Panentheism and the Reality of God

© Copyright 1995, 2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

Our topic here is the enlightened theology of Panentheism, beyond the theologies of mere theism or mere pantheism.

It is of crucial importance to get our theology clear on what is most likely really true of God, or whatever you wish to call our “Source” or “Creator” or “Emanator.” Otherwise, confused theologies tend to result in disturbed minds and heavy hearts about our existential situation.

In a less enlightened theism, God is “out there” in the sky, a merely personal being residing in cloud-filled heavens beyond the physical universe. He is an object distant from “me,” the subject, with some kind of lovely, supernal form (“the bearded Father”), before whom people bow or beg. Western Christianity, misunderstanding the original Greek Trinity doctrine, complicates monotheistic Western religion by seeing God as three almost reified, thing-ified “persons,” three objective “faces” in one Divine Being.

Be aware here that the much-cherished word “person” actually comes from an old Latin term meaning “the actor’s mask through which his voice sounds” (L. persona). Of course, we moderns mean by the word “person” something else: a warm, dear being of conscious sentience and willful agency who has the capacity to receive and express love, to be compassionate, creative, playful, humorous, intimate, responsible, accountable, and so on.

Given this modern definition, we would certainly prefer to think of God as being personal as opposed to merely impersonal.

But I believe it is critically important and far more wise and reasonable for our theology to regard God not just as the “Supreme person” but also as the Trans-personal or Supra-Personal Divine. This Transpersonal God or Reality is so absolutely more loving, compassionate, creative, playful, humorous, intimate and responsible in His/Her Divinity (the I AM THAT AM) than we are as mere "persons." Thus, it makes much more sense to speak of God as the Transpersonal One Who can also express on the “Personal” level as long as we (at our stage of spiritual development or “soul-ular evolution”) take ourselves to be merely persons and have not discovered WHO WE REALLY ARE in authentic God-Realization or Self-Realization.

Here's a useful analogy: just as we, by virtue of being “persons,” are so much more alive and expressive than the merely impersonal rocks and minerals and gases, so also the transpersonal God is vastly more alive and expressive than we mere human persons. Yet, as long as we consider ourselves to be persons, our infinitely gracious God naturally has the power to express “Himself” on our level as the Supreme Person so that our devotional life might be enriched and that we not feel cosmically “lonely” (And here we might say that God is never lonely, never has been, but is always ALONE, “All-One”).

The greatest spiritual adepts and mentors of East and West were mystics who clearly and lovingly intuited (with the gift of Divine gnosis in their God-realized state of theosis) that the Divine One is so much more glorious than non-mystics have “conceived” God. These mystics went far beyond mere theism (God as a “male person” “up there”) to teach a much more enlightened theology, what is best called Panentheism, “all in God / God in all” (a term coined about a century ago). This is no mere pantheism, which holds that “all is God,” that God is nothing more than the sum total of things in the universe. (Note: Panentheism is also not the modern theological invention of “process theology,” which denies God’s transcendence, making “Him” only immanent and involved in the “process” of life and evolution with us. This is a dismal and even frightening theology, denying the purely spiritual, transcendental, omnipotent and omniscient nature of God that Panentheism upholds.)

In the best definition of Panentheism, God transcends yet also immanently includes all beings as their true Identity, their Real Self, the only ONE who can say “I AM THAT I AM.” Thus, in pure Panentheism, God is beyond all beings/persons as their Source, and within all as their essential Substance. God is Spirit, God is Truth, God is Light, God is Love. These are our very Biblical definitions of God, and notice that these terms “Spirit,” “Truth,” “Light,” and “Love” clearly connote a Trans-personal or Supra-personal, not merely “personal” Divine Reality.

This Panentheism positing of a truly Transpersonal God or Divine Absolute easily takes us beyond the old false choice that we must choose between a “personal God” or “impersonal God.” This false choice is what too many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy have tried to foist onto people who, for instance, begin to explore Western or Eastern mystical forms of religion and spirituality with a loftier conception of God than given in their non-mystical or anti-mystical institutional religions. How many times have I heard the God so fully cherished and lived by the mystics of our Eastern and Western traditions, scornfully denigrated as “impersonal” by non-mystics and second-rate theologians who have no conception of the depth and subtlety and beauty of what our most esteemed theologians of East and West have taught about the Divine Nature for the last few millennia. Ah, but it is an old pattern: the non-mystics don’t understand the mystics, and, especially in the West, have tried to silence them, even to the point of putting them to death! How strange and bizarre to be more attached to your own “orthodoxy” (“correct belief”) than to the Living God who is fully transcendent and immanent and has revealed some of this magnificent Divine glory to the transparently-clear, ego-free heart-minds of the mystic saints and sages!

So let us deeply contemplate what our mystics are saying, after all. For they allow us to let God be God in the most sublimely grand and glorious manner: both transcendent and immanent, both Transpersonal and Personal. This God is the true Reality of Spirit, Love, Light and Truth Who is ultimately Formless, yet capable of manifesting as a beautiful personal Form for devotees, just as this God has manifested so spectacularly as all creation. This God (or Absolute Godhead, Brahman, Buddhata, Tao) is the Conscious, Compassionate Context or Ground of Being—in Whom all of us “live, move and have our being,” as Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago. This God is the “no-thing-like” Spirit and Origin of all “things”—and modern physics tells us quite clearly, along with mystics of sacred traditions, that all “things” are ultimately illusions, not truly solid, substantial, or permanent, just temporary forms of energy. God is the Source of all energy-matter and space-time.

