Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VIII)

This is the eighth 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 eighth essay is by Loreliai Biernacki, and is – well – different. She titles it “Panentheism and Technology: The Immanence of Rage”, and rage is not an emotion which I naturally associate with an overpowering sense of immanence. Granted, at times when I focus on the natural world at the moment, I get a strong feeling that “all creation is groaning”, and can contemplate for a few moments that humanity is looking more like an infestation which needs eradicating than like the summit of evolution – before compassion swings back into the centre of my thinking. That, however, is not what she is talking of.

She paints a picture of an augmented humanity, with the boundary between man and machine blurring and the possibility arising that we may create an AI which surpasses humanity and renders us redundant – “God is not so much dead in modernity, but rather, not quite yet born”. She sees this as a future in the making of which we are losing touch with our embodiment as individual humans. Our lives become more ruled by virtual reality and the internet, substituting real human contact, and we dream of uploading our consciousnesses into computers and living forever in a disembodied state. This, of course, resonates with the longstanding Christian view that the objective is to transcend the material and achieve a safe space as a disembodied spirit.

Against this, she talks of “…the intelligence of the body itself, the intelligence of earth as growing plants and animal species” and of “preternatural instincts” telling us to turn this corner rather than that. I can resonate with that to some extent – the idea of disembodied spirits is one which the New Testament imports from the Greeks, and has no part in the earlier Biblical narrative, in which everything in order to exist at all must have physical form (I think of Walter Wink’s analysis in his “Powers” trilogy there). And yet, I don’t see as big a divide as she does. An augmented humanity is still embodied, just not entirely in biological form; the blurring of boundaries is very much part of the panentheistic experience. Even if I were uploaded to the cloud, I would still be embodied, just not in the same way as now. OK, as things stand, there would be a serious deficiency in the bodily mechanisms which produce emotion, which would result in a pale shadow of embodied existence, but that is not necessarily always going to be the case.

She goes on to ground the rest of the essay in Tantra. Using the thought of Utpaladeva, she criticises vikalpa, the kind of imagination which chops reality into small pieces and rearranges them into, for example, and elephant with two trunks and a hundred tusks, proposing instead vimarsa, the transformative peace gained from self-reflection, and bhavana, meditative visualisation. Again, this resonates with the panentheistic blurring of boundaries – if all boundaries are illusory, cutting things up into small bits makes no sense, as something is inevitably lost.

The step which I worry about most is that she thinks this concentration on vikalpa rather than vimarsa is part of the foundation for a pervasive sense of rage which she detects in society, over and above the rage engendered by economics; she suggests that fundamentalisms are “connected to a plea to bring back groundedness, the security of time-worn religious traditions to an ungrounded technological world”. Actually, I see rage in society very differently than she does – I see simmering discontent at economic opression which I fear may erupt into widespread violence, and I see huge fear at the pace of change (and fear engenders rage); it is the second of those which I think undergirds religious fundamentalisms. She does say that it is tied to a sense of being ungrounded, however, and that is certainly an aspect of living in a rapidly changing society.

However, I do not think that the secularisation process which she criticises involves any departure from embodiment. On the contrary, most secularists are confirmed materialists, and that is about as embodied a philosophy as you can get.

She writes “The rage of fundamentalist religion is, I suspect, a plea to call back a way of being that remembers embodiment in a greater scheme of life”, and I demur. I don’t think it “remembers embodiment”, I think it looks back to a day when ones identity was fixed, when there was a clear map of the ways in which to behave, where there was an authority beyond the individual prescribing most of the template of your life (this lust for submitting to authority, to me, explains why there is such a resurgence in charismatic and authoritarian leaders in the world). Modernity has delivered us choice, and choice is scary. Yes, it is a “greater scheme of life”, but not particularly an embodied one. The old schemes of meaning involved far more non-material concepts than you need in modernity, after all, and the rise in “spiritual but not religious” indicates to me a strong sense of embodied spirituality severed from non-material concepts like church and, perhaps, God.

Her later stories from the Tantric tradition, therefore, do not really connect with me, apart from in thinking that the idea of a raging god is one which we perhaps abandon to the fundamentalists at our peril, and the idea of a drunken god is one which we could do not to lose completely. Both are pictures of lack of inhibition, and I for one am far too inhibited for my own good.

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