Paths from Science towards God 9: Revisiting Panentheism

We need a new way of expressing God’s immanence within the world, or in other words, God’s presence in the world. Arthur Peacocke, among other scientist-theologians, see panentheism as the way forward. In panentheism, the world and all that is is seen to be ‘in God’, yet God is ‘more than’ all that is. The concept is based on Paul’s address in Athens, in which he describes God as One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being‘.

Arthur Peacocke suggests that we need to discard our masculine concept of creation, where a male mammal fertilises the female from the outside. Instead, we need to look at God as creating from within himself (or herself), just as a female nurtures a baby in her womb:

God creates all-that-is within Godself. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

This then easily leads to the view that God acts within the world by whole-part influence, as a System of systems:

If God incorporates both the individual systems and the total System-of-systems within Godself, as in the panentheistic model, then it is readily conceivable that God could interact with all complex systems at their own holistic levels. God is present to the wholes as well as to the parts. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

With this model, it is also interesting to think about God’s relation to the world in the same way the human person relates to the body (though such comparisons will always have its limitations):

Our intentions and purposes seem to transcend our bodies, yet in fact are closely related to brain events and can only be implemented in the world through our bodies. Our bodies are indeeed ourselves under one description and from another perspective. In personal agency there is an intimate and essential link between what we intend and what happens to our bodies. Yet ‘we’ as thinking, conscious persons appear to transcend our bodies while nevertheless being immanent in them. God is internally present to all the world’s entities, structures and processess in a way analogous to the way we as persons are present and act in our bodies. This model, in the light of current concepts of the person as a psychosomatic unity, is then an apt way of modelling God’s agency in the world as in some sense ‘personal’. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

Unlike classical theology, the panentheistic God is not detached from the suffering and pain of the world, but rather suffers with it:

Creation is costly to God. Now, when the natural world, with all its suffering, is panentheistically conceived of as ‘in God’, it follows that the evils of pain, suffering, death in the world are internal to God’s own self. So God must have experience of the natural. This intimate and actual experience of God must also include all those events that constitute the evil intentions of human beings and their implementation – that is, the moral evil of human society. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

And Peacocke points out that this is where the idea of all-that-is as being conceived in the womb of God, ‘is a particularly apt one for evoking an insight into the suffering of God in the very processes of creation.

Here is where I find a problem with the panentheistic model. It is one that is faced by pantheism too, and has been pointed out by theologians like N. T. Wright. If all is in God, this includes all moral evil too. Is evil then not separable from God? It’ll be interesting to compare this with John Polkinghorne’s views of God creating something other than Godself, with imposed self-limitations, so that creation will be allowed to make itself, with suffering as an inevitable consequence. Are these views compatible at all? Maybe i’ll explore such issues some other time.


2 thoughts on “Paths from Science towards God 9: Revisiting Panentheism

  1. Good post! I think you would really enjoy reading the book, “The Secret Life of God,” by David Aaron. This book really changed my perceptions of God in a wonderful way!

    As to evil, you are correct in my opinion. Evil is also “of God” in that it serves a purpose of revealing His benevolent qualities to His creation. Isaiah 45:7 says, “The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating evil; I am the LORD who does all these.” The Hebrew word for “evil” here is “ra” and does indeed mean evil.

    The biggest problem people have in accepting that God is the author of evil is that they have been told by traditions of men for 15 centuries that God will lose most of His creation to evil–that He is basically unable or unwilling to rescue them from it. I believe this is far from true. Evil is temporary, and it is a lie that most people will succumb to it eternally. This lie began in the Church in the 5th century and has grown in momentum since, but it is simply not true. Every person ever created is “out of God,” as cells of His transcendent body, and if He loses even one, He would lose an aspect of Himself. This is exactly what Paul was explaining to the Greek pagans in his famous Mars Hill address in Acts 17:22-31. Notice that in verse 31 the literal Greek says, ”

    “…because [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished FAITH to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

    This is one of only TWO places in the entire 243 uses in the NT where the translators did not use the correct English word for the Greek word “pistis” (belief/faith) because they had an agenda.

  2. Hi Julie,

    thanks for visiting the blog and adding your comments! I find your comment rather interesting, especially with regards to evil being of God as well. It is interesting too that in the Old Testament, the concept of Satan or the Accuser is that he/she works for God, is part of the heavenly host, carrying out God’s intentions.

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