Thursday, January 01, 2015

Panentheism by Stephen Nuttall

“Divinity is the enfolding and unfolding of everything that is. Divinity is in all things in such a way that all things are in Divinity.”
Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464)

Panentheism is a noun that has a marvellous ring to it, but very few people are sure of exactly what it means. Strangely, you will be hard pressed to find it in any contemporary dictionary even though the word has been in use since the early nineteenth century. It was in 1828, to be precise, that the German thinker Karl Christian Friedrich Krause originally coined the term in order to clearly delineate his own philosophy and since that time it has been retrospectively applied to a fairly wide range of philosophical schools.

Panentheism has its linguistic roots in the Greek words pan, en and Theos, and therefore literally means All-in-God. Krause qualified his overall perspective with the assertion: “Everything is in God and God is in everything, but God is more than everything.” According to this outlook, God is an essence that contains the entire universe within itself but is not exhausted by it.

Put simply, it is the premise that divinity includes the cosmos as a part though not the whole of its being. And, to one extent or another, this concept can be found at the heart of belief systems as seemingly diverse as Creation Spirituality, Gaudiya Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism), Kabbalah, Process Theology, Shin Buddhism, Sikhism and Sufism, as well as certain kinds of Neopaganism. Moreover, although as a world-view panentheism outwardly appears to be an emerging new theology, it can actually be traced back to times prior to recorded history. Archaeological findings indicate that nearly all of the ancient hunter-gatherer societies developed a panentheistic culture. Correspondingly, modern anthropologists have discerned that the panentheistic mind-set was manifested by way of Goddess worship.

Throughout our own epoch, stretching back two millennia, Western culture has been chiefly influenced by a traditional Christian theology that always stressed the transcendence or apartness of God. Despite this, many notable Christians over the centuries – including the likes of the great medieval women theologians, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich, plus Nicolas of Cusa and, closer to our own time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John A T Robinson – were convinced of divine immanence in all worldly phenomena. In other words, like the pantheists, they recognised that the material universe was pervaded by the very presence of deity itself. In fact, in keeping with all this, Bonhoeffer aptly described God as “the Beyond that is in our midst.”
Today, Panentheism – an ism that was almost forgotten – is enjoying something of a renaissance. Not only, as previously stated, can this sublime axiom be perceived within most of the major faiths, but also it is evidently playing a role in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion.

Viewers of The Panentheist will likely be aware that contemporary scientists often speak of a quest for the Theory of Everything. Such research, succinctly described by New York University’s Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics as being at “the intersection of particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology,” ultimately leads to what has come to be termed the New Science.

Regarding what he often refers to as Neoscience, philosopher and writer Frank Parkinson has pertinently opined:

“The connection between the emerging new science and religion lies essentially, but not entirely, in the fact that the former is telling a creation story which forms the basis for a new theology and, together with evolutionary biology, provides us with a new awareness of what it means to be human. This is not a passive understanding, for in offering us a view of where the universe and the human species have come from it forces upon us a decision about where we want the species, and ourselves, to go.”

Notwithstanding this, it is important to note here the ingrained influence of theological precepts on the scientific mind. Quoting Russian physicist Andrei Linde, science writer Margaret Wertheim (New Scientist, vol. 156 issue 2102, p. 28) observed:

“He (Linde) believes that the whole of modern cosmology has been deeply influenced by the Western tradition of monotheism. "When scientists start their work," he says, "they are subconsciously influenced by their cultural traditions." In particular, the central idea of modern cosmology - that it must be possible to understand the entire Universe through one ultimate Theory of Everything - is an outgrowth of belief in one God. Thus cosmology has itself become a sort of religious quest: a search for "God" in the form of an equation.”
Seemingly then, the relationship between religion and science is, and always has been, a symbiotic one. Sallie McFague, Distinguished Theologian in Residence at the Vancouver School of Theology, is certainly one person who firmly believes that panentheism is in accord with science. She says, “Science is describing the process of creation while theology is suggesting the meaning of creation.”
Moreover, McFague attests, “God is seen not only as the agent that started the big bang, but rather as the continuing creator who is the source and power of life and love in the universe.”
A final point about panentheism worth consideration is the fact that being a holistic philosophy it refutes the notion of objective evil. For panentheists, what is deemed evil is simply a product of human subjectivity. As the renowned 20th century Unitarian theologian, Alfred Hall, remarked: “All that we mean or can mean when we say a thing is evil, is that it falls below our standard or idea of good.” The inference of this opinion is that human imperfection is but a stage both in the evolution of our species and, in a wider context, the unfolding of the cosmos.

One could argue that it is the essential integrity of panentheism, with its profound intimations of wholeness, that is probably its most inspiring feature.

The esteemed medieval Sufi mystic Kabir once sagely noted: “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
While this still basically remains the case, evidence of the reappearance of the panentheistic viewpoint on the spiritual and intellectual horizon is definitely there for all to see. If, in time to come, this wonderful philosophical tradition proves to be a bridge between science and theology on the one hand and people of differing faiths on the other, then it will surely serve a noble purpose, not just in the search for ultimate truth, but perhaps more importantly in the cause of a much desired global harmony.

Stephen Nuttall
© 2011

First published in The Inquirer, December 2006