Mystic reflections on a book about Panenthism

I couldn’t resist the title of “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” by Clayton & Peacock, not least because it had a title I wanted for my own writing, once I’ve dragooned that into something book shaped, rather than oversized blog posts. “Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World” looked good as well.

It didn’t disappoint, save for a couple of niggles, one of them admittedly a fairly big niggle. It’s a book for the student rather than the general reader, it seems to me, but is at the accessible end of that spectrum. It contains a set of essays by various extremely qualified authors, setting out a variety of views of how panentheism can be combined with a varyingly orthodox Christianity and in some cases with some features of modern science, in particular emergence theory; there are sections from an Eastern Orthodox point of view and from a more Western one, showing that the Orthodox tradition has far less trouble with panentheism than do the Western (Catholic and Protestant) streams of thought. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

My smaller niggle came from the piece by Celia E. Deane-Drummond, linking panentheism to the Wisdom tradition (and in particular the creation account in Proverbs 8:22-31). She rightly links this with the language of the preamble to the Fourth Gospel, equating Wisdom (Sophia) with Word (Logos) but fails to advert to what I consider the glaringly obvious connection between the two in the work of Philo of Alexandria, who so far as I can see made this leap sometime in the first 40 years of the first century, i.e. before any of the texts of the New Testament were written, even taking the earliest fancied dates of conservative scholars. Instead, she quotes a number of scholars who also do not seem to have made this connection. I would love to be able to point to a popular level discussion of Philo’s work, but I do not know of one.

My larger niggle is that nowhere in the book is a link made with mysticism, and indeed Philip Clayton expresses concern in his overview which ends the book that the use of panentheistic concepts should be grounded solidly in the believable rather than being understood as a philosophical flight of fancy (his own words are rather less florid). What he did not say was that panentheistic expressions flow extremely frequently from the particular mode of spiritual experience called “mysticism”. It is, in that context, not surprising that the Orthodox tradition is easier to harmonise with panentheism, as a substantial number of the major Eastern theologians are also identifiably mystics, including both St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximus the Confessor, both of whom are discussed at length in the book.

Indeed, it is my contention, following Happold, that the mystical experience is of a fundamentally panentheistic nature, even if it does not always result in clearly panentheistic statements from the mystics. On this point, the discussions in “In Whom We Live…” around the issue of harmonising panentheism with the Western tradition are extremely instructive; the West took, early on, a number of theological positions which are fundamentally at odds with a panentheistic experience of God, notably stressing divine omnipotence and omniscience, transcendence at the expense of immanence, divine impassibility (i.e. God is not changed or even moved by occurrences in the world) and a spirit-matter dualism of an extremely strong nature.

All of these flow from a philosophical treatment of the concept of God largely drawn from the pre-Christian Greek philosophers. Now, I do not even think that the God-concept of the philosophers is truly harmonisable with the God described in the Hebrew scriptures, and I have my doubts about the God-concept described in much of the New Testament being truly in line with the God of the philosophers as well. If it is also not harmonisable with the actual experience of God granted by mystical experience, then I suggest that the philosophers have got it wrong, and have produced exactly the philosophical flight of fancy which I referred to earlier.

I appreciate that the mystical experience is a minority one among Christians (I think this is a pity, but the only reasonably tried and tested praxis available within the Christian tradition proper is ascetic contemplation taking rather a lot of time, absent a “bolt from the blue”, and few these days seem disposed to put in the hours and endure the discomfort of doing this – and I can hardly blame them, given that even then a majority seem never to achieve anything like a peak experience). However, it is well documented, and occurs throughout the history of the religion, including in Happold’s view SS. John and Paul and, if the Gospel of Thomas is thought authentic, Jesus himself. Needless to say, I agree with Happold on this.

I have something of a beef with theologians who ignore the characteristics of the mystic’s experience of God (particularly as it can be plausibly ascribed to the three most important voices in the formation of Christianity), but doubly so when those theologians are discussing a concept of God which flows so naturally from it.

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