Orthodox Panentheism

Panentheism is the notion that everything is in God. It defines itself in contradiction to pantheism. Nevertheless it is a controversial idea, not least because to some it rather smells of pantheism. But in fact it isn’t anything like pantheism. Furthermore, the idea that we live and move and have being in God (Acts 17:28) is perfectly orthodox:

God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident; but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and touch it by its virtue … therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing … Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly.

… Although corporeal things are said to be in another as in that which contains them, nevertheless, spiritual things contain those things in which they are; as the soul contains the body. Hence also God is in things containing them; nevertheless, by a certain similitude to corporeal things, it is said that all things are in God; inasmuch as they are contained by Him.

–  Summa Theologica 1.8.1

27 thoughts on “Orthodox Panentheism

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Panentheism | Neoreactive

  2. And ‘all’ means *all* — *all* things have their being in God, both the good and the evil. As I read a rabbi explain, when people ask (whatever their intentions), “Where was your God in the Holocaust?”, the answer is, “He was right there, in the Jew being murdered by the Nazi … and in the Nazi committing the murder”.

    God isn’t merely watching our lives as we might watch a movie, he is living our lives with us: he is “closer than a brother.” We act, for good or for evil, because he enables us to act, because he *participates* in the act. This is one reason why all sin is so wicked, for in sinning, we cannot do other than to drag the Sinless One into the mud with us.

  3. I think the basic distinctions can be parsed as follows: pantheism – all is God (e.g. some forms of Hinduism); panentheism – God is to the world like the soul to the body, not merely analogically, as I take Aquinas to mean it, but metaphysically (e.g. the Stoics and Neoplatonists); theism – God is omnipresent in the world but the world is in no way a “part” of God (e.g. traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam); deism – God is omnipresent but only active in the world through natural causes (e.g. Thomas Jefferson).

    The last two have somewhat shifted in meaning in certain circles. That is, for some people deism is God making the world then doing nothing. This is not historically what it was though. Actual deists (like Thomas Jefferson) denied the miraculous but still affirmed Providence. The result of this thinning of deism has also, in some cases, been a thinning of theism to be little more than what deism was, or to be some sort of dispensational deism (e.g. cessationism). In reaction to this thinning of theism, I find a lot of people embracing panentheism, either in substance meaning what theism did and should mean or, unfortunately, swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, embracing actual panentheism without realizing that there is another option (traditional theism).

    • But Aquinas does not here seem to me to be adducing the soul’s containment of the body as a mere metaphor for God’s containment of things, but rather as a strict analogy: spiritual things contain the corporeal things to which they furnish form. But as Thomas points out, this containment is not like that by which one corporeal thing contains another – it is not, e.g., like the containment of the mixture by the mixing bowl. The Limit is not a corporeal wall, nor Plato’s Receptacle a corporeal krater. If it were, then we could well ask what contained the Receptacle, what limited the Limit.

      “Contain” is “hold together.” Bodies may be bound together by other bodies, but if their togetherness consists only in this then they are not substances with their own inner integrity, but rather mere collections. The inner integrity by which a substance is held together is the sort of containment Aquinas is after.

      Pop panentheism interprets God’s containment of things under the corporeal metaphor, and this often has the effect of blurring the categorical difference between Creator and creature. Panentheism proper does not thus err. I view it therefore as rather an aspect of theism than as something quite different.

      • What I have in mind is, for example, the Stoics. In general they acknowledged two first principles: god and matter. God was the active principle and matter was the passive principle. Just as the soul animates the body, so also god is that which gives movement and animation to the world. They even believed that human souls are, therefore, just fragmented “parts” of god. Alternatively, I would offer the Hindu doctrine of the atman, which basically says the same thing: the deepest part of the soul is like a wave on the sea, all of which is Brahman (god/divinity). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%80tman_%28Hinduism%29

        This is what I mean by metaphysical and not just analogical. And this is what makes the Stoics and some Hindus panentheists while Aquinas would still more properly and simply be a theist.

      • The theism of Aquinas looks to me like strict *and careful* panentheism – he does after all explicitly say, with Paul, that we are in God, who contains all things – whereas Advaita Vedanta says that everything *just is* Brahman, and that there is really nothing but Brahman – which is strict pantheism.

        As for the Stoics and Platonists, their distinction between hyle and morphe prevents their categorization as pantheists. Only monisms can be pantheist. A pantheism that is not monist has not yet got its pants fastened, is all.

      • I didn’t classify the Stoics as pantheists but as panentheists, based precisely on their distinction matter and form, or more precisely for them, matter and god, passive and active.

