Panentheism: The Other God Of the Philosophers—From Plato to the Present
reviewed by L. P. Fairfield
“In mainline intellectual circles, panentheism has gained the position held by Deism in the Enlightenment,” writes John W. Cooper, professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Seminary, in his lucid survey of the idea’s rise to dominant influence in Western thought over the last two centuries.
It is high time for orthodox Christians to take a comprehensive view of this rival religion.
Bits of Deity
“Panentheism” means “God in everything” and, conversely, “everything in God.” Unlike pure pantheism, it does not merely identify God one-for-one with the sum total of everything in the cosmos. But unlike biblical Christianity, it does not separate God and the universe either.
It distinguishes between God and the universe, normally by employing the analogy of the mind and body or by arguing that God is the “soul” of the cosmos. When panentheistic systems address creation at all, they generally view the universe as an emanation from “the divine.” And thus we human beings also manifest or express the “Deity.” As New England panentheist Ralph Waldo Emerson modestly allowed, “I am part and parcel of God.”
Just as we are bits of deity, so “the divine” is part of us. Panentheistic worldviews tend to agree that no divinity exists apart from specific “beings.” And the deity needs the cosmos in order to be fully divine. This mutual interdependence of “God” and the cosmos comes to prominence in nineteenth-century panentheism and its modern descendents.
After tracing the Western roots of panentheism from Plotinus and third-century Neo-Platonism onwards, Cooper focuses on the period from Hegel (1770–1831) and Schelling (1775–1854) to the present. With the Industrial Revolution and the acceleration of social change, the West gradually ceased to think of reality as static, and embraced a dynamic and progressive view of the cosmos. “Becoming” replaced “Being” as the hallmark of reality.
Cooper shows how the nineteenth-century evolutionary worldview induced the old, static “World Soul” of Neo-Platonist panentheism to unfold into a new, dynamic spirit of historical progress. The “Spirit” needs the developing cosmos in order to actualize itself. The trajectory of this new “Spirit” is invariably positive.
Both the twentieth-century Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and the mostly American school of Process Theology illustrate the shift from “Being to Becoming,” as Cooper traces the story. Like Hegel and Schelling a century earlier, they posit a divine “Spirit” that actualizes itself in history.
This “Spirit” has two poles: actual and potential, or present and future. Progressive movement in history from the one to the other is an organic process, without any abrupt fits and starts. And so, as H. Richard Niebuhr tartly observed of this tradition, “History is the savior.” Things are getting better. Trust the process.
Being Letting Be
Not all modern panentheistic systems emphasize “process” so vividly, though they all assume it. Cooper moves on to Paul Tillich’s “existential panentheism,” which famously understands “God” as the “ground of our being” and as our “ultimate concern.”
Tillich’s divine “Spirit” is the life-force that allows beings to be. Jesus of Nazareth was the human being in whom this “Spirit” became most fully manifest. Like the nineteenth-century panentheists before him, Tillich believes that Jesus was the chief symbol of “Being” in human history, but not the agent of our salvation in any positive way.
Tillich has had considerable influence on later twentieth-century Anglican thinkers, Cooper notes. J. A. T. Robinson’s influential Honest to God borrows Tillich’s understanding of “God” as the impersonal “ground of all being.”
John Macquarrie, whose Principles of Theology has been the standard theological textbook in Episcopal seminaries for three decades, likewise characterizes the divine as “Being,” whose essence is the process of “letting-be.” This “Being” is inseparable from the cosmos. “There is no Being apart from beings,” Macquarrie argues. One could hardly differentiate panentheism from biblical Christianity more starkly.
But are all panentheistic worldviews hostile to authentic Christianity? Cooper devotes sympathetic chapters to Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, weighing the possibility of some compatibility.
In Moltmann’s theology, the cosmos does not emanate from an impersonal life-force. Rather, the three Persons of the Trinity voluntarily withdraw, creating a space for the universe to exist. And in the end of history, the blessed Trinity will catch up all creation into their common life, their “dancing around one another” ( perichoresis) in love. Therefore his Christian panentheism is Trinitarian and eschatological: God exists eternally in Three Persons, and “God will be all in all” only at the end of time.
Pannenberg adapts panentheistic themes in a different way. Appealing more than Moltmann does to the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers, he understands the Three Persons to be three specific relations-in-communion. That communion is a “force-field” of divine love, stretching back in time from the future and drawing all creation towards full participation in the Trinity at the end. So God is both personal and active in creation, and the “force-field” is not simply an impersonal energy.
Cooper praises both Moltmann and Pannenberg for letting Scripture and Tradition determine their theology, but he is not wholly persuaded that panentheism and Christianity are compatible. He praises Moltmann and Pannenberg as Christians, but doubts that they avoid the problems of the panentheism they want to baptize.
Cooper concludes his survey with chapters on panentheistic varieties of liberation, feminist, and ecological theology, and with the use of panentheism by theologians of science. In most of these systems—one interesting exception is the Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne—the distance from classical Christianity widens.
In a concluding chapter, he explains “Why I Am Not a Panentheist.” He points out that neither ancient nor modern panentheists are really able to allow God’s sovereignty over creation, or his actual transcendence or separateness from it. Those who insist on “the immanence of the transcendent” are simply fudging. In panentheism, transcendence disappears. There is no God outside the system.
This means that “Deity” is fully implicated in evil. If the “divine” is the life-force or the principle of being in the cosmos, then the “divine” is as completely invested in Hitler as in Mother Teresa. As Cooper puts it more tactfully, “Dysfunction and spiritual alienation are ontologically intrinsic to finite existence.”
It’s no reassurance to an Auschwitz inmate to reflect that things are getting better or that the trajectory of the cosmic process is toward love. Panentheism offers cold comfort to victims trapped in a “dysfunctional” universe.
Panentheists generally try to absolve the “divine” of responsibility for evil by limiting its power. The life-force is invested in everyone, but somehow it permits us freedom of choice. When we misuse our liberty, we’re responsible for evil. So maybe Hitler and Mother Teresa simply put a neutral life-force to different uses.
This argument offers equally cold comfort to the victim. The panentheist “divine” is strictly limited in its power to help us. If the “divine” and human beings co-exist within the cosmos, then any freedom that human beings enjoy must entail a corresponding loss of freedom for the “divine.” It can nudge us toward the future; it can even feel our pain. But it cannot save us. An immanent life-force is trapped by the system it supports.
A Dominant Idea
Panentheism offers the postmodern world one solution to the “clash of civilizations”: namely, the proposition that all religions are manifestations of the same life-force. If Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam are really talking about the same World Soul, then why can’t we all just get along? This argument is what Cooper calls “the common language in the mainstream dialogue of world religions.”
His patient and careful exposition shows why we can’t all just get along, and why panentheism fails in other ways as well. The World Soul doesn’t know your name, it can’t deal with evil, and it can’t save.
His treatment of the panentheist tradition is invariably courteous and measured, and as far as I can tell, accurate. He is writing for theologians, pastors, and seminarians, but the book is within the reach of interested lay people. Given the idea’s dominant influence in the elite thinking of the Western churches, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers should be required reading for anyone concerned for biblical truth in the twenty-first century.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.