How does God interact with the world? Part II – panentheism, incarnation and parenthood

Last time we looked at supernatural theism and deism. I’d like to start this time by looking at my own favourite, panentheism, and then move on to look at some biblical ideas.

Panentheism

Panentheism is not pantheism (God = the universe, an idea prevalent in Eastern religions but generally rejected by Christianity, so I’ll leave it to one side). As panentheism is a little tricky to explain I’ll let Wikipedia do the work:

‘the divine interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it… God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the manifest part of God. In [other] forms, the cosmos exists within God.’

Christian support for some form of panentheism comes a little surprisingly from Paul of Tarsus. ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28); ‘[God] is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Last time I mentioned the idea that everything in the physical world has a spiritual aspect or essence connecting it to the divine, or allowing the divine to be seen through it. This can just about be fitted into classic supernatural theism, but it sits far more comfortably with panentheism.

Panentheism offers a half-way house between the totally immanent God of pantheism and the immanent-by-proxy God of supernatural theism. Panentheism allows God to be both fully transcendent – greater than the universe – and fully immanent, present in and through all of our experiences. God shines through everything but – in the world’s current non-final, not-yet-perfected state – he is never perfectly seen; it’s always ‘through a glass darkly’.

Many of us have had the experience of being spiritually moved by (say) a beautiful sunset. Of course a sunset is itself an entirely impersonal, non-relational thing – it cannot love or listen to you. But in panentheism, we can see through the sky to the One who is somehow both beyond and within it, who is expressing himself through it. The sunset becomes sacramental.

In panentheism then, the world is shot through with God. Each everyday thing is wonderful, sacred, a container or conduit of the divine presence. One of my difficulties with deism is that it tends to reject the reality of the miraculous; in panentheism, everything is miraculous, though not perhaps in a conventional sense.

This is largely how I see the world, as inherently marvellous if we can only see it. ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God’. It turns out I’ve been veering towards panentheism for some time without knowing its name. My old post ‘The reality behind reality’ expresses panentheist ideas.

However, I’m aware that (like all the others) this model of divine/natural interaction is incomplete and has its problems. One is that it tends only to associate evil with the current in-progress state of the cosmos, and for many this just isn’t a sufficient answer.

Biblical models of interaction – covenant and incarnation

The Bible does lend limited support to some of the models I’ve been outlining, but it tends to approach the subject from a slightly different angle. Two of the main biblical models for God’s involvement with the world (and particularly with people) are covenant and incarnation.

So in the Old Testament, we see Yahweh choosing Israel as his covenant people, the people of his promise and his presence. They were to be the community of revelation and redemptive relationship in and through which God would be most directly active in the world. This is not to say that God only cared about the people of Israel, or that he wasn’t in any way actively present in the rest of creation or in the lives of people of other nations. But in the Old Testament period, the nation of Israel was the primary locus and focus of his presence and activity in the world. In Israel, and particularly in the temple, the transcendent God of the universe became close, immanent, even intimate.

The purpose of Israel then was to be a light, a blessing and a sign to the nations; the primary source of God’s presence and grace to the whole world. It was above all to be the birthplace of the Messiah, the One in whom God would become personally present to his creation and personally known by his people.

So with the coming of Christ, transcendence and immanence are brought together in incarnation. The divine and supernatural Logos (Word, Wisdom, Truth) is made flesh and becomes part of its/his own creation. The author writes himself into his own story; there is complete identification of Creator with created.

In a sense, covenant and incarnation may be the missing components from all the models we’ve looked at. Incarnation enables God’s creative, personal input in the world through his creatures and people without abdicating responsibility himself. It’s a divine-human partnership, a creative co-participation in the redemption of the cosmos. In incarnation, God’s Light shines directly in and through each of us; his Life breathes in us; his Love expresses itself personally through us.

Sovereign, father, lover

Other ideas the Bible brings to the discussion are the metaphors of God as sovereign lord, heavenly father, and bridegroom or spouse. These indicate the kind of relationship God has with his world and his people, though they need careful handling.

With sovereignty then, to what extent is God in total control of his creation? To what degree is his will directly and inevitably done in and through what happens on Earth; and conversely how much freedom does he allow his creation and creatures? For deists, has God pre-programmed the world to run in a deterministic way leading to entirely pre-set foregone conclusions, or can we shape our own destinies to an extent? For supernatural theists, is God actively pulling the strings of world affairs and natural events – elections and hurricanes – or is he letting us call some of the shots?

