Giving Panentheism Another Shot

I”ve been reading some Walter Wink recently as part of my thesis prep – I’m hoping to write about the powers and principalities, and he wrote a trilogy on them in the 80’s, as well as The Powers That Be in 1999.  Within the latter, I’ve found another formulation of panentheism.  You may recall that I wrote a rather unfavourable (and poor) review of Sallie McFague’s panentheistic approach in the spring.

Panentheism is not pantheism.  Pantheism is the notion that God is everywhere and everything; and if God is everything, then everything is (a?) god.  Christians reject this notion outright: to us, God is the creator of everything – he is separate, set apart, and holy, while created things are common, secular, or profane.  At the same time, we believe that God is immanent – that is, he is everywhere, all the time; and he is transcendent, going through and beyond creation, not limited to it.  Here is one of the problems that I have with McFague’s argument: she presents creation as “God’s body”, which certainly highlights his immanence – his presence everywhere within creation – but does a great disservice to his transcendence.

Physics tells us that both space and time are expanding with the universe, bursting forth from a single, infinitely dense point some billions of years ago.  If God is the creator of that point from whence the Big Bang burst, then he is (if God is in any way physical or temporal, I suppose) outside of space and time.  But God isn’t physical or temporal, He is spiritual; He suffuses space/time, both filling it and transcending it just as air is both inside and outside of a house with windows open.  He’s everywhere, even where space and time are not.  So just like a fish is in the water or a bird is in the air even though fish and birds probably have little notion of what those things are, so the universe is in a sense in God.  “For in Him we live and move and have our being.”  So I have absolutely no problem with the notion that all things are in God; but is God in all things?  I know that God is in me by His Holy Spirit, but is God in the rocks and trees and birds?  McFague and other panentheists think so, and seem to think that by claiming that only humans are infused with God I am being arrogant in a colonial sense, denigrating the rest of creation as somehow more profane than myself.  At least, that’s the impression I got from McFague’s article (I’m sorry if you actually read it; worst paper of the year).

While Wink makes reference to the “God’s Body” argument, he generally approaches it from a different direction.  He declares that there are five worldviews, more or less, that have been active throughout history.  The “Ancient Worldview”, that of the biblical writers, is a picture of two spheres: heaven and earth.  Within these two spheres there is correspondance: what happens on earth also happens in heaven (see Jesus and Peter on binding and loosing, for an example, or heavenly and earthly sanctuaries in Hebrews).  These two realities reflect, and thus affect, each other.

The second worldview Wink relates is the “Spiritualist Worldview”, which I’ll call the Gnostic worldview.  It suggests that the heavenly and earthly spheres are separate, and that the earthly sphere is inherently evil: spirit is good, flesh is evil.  The physical realm is seen as a prison for the spirit, and therefore all physical desires and influences are negative and must be denounced and avoided.  Interestingly, Wink points out that this worldview is in effect when we Christians denigrate the created world, longing to go to heaven: we see Creation as fallen and evil, and can’t wait to “go home”.

The third worldview is the “Materialist Worldview”, which we might call the modern science worldgview, which says that there is no heaven, no spirit, but only the material world.  Everything that exists does so as matter, and anything that does not have matter does not actually exist.  Wink links, but differentiates, between “hard” materialism (this view) and “soft” materialism (being the love of material goods, consumerism).

The fourth view, the “Theological Worldview”, is presented as a response to the Material view created by theologians.  It effectively leaves the earthly realm to the materialists (scientists) and focuses all theological thought on the spiritual realm, with the two completely unconnected.  With this worldview, people are often forced to live two worldviews at the same time: believing in the spiritual realm on Sundays, and assuming materialism the rest of the week.

Wink points out that most of us fall into all of these categories to different extents at different points of our lives, and maybe even fall into more than one camp at a time.

Wink calls the fifth worldview “An Integral Worldview” which, rather than seeing two spheres, sees a spiral pattern: “This integral view of reality sees everything as having an outer and an inner aspect” (Wink, 1999, p. 19) and “Heaven and earth are seen here as the inner and outer aspects of a single reality” (ibid., p.20)So basically, while the ancient worldview sees the heavenly and earthly spheres being separate yet reflecting one another, the integral worldview sees heaven and earth being in the same place and time, only representing the inner and outer aspects of the same reality.  This is a little closer to Kathryn Tanner’s view, which I responded to at the same time as Sallie McFague.

