What is Panentheism?
Panentheism (meaning “all-in-God”) is the belief that the divine pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe and also extends beyond space and time. The term was coined by the German philosopher Karl Krause in 1828 to distinguish the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) about the relation of God and the universe from the supposed pantheism of Baruch Spinoza. Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical, panentheism maintains an ontological distinction between the divine and the non-divine and the significance of both.<
- In panentheism, God is viewed as the soul of the universe, the universal spirit present everywhere, which at the same time “transcends” all things created.
- While pantheism asserts that “all is God”, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe. Some versions of panentheism suggest that the universe is nothing more than the manifestation of God. In addition, some forms indicate that the universe is contained within God, like in the Kabbalah concept of tzimtzum. Also much Hindu thought – and consequently Buddhist philosophy – is highly characterized by panentheism and pantheism. The basic tradition however, on which Krause’s concept was built, seems to have been Neoplatonic philosophy and its successors in Western philosophy and Orthodox theology.
Ancient Greek philosophy
The religious beliefs of Neoplatonism can be regarded as panentheistic. Plotinus taught that there was an ineffable transcendent God (“the One”, to En, τὸ Ἕν) of which subsequent realities were emanations. From “the One” emanates the Divine Mind (Nous, Νοῦς) and the Cosmic Soul (Psyche, Ψυχή). In Neoplatonism the world itself is God (according to Plato’s Timaeus 37). This concept of divinity is associated with that of the Logos (Λόγος), which had originated centuries earlier with Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BC). The Logos pervades the cosmos, whereby all thoughts and all things originate, or as Heraclitus said: “He who hears not me but the Logos will say: All is one.” Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus attempted to reconcile this perspective by adding another hypostasis above the original monad of force or Dunamis (Δύναμις). This new all-pervasive monad encompassed all creation and its original uncreated emanations.
Baruch Spinoza later claimed that “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” “Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.” Though Spinoza has been called the “prophet” and “prince” of pantheism, in a letter to Henry Oldenburg Spinoza states that: “as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken”. For Spinoza, our universe (cosmos) is a mode under two attributes of Thought and Extension. God has infinitely many other attributes which are not present in our world.
According to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, when Spinoza wrote “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) Spinoza did not mean to say that God and Nature are interchangeable terms, but rather that God’s transcendence was attested by his infinitely many attributes, and that two attributes known by humans, namely Thought and Extension, signified God’s immanence. Furthermore, Martial Guéroult suggested the term “panentheism”, rather than “pantheism” to describe Spinoza’s view of the relation between God and the world. The world is not God, but it is, in a strong sense, “in” God. Yet, American philosopher and self-described panentheist Charles Hartshorne referred to Spinoza’s philosophy as “classical pantheism” and distinguished Spinoza’s philosophy from panentheism.
In 1828, the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832) seeking to reconcile monotheism and pantheism, coined the term panentheism (from the Ancient Greek expression πᾶν ἐν θεῷ, pān en theṓ, literally “all in god”). This conception of God influenced New England transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. The term was popularized by Charles Hartshorne in his development of process theology and has also been closely identified with the New Thought. The formalization of this term in the West in the 19th century was not new; philosophical treatises had been written on it in the context of Hinduism for millennia.
Philosophers who embraced panentheism have included Thomas Hill Green (1839–1882), James Ward (1843–1925), Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison (1856–1931) and Samuel Alexander (1859–1938). Beginning in the 1940s, Hartshorne examined numerous conceptions of God. He reviewed and discarded pantheism, deism, and pandeism in favor of panentheism, finding that such a “doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism except their arbitrary negations”. Hartshorne formulated God as a being who could become “more perfect”: He has absolute perfection in categories for which absolute perfection is possible, and relative perfection (i. e., is superior to all others) in categories for which perfection cannot be precisely determined.