I tend to the view that we have real and considerable (but not complete) freedom. You could picture that we’re players in a serious ‘game’ with God, and our moves influence his and vice versa (though whether the final outcome is in doubt is another question; I’d say not). This kind of dynamic interaction means we can never say for certain what God will do, what move he’ll make. He may vary tactics according to circumstances.

Moving to Fatherhood, this metaphor implies an intimacy, an on-going relational involvement of God with people. However, it also implies some degree of distance and setting-free. Parents occasionally have to let their children experience pain and hardship, or allow them to mess up or do dumb things without instantly bailing them out and making things okay. It’s not always best (or possible) to intervene, though it sometimes is.

Similarly if God is in some sense our lover or bridegroom as the Bible suggests, there is again both closeness and mutual freedom. Lovers seek the most intimate involvement with their beloved, but never by use of force or might. Lovers often have to hold back. And sometimes they may withdraw or hide to invite the chase, to flirt even. Song of Songs certainly seems to present this kind of lover-beloved interaction, which has long been interpreted as a picture of one aspect of divine-human relations.

Why might God not always intervene?

I’m not sure we can ever give a definitive answer to this question, but the various models and metaphors we’ve looked at may at least suggest some possibilities.

The models of interaction can give us ways to imagine how God can be separate from his world yet still intimately connected with it; immanently yet incompletely present in it. His presence and activity is not always fully manifest, nor fully seen; the kingdom is here in part but not fully realised.

The idea of covenant suggests that God can be generally present in the whole world yet have his primary base within a particular community, through which he reaches out to all people. This would inevitably mean that his interventions would not be the same everywhere all the time. Meanwhile, incarnation offers a means by which God acts in the world through us, in partnership with us, even when it means that his involvement is often constrained by our human limitations and imperfections.

The metaphor of sovereignty suggests a relationship with the world in which God is in overall control while allowing considerable room for creaturely freedom. And of course that includes freedom to screw things up, with the need in many cases (though perhaps not all) to let that run its painful course. There’s also the idea of a game in which our ‘moves’ influence God’s, and his gameplay changes accordingly. It’s not necessarily inconsistent for him to use different means in different circumstances, perhaps sometimes answering prayers swiftly and miraculously, other times slowly and naturally, and in some cases apparently not at all.

The picture of God as lover also ties in with this idea of a divine-human game, and suggests that God’s involvement with us has to follow the complex rules of courtship.

The metaphor of fatherhood perhaps offers the clearest explanation of why God may sometimes intervene but often doesn’t, for every parent has a similar experience in bringing up their children. Of course this can’t explain every case where we feel God could or should have intervened but didn’t, but it goes some way. And as I’ve said before, it’s often hard to tell whether God has or hasn’t intervened – we may be sure he’s done nothing, but he may be working slowly or just invisibly, in ways we don’t expect or notice.

Finally I come back to the kingdom. If there were no future hope of things being better, it would be impossibly hard to understand why God doesn’t always step in and make things right now. But we have future hope for a redeemed and renewed cosmos in which all wrongs will be righted. In the meantime we have glimpses, hints, signs. Not all are healed, but there are some healings. Not all estrangements end in reconciliation, but some do. Not all injustices are righted, but some are. Perhaps (just perhaps) God limits his intervention here and now to the level that we need to keep believing, and keep hoping, and keep working to bring the full kingdom on earth where ultimately all will be made well.

So if God intervenes sometimes but not always (or not always in the same way), does that make him unfair? Not in my view. Rather it means that he is flexible, adaptable, relational, creative and free. It means that he is (to an extent) free to act differently in different circumstances, and able also to respect our creaturely freedom while never being completely constrained by it.

Yet even God is not completely free, for he is constrained by his own nature; by the parameters of love and goodness. And neither love nor goodness are entirely predictable, nor able to act entirely as they please to achieve their ends.

However, after all this I feel like I’ve barely started to scratch the surface of this subject. I suspect that the true picture is far more complex and mysterious than any of the ideas we’ve considered can do more than hint at…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Divine intervention, Love of God, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How does God interact with the world? Part II – panentheism, incarnation and parenthood

  1. dsholland says:

    Just some questions only one of which is rhetorical 🙂

    Can you clarify: “associate evil with the current in-progress state of the cosmos”? I can imagine an argument for evil as a transient thing – extinguished with the final judgement. I can further imagine an argument for the permanence of evil enclosed in that section of eternity walled off from His presence. Maybe this is a different post.

    When you say “It’s a divine-human partnership, a creative co-participation in the redemption of the cosmos” I understand this to correlate with Col 1:27 “…Christ in you, the hope of glory”, was that your intent?