Simply put, everything has a spiritual aspect as well as a physical aspect.  So instead of a war in heaven being reflected in a war on earth, this view recognizes that it’s the same war, in the same place, at the same time, simply with both physical and spiritual aspects.  So, just as human beings have spirits, so too do churches (Rev. 1-3: the “angels of the churches”), institutions (“powers”, “principalities”, “authorities”), cultures and other groups, and even regions and localities (cf. Daniel’s run-in with angels and the “prince of Persia”).  Wink doesn’t get too far into what has spirits and what doesn’t – the important ones are fairly easy to identify, and who really cares if a random pebble has a spirit? – but I would imagine that if he doesn’t think specific rocks and trees have spirits, nature as a whole certainly does, and likely nature within specific areas (a spirit of the Amazon, perhaps?).  Wink prefers to see these spirits as the spiritual aspect of worldly or social institutions rather than as angels and demons, which he figures as ancient personifications of these institutional spirits (think “team spirit” rather than personal demon or guardian angel), but does not say that personal demons could not also be true (which is good, considering the gospels record them as talking to Jesus).

Wink’s sources for this theology include “the new physics; liberation theology; feminist theology; the reflections of psychologist Carl Jung and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin; process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin; theologians such as Morton Kelsey, Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox; the Buddhists Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy; and many Native American religions” (Wink, 1999, p. 19).  Some of these sources are fairly normative for Christian theology; others not so much.  Some inspire confidence; others make me very wary.

Setting aside for a moment the notion of powers and principalities, is there anything to be said for there being a spiritual aspect to everything, to essentially saying that heaven and earth are not separate spheres but different aspects of the same sphere?  After all, if heaven is a spiritual plane or place, where does it exist in the universe?  If God is everywhere, then is he contained within heaven, or heaven within him – i.e. can we even differentiate between heaven and God?  If God is spirit, and his spirit is everywhere, then is heaven a place or simply a way to refer to spirit?  The sky is no longer an adequate reference for us.  If heaven is the home of God, and God is everywhere, then technically heaven is everywhere, and differentiated from earth merely by being spiritual rather than physical; therefore I have no problem with heaven being here and now.  To quote Jesus (almost completely out of context), “the Kingdom of Heaven is among you.”

So if Heaven is here and now, do earthly things necessarily have spiritual aspects?  If so, then I suppose we could say that in a way the universe is God’s body, because it is the physical aspect of the spiritual – but that still seems to limit the spiritual too much.  Yes, my spirit (or soul or mind) is more than just my body, but it is more than my body in that it is the spiritual aspect of my body; they are counterparts.  Though we could call the universe the physical aspect of God, it is still finite compared to his infiniteness: he’s bigger than his body gives him credit for (five points for the easy pop music reference if it’s combined with a comment on panentheism :).

Another thought: to what extent is this a thelogical issue?  Inasmuch as systematic theology incorporates philosophy, it does so in balance with scripture – and Wink says from the get go that the biblical authors do not share this worldview.  Did Jesus have “an integral worldview”?  Did he see demons as the spiritual aspect of worldly institutions, or as personal, potentially evil, spiritual beings?

Also, and this takes me back to McFague a bit, if the earth (or the universe) is God’s body, and creation is fallen as a result of human sin, does that make us a cancer?  Have we corrupted God’s body?  Looking at it from Wink’s perspective, with everything (perhaps everything except God, except in the obvious case of Jesus Christ) having both a spiritual and physical aspect, this isn’t as much of an issue; created beings are fallen in both the physical and spiritual aspect, though they were created by God for particular purposes.  In this, Wink escapes the easy fallacy of McFague: creation, though it is now recognized as being spiritual as much as physical, remains created and therefore separate from God and subordinate to him rather than extensions of him.

Still, lots of questions arise from this concept.  Please, weigh in!

2 thoughts on “Giving Panentheism Another Shot

  1. Terrific article Jeff and I’m afraid that I can’t commit to weighing in that much because it wouldn’t justify all the thought you put in.
    While there is no philosophical worldview that can be perfectly Biblical, Wink’s views at least seem to ring true in many ways.
    I think there are changes in the Evangelical church (i.e. the Emerging movement) because the Theological worldview (presented as “Biblical worldview”) was presented as the only reality in which to interpret the world. Knowledge of the truth was much more emphasized than experience of the truth – hence the dichotomy of Sunday vs. rest of the week experience. We’re told a lot on how to obey God…but experience not so much (or that was the only way to experience).

    It’s not to say that creation was never taught in terms of experiencing God, but it was usually presented as a reminder or God’s characteristics, rather than what is an inately and active spiritual environment.
    As you mentioned, there is discussion as to what extent God is “in” everything…but it’s time people stop having a knee jerk reaction because of the new age movement and recognize the ample Biblical support of God’s manifest presence within creation.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Jonathan. That last line nearly brought tears to my eyes: another Pentecostal who understands!

      It struck me yesterday that, in our common circle, I’d probably be labeled a “liberal” for any number of things that I said in this post (and many others). I can take a label, I guess, but the really frustrating thing is that a label like that would probably lead to being ignored at best. I was talking to a prof here (who himself would probably be called a “liberal” in many circles) who dismissed Wink out of hand as a “liberal”. While Wink’s theology is actually flat-out wrong on some points, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have some valid insights!

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