Let’s start with a definition. Panentheism is a constructed word for philosophical and theological discussion that means, “all in God.” This is intended to be distinct from theism, which see God as separate from everything else, and pantheism, in which asserts that “all is God.” More specifically, pantheism may communicate simply that the ultimate reality of the universe is (an impersonal) God or that everything we encounter (even ourselves) are simply illusory manifestations of that only thing that exists: God. Please allow for the usual linguistic slippage in the use of words to intend such complex ideas, an apology that perhaps all theological and philosophical construct-words require. Panentheism intends to hold some ontological separation between the existence of things that are God and things that are not God while clearly seeing them as in relationship.
There are a number of Christian theologies that involve some degree of panentheism: process theology, Eastern Orthodox theologies, Christian universalist theologies, etc. I point this out to say that, as with most theological issues within Christianity, there are diverse viewpoints and interpretations, the topic is (of course) complex, and a blog post of this length necessarily oversimplifies. The thoughts below do not take their place from any previously-established theology, systematic or not, but may coincide with some of those theologies (read: the thoughts that follow are my own, so: (1) don’t blame anyone else for them; and (2) that does not mean that somebody didn’t think of them well before I did).
Panentheism, in a general sense, is attractive in Christian thought for a number of reasons. First, it tends to accentuate a personal God who interacts–that is, who influences creation and who is influenced by creation–rather than the impersonal creative force of the purely theistic “clockmaker god” who created the principles on which existence runs but who now has little to do with the created. If you’re curious about the “is influenced by” language above, I recommend taking a look at my brief treatment of God’s passibility in my previous post: The Name of God as an Answer to Existential Questions. At the same time, panentheism avoids the implication (and, when intended, the outright assertion) that there is nothing outside of or distinct from God.
Orthodox Christian theology (across denominations and interpretations, for the most part) argues that creation is to some extent separate from but related to Creator, that free will exists (as a requirement for any moral judgment upon mankind), that God is omnipresent and that God is personally and deeply interested in Creation and its ultimate fate. We do not need to resort to process theology (if that is a theology you consider “extreme”) to see a place for panentheism in Christian thought.
Nowhere in Scripture is a panentheistic idea stronger than in those passages that describe the Holy Spirit.
Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer (1 Corinthians 3:16, 16:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Romans 5:5, Ephesians 4:30), and this is taken as axiomatic by most Christians, I think. Indeed, this is the origin of the term “my body is a temple.”
Other Scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit may act through a human being, but are also careful to remark that, when this occurs, the Holy Spirit and the human are separate, though the former may dwell within the latter. See 2 Peter 1:21; Mark 13:11; Acts 2:3-4.
The very point of the Pentecost story (and much of the Book of Acts, for that matter) is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a person gives the person power they could not have apart from God gifting it to them. Although, in the great scheme of things, if God created all things, then that’s necessarily true of all power, but we can avoid such tautologies for the present time.
At least within the United Methodist Church (and I suspect many other mainstream Protestant churches), our liturgy and understanding of God often attributes the title of “Sustainer” to God–support for this can undoubtedly be found in the Psalms. If we mean that, without God’s continued will for existence to exist, we would not, it’s only a short step from that idea to a panentheistic cosmology–it would be easy to argue that it that part of God that is within us, or that part of us that is within God, that sustains our continued ontology. This makes for an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” though not one I have any intent of analyzing in this post!
A Panentheistic Holy Spirit and the Triune God
It is possible to point to panentheisms in other religions (some understandings of Hinduism, Kabbalistic Judaism, some Sufi and Ismaili forms of Islam). But panentheism of the Holy Spirit in Christianity has what I believe to be a theological advantage over all of those faiths (which statement is not intended to demean the value, meaning or beauty of those religions). That advantage is the doctrine of the Trinity (which proves theologically advantageous, if mysterious and mystical, in many other theological analyses as well). Why?
Because the Trinity does not allow the entirety of Christianity to be reduced to panentheism. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the Trinity, with its three distinct persons in inseparable eternal relationship, accentuates both the individual and the relationship itself. This underpins the idea that, if we should view the Holy Spirit as panentheistic in nature, we need to be careful not to see that as our whole relationship with God, or as a reality that diminishes the importance of our being unique and separate creations of God gifted with free will and self-determination by God’s forbearance to exercise God’s absolute power over us.