Rabbi Jesus stated, “God is Spirit and must be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth.” (John 4:24) He did not say that God is a human-like, bodily-formed person up in a heaven whom we must somehow perceive and praise as a separate, distinct “object.” Incidentally, note that any translation of the Bible which renders this passage as “God is a Spirit” is wrong and misleading, suggesting a dualism between “God’s Spirit” and “my spirit.” There is no dualism. In Panentheism, God is Absolute Spirit and has no rivals or “others.” There is only one Spirit or Being as source of all beings, only one Self as source of all selves, only one Awareness underlying all viewpoints or states of consciousness.

Jesus is also alleged to have notably said that God’s domain (the Kingdom of Heaven) is “within you” (Luke 17:20-21), that is to say, God is interior or prior to all distinctions such as inside/outside. Again, our God, the true Self, is no mere object outside us in the field of our psychic perception, but the Eternal, Changeless Subject, the One Alone of Whom Being can be predicated. Thus, God is not limited to any one form or place. Being omnipresent, God is always right HERE. All of us apparently-separately-existing beings are dreamed by God and so are, depending on our degree of selflessness or selfishness, either clear or opaque windows onto the Divine Omni-Presence. For it is the One Divine Actor who plays all the parts or roles as persons (“masks,” “facades”) in this “Divine Comedy.” And yes, this is, for those mystics or awake ones who have penetrated the surface appearances, plainly and magnificently a Divine Comedy, in which the many moments and periods of pain, injustice, terror, etc. are each part of the infinite Divine Spirit’s experiencing of finite, material adventures.

Let us lovingly, gratefully celebrate this formless Transcendent One, utterly beyond all, yet, paradoxically, also immanent in/as all beings as their ego-free Self! Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

(Left-side diagram:) Unenlightened, non-mystical, dualistic “Theist” theology, wherein God is a “Supreme Person” separate and remote from human persons.

(Right-side diagram:) Enlightened, mystical, nondual Panentheism theology, wherein God is both formless and formfull, utterly transcendent and completely immanent, both Transpersonal and Personal, and the human being’s real Self, the “uncreated aspect of the soul,” is God, the One Who Alone IS.

German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832), a student of Hegel and a teacher of Schopenhauer, sought to reconcile monotheism with pantheism and evidently first coined the term panentheism (all in God) in 1828 or 1829. The renowned Harvard University professor of ancient Greek, Christian and Jewish spirituality, Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974), was an early 20th century scholar to use this term “panentheism.”

The actual panentheist view—the Divine One’s transcendence and immanence, the Divine being beyond all yet within all—was being promoted many centuries earlier, by religious mystics in diverse traditions, going all the way back to the oldest Hindu Upanishads of 2800 years ago, the Brihadâranyaka and Chândogya Upanishads. In the West, beyond pioneering Hellenist panentheist figures like Plotinus (c205-70 CE) and his followers, the neo-Platonists, we find a robust Christian panentheism in the views of the daring 9th-century Irish Catholic theologian at the Carolingian court in France, John Scottus Eriugena (c800-877), head of the Palatine Academy, “the greatest mind of the entire Christian middle ages,” and a huge influence on Meister Eckhart and others. Early Muslim Sûfî mystics like Bâyazîd Bistâmî and Mansur al-Hallâj, let alone later figures like Ibn Arabî and Jalâluddîn Rûmî, clearly espouse a panentheist view of Allâh. Maimonides and Jewish Kabbalah mystics (e.g., Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria) and later eastern European Hasidim sages (the Ba’al Shem Tov Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer [1700-60] and his followers) were all panentheists. (These western religious figures and numerous others—most of them veritable panentheists—are profiled in the “Religion & Spirituality” section of this website.)

Alternate versions of panentheism have aired in the 20th and 21st centuries, some more influenced and, I would say, “undermined,” by Process Theology, which tends to deny or underemphasize Divine transcendence, omniscience and omnipotence. Scientists, cosmologists, philosophers and theologians in the West have recently become enamored with panentheism. Authors exploring facets of panentheism and its import are Arthur Peacocke and Philip Clayton (see their edited anthology, In Whom We Live, Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, Wm. Eerdman’s, 2004), Jay McDaniel, David Ray Griffin, and Matthew Fox (the last from a more mystical “Creation Spirituality” perspective). Philosopher Paul Brockelman came up with a pithy phrase for a panentheistic Divine: “the Beyond in our midst.” In Cosmology and Creation: The Spiritual Significance of Contemporary Cosmology (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999) he argues that both theologians and scientists are reaching a consensus: “God is neither nature itself nor located apart from it, but is available to mystical experience within it.” Perhaps it is better to say, in light of the more open "four-cornered" logic of the Eastern spiritual traditions, that God is both nature and beyond nature, and, as Brockelman suggests, neither nature nor beyond nature.