On panentheistic Christianity

Sun, 8 Feb 2015 | norman

A while ago I read "God for Grownups" by Tim Attwell, retired Methodist minister. And recently I read "Speaking Christian" by Marcus Borg. Both speak about God in panentheistic terms.

Let me describe panentheism and its two variations first.

Literally, it comes from the Greek for "God in everything". For "everything", Borg uses the term "reality", and the less effable "being-ness".

When I hear the word "reality" I think of "objective reality"; that which causes our experience. Reality, as I understand the word, is what determines (among other things) that when an electron drops from a higher energy level to a lower energy level, it releases a photon, which travels through space, and collides with a rod or a cone in my retina, and nerves pass the message of that collision to my brain, which collates all the messages of all the photons into a subjective visual impression of my environment.

"Panentheism" can be used to mean that God underlies reality; i.e. God causes reality and reality results in the universe.

Or it can mean that God is reality, which results in matter, energy, time, space, the universe.

To differentiate the former from the latter, let me make up a new word for "God underlies reality": "Panyptheism". It comes from the Greek for "God under everything". The implication here is that God is separate from reality, but affects it constantly. Our experience of reality is not an experience of God, but rather an experience of something God creates every moment.

A metaphor might be the movie "The Matrix", where the 20th century reality which people experience is a construct, and studying that reality will reveal nothing about that which underlies it.

A religion which panyptheism might suit could be Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic religion that originated in Persia and has only a few million adherents, and in which God is remote from His creation. Zoroastrians pray to subordinate supernatural beings. Zoroastrianism influenced both Judaism and Christianity.

The greatest benefit to most Christians of a panyptheist Christianity is that much of mainstream Christianity could remain unaffected. The character of God is hidden from us by the veil of reality. God could remain supernatural, and fundamentalist ideas of heaven and hell, sin, the exclusivity of Christianity, etc., can all remain intact.

The biggest problems are the very same problems with theism: There is no evidence for the existence of a panyptheistic God. And there is no need for one; the nature of reality is all we need to explain the existence of ourselves and the universe.

And, of course, all the theological problems persist too; the problem of evil, the problem of divine hiddenness, the efficacy of prayer, etc.

Panentheism, on the other hand, solves the biggest problem: We can all agree that reality exists, and so if God is reality, then everyone is a believer. I think that this is what Borg is talking about.

Panentheism offers us another huge advantage; it allows us the opportunity to dispense with the supernatural, an entire realm for which there is no evidence (and which doesn't exist in pre-hellenic Judaism).

And it gets better than that; if God is reality, then studying the nature of reality is essentially studying the nature of God.

And that's where the problems with panentheism come in, because we already know quite a bit about reality.

So Attwell's connection between Jesus and God is tenuous. And Borg's connection between reality and the character of God is misdirected.

But before I get into that, let me start with all the things I find wonderful about Borg's work, and why I would recommend that all Christians read it.

It feels like progress. It dispenses with the childishness of fundamentalism. It feels like Borg's Christianity is a Christianity that is wising up.

Although Borg makes sin about our relationship, as individuals and collectives, with God, I feel he alludes to the idea that that which is wrong emanates from our nature as individuals, and the nature of our societies. This means that sex between consenting adults is not wrong, regardless of the gender of those adults. And that it is wrong to deny some people the opportunity of deciding to love someone else for the rest of their lives, in the same kind of ceremony, and the same legally binding contract as is available to heterosexual couples. (I'm not saying that all churches should be forced to marry gay people. Of course not. I'm saying that intelligent, compassionate people support marriage within the queer community as within the heterosexual community, and are smart enough to interpret their religious beliefs in a way that supports their own moral convictions.)

I like that according to Borg, Christianity does not hold the exclusive path to truth.

I like that Borg is undecided about an afterlife. I am not undecided though. Until there is any evidence for it, I think we can safely accept that it's an idea that comes from the experience produced by the brain as it shuts down. Consciousness is a function of a brain, and without a brain, there is no consciousness. I think we can be pretty sure about that.

And that segues nicely into the problem with the character of God as imagined by Borg.

Reality is not conscious. Reality has nothing analogous to consciousness. And without that there is no relationship with reality that is in any way like the relationship we might have with a parent or a friend. A conversation with reality is like a conversation with a pet rock.

That's not to say you can't have a conversation with a pet rock. But then we must recognise it for what it is. The character that Borg attributes to God is actually his own character. Borg's God is a mirror. Where some people see a stern and punitive God, they are looking at their own imagination. Where Borg sees a benevolent, compassionate God, that is what he sees reflected from his own caring, contemplative personality.

Reality doesn't care. Reality blesses and curses all of us. Reality strikes down 600 000 of us with malaria every year. Reality inflicts arbitrary victims with parasites, viruses and cancers. Reality results in near misses and miraculous recoveries. Reality saves passengers from making their connecting flight with aeroplanes that are about to crash, and it dooms other passengers to get on the same plane and die violent and terrifying deaths. A few people didn't make it into the office on 9/11. Thousands did. Nobody was chosen. There was no purpose behind it.

Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is always and only the laws of physics, not some divine plan, not some objective teleology. I care about you, a little. Marcus Borg cares about you, depending on who you are, I admit, probably more that I do. But reality doesn't care about you at all.

To understand that is to have grown up, outgrown the divine Security Blankets, the heavenly Teddy Bears of childhood.

At some moment in the distant future, reality will continue to exist, and the last of our descendents will be dead, and, needless to say, unconscious, forever.

What will it all have been for?

It will have been for these moments right now. Your life, right now, is what it is all for.

To appreciate that is to appreciate your freedom; freedom from the tyranny of any kind of divine authority, freedom to decide your purpose, freedom to accept all the joy of living, freedom to live the life that fulfills your own nature1; your own unique nature that resulted from reality.

  1. I can hear someone ask, "What about sociopathic murderers? Can they fulfill their nature?" Well, you don't have the freedom to take away the freedoms of others. We live in a society with other people, and the mores of society are a feedback loop; we constrain the behaviour of each other, and we can affect what they believe is right and wrong. In fact, in part, that's what I'm trying to do with this blog post. 

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