In essence, this is the best of all possibilities, isn’t it? Our individual objective existence and subjective experience have cosmic meaning and truth because we are independent of God. And yet, at the same time, God dwells within is and is always in relationship with us. If we want to view God through the lens of metaphorical parent, this balancing of allowing independence while providing support is what many of us would describe as the perfect parenting style. In our trainings as foster parents, we are told that this is the “authoritative” parenting style, as opposed to “authoritarian,” “permissive,” or “neglecting” parenting styles (the four styles being arranged on an x-axis of supportive/unsupportive (sometimes representing as high or low “warmth”) and a y-axis of high or low expectations or control).
To put a simpler way, the Trinity reminds us that, although there is a panentheistic component to our relationship with God, we cannot define ourselves, God, or our relationship by reference only to panentheistic theology. To keep the length of this post down, I’ll keep this as a side note, but I think it bears stating: I don’t think that the Trinity should be used to oversimplify the ways in which we ought to think about our relationship with God. There is, potentially, a formulation under which one might argue that we have a theistic relationship with one person of the Trinity, a pantheistic relationship with the second person of the Trinity and a panentheistic relationship with the third, but such a structure is both too convenient a classification scheme and one that does not bear much scrutiny or the application of logic (to the extent that logic can be brought to bear to describe the mystery of the Trinity).
C.S. Lewis’ “Natural Law” as a Panentheistic Argument
I’ve referred to C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” on several occasions, his assertions that our conscience is often God speaking to us. It’s a short hop to call this the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, and then to link that with the panentheistic arguments above. Rather than reiterating his work here, I’m going to touch upon it lightly (done!) and move on.
Consequences of a Panentheistic View
What I’m really interested in discussing in this post (though I’ve taken my time in getting this point, I admit), are the theological consequences of a panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit.
God is Always with Us
I mean this in a very specific sense–that there is no time before God starts being with us always. Especially if we rely on C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” arguments, then God’s working of good within us is there from our very inception. Methodist theologian Albert Outler once lamented the difficulty–and therefore scarcity–of pneumatology in comparison with other theological inquiries (and particularly in comparison with inquiries into the other two persons of the Trinity), and perhaps this example reiterates his point, because I must admit plenty of mystery remains in harmonizing this view with the idea of Jesus “sending” the Paraclete to us on Pentecost.
On the other hand, I think we can safely say that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal with the Father and the Son in the Trinity and that the above “problem” with harmonization has–to the extent it can be–largely been resolved by arguments over the nature of the Trinity itself. For my part, I’d rather focus on two points here (by reference to previous posts):
(1) The idea that God works within us from our very creation causes some concern for the doctrine of original sin, at least perhaps in its traditional formulation. I find that Biblical support for ideas of original sin only really allow for an understanding of that concept in an existential sense–as beings possessed of a free (and often overly-self-interested will) and limited understanding, we are bound to sin–both willfully and inadvertently–until we are fully sanctified. I’ve written about this idea in regards to the narrative of the Fall in my post, “An Alternative Reading of the Fall,” and about the (partially) existential nature of sin in general in the post “Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?”
(2) This idea also bears upon doctrines of “total depravity.” To be honest, I’d rewritten this particular portion of the post several times in hopes of avoiding having to weigh in on the soteriological aspects of that term in Calvinist or Arminian/Methodist theologies and to focus on the more common sense of the term. But, given some of the conclusions I draw below, I decided that such avoidance was ultimately unworkable, so here we go:
Briefly, the difference between the two: Calvinism posits that, because of the Fall, man can do no good works because everything man does is entirely selfish. As a result, only by God’s predestination (“election”) can man choose to accept God’s salvation and be justified and sanctified thereby–after which point man can actually do good. On the Arminian side, the argument goes that, like Calvinism, man is in a state of total enslavement to sin after the Fall. However, because of God’s prevenient grace, God has freed mankind’s will from sin enough to be able to choose to accept God’s gifts of salvation, justification and sanctification of his own volition.
To be blunt, I find the Calvinist formulation to utter hogwash–this is the equivalent of God playing a game of semantics with God’s self and moving pieces around on a game table. It deprives the relationship between human and God of real meaning, our existence of the kind of meaning that requires our free will to be, and, ultimately–the analogy I want to use here is vulgar and I get blamed for blasphemy often enough as it is, so use your imagination.
The Arminian view is more convincing to me (imagine that, since I’m a Methodist), but ultimately I still think it views the theological issues in play from the wrong angles, unless we are to say that “prevenient grace” is intended to describe an existential feature of the human condition ordained by God rather than a divine remedial action.