        I also don’t quite think you’re getting the point here that historic theism never denied that all things exist in God. But panentheism (originally, at least) goes a step further (like the Stoics) making God and matter metaphysically related like soul to body or making the soul a “part” of God. If a person rejects this, they are a theist, whether they want to use that word or not.

        Where this becomes a problem for Christian Orthodoxy is the doctrine of the incarnation. If all of our souls are God embodied, then what makes the incarnation unique and redemptive? If there is no metaphysical division between the created and the uncreated, why do we need one who is both God and man, without separation or division, for our salvation?

      • Sorry, I thought that your characterization of Hinduism as saying “basically the same thing” as Stoicism implied collapsing Stoicism into the pantheist category occupied by Advaita Vedanta (which is what most people mean to indicate by “Hinduism”).

        I read Thomas in the passage quoted as specifying quite precisely the metaphysical relation of God to creatura as being like that of soul to body. If God and creatura were not somehow metaphysically related, they’d have *nothing to do with each other.* So they are related, then; the question is how. Thomas says they are to each other as soul to body. This is not to say that they are the same thing, nor yet even to say that the human soul is a department of God; under the analogy Thomas draws, those doctrines would be like saying that the body just is the soul, or that the body is part of the soul. These are just varieties of pantheism – of monism. Neither is true.

        Thomas doesn’t say that they are. But nor do panentheists, at least as the term is generally understood. The Wikipedia entry on panentheism represents the notion quite accurately. It begins with a pretty good description of the difference between pantheism and panentheism:

        Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical, panentheism maintains a distinction between the divine and non-divine and the significance of both … in panentheism, the universe and the divine are not ontologically equivalent.

  4. I’ve noticed that those theists who oppose panentheism do so on the grounds that the panentheist’s “ontological mingling” of Creator and created results in the blurring of the distinction between good and evil. But as I understand it, even classical theism is a form of panentheism, albeit a weak form, in that creation is being created at every instant in the present moment. This makes for a much more intimate and organic relationship between the Absolute and the relative then is generally understood. I think we can find parallels in the panentheism of Ramanuja’s (qualified nondualism) and the classical theism of Madhva.

    • It is interesting and instructive to contemplate your comment and that of Ilion in conjunction. The intimate involvement of God in the being of all creatures does not at all imply confusion between God and creatura.

  5. A related subject that has important ramifications for panentheism is the question of creatio ex nihilo. I’ve always interpreted creation from nothing as meaning not from pre-exisitng material. If that’s the case, then could creatio ex nihilo be understood as creatio ex deo?

    If we answer “no” because there must be an absolute ontological gap between Creator and creation, are we then in violation of nihil fit ex nihilo?

    • Nihil fit ex nihilo refers to a state of affairs – if so we may call it – in which there is absolutely nothing, not even God. From this nothingness, nothing may come.

      God’s creation ex nihilo does not violate this principle, because he is plenitude of being. Not only is he not nothing, he is infinitely something. That God exists means that there is no such thing as sheer nothingness.

      If there were no God, then nothing could be created, and nothing would exist. Such non-being as does obtain, then – e.g., the non-being of the state of affairs in which Caesar died in bed – does so on account of God’s existence. God is then the forecondition, not only of being, but of non-being.

      He can create ex nihilo – i.e., not ex deo – because he has infinite power, including infinite power to create.

      The act of creation *just is* the act of creation out of nothing. “Creation” out of something or other – including creatio ex deo – would be just rearrangement, and not creation properly so called. Rearrangement we can understand; creation, we cannot.

  6. Pingback: Panteísmo e panenteísmo | Bordoadas

  7. Pingback: Panteísmo e panenteísmo | perspectivas

  8. As I understand it, creation ex nihilo is insisted upon so that Divine transcendence is safeguarded. But what is meant by “nothing”? As you said, there cannot “be” absolutely nothing. There can’t be an “anywhere” or an “anything” in which God is absent. But the “nothing” is put forward to establish the discontinuity between Creator and created. So, I think there can be both continuity and discontinuity in a creatio ex Deo interpretation. Perhaps ex Deo and ex nihilo really amount to the same thing?

  9. I see what you are getting at: if nothing had yet been created, so that God was the only existent, and if you can’t get something from nothing, then isn’t it the case that there would be no way creatures could come to be at all, unless God himself was their raw material?

    I don’t think so. The notion that God could make something happen that is utterly new is terrifically perplexing to us, because we have no idea how to do it. We don’t know how to get a brand new instance of becoming started. All we know how to do is to *be* such instances. And we are stuck with thinking in those terms that we can understand. But creation doesn’t work the same way as any of the things that we are able to do, or therefore to comprehend.

    That the thing perplexes us, however, does not mean it is impossible – especially for a being of infinite causal power.

