Immanence and Panentheism


John Shuck has been featuring in his blog an open discussion between himself and another Presbyterian pastor. One of the subjects that came up was the matter of panentheism, which is based on the view that God is both transcendent and immanent. The question came up as to whether it is possible to believe that God is both transcendent and immanent and yet not be a panentheist.

The crux of the matter is, what does immanence mean? I would define immanence as referring to God's universal presence. I believe that God is everywhere in the universe; there is no place that God is not. There is no molecule where God cannot be found; there is no point in the space-time continuum where God is absent.

Marcus Borg puts it this way:

The Christian tradition...has throughout its history affirmed that God is both transcendent and immanent, two semitechnical terms that are helpful for thinking this through. The transcendence of God refers to God's "going beyond" the universe, God's otherness, God as more than the universe. God's immanence, on the other hand, means God's presence in everything or nearness to everything. Immanence means to dwell with or within, as its Latin root manere suggests (from which, for example, we also get "mansions"). The immanence of God thus means the omnipresence of God." (p. 26)
Those who reject panentheism, but say they believe in Divine immanence, seem to be defining immanence differently from how I would understand it. They seem to be defining God's immanence as his activity in the world from a position of transcendent authority, rather than as his omnipresence. But I would argue that this is not immanence at all; instead, it is simply another way of describing a transcendent God's activity against a world that is distinct from him/her. It is as if God were an ocean that pushed on a bubble from the outside. It is a doctrine that expresses divine transcendence, which is half of the panentheist equation, but it doesn't conceive of the other half, immanence, at all. To say that a transcendent God acts in the world simply affirms that God's transcendence is not indifferent to the world, as is the case of, for example, the God of deism. But immanence doesn't just mean ongoing Divine interest in the world; it says that God is present everywhere within the world.

If God is everywhere, if there is no place where God is not, then there is nothing in the world that lies outside of God. This implies necessarily that we are thus all contained within God. If we were not contained within God, then we would somehow lie outside of God, which contradicts the view that God is everywhere present. Pantheists equate the world with God, but if one believes that God is more than just the world--if one accepts transcendence as well as immanence--then we have formulated a doctrine of panentheism.


Cynthia said...

Thich Nhat Hanh says that enlightenment for the wave is when it realizes it is water. Would you say that is also immanence?

Matthew said...

"if one accepts transcendence as well as immanence--then we have formulated a doctrine of panentheism."

I think you're right.

So what are the implications of using the panentheistic metaphor to talk about God?

Matthew said...

Especially important to me: what implications does it have for theodicy?

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Cynthia. I'm not sure I understand the Thich Nhat Hanh quote, actually. I know that sometimes pantheists say that God is the ocean and we are the waves, or at least something along those lines.

Matthew--I'm not sure what implications it has for theodicy, although I think that many panentheists don't believe in God as a coercive force. I am not sure if you have to believe that about God if you are a panentheist, but at least a lot of panentheists do go in that direction. Personally, I believe that if God is not a coercive being, then the problem of theodicy is solved. You can't blame God for not directly intervening in the world to prevent evil if that kind of intervention is simply not in God's nature.

John Shuck said...

Nicely put, Seeker! Dang, you are on your way to becoming a theologian! I am trying to figure out the big fuss among the true believers regarding panentheism. To them it is a naughty, naughty doctrine. I can't figure out yet what nerve it pinches with them.

Matthew said...

"Personally, I believe that if God is not a coercive being, then the problem of theodicy is solved."

I think that to solve theodicy you'd have to at least try to say some things about how - or whether - God acts in the world. Certainly, the panentheistic God might not stop the earth from quaking and killing people, but then what does the panentheistic God *do*?

Mystical Seeker said...

John, you are too kind!

Mystical Seeker said...

Matthew, you raise a good question. I think you will get different answers from different panentheists, because I am sure there are different varieties of panentheism out there.

Personally, I am very much influenced by process theology, which is a form of panentheism. Under process theology, God's role is as an active participant in the creative process and events in the universe, by offering what it calls "initial aims" at each event that takes place. In other words, God is out there, calling out to nature, offering the best possibilities at each moment, based on what has happened up to a given point in time; and what God offers is always changing because the state of the universe is always changing. This is not a coercive, but a persuasive role. God is a kind of co-creator, but one who acts by luring rather than forcing. God also shares in all our experiences, empathizing with our pains and our joys perfectly, serving as a comforting presence. John Cobb and David Griffin, process theologians, refer to God as creative-responsive love.

Of course, that's just one answer. I am sure there are other answers that other panentheists might give that might be different.

Heather said...

I've never understood the big fear of panentheism. Maybe it's because they feel that we can suddenly go around saying, "My lamp is a part of God! My pants are a part of God!"

And I don't view panentheism that way. For starters, God is a spirit, and we're stuck with a physical/material world. Why can't we say God is in everything? It's not like the spiritual stuff occupies space. If God can be 'in' a person, or a person can be 'in' God without occupying space, why is it such a strech to say God is in other things?

Mystical Seeker said...

That's a good question, Heather.

Andy said...

Sorry to jump on this late in the day. You wrote:

"I would argue that this is not immanence at all; instead, it is simply another way of describing a transcendent God's activity against a world that is distinct from him/her. It is as if God were an ocean that pushed on a bubble from the outside. "

All I wanted to say is that your analogy sounds exactly like what I understand as the Jewish notion of G-d creating a space within ... a kind of self-emptying. In that regard whether or not we like the idea it does sound like such a view has continuity with the Judaic tradition from which Christianity has developed.

Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

Pantheism states that God is in everything, right? Well, I would appreciate it if you would also talk about a few problems.
1. It denies God has a distinct personality.
2. It denies that God is immutable, or unchangeable, since the universe changes. If God is in every molecule in the universe, then he too is changing.
3. It denies that God is Holy. There is sin in the world. If God truly inhabits everything in the universe, then he too is sinful.
4. It also leads me to believe that people shouldn't have a distinct role either. If all is one, and all is God, and God is indistinct, then we too should be indistinct.

To close, pantheism ends up hurting our vital views of God, and ourselves. I see the whole thing as detrimental.

Matthew said...

By the way, I am a different matthew then the one who has been posting. I am a 15 year old student who is trying to figure out exactly how/who/what God is.

Matthew said...

One last comment from the other matthew. I realize that many pantheists believe that in the end we are trying to reach nothingness, oneness,or whatever. Nirvana. If God is nothingness, where did person-hood come from?

CT said...

"I see the whole thing as detrimental."

Hi Matthew - It's only detrimental if you start off with the premise that God cant change and the God (whatever that is) must have a personality. I'd suggest we know nothing about God. We theorise and we look to tradition, 'sacred' scriptures, knowledge of our universe and experience to work out what God may or may not be. So how do we work out what's right ? To me its whatever makes sense of our world and lives (in other words - experience.

However if you weight scriptures as having more authority then you may decide God is unchangeable and somehow resembles humans by having a personality. But then you'd have to decide which scriptures.

And to the 15-year-old Matthew trying to work out God - if you are going to be honest with yourself then you may have a lifelong journey ahead of you. No certainties. No definite answers,. But good luck - just be honest with yourself at all times and always be ready to adjust beliefs that dont match your experience.