Earliest reference to panentheistic thought in Hindu philosophy is in a creation myth contained in the later section of Rig Veda called the Purusha Sukta, which was compiled before 1100 BCE. The Purusha Sukta gives a description of the spiritual unity of the cosmos. It presents the nature of Purusha or the cosmic being as both immanent in the manifested world and yet transcendent to it. From this being the sukta holds, the original creative will proceeds, by which this vast universe is projected in space and time.
The most influential and dominant school of Indian philosophy, Advaita Vedanta, rejects theism and dualism by insisting that “Brahman [ultimate reality] is without parts or attributes…one without a second.” Since Brahman has no properties, contains no internal diversity and is identical with the whole reality it cannot be understood as an anthropomorphic personal God. The relationship between Brahman and the creation is often thought to be panentheistic.
Panentheism is also expressed in the Bhagavad Gita. In verse IX.4, Krishna states:
By Me all this universe is pervaded through My unmanifested form.
All beings abide in Me but I do not abide in them.
Many schools of Hindu thought espouse monistic theism, which is thought to be similar to a panentheistic viewpoint. Nimbarka’s school of differential monism (Dvaitadvaita), Ramanuja’s school of qualified monism (Vishistadvaita) and Saiva Siddhanta and Kashmir Shaivism are all considered to be panentheistic. Caitanya’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which elucidates the doctrine of Acintya Bheda Abheda (inconceivable oneness and difference), is also thought to be panentheistic. In Kashmir Shaivism, all things are believed to be a manifestation of Universal Consciousness (Cit or Brahman). So from the point of view of this school, the phenomenal world (Śakti) is real, and it exists and has its being in Consciousness (Cit). Thus, Kashmir Shaivism is also propounding of theistic monism or panentheism.
Shaktism, or Tantra, is regarded as an Indian prototype of Panentheism. Shakti is considered to be the cosmos itself – she is the embodiment of energy and dynamism, and the motivating force behind all action and existence in the material universe. Shiva is her transcendent masculine aspect, providing the divine ground of all being. “There is no Shiva without Shakti, or Shakti without Shiva. The two … in themselves are One.” Thus, it is She who becomes the time and space, the cosmos, it is She who becomes the five elements, and thus all animate life and inanimate forms. She is the primordial energy that holds all creation and destruction, all cycles of birth and death, all laws of cause and effect within Herself, and yet is greater than the sum total of all these. She is transcendent, but becomes immanent as the cosmos (Mula Prakriti). She, the Primordial Energy, directly becomes Matter.
Taoism says that all is part of the eternal tao, and that all interact through qi. Chapter 6 describes the Tao thus:
“The heart of Tao is immortal, the mysterious fertile mother of us all, of heaven and earth, of every thing and not-thing.“
The Reverend Zen Master Soyen Shaku was the first Zen Buddhist Abbot to tour the United States in 1905–6. He wrote a series of essays collected into the book Zen For Americans. In the essay titled “The God Conception of Buddhism” he attempts to explain how a Buddhist looks at the ultimate without an anthropomorphic God figure while still being able to relate to the term God in a Buddhist sense:
At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience. Again, Buddhism is not pantheistic in the sense that it identifies the universe with God. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is absolute and transcendent; this world, being merely its manifestation, is necessarily fragmental and imperfect. To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, “panentheism,” according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence.
The essay then goes on to explain first utilizing the term “God” for the American audience to get an initial understanding of what he means by “panentheism,” and then discusses the terms that Buddhism uses in place of “God” such as Dharmakaya, Buddha or AdiBuddha, and Tathagata.
Panentheism is also a feature of some Christian philosophical theologies and resonates strongly within the theological tradition of the Orthodox Church. It also appears in process theology. Process theological thinkers are generally regarded in the Christian West as unorthodox. Furthermore, process philosophical thought is widely believed to have paved the way for open theism, a movement that tends to associate itself primarily with the Evangelical branch of Protestantism, but is also generally considered unorthodox by most Evangelicals.