The idea of a panentheistic Holy Spirit could certainly be used to bolster the idea of prevenient grace by providing a mechanism through which prevenient grace is enacted by God. However, that view would be exactly what I mean by a “divine remedial action.” I think it better to view the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from a person’s very creation as indicative of the depth of the relationship between created and creator rather than as a methodology for helping us to “be good.”
I’ve discussed at some length ideas of goodness and fallenness contrasted in my post, “The World and the World,” a rough draft of a chapter for the first theology book I intend to finish, refine and publish in the not-too-distant future. For extra credit (or more information about some of my thoughts regarding soteriological theology, see “Salvation and Sanctification.”
For now, let’s turn to the idea that, if the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us from the very get-go, as C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” theory seems to imply, then:
No Cosmological Duality
This is a phrase I’ve been hearing a bit lately in the new (new to me) thing I’ve been attending at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Houston, a thing called “Ordinary Life.” I’m calling it a thing because I know that I’d probably upset people if I called it a “Sunday School Class,” an epithet that it explicitly rejects in order to be a less-constrained, more welcoming approach to spiritual issues. If I understand it correctly (and maybe someone from that group will stumble across this and correct me if I don’t!) the term “cosmological duality” is intended to mean that traditional formulation of Christianity where:
God is Far Removed from Mankind
| Jesus had to die to make God like us again
Because humans screwed up and
(I hope you enjoy my makeshift graphic.) Cosmological duality is the idea that somehow God is unable or unwilling to be within us in our sinfulness and fallenness without Jesus “paying the price” for us. Elsewhere, I usually hear this referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Generally, I think it could be more generally applied to views of Christianity that focus on God’s holiness and glory (and in effort to accentuate that holiness and glory posits humanity’s sinfulness and worthlessness), on God’s “entitlements” and not on God’s desire for relationship with us. To me, the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the Christian faith as a whole, is the good news that, although God is entitled to all glory and holiness, God’s not so much interested in that as in love and relationship. That is a hopeful message; much more hopeful than “since you can’t help but break the rules, if you love Jesus hard enough, God will be forced to forgive you and will let you into heaven…perhaps begrudgingly.”
And this is where a panentheistic view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit really brings things into focus. If we accept that view, and C.S. Lewis’s argument that conscience is one piece of evidence of that view and the existence of the Holy Spirit within us from our very conception (I mean this metaphysically more than physiologically), then we are presented with an image of God always reaching out to us no matter the state we are in, no matter whether we are consciously pursuing an understanding of Jesus and the God revealed in him, no matter whether we are Christian, or religious at all. That’s a God of Love.
Now, if this is true, then there are:
No Magic Words
The evangelical gold-standard of having someone “accept Jesus into his heart” by uttering some prescribed “magic words” really has no place in our theology. There is no switch-flicking moment that instantly transitions us from one existential condition (sinful, fallen, hopeless, unredeemed) to another (justified, sanctified, redeemed). (I want to make clear that I don’t intend to say that being “born again” isn’t a thing–Jesus himself talks about it. I just mean to say that it’s not a thing as fundamentalist evangelicals conceive of it).
It’s more complicated than that. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time studying philosophy, religions and Christian theology, the answer to spiritual matters usually is, “it’s more complicated than that.” We have to start looking at the meaning of our faith, the character and intent of our God, the nature and design of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross, in a more complex, nuanced way. What we get is a set of assertions, arguments and “understandings” that are more ambiguous, less comprehensible, but by far more beautiful than any simplistic understand of God we had before.
For me, as I think my theological posts on this blog make clear, the lens that allows such careful and expansive investigation into all things spiritual or theological is the existential approach, founded on more brilliant minds who’ve come before me: Barth and Tillich are the readiest examples I’ve drawn upon, and developing into the theology I’ve been describing on the blog and calling, “New Mysticism.”
If we look at the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this panentheistic way (which I think is what we intuitively and colloquially tend to do as Christians), then think about what this means for the process of sanctification. I’ve argued in the past that I believe there is very purposeful divine intent in the relative ease (from our perspective at least) of gaining salvation (being freely offered by God and only needing to be accepted by us) compared to the decided difficulty of seeking sanctification (that is, becoming “Christ-like” and “holy.”)
But consider this–under this panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit, God has always been with you and whispering to you about the righteous path. Sanctification, in actuality, then, is starting to listen to those continual revelations direct from God to you, starting to try to put them into practice.
This brings us around to Luke 17:21, in which Jesus says, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” I’m really looking forward to spending some time with that passage in the context of existential Christianity and the idea of sanctification, which I’ll do soon.