Thinking about God Panentheistically

Tony Jones recently offered a much-needed challenge to progressive theobloggers, asking us to write a substantive post about God. We liberals and progressives often spend more time indicating what we¬†don’t¬†think about God (or Jesus, or Christianity, or whatever else) than what we¬†do think, and this is probably more true when it comes to God than in any other case.

There is a theological precedent for this, of course. Aquinas’¬†via negativa articulates the view that we can only say what God is¬†not, never what God is, since human language can never do justice to the reality that is God. And Tony himself offered a qualified appreciation of this approach.

Several blogs have begun the process of responding to Tony’s challenge, and Tony has set up a Storify page to gather them all. I particularly like Fred Clark’s statement that he plans on failing this challenge, and doing so in several parts! Adam Cleaveland has described how his substantive statements about God have evolved over the years.¬†Tony has referred to some of what has been offered as “throat clearing.”

I would like to begin my own reply by emphasizing my own appreciation for and connection with the already-mentioned apophatic tradition – that which asserts that God defies description, and thus emphasizes what God is not, recognizing that positive language can never do justice to God. Here are a couple of statements, with links to fuller treatments of the topics:

God is not an object. God is a mystery, not an explanation. God is not a giant person (as Fred Clark puts it in a follow-up post). We use personal language because we are the most transcendent things we can directly experience in the universe. But projecting human personhood onto the divine is no less mythological, and no more does justice to God, than any other sort of language. Taking such language – indeed, taking any human language about God – literally would be to engage in idolatry.

But once we emphasize sufficiently that all religious language is metaphor, symbol, and myth, then we can begin to articulate symbols and even stories that communicate something of what we mean – signs that we believe point in the right direction. As I have sometimes said, the praise song “Indescribable” illustrates the point well. If we really wanted to be consistent, we would sing “Indescribable” and say nothing further. But if we are to speak about our faith at all, then it must be through the cautious use of symbols, or not at all. Merely being silent has proven not to be an attractive or viable option, even for the mystics who emphasize divine ineffability.

For me, influenced as I am by theologians like Paul Tillich, God is the ultimate, the Reality that transcends and encompasses everything else. God is not a being within the universe. God is Being itself. And so for me there is no real debate about whether there is Reality, it is about the nature of ultimate reality, the highest level of transcendence or the infinite (my perception doesn’t allow me to say which), and the ways to best do justice to our existence within and in the midst of that Reality.

For past generations, God or gods were seen at work in forces of nature. While it is still possible to take this view (Pat Robertson does so regularly, if selectively), thanks to science, it still ends up being a view of God intervening in an otherwise naturally-functioning order – basically Deism with occasional miraculous interventions. Others find a sacredness in all things which is essentially pantheism, and Richard Dawkins rightly or wrongly views that as basically atheism. Some of us are not entirely happy with these options. Some of us are not happy with them at all. But what alternatives are there?

Here I’d like to focus on one, proposing it as a model or extended metaphor for thinking about God. I suspect that one major reason why progressives are often quiet about God is precisely because, having emphasized that we don’t think God is a powerful but limited deity who tosses tornadoes and hurricanes at sinners with imperfect aim, we don’t know where if anywhere it makes sense to talk about God “doing” anything or being directly involved in our lives.

Some time ago I discussed radically emergent theism¬†(in conversation with Philip Clayton, who himself interacts with those ideas online). I continue to find that an image that is useful. If we take seriously the depiction of God relating to the world as we do to our bodies, then assuming we consider personhood an emergent property rather than something inserted into us as a separate substance, there is no place where we can pinpoint our “self” if one removes the entirety of our bodies. The human person is a reality that emerges from the organization and interaction of the constituent parts that make us up, and is not to be found somewhere tucked in between the cells. And so, if we think of God as the highest order of emergence out of all that exists, then we can truly say, in good panentheistic fashion, that God is everywhere, and all things exist in God, and yet none of them simply¬†is God. And when we think about the connections that come to exist between us, and emerge as something transcendent from the interaction, then we may say things such as “God is love” and¬†really mean it.

