Saturday, October 29, 2011

No, no... it panENtheism. Getting our Gods straight.

Pleiades Star ClusterImage via WikipediaAs regular readers will know, I don't write hear to proselytize or proclaim my own beliefs or convictions or to convince anyone of anything; rather I write to explore ideas. One of those ideas is an increasingly popular way of looking at God called panentheism.

Every so often I run into various notions of what panentheism means, some of which sound like reasonable variations on a theme and others which seem to miss the point. I can't claim ownership of the concept. Can you? But we can still put a basic definition/description out there from which we can work.

Here is a quick and dirty run-down of some of the more common/popular concepts of God which can be compared to and contrasted with panentheism:

Theism can be thought of as emphasizing God or Spirit (or whatever takes the ultimate place in a universal ontological scheme) as being personal. It also emphasized the transcendent nature of God, how distant God is from us in terms of holiness, or wisdom, or what have you. Yet God is directly involved in the working of the universe, intervening through miracles and communicating through divine inspiration to prophets.

Taken to a simplistic extreme we basically have the old bearded guy sitting on a throne in the sky who see and knows all and who wills all things into existence. Even the more nuanced forms still present God as a Big Mind in which reality floats like a series of thoughts.

Basically, this is the way of relating to God as a super-human. God is more or less like us except much more intelligent, moral, powerful, etc. God is the superlative human written large. This is the God that philosophers and heretics have claimed we made in our own image. 

This is both the God of poetry and metaphor and also the God of deadly and inane literalism.

This way of relating to God is best for young children, artists, and those who are very advanced on the spiritual path. It is toxic and inappropriate for everyone else. Honestly, at least some Buddhists and other traditions have their shit together on this. You don't get the levels of insight or empowerment your teacher doesn't think you are ready for.

(In Christianity this complaint can extend to the various teachings of Christ as well. No system of ordering and revelation with tested instruction, just everything thrown at you at once whether you are really prepared or not. Brilliant.)

Again, when you can see a bit beyond the dullness of dualism and appreciate the symbolic construction of our take on reality, or when you can see with your heart as well as your head, this can be a rich way to explore a connection to the divine.

Otherwise it leads to the kind of foolishness by those seeking to transform the imagery into a rational-empirical translation, which in turn gives rise to the tragedy of fundamentalist caricatures and atheist mockery. Precisely the kind of thing which has convinced so many that religion is a poison of the mind.

Theism is most prominent practiced as monotheism in the Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other forms drawing on these traditions. Both monotheism and polytheism can be found in the variety of religious and spiritual traditions from India collectively referred to as Hinduism.

Pantheism places an emphasis on God as impersonal. It focuses exclusively on the immanence of God, as God is synonymous with the most superficial and easily perceived aspects of the universe. God is the sum of all of the parts of existence, suggesting a high degree of interdependence and a mild degree of depth beyond the coarsest kind of materialism.

It's kind of like the Gaia hypothesis or animism written large for the entire universe/multiverse. There are many variations of pantheism but they generally regard nature as God and God as a verb more so than noun, an ever unfolding process which is held to be sacred. God does not act apart from the universe or have a separate identity from it. Hence God cannot and does not communicate through visions or contravene the "laws" of nature through miracles.

This works well as the God of those who consider natural wilderness and sky as their cathedrals, too enraptured by the beauty and mystery of the world to identify as atheists but who are unable or unwilling to accept the images, ideas and practices associated with traditional theism.

Pantheism is associated with various indigenous spiritual traditions and Earth-based religions as well as some forms of Taoism and Buddhism. It is also implicit in ideas such as the Whole Earth God and the associated Green Koans proposed by Clark Strand.

Deism shares the view of a transcendent God with traditional theism but shares pantheism's rejection of a God that intervenes in the world through inspired revelation and especially through miracles. God may be personal in nature but is impersonal in action. God is compared to a designer and architect who has constructed a self-sustaining universe and who has given humans the capacity to study and master this creation through reason.

While it may be argued that some Greek philosophers were Deists, this God can be thought of as the God of the Enlightenment period in Western History. As such has largely been identified with Christianity. Ironically, some who identify with traditional theism have embraced the logic and arguments of Deists as well as the image of a Divine Watchmaker, which reflects the shared history of Enlightenment Deists and the larger Christian tradition as well as the fluidity of these categories and their views of God.

Deism depicts a God that is highly compatible with rationalism and humanism, as there is no divine intervention and there is a deep suspicion of formal religion. It does posit some kind of greater intelligence or consciousness behind the regularity of the universe, and it suggests that this divine source 1) expects us to rely on ourselves and 2) can best be known by studying these regularities and patterns found in nature.

Historically Deists have tended to share a distrust of organized religion in general, and an antagonism toward Christian doctrines in particular, with movements and writings produced by atheists.

