One of the wildest aspects of mystical Christian thought lies in the simple truth that God is everywhere. And if God is in fact everywhere, then God is in all things, and all things are in God. As mystical theologian Matthew Fox writes: "As the ocean is in the fish and the fish are in God, so God is in everything and everything is in God." Theologians call this Biblical position "panEN
theism," meaning literally, "all in God." Panen
theism is distinguished from pantheism, which maintains that God is all, and all is God. Panentheism is not yet in most dictionaries, but with Google listing over 8500 pages with the word, perhaps its time has come!
Panentheism and the Wonder of God
Since the scientific revolution of the fifteenth century, there has been an increasing tendency in Christianity to see God as separate from Creation. To the commmon view, it's no longer God sending the sun across the sky each day, but the Earth's rotation, and no longer God raining down blessings on our fields, but water precipitation. Of course, we might pray for God to step in and cause some precipitation, but prevalent thinking has him obsessed with "spiritual" concerns, and uninvolved with the universe. In my opinion, this is nothing but the utter negligence of the modern Christian mind to seek God where he may be found! This has led to a wholly unnecessary gulf between science and religion, and results in a tragic compartmentalization of our "spiritual life" as being somehow separate from our daily lives.
According to this thought, God is fundamentally uninvolved. The universe is like a wind-up toy, left to go on its own, while God attends to—whatever. Once formed, natural laws work without any continued intelligence or consciousness, the true mindless governors of an inert and dumb universe.
But the truth is that science itself is shedding that view. Furthermore, through its genius for questioning how? science invites believers of all faiths to question who?, what?, and why? at a deeper level. Who sustains our continued survival through precipitation on our fields? What does the constant rotation of the Earth on its axis mean to those of us who depend on it for life? What is the source of the Big Bang, or First Cause? Why are we here? For Christians, the answer is as simple as it is profound: God.
The vibrant message from the Bible, from Christian mystics, and lately even science, is quite different. The Bible states that the heavens are alive, declaring the glory of God (Ps. 19), and that Christ is the One who "holds all things together," (Col. 1.17). Ever since the double-slit experiment which proved that even individual photons of light have awareness, even science recognizes that consciousness permeates the universe at the subatomic level. And a universe in which not just plants, animals and humans, but subatomic particles, and the rocks and stars composed of them are also alive, is a universe which Christians should find familiar. Jesus said that even if the crowd kept silent when he entered Jerusalem, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing (Lk.19.40), and David described all heavenly bodies singing for joy. It seems that every part of the Universe is aware in some way of the immanent presence of God.
Another wonderful discovery of science was the cloud-chamber, which revealed that subatomic particles do not have an independent, continuous existence, but come in and out of existence billions of times every second. This has an important theological implication is that Creation did not end in the past, but is continually flowing forth. Countless times every second, every subatomic particle in the entire universe is being re-created. God must think it is worth the effort! God's questions to Job from the whirlwind no longer sound like metaphors— "Whose skill details every cloud, and tilts the flasks of heaven?" —but rather, a humble presentation of himself as the passionate and compassionate Sustainer of every aspect of Creation.
Jesus presented this constant presence of God with Creation as being proof of the Father's love. In the Sermon on the Mount, he urged us to see that God is not distant, but is so intimately involved with the world that even the beauty of the lilies of the field and the food for the birds of the air comes directly from God's magnificence.
The Gospel of John reveals the "Cosmic Christ," that is, Christ is identified not only as Jesus on earth, but as the whole creative and redemptive movement of God throughout space and time. Thus, Christ is the Word which brings everything into existence (1:2-3), the Light that enlightens all humanity, (1
) the Bread of God that sustains all life, (6:33) and much more.
(See Colossians 1:5-17, 2 Corinthians 2:6 [KJV], Job 38:6-7,19,25,29,37,41, Psalm 19:1-2, Psalm 42.7, Pslam 137:7-10, Sirach 43:27, Jeremiah 23:24, Matthew 5:26,28-29, Luke 19:40, John 1:2-5, John 6:33-36, Acts 17:28 [NIV], Romans 8:36 [NIV], Ephesians 4:6, 1 John 4:16, 1 John 1:5)
Panentheism and Sacramentality:
The panentheistic awareness of God is sacramental awareness. Sacraments are considered vehicles of God's grace coming to us with the form of matter. Bread and wine carry the Body and Blood of Christ, human lips proclaim the forgiveness of God, water signs new birth as it does natural birth. While the Catholic and Orthodox Churches recognize seven sacraments, they recognize that the principle of sacramentality is far greater. Creation itself is sacramental. Everything that God created was "very good," according to Genesis, and so, God's goodness comes to us through Creation.
•If God is Good, truly the source of all Goodness, then everything that is good carries him in his Goodness in its goodness.
•If God is Love, truly the source of all Love, then everything which loves carries her in her Love in its love.
•If God is Life, truly the source of all Life, then all things which have life have God in God's Life in their life.
God's life gives life to all living things, God's love is in all love, and God's goodness is in all good. The world is full of God, Creation is Godful, because it is, and God makes it be. Though God is eternal, perfect and transcendent above all, he is utterly, completely and wonderfully within every part of his Creation.
Panentheism and Christian Mystical Spirituality:
Most great truths of Christian faith, and perhaps most great truths, period, are expressed as paradox. God is completely One, and yet, Triune and Infinite. Jesus is fully and completely human, but fully divine, as well. Panentheism presents another one: God is completely transcendent, and yet, immanent throughout his Creation. Like the mysteries of Trinity and Incarnation, panentheism is an ancient theological realization.
