Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere – The Alpha and the Omega

This is technically the fourteenth 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 at the point of writing the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over around four weeks. My first post deals with the first chapter/essay, which is by Philip Clayton, one of the editors of the book and includes my introduction of myself to the group; there are altogether twelve chapters which I have reflected on, plus one excursion prompted by some of the discussions I was having in the facebook group.

The other editor, Andrew M. Davis, provided the introduction and conclusion; hence, in part, “Alpha and Omega”. Alpha and Omega being all encompassing, I will start by saying that I really loved this book (as witness 14 blog posts!) and that it got me thinking in directions I haven’t previously considered very much. As Davis says, it is a journey, and one very much worth taking in my eyes, especially for those with an interest in mysticism, those who are drawn to panentheism and for process theologians and open theists.

Interest need not be limited to those categories, though – in discussing religion with very many atheists and agnostics over the course of the last 20 years, I have often heard them say something along the lines of “If I were going to believe in God, it would be something like the God that Chris talks about” – and that is the panentheist God-concept. So when Davis quotes Whitehead saying “The modern world has lost God and is seeking him”, indeed my best prescription for the kind of God-concept would be panentheism. He then goes on to talk of Nietzsche and the “death of God” which has founded much radical theology, and asks “Is there a way of returning to God after God, of (re) discovering a new God rising from the ashes of a dead one?”.

Well, insofar as what Nietzsche’s madman was talking about was the supernatural theist God-concept, yes, I think there is such a way, and so far as concepts go, panentheism (or possibly process if that can be fully separated from panentheism in practice) is that concept. However, if we are talking of the more radical sense of the death of God which founds, for example, the late Thomas J.J. Altizer and Peter Rollins’ work, I worry that the introduction promises something which the book does not deliver, namely a way in which to see panentheism through the eyes of radical theology or vice versa. There is no essay by a theologian from the radical tradition here, and I think that is a pity. That said, I don’t think either Altizer or Rollins connects with the panentheist god-concept at all (and I’ve been following Rollins work for some time). Those are theologians (if theologian is the right word) perched on the vertiginous brink of nihilism, for whom God is dead in all senses of the term. Perhaps the only radical theologian I can think of who could have perhaps usefully engaged with panentheism for this volume would have been John Caputo, whose concepts of “weakness of God” and “folly of God” would, I think, have found resonance.

I particularly like the stress in this volume on personal testimony, which is a thread running through all the essays; as Davis says “It is one thing to ask what these prominent contributors imagine of the divine in the 21st century, but quite another to ask how they have found their way”. Where that involves a description of their thinking process (as, for instance, Keith Ward) it is possible to criticise that, but no-one can criticise a personal testimony, only say “I didn’t relate to this”.

The introduction closes with a brief description of panentheism, and rightly, I think, stresses most the immanence and relational nature of God “And this relationship is often described in mutual ways: not only is God immanent in the becoming of the world, but the world is also immanent in the becoming of God – affecting God, sharing its own reality with that of the divine”.

What is not evident from either his introduction or conclusion is the fact that, according to his initial interview for the reading group, Davis is not himself a mystic or contemplative. It is, in my experience, rare to find a non-mystic theologian taking mysticism really seriously, and I commend him for that. I’m not unused to finding theologians completely dismissing mystical experience as a source of insight (including one who “didn’t believe in mysticism”, which I found incredible); it’s mostly for those that I reserve the comment “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the sayings of mystics”. I write that only slightly tongue-in cheek…

Having said that, the conclusion deals largely with the philosophical and (to a lesser extent) theological threads which he discerns in the essays, and not significantly with the experiential aspects. I might have liked to see a volume where threads of personal testimony were drawn together and shown to evidence a single root experience and then argue that the best explanation for the experience attested to was panentheism, as I am by original formation a scientist. However, as it turns out, the personal aspects of the essays do not lend themselves to that, but do lend themselves to extracting a set of theological and philosophical benefits of a panentheist conception of God. In point of fact, however, my confidence in my own sanity was much aided shortly after my first mystical experience by finding F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology” which does take that approach to a selected set of writings of historical mystics from multiple religions, and reaches the conclusion that panentheism is the best explanation, so to have done this would in a way merely have brought Happold’s work up to date. As Ian Marra pointed out in the discussion group, this starts to feel like apologetics for a panentheist view, and while I have absolutely no problem with this (and I’ve done a lot of arguing for it in the past), that is different from the thread of personal testimony.