    NB: even when there is an existing population of creatures – of completed acts of becoming – you can’t get a novel act of becoming by rearranging the existing acts of becoming. The novel act of becoming *is* the rearrangement; or, rather, the rearrangement takes place in virtue of the novel act of becoming, as its product. So each novel act of becoming gets its start in the Divine act of creation. It is made, not of former things, or of God, but from nothing.

    • This isn’t a terribly novel idea/solution to the question of how when God is the only existent(logical priority, rather than temporal priority), he can create that-which-is not-God yet “God himself was [not] their raw material” —

      People frequently speak of their thoughts or ideas as being “parts” of themselves. But, is this really true? Of course not. For, if it were true, then to think a new thought would be the ending of oneself and the beginning of a different self who is not oneself (*).

      Now, if a human person’s thoughts are not “parts” of himself, and they are not, does it not stand to reason that the Divinity’s thoughts are likewise not “parts” of himself?

      So, if all that is not-God is “made” (that being the best word I can think to use) of God’s thoughts, then those not-God entities are not “made out of God”; they are *distinct* from God, yet utterly contingent and dependent upon God. They are distinct from God, but not separate from God; in fact, were any of them somehow made to be wholly separate from God, they would not, and could not, exist.

      Moreover, is it not fair to say that these not-God entities are created “of nothing” or “from nothing”?

      So, there is where some (very minor) speculative philosophising get us. And, oddly enough, it seems to agree with Biblical statements about the Creation.

      (*) which may explaim why some people are so resistent to even thinking a new thought … they fear they will cease to exist.

  10. I think that panentheism is the correct interpretation in that it avoids the twin errors of deism and pantheism. Creatio ex nihilo trends towards deism whereas creatio ex Deo trends towards pantheism. How can we affirm Divine transcendence (discontinuity) while at the same time affirming the doctrine of theosis (continuity)? How can we “participate” in the totally transcendent Divine unless there is some kind of ontological “overlap”?

    Hm, I’m wondering if these thoughts are hopelessly silly in that they are rooted in the metaphors of “spatial” thought forms- continuous, discontinuous, inside, outside, overlap, etc.

    • … I’m wondering if these thoughts are hopelessly silly in that they are rooted in the metaphors of “spatial” thought forms …

      I think that you’ve nailed the difficulty. It’s not that the thoughts are hopelessly silly, but that it is so difficult to avoid falling into a spatial interpretation of them, which ends up being misleading. E.g., participation in a form does not require that we somehow touch it; likewise, the soul’s containment of the body does not mean that the body is literally inside the soul, or that the soul has a larger spatial volume than the body.

  11. There are no good arguments for Panentheism. The Panentheistic god is the finite demiourgos of Plato, not the infinite God of biblical revelation. Here is more information against Panentheism.
    Why it is Impossible for a Panentheistic God to Exist (video)

    Matt Slick on Panentheism
    Dr. William Lane Craig on Panentheism
    A More Detailed Refutation of Panentheism, by Dr. Norman Geisler
    Geisler has a whole section on Panentheism in his “Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics,” page 576. You might also see chapter 12 of his book, “Christian Apologetics.” (second edition), and the following:
    Geisler, The Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism;
    Gruenler, The Inexhaustible God: Biblical Faith and the Challenge of Process Theology;
    Own, Concepts of Deity;
    Brown, Process Theology and Christian Thought.
    That Wiccans hold to Panentheism, see Hawkins, “Witchcraft: Exploring the World of Wicca,” p. 34). Question: What concord has Christ with Belial? (2.Cor. 6:15). But in the Wiccan universe and belief, God is a goddess.

    • Thanks for those links. So far as I have yet been able to tell (I have not yet read all the way through all of them), they disagree with what I would call heterodox panentheism or pop panentheism, which gets panentheism wrong (as I think do many process theologians). The orthodox panentheism to which I refer in the post is just the doctrine of the pervasive immanence of the utterly transcendent God.

      Utter transcendence entails pervasive immanence, as may be seen by analogy with mathematical infinity, which as including all finite quantities is their environing milieu. No quantity can fail to be included in infinity.

  12. The Orthodox view that God in his essence is beyond being and non-being also has serious philosophical problems, because it violates the Law of Excluded Middle, which is one of the three fundamental laws of human reasoning. One cannot deny the three laws of human reasoning without first assuming their validity. To deny them, is to affirm them, so it is self-defeating to argue against them.

    • It seems to me that you have not quite properly characterized that doctrine. It does not argue that there is a third alternative between being and non-being, but that both being and non-being are sub-categories of a broader concept: God. It is in virtue of God that being is and non-being is not.


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