Panentheism embraces the personal and impersonal impressions of God as well as the immanence and transcendence of God. Briefly stated, God contains but is not limited to any human category. God is simultaneously the source, substance and sustainer of existence and cannot be reduced to what would in a panentheistic frame be the limited view promoted by theism, pantheism, or deism.

As philosophers such as Paul Tillich have suggested, God does not exist in conventional sense as a phenomenon alongside other phenomena. That is, God is not a person, a object or an experience that can be compared or contrasted with other people, objects or experiences.

Rather, God is the source (theism), substance (pantheism), and sustainer (deism) of all people, objects and experiences. The qualities of nature, including its various laws and principles, are manifestations of God (pantheism). God is simultaneously transcendent (in the sense of being more than the sum of the "parts" of the universe as well as in being beyond human conception) and immanent (being present in every part, the unifying underlying aspect of all parts).

In that sense God is like the raw potential of existence itself as well as the various manifestations of that potential, or in other terms, Creator and Creation. This departs from many versions of traditional theism which state that these are two distinct and separate phenomena, as well in the rejection of God as "a" phenomena, but instead taking God to be the ground of Being.

Panentheism takes a bit of a cautious and apophatic approach (apophatic=emphasizing what is unknown or unknowable about God). God refers to a greater depth than merely naming nature or the universe as sacred (pantheism), yet at the same time God is not merely a personal, singular deity (theism).  Panentheism embraces what appear to contradictions of paradoxes in other views of God rather than denying them, which has an appeal for those who see value in uncertainty or a dialectical approach to knowledge and understanding.

A panentheist is essentially free to see other ways of visualizing God as an incomplete but potentially useful perspective, each limited and incomplete yet also valid in some way. In this sense, a panentheist approach recalls the story of the assembly of blind men touching different parts of an elephant and giving wildly different descriptions of what an elephant is like as one feels a tusk, another the trunk, another a leg, and yet another the tail. Einstein made a similar analogy involving a child in a vast library.

Panentheism is not a new idea, and traces can be detected in ancient writings in Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity as well as some lesser known religions of indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans).
That is to say, it has existed alongside and blended with more conventional forms of monotheism and polytheism for quite a long time. In a sense, it is a basic disposition from which other views of God arise from emphasis on a particular aspect of the divine.

In contemporary Christianity panentheism or panentheistic-sounding teachings can be found in the movement(s) surrounding the re-emergence or resurgence of contemplative practices and mysticism. The latter term doesn't mean always refer to esoteric rituals nor anti-intellectualism, but in this context seeking a deeper knowledge of existence directly through contemplation and meditation.

A case can also be argued that some versions of panentheism are similar in some respects to Mahayana Buddhism.

In panentheism there isn't an entity identified as a Creator God in the same way that theism espouses. Rather, God is constantly "creating" and creation is constantly dissolving back into God, setting up an analogy between emptiness and form. (Not all panentheists would embrace this depiction of God, however, and not all Buddhists would accept emptiness as an ontological platform for the emergence of phenomena a la the Tao of Taoism.)

It is also worth mentioning that there is also a relatively new term, panendeism, which appears to distinguish itself from panentheism by de-emphasizing or rejecting any trappings of formal religion, much as the original Deists did. However, whether this preference is or will develop into a  significant departure from panentheism, perhaps moving close to deism, remains to be seen. Both appear to emphasize contemplation or meditation as a means to consciously experience and become aware of a greater depth to existence; one tends to see greater value in structured traditional wisdom teachings and practices and the other sees less.

So there you have it. Not all perspectives on God are the same, and multiple perspectives can exist within a particular religious tradition.

And it does matter when one starts talking about God and what that means for a variety of issues about the nature of existence, theodicy (the "problem of evil and suffering"), the meaning of life, etc.

For more on different ways of understanding God, or at least how I have written about them, check out:

Into the great wide open, part two - going beyond supernaturalism
Holding the mystery of the faith
Hang-ups to seeking God, Part 1: What does it mean to know God?
Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot
Ajahn Punnadhammo ponders "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
Is God a person or just some vague cosmic force?
"The highest" and "most worthy"?
"The One" and "the Only"
Handling Science and Religion Properly
Caveman Og and the problem of religious mystery
Solid rock or shifting sand?
Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight (several part series)
Bad things and good people

In particular I think "Ajahn Punnadhammo..." and "Quantum tempest..." are the most relevant to what has been written in this post.  The first in particular, as it arranges the views of God on a nice scale, like this...