See also: Omnipresence
In Christianity, creation is not considered a literal “part of” God, and divinity is essentially distinct from creation (i.e., transcendent). There is, in other words, an irradicable difference between the uncreated (i. e., God) and the created (i. e., everything else). This does not mean, however, that the creation is wholly separated from God, because the creation exists in and from the divine energies. In Eastern Orthodoxy, these energies or operations are the natural activity of God and are in some sense identifiable with God, but at the same time the creation is wholly distinct from the divine essence. God creates the universe by His will and from His energies. It is, however, not an imprint or emanation of God’s own essence (ousia), the essence He shares pre-eternally with His Word and Holy Spirit. Neither is it a directly literal outworking or effulgence of the divine, nor any other process which implies that creation is essentially God or a necessary part of God. The use of the term “panentheism” to describe the divine concept in Orthodox Christian theology is problematic for those who would insist that panentheism requires creation to be “part of” God.
God is not merely Creator of the universe, as His dynamic presence is necessary to sustain the existence of every created thing, small and great, visible and invisible. That is, God’s energies maintain the existence of the created order and all created beings, even if those agencies have explicitly rejected him. His love for creation is such that He will not withdraw His presence, which would be the ultimate form of annihilation, not merely imposing death, but ending existence altogether. By this token, the entirety of creation is fundamentally “good” in its very being, and is not innately evil either in whole or in part. This does not deny the existence of spiritual or moral evil in a fallen universe, only the claim that it is an intrinsic property of creation. Sin results from the essential freedom of creatures to operate outside the divine order, not as a necessary consequence of having inherited human nature.
Panentheism in other Christian confessions
Many Christians who believe in universalism – mainly expressed in the Universalist Church of America, originating, as a fusion of Pietist and Anabaptist influences, from the American colonies of the 18th century – hold panentheistic views of God in conjunction with their belief in apocatastasis, also called universal reconciliation. Panentheistic Christian Universalists often believe that all creation’s subsistence in God renders untenable the notion of final and permanent alienation from Him, citing Scriptural passages such as Ephesians 4:6 (“[God] is over all and through all and in all”) and Romans 11:36 (“from [God] and through him and to him are all things”) to justify both panentheism and universalism. Panentheism was also a major force in the Unitarian church for a long time, based in part on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of the Over-soul (from the synonymous essay of 1841).
Panentheistic conceptions of God occur amongst some modern theologians. Process theology and Creation Spirituality, two recent developments in Christian theology, contain panentheistic ideas. Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000), who conjoined process theology with panentheism, maintained a lifelong membership in the Methodist church but was also a Unitarian. In later years he joined the Austin, Texas, Unitarian Universalist congregation and was an active participant in that church. Referring to the ideas such as Thomas Oord’s ‘theocosmocentrism’ (2010), the soft panentheism of open theism, Keith Ward’s comparative theology and John Polkinghorne’s critical realism (2009), Raymond Potgieter observes distinctions such as dipolar and bipolar:
The former suggests two poles separated such as God influencing creation and it in turn its creator (Bangert 2006:168), whereas bipolarity completes God’s being implying interdependence between temporal and eternal poles. (Marbaniang 2011:133), in dealing with Whitehead’s approach, does not make this distinction. I use the term bipolar as a generic term to include suggestions of the structural definition of God’s transcendence and immanence; to for instance accommodate a present and future reality into which deity must reasonably fit and function, and yet maintain separation from this world and evil whilst remaining within it.
Some argue that panentheism should also include the notion that God has always been related to some world or another, which denies the idea of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Nazarene Methodist theologian Thomas Jay Oord(* 1965) advocates panentheism, but he uses the word “theocosmocentrism” to highlight the notion that God and some world or another are the primary conceptual starting blocks for eminently fruitful theology. This form of panentheism helps in overcoming the problem of evil and in proposing that God’s love for the world is essential to who God is.
The Christian Church International also holds to a panentheist doctrine.