    “For supernatural theists, is God actively pulling the strings of world affairs and natural events – elections and hurricanes – or is he letting us call some of the shots?” – I was reading last night Matt 10:29 “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father”. This implies permissive will (which is probably more clearly defined elsewhere) but from the context of the whole passage we take comfort in the active will of His care for us. So if I picture a clock-maker allowing the mechanism to run or a puppeteer dancing the marionette am I decomposing the truth to suit my view? Is this the essence of your question?

    May I suggest that it might be interesting to examine what we mean when we say “why doesn’t He act to prevent injustice, evil, sorrow, etc.” Are we in essence asking why He didn’t just create us in Heaven? What if He did? What if we had it all and chose instead to find our own way? What would that look like? I suspect it would seem very familiar.

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    • Good questions as always!

      1. Associating evil with the current in-progress state of the cosmos. I looked at this a bit in my posts last advent on the laws of entropy, gravity and inertia vs the laws of love, light and life. I suppose what I’m getting at is the idea that evil is not a ‘thing’ in itself, but just a temporary and unavoidable by-product of the world being currently incomplete or immature, not yet being made perfect. So for the time being not everything in the world properly and perfectly reflects the divine image, and some things indeed distort and mar it. I’d see this as a partial illustration of why evil exists and what it does, but perhaps not the full story. (I think I looked at the possibility of permanently ‘walled-off’ evil in some of my hell posts…)

      2. The divine-human partnership – yes, partly Col 1:27, and also Gal 2:20: ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ It’s not so much about specific texts though as about the idea that our purpose and destiny is to be filled ever more fully with Christ and to reflect him ever more perfectly. As his Spirit lives in us and we work with him, we are changed into his likeness and we also take part in his transformation of the wider world. Or something along those lines.

      3. ‘Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father’. That’s an interesting point, and I’d be interested to know how the Greek translates. Some versions have ‘…outside your Father’s care’. It seems to me that it could be interpreted as a verse about the promise of God’s presence and provision rather than about his purpose and plan or will. I think the question of permissive and active will is what I’m exploring – whether God is controlling all events or if it’s actually rather more complex and 2-way than that (as I suspect).

      4. Interesting question about what we mean when we ask why God doesn’t act to prevent injustice etc. Yes, I think your assessment is fair, though there may be some other elements to the question. I think most of us feel the need to engage with the question of why our mighty and loving Father lets so much evil and injustice occur apparently unchecked when the Bible contains so many promises of his protection and provision. How do we have faith in his active care for us when (for example) children die young or are abused? This is where I have to come back to the future hope of the kingdom – or heaven as you put it. Which sounds like a cop out, but I don’t think it is.

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  2. Paul says:

    A couple of ideas caught my attention that I seem to feel a need to comment on. You mentioned that you have a problem with the Diest’s rejection of the miraculous but then go on to claim the idea that all of creation is miraculous. Doesn’t it follow then that the incarnation is in the same category of miraculous as is a sunset or a babbling brook? I’m thinking that Diest’s would consider God’s natural creation miraculous but the incarnation an intervention. But what you seem to be saying is that the incarnation was nothing special beyond the miraculousness of all creation. I doubt this is what you meant so I await your clarification.
    Towards the end of your thoughts you said ” perhaps god limits his interventions here and now to the level that we keep believing and keep hoping….” . This sounds very much BF Skinner and his experiments with mice in which he got them to repeat various behaviors , first with immediate reinforcement and then more intermittent and finally minimal if any reinforcement. I find it hard to conceive of a god that would use the odd occasion of apparent intervention for the purpose of keeping me in the fold. Many of my evangelical friends are waiting for heaven to reveal the mystery as to why so many prayers for intervention were unanswered. I’ll be waiting to discover why and of what nature were the apparent small number of ( and reactively insignificant ) interventions. Certainly a mystery for us both — I think.

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    • Hi Paul, just wanted to say thanks for your comment and I will try and reply properly as soon as I can! I need to think it through carefully, and I’m a slow thinker. 🙂
      Thanks
      Harvey

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    • Hi Paul, I’ll attempt a response to your very good questions, but it’s likely to be inadequate in all sorts of ways!

      Firstly, you’re querying how I can view (say) the Incarnation as a specially miraculous divine intervention if (as a panentheist) I view everything in the world as miraculous. The answer is that I don’t see it as either/or; not everything that’s ‘miraculous’ has to be so in the same way or to the same degree.

