Supernatural theism versus panentheism


Marcus Borg, in his book The God We Never Knew, compares two different conceptions of God within the Christian tradition:

The first conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there", separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about.) I will call this way of thinking about God "supernatural theism." Widespread within Christianity, it is perhaps what a majority of people (both believers and non-believers) think of when they think of God. Some accept the existence of such a being, and some reject it. But it is the notion of God as a supernatural being "out there" that is being accepted or rejected.

The second root concept of God in the Christian tradition thinks of God quite differently. God is the encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, the Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." I will call this concept of God "panentheism". (p. 11-12)
In a previous posting, I mentioned that, after having read John Shelby Spong's book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong clearly rejects "supernatural theism" (which Spong simply calls "theism"), but it wasn't at all clear to me whether he embraced panentheism or not. He mentioned the word "panentheism" once, almost in passing, without saying whether he agreed with it or not. Meanwhile, he used the language of Paul Tillich to describe God as the Ground of Being. He rejected the idea of a personal God. And he wrote a lot of God as being the depths of reality. While he embraced the immanence of God fully, he seemed to reject transcendence out of hand, seemingly equating transcendence with the "theism" that he rejected. Thus it seemed to me that he was in fact taking a position that seemed more pantheist than panentheist.

Borg explains the key difference between pantheism and panentheism in this way:
Pantheism lacks the extra syllable en, which makes all the difference. Pantheism (without the en) identifies the universe with God: God and the universe are coextensive (literally, "everything is God"). Pantheism affirms only God's immanence and essentially denies God's transcendence; though the sacred is present in everything, it is not more than everything. But panentheism affirms both transcendence (God's otherness or moreness) and immanence (God's presence). God is not to be identified with the sum total of things. Rather, God is more than everything, even as God is present everywhere. God is all around us and within us, and we are within God. (p. 32)
If Spong believes in transcendence of any sort, he seems to de-emphasize it to such a degree as to make it irrelevant to his theology. On the other hand, I believe that God is everywhere among us, that God is within us and that we are within God, but that God is also more than the sum of everything that is, that she is a sustaining infinite reality that supersedes the finite universe.


the holy heretic said...

I appreciate this post on the differences between Supernatural theism, Pantheism, and Panentheism, and your referral to God as "She."

I believe we need to re-instate the perception of "God" (Divineness) as Divine Mother, Father, Daughter and Son, yet I don't mean any of those terms in a biblically Messianic sense.

I was not familiar with the definition of Panentheism, before reading this post. I feel more attuned to Pantheism, although I have some Panentheist inclinations.

I'm somewhat conflicted on that, which I think is part of the human condition, but unconflicted as to what comprises the personification of Divinity.

Divinity can be an external force, an earthly force, an internal source, or any combination thereof, according to the individual.

Any way Divinity is perceived, I remain unconflicted in the way it's personified and expressed.

In that way I unify all systems of belief into one holistic goal, point, and purpose of human life as a way of being in the world.

I will return to read and participate in more of your posts Mystical Seeker. :-)

John Kunnathu said...

I enjoyed reading this. It reminds me of my blog entry at

Depending upon how we understand the relationship between God and world, our view of God can be one of the following:

1. God-in-World view
2. God-and-World view
3. God-is-World view
4. World-in-God view.

Please read the complete article at the link