Main article: Gnosticism
“Gnosticism” is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems prevalent in the first and second century AD. The teachings of the various gnostic groups were very diverse. In his Dictionary of Gnosticism, Andrew Phillip Smith has written that some branches of Gnosticism taught a panentheistic view of reality, and held to the belief that God exists in the visible world only as sparks of spiritual “light”. The goal of human existence is to know the sparks within oneself in order to return to God, who is in the Fullness (or Pleroma).
Gnosticism was panentheistic, believing that the true God is simultaneously both separate from the physical universe and present within it. As Jesus states in the Gospel of Thomas, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all … . Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This seemingly contradictory interpretation of gnostic theology is not without controversy, since one interpretation of dualistic theology holds that a perfect God of pure spirit would not manifest himself through the fallen world of matter.
Manichaeism, being another gnostic sect, preached a very different doctrine in positioning the true Manichaean God against matter as well as other deities, that it described as enmeshed with the world, namely the gods of Jews, Christians and pagans. Nevertheless, this dualistic teaching included an elaborate cosmological myth that narrates the defeat of primal man by the powers of darkness that devoured and imprisoned the particles of light.
Valentinian Gnosticism taught that matter came about through emanations of the supreme being, even if to some this event is held to be more accidental than intentional. To other gnostics, these emanations were akin to the Sephirot of the Kabbalists and deliberate manifestations of a transcendent God through a complex system of intermediaries.
While mainstream Rabbinic Judaism is classically monotheistic, and follows in the footsteps of Maimonides (c. 1135–1204), the panentheistic conception of God can be found among certain mystical Jewish traditions. A leading scholar of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel ascribes this doctrine to the kabbalistic system of Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570) and in the eighteenth century to the Baal Shem Tov (c. 1700–1760), founder of the Hasidic movement, as well as his contemporaries, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch (died 1772), and Menahem Mendel, the Maggid of Bar. This may be said of many, if not most, subsequent Hasidic masters. There is some debate as to whether Isaac Luria (1534–1572) and Lurianic Kabbalah, with its doctrine of tzimtzum, can be regarded as panentheistic.
According to Hasidism, the infinite Ein Sof is incorporeal and exists in a state that is both transcendent and immanent. This appears to be the view of non-Hasidic Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, as well. Hasidic Judaism merges the elite ideal of nullification to a transcendent God, via the intellectual articulation of inner dimensions through Kabbalah and with emphasis on the panentheistic divine immanence in everything.
Many scholars would argue that “panentheism” is the best single-word description of the philosophical theology of Baruch Spinoza. It is therefore no surprise, that aspects of panentheism are also evident in the theology of Reconstructionist Judaism as presented in the writings of Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), who was strongly influenced by Spinoza.
Several Sufi saints and thinkers, primarily Ibn Arabi, held beliefs that have been considered panentheistic. These notions later took shape in the theory of wahdat ul-wujud (the Unity of All Things). Some Sufi Orders, notably the Bektashis and the Universal Sufi movement, continue to espouse panentheistic beliefs. Nizari Ismaili follow panentheism according to Ismaili doctrine. Nevertheless, some Shia Muslims also do believe in different degrees of Panentheism.
Al-Qayyuum is a Name of God in the Qur’an which translates to “The Self-Existing by Whom all subsist”. In Islam the universe can not exist if Allah doesn’t exist, and it is only by His power which encompasses everything and which is everywhere that the universe can exist. In Ayaẗ al-Kursii God’s throne is described as “extending over the heavens and the earth” and “He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them”. This does not mean though that the universe is God, or that a creature (like a tree or an animal) is God, because those would be respectively pantheism, which is a heresy in traditional Islam, and the worst heresy in Islam, shirk (polytheism). God is separated by His creation but His creation can not survive without Him.
In Pre-Columbian America
The Mesoamerican empires of the Mayas, Aztecs as well as the South American Incas (Tahuatinsuyu) have typically been characterized as polytheistic, with strong male and female deities. According to Charles C. Mann’s history book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, only the lower classes of Aztec society were polytheistic. Philosopher James Maffie has argued that Aztec metaphysics was pantheistic rather than panentheistic, since Teotl was considered by Aztec philosophers to be the ultimate all-encompassing yet all-transcending force defined by its inherit duality.
