Pantheism or Panentheism?


Question & Answer

Q: By Matt

I desire to continue my spiritual journey by walking the Christ path as it is and has been the path of my life. I believe God to be the source of life, love, and ground of being. I don’t believe God is a personal being as Christianity and the Bible often defines or illustrates. That said, is Progressive Christianity, as the community defines it, Pantheistic or Panentheistic? If God is not personal, what rationale do we, as progressive followers of Christ, have to believe God greater and beyond our universe (Panentheism) rather than just being our universe (Pantheism)? Does continuing to walk the Christ path mean that I must onto notion/faith that God is something greater than everything?

I’m considering attending a United Universalist Church, the closest thing to Progressive Christianity I can find in my area. I hesitate because I don’t want to lose my focus on the Christ path as it has been so fruitful in my life.
A: By Joran Slane Oppelt

The difference between pantheism (“all is God”) and panentheism (“all is in God, and God is in all things”) is a subtle shift — a micro adjustment — along a spectrum that includes mythic, traditional, modern, pluralistic, mystical and unitive beliefs. This spectrum (as seen in Spiral Dynamics, Fowler’s Stages of Faith, etc.) is an evolutionary model that applies to all world religions. In my opinion, every Christian expression at pluralistic and beyond (and even some modernists) can safely be referred to as a “progressive” Christianity.

But that tiny shift along the religious spectrum can result in cataclysmic changes for the individual and their worldview.

Because Christianity emerged relatively recently in history, when discussing panentheism we must also make a distinction between concepts like a living, monotheistic and Abrahamic God and a pre-Christian, animistic Creator (Spirit) whose body is the living universe. We need both history and mythology to tackle the big questions.

I can hear your frustration with the lack of clarity on the topic as well as seeking a church home in your area. I know that lonely feeling. I understand the personal importance of wanting to clearly align yourself with the cosmological view of an organization. It’s how we share language, values, ideas and experience within a community of practice. It determines how we show up and serve others. It’s how we belong. But, I have a hunch that this question (the nature of God) will be a personal one — and one that is wrestled with until we pass into the next world.

To clarify what Progressive Christianity “believes” or where they stand on doctrine might be tough. The “Progressive Christianity” movement is a sprawling tangle of roots and branches that includes the emerging, contemplative, integral and evangelical. Some churches are more progressive than Christian (some more Christian than progressive).

The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity (as listed at state that Christ teaches us about the “sacredness, oneness and Unity of all life.” They say nothing at all about God.

And, for me, this is the heart of the matter. Mystical religious experience — a personal relationship with the Divine — is the path of Christ. Walking the Christ path doesn’t require you to believe anything about God or the universe, it simply requires that you love God with all your heart.

God doesn’t need to be a “personal Being” in order for me to have a personal relationship with God. This is where the mystics (Eckhart, Hildegard, Teresa, Merton, et. al.) got it right. We can appreciate their poetry about crystal castles and babbling streams and the “innermost” and the holy journey “Christward” as a description of that love.

As Ilia Delio describes, “God is a name that points to an unfathomable mystery of unquenchable love and inestimable goodness. There’s no human mind that could get itself wrapped around the infinite or eternal love that God is.”

In Psalm 139 — a poem about this exact everywhereness of God (“Where can I escape from thy spirit?”) — we may know that God is in all things (lightness, darkness) but only after showing up there ourselves.

I may enjoy playing catch with this ball (“the nature of God”) in slow motion with you via the internet, but the Spirit of this question truly comes to life when it is becomes midrash, conversation, interpretation — when it is argued and debated with others following the way and walking alongside you on the path.

Which brings me to UU.

I assume when you say that you’re considering attending a “United Universalist” church in your area, you mean “Unitarian Universalism.” I have two thoughts:

1) You should not hesitate to seek community at any church you want. Attend a different church each week, if you like. It doesn’t mean you need to become a member or join a committee or change your religious affiliation.

2) Unitarian Universalism has a rich history of being an open, welcoming, tolerant and loving church with a commitment to social justice and community. Every UU community I’ve been to has been a place where Christians, Buddhists and atheists alike can gather, sing, celebrate, serve and grow together. What UU typically does not offer (and, of course there are exceptions) are communities of practice for those following the very personal path of the mystic or the contemplative. Sadly, it’s all too rare in the Christian churches as well.

UUs are progressive and liberal and would wholeheartedly welcome the deism/theism or pantheism/panentheism debate, but if your focus is to keep Christ at the heart of all things, then I feel like you might be better served in a Christian (not an interfaith) community. It’s worth having a candid conversation with your local UU minister to see if there’s a home for you there.

Wherever you land, they will be lucky to have your gifts of focus, insight and curiosity. I will pray for your continued discernment as you navigate the Way.

Looking forward,

~ Joran Slane Oppelt

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author, interfaith minister, life coach and award-winning producer and singer/songwriter. He is the owner of the Metta Center of St. Petersburg and founder of Integral Church – an interfaith and interspiritual organization in Tampa Bay committed to “transformative practice, community service and religious literacy.” Joran is the author of SentencesThe Mountain and the Snow and co-author of Order of the Sacred Earth (with Matthew Fox), Integral Church: A Handbook for New Spiritual Communities and Transform Your Life: Expert Advice, Practical Tools, and Personal Stories. He serves as President of Interfaith Tampa Bay and has spoken around the world about spirituality and the innovation of religion.

He has presented at South by Southwest in Austin, TX; Building the New World Conference in Radford, VA; Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City; Embrace Festival in Portland, OR and Integral European Conference in Siófok, Hungary.

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