In the past, I have used the analogy of two cells in a human body talking about their existence. One, an “atheist” or perhaps “ahumanist” says that it looks around and sees nothing but cells – they are born, they die, and that is it. The second says that sometimes it thinks that they are all part of something greater, like one big Cell. The latter is projecting its own image onto a transcendent reality that it cannot fathom. But it is intuiting something about the nature of existence that the first denies, and so is not entirely wrong, and is perhaps correct in important respects even though a cell can never have concepts or language to talk about what a human person is like.

And so this language points to a sense of being part of a Reality that connects and hangs together in ways that I cannot fathom from within the midst of it, but nonetheless intuit and affirm and believe. And of course, talking about the cosmos as akin to God’s body is not at all a new idea.

This approach is a model that I find useful. But to take these as literal statements about God would be to mistake the way religious language functions. It is a pointer towards transcendent realities that we cannot speak of directly. But what these metaphors offer are ways of relating to and pointing to that transcendent reality we refer to as God, in ways that make sense in light of our current understanding of the cosmos and of ourselves. The symbols I am recommending will have a limited duration of usefulness. All human symbols do. But we cannot simply use older symbols when our understanding of the world has radically changed. We have no choice but to find new ways of thinking and speaking – being prepared to jettison them when the time comes.

The key question Tony’s challenged raised for me is whether one can write substantively about a reality that words cannot express.¬†I was tempted to respond with a piece of music and no words. (I am in fact writing a song on this theme, and if it is ever finished, I might just share it here. But I can guarantee that if I do, it won’t do justice to its subject matter. Nevertheless, like Fred Clark, I have plans to continue failing spectacularly at attempting to speak about God, repeatedly, for the foreseeable future).

This post originally appeared on the blog Exploring Our Matrix

Review & Commentary

4 thoughts on “Thinking about God Panentheistically

  1. James said, “If we really wanted to be consistent, we would sing ‚ÄúIndescribable‚ÄĚ and say nothing further.” What I would say in response to this, is that James would seem to have given up his cautiousness when he advocates the above kind of consistency; he has fallen trap to a kind of reductionism, but in the other direction. Huh? Ok, here’s what I mean. If we can’t have UNIVOCAL knowledge (which I agree with), i.e., where our thoughts and God’s thoughts are on the same level, then where is the caution in concluding with epistemic certainty that we really know nothing about God? Caution would seem work both ways, avoid both extremes and allow the ground of all being, to be able to communicate with the beings whom he has created, no? Well, there you go …. “he” and that’s the whole problem. God isn’t male and we can’t even get off the ground, let alone create a system of true sayings. But why the skepticism? Why can’t maleness, while certainly not literal of God, and definitely culturally bound, communicate something real about God? Why must the criterion be univocal and absolute or nothing at all? Why doesn’t analogical knowledge translate into true knowledge – true creaturely knowledge? Why can’t God reveal something true about himself even though it is culturally and creaturely bound? I mean isn’t it kind of silly – even weird – to say with epistemic certainty that the ground of all being is incapable of communication with the very beings that seem to flow from him…really? I think there’s a better, less skeptical way, out of the conundrum of divine knowledge. We don’t need to deny his communicative ability with his creation to be cautious. We can embrace a non-Cartesian certainty along with a parent/child dynamic that says something meaningful and true, and still be cautious.

  2. Thanks for these provocative thoughts, James. I hope to get some time to “listen in” on that conversation you referred to… and more of how you describe “radically emergent theism.”
    An interesting thought just struck me in relation to the development of ideas and theology (of God, specifically) in the last 3 centuries or so…

    I wonder how discussions would have gone 200 years ago (like, e.g., between Adams and Jefferson in their reconciling and then deeply engaging correspondence through their post-presidency days) if things had evolved to where something like Process was around. Not just brilliant people like them, but it seems many others back then were informed enough and equipped to discuss complex theology (or philosophy — try reading Edwards–so much more than a “fire and brimstone” preacher) in a way that only theologians and theology nerds can and do now. (Well, maybe that is too strong… but you get the drift.) Seems we have a failure of the ability to really think, and the interest in doing so these days.

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