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Panentheism: The One and the Many


treeoflifeAs human beings continue to evolve, so do our conceptions of God. In fact, some would go so far as to say that as human beings evolve, God evolves right along with us, and with every small step humanity takes toward wider care and deeper consciousness, God takes another step toward its own perfection and the divinization of the universe. And it is through our very conceptions of the divine that God’s voice can speak to and through us, finding more volume and resonance as the architecture of thought becomes more sophisticated and inclusive.

This is why our theoretical understanding of spirituality is just as important as our actual experiences of God, or Buddha, or Spirit of any name. There is an aspect of God, our selves, and the universe that is best described as being ultimately “One,” and there is an aspect that is best described as the “Many.” And while we may all be looking at (and as) the very same ultimate Oneness, it is our interpretations of that Oneness that determine our relationship with the Many.

Central to the discussion is the notion of panentheism as a foundation to anchor our conceptions of God. This is not to be confused with the idea of pantheism, in which the divine is completely imminent within the physical world itself, but is without transcendent qualities whatsoever. Panentheism also offers a way to step beyond merely deistic conceptions of Spirit, in which God is credited with the creation of the universe but remains eternally removed from it, with no imminent qualities whatsoever—the “great clockmaker in the sky,” as deists often describe the divine, able to be perceived only through the light of reason. Panentheism also frees us from the typically mythological conceptions of God that are found in traditional forms of theism, in which one particular group of people claim an exclusive knowledge of God’s nature—usually a single, monolithic, omniscient God who reveals himself only through faith and revelation, which more often than not resembles the “great superego in the sky.”

“I am a little concerned that so many people who have discovered the One simply eradicate their sense of the Many, or consider it unimportant….” -Brother David Steindl-Rast

Rather than saying “the universe is God,” as the pantheists would, or that “God is beyond the universe,” as the deists and even theists likely would, the panentheistic view would more likely state that “the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe.” In this conception, God is the universe, while being infinitely beyond the universe—that is, to borrow terms from Nagarjuna, there is a sense in which God represents Absolute unmanifest perfection, while simultaneously becoming increasingly more perfect in the relative world. It is precisely this divide between God transcendent and God imminent that, in the modern and post-modern worlds, only panentheism can seem to bridge. As American philosopher Charles Hartshorne put it, “panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism” (the synthesis of deism and pantheism, in which God preceded the universe and created it, but is now equivalent with it), “except their arbitrary negations.”

One of the most important contributions Christianity has to offer the world’s discussion of spirituality is the idea of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This unique conception of God as “three persons, one substance” has been a central part of Christian doctrine since the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. And when viewed through the lens of Integral panentheism, the Trinity truly comes alive in our minds as three very different ways of experiencing God:

– The God that is the great, unknowable, Absolute Mystery, from which we come and to which we shall return—God transcendent, or God the Father.

– The God that we recognize in everything that we see, everything that we touch, everything that is—the entire universe as the Body of Christ; God imminent; or God the Son.

– The God that exists through doing, creating, knowing, understanding—the dynamic aspects of God; God as verb; or God as Holy Spirit.

The Holy Trinity is just one of many traditional religious symbols from around the world that take on renewed life, relevance, and significance in the light of a panentheistic conception of the physical and spiritual worlds. As such, the panentheistic model is an almost ideal place to begin any Integral discussion of religion and spirituality, as it not only helps to reconcile some of the apparent contradictions within the Christian tradition (e.g. transcendence vs. immanence), but also provides a common foundation upon which we can begin a truly inter-religious discussion, revealing many of the essential similarities (and important differences) between a multitude of different religions and faiths, as well as with the secular and scientific worlds. In a panentheistic universe, there is no need for conflict between spirituality and science, between consciousness and biochemistry, or between God and evolution.

Previously: The Beginning is the End is the Beginning: God and Evolution

Originally published on Integral Life: Integral Christianity – Theory and Practice. Part 1: The Relationship of the One and the Many (w/ Brother David Steindl-Rast and Ken Wilber)

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  1. Katherine Konner
    July 29, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Dear God of definition,

    I will use this opportunity of life, to serve, to create a present of our presence, together, to help evolve you, me, us, any, all, anything, everywhere, across any space, in any dimension. My unique self is smiling. My ego is willing. My heart is open. My love is vast. My sense of humor intact. I’ve got a grip on the reigns. I’ve been taught how to ride the challenges. I’m free, I’m a slave, I’m a devotee.

  2. Shahana
    July 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Lovely post, thanks. I had thus far never seen an exposition on the Holy Trinity that connected it to the simultaneous omnipresence and micro-presence of the Higher Being. Integration between the philosophical foundations of all organized religions (and beyond all organized religion) is the only way to save the world! To humanity’s (and concomitantly, God’s) evolution!

  1. August 25, 2009 at 11:58 am

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