0 - no meaning or purpose except what we make for ourselves

1 - there is some meaning that isn't purely individualistic and subjective

2 - there is a source to existence beyond the (known) material world connected to its meaning

3 - there is a cosmic, non-localized awareness or consciousness associated with the source above

4 - the universal consciousness has qualities we might describe in personal terms like volition

5 - the universal consciousness is an aspect of a distinct individual set apart from the rest of the universe, a super-being with superlative qualities above all others

OK, enjoy.

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  1. Well you didn't really define panENtheism. The real difference is is not in personal or impersonal. As far as I'm concenred, and I consider myself to be a panENtheist, one can be one and still believe that God is personal. The real difference is that God is both in and beyond creation. That may seem like a poor distinction between theists can accept the same too. The distinction with pantheism is real. Pantheist notion of God would equate creation and God as one.

    I think the real distinction with theism and panentheism is that theism is more anthropomorphic and while panentheism can feature a person God it's not God who is just a magnified version of us but a transcendent consciousness.

  2. The description provided includes both personal/impersonal and immanent/transcendent, with the latter dichotomy of "in and beyond creation".

    Anthropomorphism is one manifestation of emphasizing God as personal, which was discussed under the heading for theism, but it isn't the only aspect of such perception.

    Panentheism is able to hold the contradiction between personal/impersonal and immanent/transcendent and other paradoxes by emphasizing depth and uncertainty.

    For panentheism:

    --Depth is a key distinction with pantheism, which tends to designate a superficial and materialistic view of nature/reality as sacred.

    --Uncertainty is a departure from deism, which emphasizes God's intelligibility and recognition through rational and empirical means.

    --The aforementioned unity of God and nature/reality is the primary distinction with traditional (mono)theism.

    A panentheist could emphasize a knowing of God or interaction with God that plays out at the psychological/cultural level of "personal", but that still doesn't make a person. As Hans Kung would say, God explodes the personal/impersonal dichotomy. What we consider personal would be an artificial distinction, a narrowed lens or constructed model that is focused on/distorts a small section of a greater whole.

    The issues of depth and uncertainty are also crucial to panentheism.

    Uncertainty mirrors the apophatic traditions which remind us that what we know of reality, especially ultimate reality, is a highly limited and biased knowledge. It speaks to the God of no God of Meister Eckhart and "unknowing" of the mystics and sages. An emphasis on uncertainty also precludes or at least tempers the presumptions that are at the root of the theological hand-wringing and atheist ire/satire. It engenders a necessary humility about our assumptions and demands on what God is.

    Depth is also critical for panentheism. It is in this depth that we meet uncertainty, and where our preconceived notions become like childish scribbling. It is in depth where there is room to explore and accept the wisdom of apparent paradoxes such as personal/impersonal, immanent/transcendent, natural/supernatural.

    In depth, we don't merely assert a series of dichotomies and seeming contradictions, we provide room for them. In depth, God is neither personal nor impersonal in a strict sense, but rather these are artifacts of our binary impressions. God neither exists or fails to exist in the same way--as source, substance and sustainer. God is both transcendent and immanent because we are looking at the same thing from two perspectives. The supernatural is not magic tricks and childish fantasy, but simply an expanded and often hidden level of what we consider natural.

    Depth does not neatly and cleanly resolve these paradoxes. It doesn't lay out an elegant solution in a logical way that can be spelled out in formulaic terms. It provides the space to grow into a greater insight beyond our typical ways of thinking and feeling and knowing. From this new vantage point some paradoxes dissolve, others appear, and still others take on new forms.

    In this arrangement, a panentheist cannot ever completely shun or completely embrace a particular aspect or construction of God. A particular view may be favored at times according to the disposition and circumstance of the individual, but a fixation on a particular way of experiencing God moves one back toward monotheism, pantheism, deism, etc.

    This is not a warning or rule binding some kind of exclusionary principle, but is instead simply descriptive. Panentheism exists at the nexus of these other ways of understanding God, and pure panentheism is hard to maintain as at a particular moment one may gravitate towards agnosticism or atheism, at another theism, and at yet another deism, pantheism, or something else.

  3. Addendum:

    Speculation based on the contemplative and mystical traditions of major religions...

    Eventually God can become a fundamental orientation toward existence. As our lives change our superficial understanding of God, whether as an atheist, monotheist, pantheist, deist, or something else, our surface/belief level of orientation also changes.

    But the core orientation, found in the depths of true silence, meditation, once found, is completely open and free and unimpeded by experiences or beliefs.

    In other words, God would be experienced without reservations or limits, as something akin to boundless potential, with all of what we might presently consider to be the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that such potential entails. No net, no guarantees, no barriers, no restrictions, no holding back. Not as God "in here" or "out there" but simply as "I am" with no qualifiers.

  4. That's great. I like that. That doesn't preclude doctrine, but it does require being open minded and open ended in experience.

  5. I think I hover at around a 4 on the scale above.


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