The Greek Church Fathers referred to the transcendence of God as God's "essence" (ousia) and the immanence of God as his "energies" (energeia). In 553, at the Second Council of Constantinople, the universal Church proclaimed a panentheistic vision of the Trinity, developed from St. Paul's writing in Ephesians: "There is One God and Father from whom all things are, one Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things are, and one Holy Spirit in whom all things are." God is in all things, for they spring from him, and all things are in God, for they subsist in him, yet he transcends all as well as emanates in all.
Throughout the centuries, Christian mystics have encountered God as both "unapproachable Light," and the "still, small voice" within, seeing the wild things of God in all things. The Christian meditation method called contemplative prayer, or contemplation, practiced by innumerable monks and nuns (and now laypeople) from the times of the Desert Fathers to the present, goes deep within the heart to meet God, ever-present within, though without thoughts, words, or images, because he is beyond them.
In his magnificent prayer, The Breastplate of St. Patrick (also called the Lorica) Patrick expresses a fervent awareness of the presence of God in heaven, in Christ, in nature, in faith, in history, in angels and saints. Patrick first "arises in the strength of" the Oneness and Threeness of God, then immerses himself into the divine strength in the hosts of heaven, in faith, in servants of God, and in nature:
I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.
God's presence in these qualities culminates in the Breastplate's soaring call to the universal presence of Christ:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
St. Francis' praise-poem, The Canticle of Brother Sun, picks up on the sense of a conscious, living Universe. In it, the lights in the sky, the four ancient elements comprising the entire universe, all people of forgiveness, and even physical death are named as brothers and sisters in a holy family in God.
Johannes Eckhart of Hochheim (better known as Meister Eckhart), a Dominican priest of the 14th century, saw that far from being a quality of Jesus solely, the sonship of the Son of God is a quality of all creatures. Jesus perfectly manifested and revealed sonship. Since God the Father is the father of all things, all things are parts of the only-begotten Son, fathered by God. The Father's Word is eternally spoken, and so the Son is eternally begotten. This divinization of all creatures, however, does not reduce God pantheistically to the Universe, for God remains the unfathomable source of all. To Eckhart, beyond even the Trinity, there is that unfathomable "essence of God" of which nothing can be known and said. Eckhart called this "Godhead," where God is "beyond being," and beyond even onself, transcending every possible concept of God.
Panentheism and other God-views:
Panentheism offers the potential for greater dialogue and communication between Christians and those of other views. Other religions share with Christianity this apprehension of the simultaneous beyondness and hereness of the Ultimate as well, even though they use different terms. Buddhism, for instance, speaks of "the Unmade," "the Unconditioned", "the Void"-that which is beyond all concepts on the one hand, but of "Buddha-nature" the divine potential immanent within all "sentient beings," on the other.
Furthermore, many people who call themselves atheists or agnostics actually are not; many have a strong sense of a spiritual dimension, but simply find the images of a "personal God" an intellectual hurdle. Often this is because of misunderstandings brought about by poorly communicated concepts of a very man-like God (though with extraordinary powers) somewhere "up above," reacting with wild emotions to events in the world. These simplistic images have offended countless people from believing in God, and countless more from being able to trust him deeply. So millions of Christians find themselves adults with dissonant, childish (and often threatening) images of God, and millions of non-religious people have only seen such images and rightly reject them.
The panentheism of the Bible is quite different: it certainly presents God as relating to persons and thus "personal," but also as infinitely beyond personality. To communicate God's infinity, the Bible describes God in many non-personal images as well. Consider a few: Spirit,(Jn 4.24) Sun, (Mal 3:20) Word, (Jn 1:1) Rock, (1Cor 10:4) Fire, (Heb 12:29) Light, (1 Jn 1:5) Waters of Life, (Rev 21.1) Wisdom, (Pr 1.20) and Love. (1 Jn 4:8) Perhaps we should keep in mind that God's "person"-ality is also a metaphor, for (he? she? it? all pronouns fail when contemplating this magnificence!) is as infinitely beyond being a "person" in the traditional sense as the One who created light is beyond being light.
No view of God is larger than the panentheistic view. All other theisms (deism, polytheism, animism, pantheism, atheism) are fragmented theologies compared to panentheism. This is the ground for an inexhaustible faith-that God is present right now, in every cell of our bodies, in every beat of our hearts, in every person, in every star, in every loving thought, birthing every particle of every atom of the entire Creation into a constant stream of existence, the invisible Nothing and Nowhere that brings forth Everything and Everywhere. God in all things and all things in God invites wonder, and wonder invites all to touch God.
Panentheism, Pantheism, and Process Theology:
Panentheism is often presented in contrast to pantheism. Really the differences are less than one might think. Few pantheists subscribe to the bland idea that God = Universe. Like panentheists, most pantheists recognize the transcendent One, as well the the immanent many, or in other words, the Essence of God, and the energies of God, the Creator and the Creation.
Another theological term which refers to God's penetration and permeation of the cosmos is "process theology," which emphasizes the divine Presence unfolding in the processes of this universe of space and time. as St. Paul said, of "groaning in one great act of giving birth," to reveal God's children (Rom. 8.19,22). Theosis and Incarnation show how intimately and lovingly God involves himself with the process of human life. And the Big Bang and hundreds of billions of galaxies flying through space show the grandeur of the process of God's creation.
All of these concepts point to something inexpressible—it's important not to latch onto a particular theory of reality and miss the Reality itself. Yet the mind yearns to understand something of the dance of the God who is beyond all, and the manifest Creation. Meister Eckhart used the analogy of a drop of water (the Universe) in the ocean (God). The drop "is" ocean, has the qualities of ocean, and ocean permeates it. But the ocean is not a drop, and can never "depend" upon a drop. God is in Creation because he is the very Ground of Being, and lovingly sustains it, not because he is it. We are the process, called to join God in all her work. We are not alone, but God is with us. In all things!