Native American beliefs in North America have been characterized as panentheistic in that there is an emphasis on a single, unified divine spirit that is manifest in each individual entity. (North American Native writers have also translated the word for God as the Great Mystery or as the Sacred Other) This concept is referred to by many as the Great Spirit. Philosopher J. Baird Callicott has described Lakota theology as panentheistic, in that the divine both transcends and is immanent in everything.
One exception can be modern Cherokee who are predominantly monotheistic but apparently not panentheistic; yet in older Cherokee traditions many observe both aspects of pantheism and panentheism, and are often not beholden to exclusivity, encompassing other spiritual traditions without contradiction, a common trait among some tribes in the Americas.
The Sikh gurus have described God in numerous ways in their hymns included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhism, but the oneness of the deity is consistently emphasized throughout. God is described in the Mool Mantar, the first passage in the Guru Granth Sahib, and the basic formula of the faith is:
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 1) — ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ ॥
Ik Oankar Satnaam KartaaPurakh Nirbhau Nirvair AkaalMoorat Ajooni Saibhan GurPrasad
One primal being who made the sound (oan) that expanded and created the world. Truth is the name. Creative being personified. Without fear, without hate. Image of the undying. Beyond birth, self existent. By Guru’s grace~
Guru Arjan, the fifth guru of Sikhs, says, “God is beyond colour and form, yet His/Her presence is clearly visible” (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Ang 74), and “Nanak’s Lord transcends the world as well as the scriptures of the east and the west, and yet He/She is clearly manifest” (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Ang 397).
Knowledge of the ultimate Reality is not a matter for reason; it comes by revelation of the ultimate reality through nadar (grace) and by anubhava (mystical experience). Says Guru Nanak; “budhi pathi na paiai bahu chaturaiai bhai milai mani bhane.” This translates to “He/She is not accessible through intellect, or through mere scholarship or cleverness at argument; He/She is met, when He/She pleases, through devotion” (GG, 436).
Guru Nanak prefixed the numeral one (ik) to it, making it Ik Oankar or Ek Oankar to stress God’s oneness. God is named and known only through his Own immanent nature. The only name which can be said to truly fit God’s transcendent state is SatNam ( Sat Sanskrit, Truth), the changeless and timeless Reality. God is transcendent and all-pervasive at the same time. Transcendence and immanence are two aspects of the same single Supreme Reality. The Reality is immanent in the entire creation, but the creation as a whole fails to contain God fully. As says Guru Tegh Bahadur, Nanak IX, “He has himself spread out His/Her Own “maya” (worldly illusion) which He oversees; many different forms He assumes in many colours, yet He stays independent of all” (GG, 537).
In Konkōkyō, God is named “Tenchi Kane no Kami-Sama” which can mean “Golden spirit of the universe.” Kami (God) is also seen as infinitely loving and powerful.
People associated with panentheism:
- Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), Byzantine theologian
- Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Dutch philosopher of Sephardi-Portuguese origin
- Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), English mathematician and philosopher
- Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000), American philosopher
- Arthur Peacocke (1924–2006), British Anglican theologian and biochemist
- John B. Cobb (* 1925), American theologian and philosopher
- Mordechai Nessyahu (1929–1997), Jewish-Israeli political theorist and philosopher of Cosmotheism
- William Luther Pierce (1933–2002), American political activist and self-proclaimed cosmotheist
- Jan Assmann (* 1938), German Egyptologist, theorist of Cosmotheism
- Norman Lowell (* 1946), Maltese writer and politician, self-proclaimed cosmotheist
- John Polkinghorne (* 1960), English theoretical physicist and theologian
- Michel Weber (* 1963), Belgian philosopher
- Thomas Jay Oord (* 1965), American theologian and philosopher
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia