Panentheism and the Reality of God
© Copyright 1995, 2006, 2015 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
(Last revision: October 2, 2015)
Our topic here is the enlightened theology of Panentheism, what might also be termed Absolute Theism, 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,” the mysterious, miraculous Reality doing everything and being everyone. 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” as the Guy 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 Supra-personal Divine, the “beyond personal” Reality Who also includes the personal and impersonal modes of existence.
This Supra-personal (or Trans-personal or Meta-personal) God or Reality is so absolutely more loving, compassionate, creative, playful, humorous, intimate and responsible in His/Her Divinity (the beyond-gender I AM THAT AM) than we are as mere “persons.” Thus, it makes much more sense to speak of God as the Supra-personal 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 Suprapersonal 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” to us on our finite level as the Supreme Person so that our devotional life might be enriched and so that we not feel cosmically “lonely.” (And here we might say that God is never lonely but is always ALONE, “All-One,” the relation-less Absolute who can emanate a vast universe of relationships among sentient beings.)
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 the entity “conceived” as God by non-mystics. 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 (or what could be called Absolute Theism, if you prefer), God transcends yet also immanently includes all beings as their true Identity, their Real Self, the only ONE who can affirm “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 Biblical definitions of God, and notice that these terms “Spirit,” “Truth,” “Light,” and “Love” clearly connote a Supra-personal, not merely “personal” Divine Reality.
This Panentheism positing of a truly Supra-personal God or Divine Absolute easily takes us beyond the old false choice that we must choose between a “personal God” or “impersonal Reality.” 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 illustrious 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 history of western civilization, 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 be nondually devoted to the Living God Who is fully transcendent and immanent. The Living God Who 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 most eminent 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 Supra-personal 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, Dharmakaya, Tao) is the Absolutely Aware and also 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 personal consciousness viewpoints.
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, closer than close. All of us apparently separately-existing beings are dreamed by God and so are, depending on our degree of selflessness or selfishness, functioning as 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.
When pain, fear, terror, trauma, and other nightmarish states arise, WHO is really experiencing them? Apparently it is the personal consciousness or sentient being, but really it is the Supra-personal single Awareness and Power of Sentience Who Experiences. Yes, God is the Sentience of each and every sentient being.
The Divine Creator-Emanator-Dreamer is not separate from the creature, but the very Capacity for experiencing, sensing, perceiving and feeling through the precious, poignant “instrument” of individualized personhood. The countless gazillions of persons (personal consciousnesses or souls) are the finite “disguise” of the infinite Supra-personal One, the stupendous Reality sustaining and powering everything and everyone.
Let us lovingly, gratefully celebrate this formless Transcendent One, utterly beyond all, yet, paradoxically, also immanent in/as all beings as their ego-free Heart-Self. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow! Allelujah!
(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 Supra-personal and Personal, and the human being’s real Self, the “uncreated aspect of the soul,” is God, the One Who Alone IS.
The specific word panentheism (all in God), denoting a more inclusive philosophical/theological view, first arose in the early 19th century in an 1809 work by German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), Of Human Freedom. Another German philosopher, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832), a student of Schelling's friend-rival Hegel and a teacher of Schopenhauer, sought to reconcile monotheism with pantheism and used the term in 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 Upaniṣads of 2800 years ago, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads and somewhat later works like the Bhagavad Gītā and Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, especially of the Tathāgata-garbha school. Later, the founder of classical Advaita Vedānta Hinduism, Śaṅkara (fl. circa 700 CE) and the Hindu and Buddhist Tantra texts and teachers (from Yoga Vāsiṣṭha and Kashmir Śaivism's Utpaladeva to Tibetan Vajrayāna and Japanese Shingon founders Padma Sambhava and Kūkai) are strongly panentheist, as are the nondual devotional figures of India such as Jñāneśvar and Basava (founder of the Vīraśaiva). The East Asian Chán, Seon and Zen Buddhism traditions are all strongly panentheist, in the sense of realizing the transcendent formless Buddha-nature that is simultaneously immanent as all formations and sentient beings.
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 panentheist Meister Eckhart and others. Early Muslim Sūfī mystics like Bāyazīd Bistāmī and Mansūr-e Ḥallāj, let alone later figures like Ibn Arabī and Jalāluddīn Rūmī, clearly espouse a panentheist view of Allāh. Maimonides and even more so Jewish Kabbalah mystics led by Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria and later eastern European Hasidic sages (the Ba’al Shem Tov / Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer [1700-60] and his followers) were 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 unfortunately tends to deny or under-emphasize Divine transcendence, omniscience and omnipotence for the sake of emphasizing full Divine involvement. In any case, scientists, cosmologists, philosophers and theologians in the West have recently become enamored with panentheism. Facets of panentheism and its importance are explored by different authors in the anthology edited by Arthur Peacocke & Philip Clayton, In Whom We Live, Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Wm. Eerdman’s, 2004), and in the anthology edited by Loriliai Biernacki & Philip Clayton, Panentheism across the World’s Traditions (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), and by John W. Cooper in Panentheism—The Other God of the Philosophers: From Plato to the Present (Baker Academic, 2006), expressing Cooper's evangelical Christian view of the subject. Jay McDaniel, David Ray Griffin, and Matthew Fox (the last from a more mystical “Creation Spirituality” perspective) are other authors who have tried to articulate a version of panentheism. A good scholarly article surveying the topic is John Culp, “Panentheism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013.
Philosopher Paul Brockelman came up with a pithy phrase for a panentheistic Divine: “the Beyond in our midst.” In his 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.