Panentheism and God's relationship to nature


Here is a quote from Bruce Sanguin's book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos:

I remember writing an essay in seminary about the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, in which the author writes that we can look under any rock, or break a piece of wood, and find the Christ. My professor wrote back something to the effect that if we can find Christ in the natural world, why do we need the church? I was dumbfounded. His comment expressed the historical ambivalence of the Christian faith in relation to being able to find God, Christ, or Spirit in nature. One cannot emerge from seminary, even a liberal seminary, without picking up this anxiety.

Panentheists, as distinct from both theists and deists, affirm that God is in creation, and that creation is in God. The little "en" between "pan" (everywhere) and "theism" (God) makes all the difference. Unlike pantheism, which asserts that God is everything and everything is God, panentheism gives God--and us for that matter--a little more breathing room. Here's the definition from the Oxford Dictionary: "The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in God, but (as against pantheism) that this Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe." In the Christian world-view, creation is not absorbed into God, and God is not absorbed into creation. There's still room for genuine relationship. When my wife and I do pre-marriage counseling, we often come across couples who are so "in love" with each other that they do not actually have a relationship . Their mutual absorption is so complete that they can't see the other as a distinct person. It's sweet, but you know they'll get over it. Only as they gain the capacity to "see each other whole against the sky," to use Rainer Maria Rilke's phrase, and not merely as extensions of each other, will they be able to evolve in their love. Differentiation makes authentic relationship possible. Panentheism affirms that God is not just "up above", but also out ahead, in behind, under, and within; distinct, yet never separate.

In Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, Shug, a bar room singer, plays the role of mentor to a young and naive Celie. Both are black women, but Shug, anticipating a postmodernist feminism, has deconstructed the white man's version of the Christian faith. She has learned to do her own theology. She has differentiated from the authoritarian structures of the church, while Celie remains obedient. On one occasion, in a conversation about why they go to church, Celie says that it's obvious: she goes to learn about God. Shug responds that anything she ever learned about God she brought with her into church. One of the things she learned is that God gets "pissed" when we walk by the colour purple in a field, and don't take notice. For Shug, the natural world is a sacred text, infused by divine radiance. To know God in and through the colour purple, or to see Christ under every rock and every stick, doesn't mean that God is purple or that Christ is the stick. Rather, God is in the colour purple, and in the stick, and both the colour purple and the stick are within the one we call God. (pp. 69-70)
It's a long text, but I wanted to post all of that quote, because there is much in it that I like. First, I think it does a pretty good job of explaining panentheism in general, and describing specifically the panentheistic view of God's relationship to nature.

I have occasionally run across the argument that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides a paradigm of God existing in relationship--namely, each of the three persons of the Godhead relates to each other--and that this internal and self-sufficient Divine relationship serves as a model for human relationships. But I would argue that the panentheistic conception of God, as Sanguin points out in the text above, already and necessarily involves a relationship between God and nature. There may be arguments for believing in the Trinity, but I believe that the model of Divine relationship already exists, with or without Trinitarian doctrine.

There was recently a discussion in John Shuck's blog about whether one can "find God" through nature alone. I don't know the answer to that question. But I do believe that God does relate to nature intimately, and that God reveals something about him/herself through nature. And the more we learn about nature, the more awestruck we can become about how truly magnificent nature is and how we are all connected to it. As Bruce Sanguin puts it:
Start with an unimaginably dense point of matter smaller than a flea, add 14 billion years, and before our eyes a Monarch butterly wings its migratory way to Mexico.

A supernova explodes in some far-flung corner of the universe. Billions of years later, driving to work, your heart is broken open listening to k.d. lang's cover of Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah.

A tiny planet in the Milky Way galaxy enters into a dance with its sun, and within only a few billion years, a human being sits in wonder as the earth turns away from its solar partner and the sandy arc of beach she's occupying slips into nightfall. (p. 77)
Who cannot consider the long, incredible dance that has taken place between God and the universe, and not be struck with awe that we even exist at all?


Heather W. Reichgott said...


one question about panentheism:
If God is in everything, and already accessible in everything, what's revelation? that is, can God take action to reveal God's self to us? do these acts make God more accessible to us than she was before? or is God already as revealed as she is going to get, being in everything already--meaning that acts of revelation are impossible?

or is revelation (as act of God) just a concept that's incompatible with panentheism?

Mike L. said...


Wouldn't the better question be... "What is NOT revelation"?.

If everything is in God then everything is a revelation of God. What changes is our perspective and our ability to recognize God in "things".

It is a human concept to try and imagine that only ideas put in human form, emotions, and language can be a "revelation". Instead of thinking that God is occassionaly sending in signals to us, how about considering that the signals are constant and all consuming and we must learn to recognize (see) God in what we are already experiencing.

The traditional view of revelation requires a view of God as something external that must envade our reality. What if God is the actual structure of our reality rather than something outside of it.

my 2 cents.

Mystical Seeker said...

Interesting question, Heather. I wonder if different varieties of panentheism would answer it differently. I think that process theology, which is panentheistic, views creation as a continuous process rather than a one time event, and so all of creation is always in communication with God at each moment of process.

I like what Mike L. said--"what changes is our perspective and our ability to recognize God in 'things'". I think that we, as finite creatures, have only a limited ability to perceive divine revelation at any moment. And if the world is constantly changing, what God calls out to us is perhaps contingent on the state of the world at a given moment.

Heather said...

**My professor wrote back something to the effect that if we can find Christ in the natural world, why do we need the church? **

My first response to this is "We don't." However, it's a hostile response, and I think it's due to the ideas behind this -- that God can only be revealed through these set steps only, and nowhere else. Only we have the correct revelation. Because I do think people need a church in the sense of the community it plays: you can find people on the same journey as you.


** or is God already as revealed as she is going to get, being in everything already--meaning that acts of revelation are impossible?**

I think there can be a revelation of God in panentheism. It goes along with what Mike said -- the revelation occurs as our perspective changes. I might look at along the lines of learning calculus. Calculus is always there. It exists whether I'm aware of it or not. However, the more I learn math, the more that calculus is revealed. But it also only happens when I'm ready for it.

The difference, though, is that God would be an entity, and calculus isn't really "aware." But it's like an "ah-ha!" moment.