      So yes, I see all of nature as (potentially and imperfectly) mediating God to us, and therefore as (in one sense, and to an extent) ‘miraculous’. I certainly see everything as having an element of the supernatural or spiritual. However, that doesn’t preclude seeing a few special events (such as the Incarnation and Resurrection) as miraculous in a more conventional sense. I have no problem seeing these as direct divine interventions in the world, ‘interrupting’ or temporarily superceding the normal processes of nature. (More about the word ‘intervention’ later.)

      Secondly, I take your point about B.F. Skinner. I’m not massively committed to that point; I only really threw it in as a tentative afterthought, putting it out there to see if it might be at all convincing or helpful.

      However, I’m not entirely sure that the Skinner analogy is really fair. Skinner experimented on mice entirely for his own information, without any overriding concern for their personal wellbeing. I don’t believe that’s in the least bit analogous to how God treats us. My suggestion was simply that God, while perhaps preferring not to intervene, might nonetheless intervene at the level of our lack of faith, out of compassion for our human frailty. In other words, it’s entirely for our sake and even (perhaps) against his personal preference. But it was only a cautious suggestion.

      The parenting analogy still works best for me. Infants initially need full-on parental involvement (essentially constant intervention). As children grow, their parents withdraw very gradually to the point where the children obtain complete moral, emotional and physical independence from them – at which point a new kind of parent-child relationship can begin. This mirrors a very common (though not universal) reported experience of new Christians having all sorts of prayers answered and experiencing all sorts of amazing things spiritually, but then as they mature in faith finding that God seems less directly and personally active in their lives. That’s certainly been my own experience.

      I don’t really like the word ‘intervention’; I prefer to think of God’s involvement in our lives, and his interaction with us, most of which is entirely non-miraculous (in the conventional sense). Very, very occasionally it might involve direct personal intervention, but I’d see that as the rare exception.

      Nonetheless, I don’t share your objections to such exceptions or miracles. I’m not sure that God has to work to our ideas of what’s reasonable or logical, or even (necessarily) what’s fair, at least not in the short term. Ultimately I think God will be fair – or better still, just.

      Of course, in all that we’re discussing here, we’re massively hampered by the limitations of a blog as a forum for exploring complex ideas adequately. We’re also hindered by the limitations of language when dealing with highly abstract concepts where there’s a lot of potential for confusion and misunderstanding. Perhaps above all we’re (well, I’m) handicapped by the limitations of my own understanding, and my ability to express the flawed and partial understanding I do have.

      Thanks
      Harvey

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  3. Paul says:

    I agree that the limitations you mention do muddy the waters of feeling satisfied with how we express our thoughts. I think we could also agree that within the limitations of this setting it is difficult to get to the core issues that an in person dialogue would facilitate. In conversation with you and other evangelical friends I have realized that regardless of the issue ( here intervention) the discussion eventually centers around the basic assumptions ( usually quite different) each brings to the table. Recently I have found these debates fruitless. They simply raise everyone’s blood pressure.
    So I have come to use the term ‘functional faith’. If what you hold to be true brings you joy, comfort, meaning and love of God and neighbor then I support you even when your views on God’s interventionist activities differ from mine. Unfortunately for evangelicals the term ‘funtional faith’ implies a lack of absolutes and so has been dismissed as unbiblical. I have no come back to that. They’re right. It’s not biblical and there lies the essence of our differences I believe. So if an active interventionist god works for you that’s great. It doesn’t for me and that’s great too( I think ). Is this co-existence possible or am I delusional?

    I think I’m afraid of your answer to that last one.
    Paul

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    • I like the idea of ‘functional faith’. For me, the important thing is the overall ‘relationship’ with God, in the broad sense of some kind of communion with the divine (whether that be through silent meditation, spoken prayer, sung worship, social action or whatever). All that really matters to me is some form of living faith in a real God of love and goodness. For me, the precise theologies of (say) salvation and of God’s interaction with the world are of secondary importance, and the detail of how each person’s faith is worked out in his or her life is very much up to that person.

      Hopefully we’ll all be changing our views and practices throughout our lives anyway; none of it’s set in stone, and none of us have the Full Answer or the Right Way. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong to an extent about most things, perhaps everything; my current views and practices just represent the versions I can best believe in and muddle along with at this stage in my journey.

      So no, I don’t see any reason why we can’t co-exist with mutual respect. I suspect it may not so easily possible for your (or my) views to co-exist with the majority of conservative evangelicals, but I hope I’m wrong…

      Meanwhile, perhaps the reason why you don’t see an interventionist God and I do is that I’m still in the child-parent stage of interacting with God, whereas you’ve reached the adult-adult stage… 🙂

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