Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XI)

This is the eleventh 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 week or so. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eleventh essay is by Richard Rohr, who probably needs no introduction, but is a Franciscan friar who writes, talks and teaches prolifically about spirituality (and particularly mystical spirituality), and founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation. He has co-authored with Mike Morrell (one of the facilitators of the group) the book “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” which I will admit to not having yet read. I have, however, listened to Fr. Rohr talking about it.

He opens by making a case for why Christians tend to decry pantheism (which panentheism is often mistaken for), finding the problem in the insistence on an absolute divide between God and man, between transcendence (God) and immanence (presence in the world, and not God). So far, so good – but he then goes straight to asserting that early Christians found God in “two other manifestations of the Godhead”, namely the Christ and the Spirit, and we’re into Trinity. Actually, early Christians found God in more than three manifestations, particularly including Logos and Wisdom, but that slips by…

Panentheism does (as I alluded to in my response to Philip Clayton’s essay, the first of these reflections) make it necessary to re-evaluate the historical doctrines of the Church, and this is more or less easy depending on which doctrine you’re talking of. Having been wrestling with doctrines and whether I can legitimately assent to them as a panentheist for some years, I can say that Trinity is one of the most difficult. With panentheism comes the overwhelming conviction of unity, but of unity as seen in limitless multiplicity, and so trinity offends by being more than one, and by being absurdly limited compared with an infinity of manifestation. However, Fr. Rohr proceeds to try to make a case for Trinity as flowing out of a panentheistic (or perhaps pantheist) consciousness alongside his otherwise excellent trip through the experiences of the more mystically inclined Christians of the past.

Now, panentheism does solve the gap between a transcendent God and earthly creation by insisting on the radical immanence as well as the transcendence of God, and Fr. Rohr spends some time criticising (rightly, in my eyes) the effects of the historical insistence on God as wholly other, and commending the long chain of mystics who saw God as immanent, quoting for instance Catherine of Genoa as saying “My deepest me is God” and the Eastern Orthodox belief (which I think may stem from the fact that mystics have always been far more central in Orthodoxy) in theosis. Do we get to Trinity, as Fr. Rohr suggests, via Jesus’ seeing God in a third person perspective “God as him”, a second person perspective “God as Abba” and a first person perspective “God as me”? Well, no, and not just because this falls smartly into one of “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies”. You don’t arrive at Trinity by looking at the relationship between two individuals (or a part and the whole) in three ways.

Do you, however, arrive at Trinity by thinking of God in terms of action or activity rather than something more static, as the essentially static “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” might indicate? Can you, indeed, get there via mystics thinking in terms not so much of identity with God, but of “interbeing between God and the soul”? This is, of course, the basis of the concept of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, which is a favorite of recent writers on Trinity, but one which Fr. Rohr only touches on briefly here (but in much more detail in “The Divine Dance”). Again, if you start with two, I don’t think you get there. Other writers in this book have talked of the love between two individuals inevitably producing a third entity – but short of actually conceiving a child, I cannot see this as a “third person”, even if you regard, for instance “Chris and Nel” as being a person distinct from myself, my wife or the mere addition of the two. Again, the general concept of mutual indwelling is very amenable to a panentheist – but has nothing in particular to do with threeness. In her talk (although not in her essay) Ilia Delio remarks that three is the lowest number which avoids binary dualism – if you like, the gateway to multiplicity, and that is, I think, about as close as any of the writers get to an argument for a threefold interpretative lens – but that is still not “one essence, three persons”.

And yet, in his penultimate section, headed “The Ultimate Template for All Orthodoxy”, Fr. Rohr says “…the ultimate Christian source and model for panentheism is the central doctrine of the Trinity itself”. I don’t think he has remotely succeded in showing that. On the other hand, he also says “Divine union is not uniformity but precisely diversity loved and overcome! Only the contemplative, non-dual mind can process this, not the rational dualistic mind”. With that, I can agree wholeheartedly.

Fr. Rohr is plainly a contemplative and a mystic, and as such I am confident the most natural god-concept for him will always be panentheism, and he makes a decent case for this. However, he is also a Catholic priest, and more even than people in the other confessional denominations will have the catechism, and thus a fairly full description of Trinity, ingrained in his mind as a primary necessity for Christian belief. He doesn’t do a bad job of reconciling that with panentheism, and he plainly takes great intellectual joy in the concept. However, there is no way in my mind that he has demonstrated that it is, for the panentheist, more than one among many interpretative lenses which can be employed.


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