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 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…