why would someone be a panentheist?

This week I was chatting with Brian Mattson, a Th.M. student who is working in the new field of theological aesthetics. He is reading a lot of Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart. You actually don’t read the inscrutable Hart as much as you slip along in his general direction. I’m sure Hart is brilliant, but his genius suffers from a general failure to communicate.

Brian mentioned that many theologians who use beauty as their organizing motif tend to slide into panentheism. This heresy means “everything is in God,” so that the world is a part of God, or said from the other direction, God is not entirely separate from the world. You would think that panentheism suffers from a low view of God (and you’d be right), but Brian and I decided that people often become panentheists because of their too low view of creation.

Here’s how it seems to work:

1. Their low view of creation leads many in theological aesthetics to say that the beautiful object does not have value in its own right but merely as a symbol of God. It only counts because it is a symbol that points to some higher, spiritual good.

2. And so the physical object, though beautiful, loses the integrity of its independent existence and is easily subsumed into the essence of God. And voila, you’ve got panentheism.

The payoff for me is twofold:

1. We must continue to teach evangelicals to have a higher view of creation. Gnosticism remains a default position for many, especially in our music, and it threatens not only our view of life but also how we understand God. A too low view of creation inevitably produces a too low view of God.

2. We are right to say that creation points to God, but we must also make the case that creation has a separate and independent existence from God. If you want to read more on this, see chapter three of Langdon Gilkey’s classic book, Maker of Heaven and Earth.







8 responses to “why would someone be a panentheist?”

  1. Michael faber

    I encountered an individual this past week that was talking about being a panentheist based upon Paul’s quoting an ancient Greek seee in Acts, but they eventually retreated to simple omnipresence. But I had the same questions, but didn’t consider the low view of creation. Thanks!

  2. I think that Moltmann’s eschatological panentheism avoids these problems. That in the end, God will be all in all, or all will be in God. He goes this way in saying that the covenant of God extends through everything, and on the basis of the covenant, all will be in God.

  3. mikewittmer

    Good point, Dan. I wasn’t intending to say that all panentheists have a low view of creation, just the ones who tend to pop up in theological aesthetics. Also Buddhists (who are technically pantheists). Though I wonder if it might still be true. Why is it that Moltmann can’t allow for creation to remain distinct from God in the eschaton? Is it because creation would remain deficient if it was? I also note that he makes the same ontological/ethical confusion that is the hallmark of Gnostic dualism. It’s enough to make me scratch my chin, which is a symbol of contemplation, which is a symbol of God (now I’m doing it!)

  4. I think Moltmann comes from the starting point of the verse, “God will be all in all” and views the restoration of Creation with this. So, in the Fall, Creation left(?) God and will return in the eschaton. I do not think that it is necessarily a deficiency in Creation that he is pointing to. I cannot remember exactly though, why he holds to such a view other than trying to make sense of that verse.

  5. I think your comment on Harts inscrutability is mostly fair with regard to ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’ specifically, but not much of his other work.

  6. Dr. Wittmer, thank you for sharing your useful synthesis. And your comment about reading Hart made me laugh out loud.

  7. And exactly what is the ultimate difference between panentheism and pantheism? As Chesterton noted, the god within Jones quickly becomes the god of Jones. Philosophers call this a distinction without a difference. I just simply call it idolatry. If the divine is within all then the Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Hindus and so on were correct to worship their idols. Guess Moses and Isaiah didn’t get the memo.
    It is easy to see how the emergent crowd, following Moltmann following Hegel following the Gita, went this route. It makes their universalism a logical extension of their ontology.
    I have asked Jews who have become Hindu/new age types a simple question – “Was that just God killing God at Auschwitz?” Do I now have to revise to “Was that just the divine within the Nazis killing the divine within the Jews?” Or as the Gita says does the human person just house the divine atman, like an old suit of clothes? Either way it dismisses any moral concern with killing doesn’t it?
    Does this divine within restrain or just nag? So many fun questions to play with…

  8. Rebecca

    In the interest of expanding our open-mindedness, I’d like to say I disagree with your opinion here. In my experience, many people who take a panentheistic approach do so because they believe God is so immensely wonderful and all of creation is so immensely wonderful, both individually and as a whole, that each is a reminder of the perfection of the other. To look on a beautiful flower and think of God does not dismiss the perfect individual nature of the flower, it is simply a way of feeling more connected to both the way a person’s love for their partner is intensified by gazing on their newborn child. Each is wonderful in it’s own right but each is a reminder of the intense love for both; Or when one associates a happy memory with a beautiful song. Neither is deficient without the other, it is impossible to love either any more than one already does, it’s simply another way of experiencing and channeling that feeling of love and connectedness. I don’t at all think it lowers the view of either. Though that is only my experience and we are each entitled to our own choices regardless of the existence of any divine entity within or outside us. God can be found within all things, it is our choice whether to seek Him there.

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