthew Fox, the author of the ninth essay, this week, so it’s convenient for me to write this while that is still fresh).

Fox is a former Catholic priest, now an Episcopal one. My first acquaintance with his writing was his book “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ”, which I admit I wasn’t thrilled by, largely because what I wanted to read at the time was something very concrete, and his writing was extremely figurative. However, his essay here is a different matter – not entirely, because he still has a liking for the figurative. He opens, for instance, with a figure of a fish swimming in the sea, in which the fish is in the sea and (to some extent) the sea in the fish, coupled with the idea of “in whom we live and move and have our being” as being like a field, presumably as in physics. The slight difference in the concepts makes me feel a little as if I’ve picked up the wrong pair of spectacles, a slight blurriness – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would have like him to extend the figure of the ocean to mention the sense of oneness which some people refer to as “oceanic”, though – but that requires identity with the ocean, and the fish remains discrete, even if lost in the immensity of the whole.

From my perspective, he is spot-on in quoting Bede Griffiths as saying that experience precedes concepts, that there is conflict between the letter and the spirit and that the rational mind imposes concepts and categories on a more universal truth. I love him saying “There is nothing heretical about being a panentheist. Indeed, it is heretical not to be one”, and his development through (inter alia) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ suggestion that the God of the mystics is the only God the contemporary mind can grasp (as at 1945!) and a selection of mediaeval mystics, Eckhart and Aquinas to John Dominic Crossan’s provocative suggestion that all Christians must be panentheistic and only panentheists can be Christians!

I love him saying that, but then pause, because this is the kind of thing the newly-minted mystic Chris was saying in late adolescence, and before learning not only that moderating your language persuades people better than shock tactics most of the time, but also that a very high proportion of people seem to have no mystical consciousness at all and, even if they can be persuaded to put in the work, still don’t develop one after a lot of contemplative and other work. I read him suggesting “a theistic imaging of God is essentially adolescent, for it is based on an egoistic mindset, a zeroing in on how we are separate from God” and smile wryly, because I see adolescent zeal in his pushing things to that point.

However, we are 50 years on from those days; as I noted in my sixth response, a quite remarkable percentage of people are now saying they have had some kind of mystical experience (50 years ago it was one in a thousand or so), and I am beginning to suspect that just maybe we may be entering a world in which it’s actually practical for most, or even all, Christians to be mystics. Or, indeed, all humanity. I have an evangelistic streak in me, not just because I’ve taken on board the Great Commission, but because experience has shown be a better way to be in the world and I’d like everyone to have the benefit of that – but it’s towards mysticism, not so much towards Christianity as such, although that is the tradition I mostly inhabit.

Not so much apparent from Fox’s essay, but something which came out more in his interview with Mike Morrell, was the fact that over the years he seems to have quite a decent track record of forming mystics and communities revolving round mystical consciousness. I take my hat off to him; that is something I was unable to do in the 1970s, but clearly he (as he’s a little older than me) did have that capability even then. The more people we have who are ready, willing and able to do this, the better!

One other thing I note before closing; he gives a very good account of Paul as a Christ-mystic, which he describes as a Christological panentheism, drawing on Crossan. One of my own stumbling blocks in approaching Christian scripture seriously was the feeling (which Fox echoes earlier in his essay) that much of scripture and almost all of theology was based on non-mystics misinterpreting what mystics said; that was my initial approach to Paul, who, after all, probably ranks as the first Christian theologian. Paul does, however, make far more sense to me if I see him as a mystic, substituting Christ where I would more naturally think “God”. So, for that matter, does the author of the Fourth Gospel…


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