I think in the early parts of the conclusion that Davis is effectively setting up a conception of God as an imaginative human construction (which Feuerbach, with whom he opens, would probably have agreed with). Via Howard van Till (inter alia) he presents some conceptions of transcendence as an experiential reality, but then goes on to the “Masters of Suspicion”, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). I might have liked here to find a Philip Clayton style rider that God is “not less than” an imaginative human construction, given that all the writers of the essays seem to consider God to be an experiential reality about whom we make our imaginative human constructions.

To me, the Masters of Suspicion mistake function for reality (or telos for ontos); they point to the various uses to which the god-concept of supernatural theism has been put  and say that those uses are all that there is there. This is a little like pointing out that they have noticed me using my screwdriver as a hammer, as a paperweight and as a measuring stick and saying that that is all there is to the screwdriver (and that there are better hammers, paperweights and measuring sticks); not only is there potentially (as in the case of the screwdriver actually) another function or functions unexplored, but this does not really adequately describe the screwdriver. I experience the screwdriver quite independently of its function; just so I experience something which I most conveniently call “God”, and I experience that as first and foremost something radically immanent, unitive and all-inclusive. I may well then use my conception of that experience in just the ways that Marx et. al. wrote of, but that does not explain the experience. Atheists are quite keen on quoting Galileo’s famous “Eppur si  muove” (nevertheless it moves), and my ultimate response to them is nearly the same quotation – nevertheless I experience it.

However, of course, the radically immanent God I experience is not the supernatural theist god entirely separate from creation but occasionally intervening in it; as Davis comments, this notion of God is effectively dead (and we have killed him, as Nietzsche’s madman said).

David then proceeds to take us on a journey through anatheism, quoting T.S. Elliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (which is so good a line that I cannot resist repeating it) to a restatement of panentheism at greater length, bringing in quotations from many other theologians and philosophers, with a nod to Eastern traditions. He quotes Marcus Borg (who is the only theologian of recent times who I have not, so far, found any reason to want to raise quibbles about), saying “[Panentheism] does genuinely resolve much of the intellectual difficulty posed by supernatural theism. For the most part, modern skepticism and atheism are a rejection of supernatural theism, but if God is not thought of as a supernatural being separate from the univerrse, the persuasive force of much of modern atheism vanishes. The resolution of this intellectual difficulty about God is no small matter, for it means that the ‘God question’ becomes and open rather than a closed one”. Just so.

His answer to “what is the lure of panentheism”, however, ends up identifying seven areas which have resulted in a “panentheistic turn”, and I am disappointed that this does not include (perhaps as a central circle overlapping all of the surrounding circles in his graphic) the directly experiential. After all, I got to panentheism myself without having any theological of philosophical argument, just experience and knowledge of the experience of others; the theology came later. Perhaps, though, this forms an element in the “Religiously more viable” circle? If so, perhaps that could have been more explicit. Inasmuch as I see a surge in spirituality (as opposed to religion) going on at the moment, I do find that a panentheistic god-concept is far more attractive to the “spiritual but not religious” than is any other (such as, for instance, supernatural theism or “imaginative construction”). Maybe this group could have been targetted more directly? On the other hand, I suspect that his group are probably not going to be buying many theology books…

I have, therefore, mixed feelings about the conclusion. On the one hand, it is an integral part of a book I will unhesitatingly recommend to a lot of people (the book needed a conclusion), and I enjoyed reading it and wrestling with the accounts in it hugely. On the other, it just slightly missed a mark which I would very much have liked it to hit.



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