What is Panentheism?

Panentheism (according to Greek etymology means that ‘All-is-in-God’ or that ‘Everything-is-in-God’), a term first used by the German philosopher Karl Krause (1781–1832), posits a conception of God according to which God is immanent but not transcendent. 

Important to know is that panentheism has thinkers who offer various views on the topic, so what is stated below might not necessarily be shared by all panentheists although there are several commonalities (1). There are continued discussions on what exactly panentheism is and how it should be defined (2).

The World “In” God?

Panentheism’s conception of God differs from classical theism that postulates God as both immanent and transcendent, and to deism which posits God to be transcendent but not imminent (3). One way to see this is to view God and the world occupying different spatial locations, with one being inside the other (4). But what does it means to say that God is “in” the world? Scholar Benedikt Paul Göcke offers the following dozen points cornering what this has been thought to mean:

  1. God energizes the world,
  2. God experiences or “prehends” the world,
  3. God ensouls the world,
  4. God plays with the world,
  5. God “enfields” the world,
  6. God gives space to the world,
  7. God binds up the world by giving the divine self to the world,
  8. God provides the ground of emergences in, or the emergence of, the world,
  9. God befriends the world,
  10. All things are contained “in Christ”,
  11. God graces the world.

But Göcke finds these dozen notions of God being “in” the world too limited because they could also be applied to classical theism, thus suggesting panentheism to lack distinctiveness from classical theism. He thus offers a definition of everything being “in” God:

“everything is in God if and only if the identity of everything is determined by the identity of God without God’s identity being reducible to anything in particular and necessarily there is something in addition to God” (5).

Everything in the physical world is what it is because God is what God is, although God is not reducible to the physical.

On Göcke’s definition, “everything” refers to all physical objects as well as the mental world. He criticizes definitions of panentheism for neglecting the latter mental world element he calls “epistemological panentheism”. Here the mental world is in God “if and only if its nature is determined by God without God being reducible to the realm of mentality, and necessarily there is something mental” (6).

Arthur Peacocke views the world as a system of different systems whose constituents are interrelated and causally interact at different emerging levels. On this view, “God incorporates both the individual systems and the total system of systems within Godself… God is present to the wholes as well as to the parts” (7).

Jürgen Moltmann articulated a type of panentheism in his works The Crucified God (1974) and The Trinity and the Kingdom (1981) in which he thinks God is in the world and the world is in God. Moltmann uses the concept of perichoresis to explain this relationship of mutual interpenetration.

Panentheists, such as David Ray Griffin, are often skeptical of the supernatural, especially of supernatural theism, that emphasizes divine will. Griffin claims that supernatural theism makes God evil because his will establishes the general principles of the universe (8).

God and the world are not identical. God is different from the world in that he is an incorporeal spirit and the world is different from God, although God and the world are inseparable. God is believed to be “in” all of the world, thus not transcendent, and he cannot exist apart from the world, just as the world cannot exist apart from God. A common feature of panentheism is that God contains the world so that the world belongs to God and there is a feeding back from the world into divine life (9).

God as Creator 

God is, furthermore, what brings unity and order to the world (10). Without God, all would be chaos. God is also the creator but not of the world ex nihilo (from nothing), although some thinkers argue that creation from nothing is consistent with panentheism (11). As a creator, God transforms material much like a sculptor transforms clay or marble into the shape of a statue. Similarly, God “creates” the world by transforming and acting upon material that already exists. 

God also relates to human beings in a way analogous to how a political leader in a democracy is related to its citizens (12). He influences human beings through inspiration and by presenting them with visions of truth, beauty, and goodness, and allowing human beings to freely choose what is true, beautiful, and good. As such, God is not a coercive or destructive force.

The world also influences God which means that God is not immutable. Theologian and philosopher David Ray Griffin writes that God’s “knowledge changes because the creatures, with their power of self-determination, constantly do new, unpredictable things” (13).

Freedom is an important component of panentheism. Human beings have free will and the future is immune to prediction, even to God. This also means that God cannot undermine human freedom or, for instance, prevent future evil acts resulting from human choice. But some panentheists believe that God can suffer alongside a person enduring suffering which, although not eradicating evil, can offer sufferers hope for overcoming evil.

Criticisms of Panentheism

Some critics of panentheism assume naturalism and direct their argument towards panentheism’s superfluous nature (14). These critics favor a naturalistic worldview on which there exists nothing apart from nature and they therefore reject any notion that there is a being above nature as well as in nature. We do not need any reference to a higher being, these critics claim.

Classical theists raise a variety of critiques of panentheism. One objection concerns whether or not panentheism provides a God worthy of worship. For example, is a God who is unable to defeat evil in the world worthy of worship? Some would argue not. God is often considered limited in other ways. God’s transcendence is deemed limited because God only influences events before or after the decisions of the events. Further, God depends on the world for God’s own existence (15), or God requires a world, which suggests a God limited in power.

Additionally, some maintain that the panentheism conception of God embraces an inadequate concept of transcendence. God is limited which means God’s presence, knowledge, and power are also limited rather than being complete, immediate, and unconditioned (16).

Classical theists also point to arguments for the existence of a theistic God that conflict with a panentheist conception of God. Philosopher William Lane Craig argues that “there is just no good reason to believe that panentheism is true” and points to traditional theistic arguments (the cosmological argument, for example) that “show that the world is a created reality dependent upon God, not a part of God” (17). In addition, Craig contends that the philosophical and scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe is a difficult challenge to panentheism: “I find it terribly ironic that during the same period of time that the scientific evidence has steadily accumulated that the universe is not past eternal but had a beginning pantheistic theologians have come to embrace a view of the world which is so at odds with mainstream science”.

References

1. Brierley, Michael W. 2004. “Naming a Quiet Revolution: The Panentheistic Turn in Modern Theology.” In In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, edited by P. Clayton and A. Peacocke, 1-15. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans; Gregersen, Niels Henrik. 2017. “The Exploration of Ecospace: Extending or Supplementing the neo-Darwinian Paradigm?” Zygon 52:561-586.

2. Paul Göcke, Benedikt. 2013. “Panentheism and Classical Theism.” SOPHIA 52:61-75.

3. Creel, Richard. 2013. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 25. 

4. Peterson, Gregory R. 2003. “Whither Panentheism.” Zygon 36(3):395-405. p. 399.

5. Göcke, Benedikt Paul. 2013. “Panentheism and Classical Theism.” SOPHIA 52:61-75 p. 66-67.

6. Göcke, Benedikt Paul. 2013. p. 69.

7. Peacocke, Arthur. 2004. “Articulating God’s Presence in and to the World Unveiled by the Sciences.” In In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, edited by Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 147.

8. Griffin, David Ray. 2004. “Panentheism: A Postmodern Revelation.” In In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, edited by Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

9. Gregersen, Niels Henrik. 2017. Ibid. p. 582.

10. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 25.

11. Clayton, Philip. 2008. “Open Panentheism and Creatio Ex Nihilo.” Process Studies 37:166-183.

12. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 26.

13. Griffin, David Ray. 2004. “Panentheism: A Postmodern Revelation.” In In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, edited by Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 44.

14. Culp, John. 2008. Panentheism. Available.

15. Stenmark, Mikael. 2019. “Panentheism and its neighbors.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 85:23-41. p. 25-26.

16. Cooper, John W. 2006. Panentheism The Other God of the Philosophers: From Plato to the Present. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. p. 322-328,

17. Craig, William Lane. 2015. Panentheism. Available.

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