Shuck and Jive

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The God We Never Knew

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, by Marcus Borg in 1998 introduced many of his readers to the concept of 'panentheism' or 'God is the beyond in our midst.'

I have much appreciated the works of Marcus Borg, including his 1994 book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and his most recent The Heart of Christianity and The Last Week with Dominic Crossan.

Borg insists that how we conceptualize and image God not only shapes what we think God is like but what our lives are about.

Here is an excerpt:

How are we to think of God? Some intellectual questions may not matter much, but this one has major consequences. What is our concept of God (or the sacred, or Spirit, terms that I use interchangeably)? By "concept of God," I simply mean what we have in mind when we use the word God. All of us have some concept of God, whether vague or precise and whether we are believers or nonbelievers.

My central claim is very direct: our concept of God matters. It can make God seem credible or incredible, plausible or highly improbable. It can also make God seem distant or near, absent or present. How we conceptualize God also affects our sense of what the Christian life is about. Is the Christian life centrally about believing, or is it about a relationship? Is it about believing in God as a supernatural being separate from the universe or about a relationship to the Spirit who is right here and all around us? Is it about believing in a God "out there" or about a relationship with a God who is right here?

In this chapter, I will introduce two different "root concepts" for thinking about God. Both are found in the Bible and the Christian tradition. They are fundamentally different. The first conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there," separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about). I will call this way of thinking about God "supernatural theism." Widespread within Christianity, it is perhaps what a majority of people (both believers and nonbelievers) think of when they think of God. Some accept the existence of such a being, and some reject it. But it is the notion of God as a supernatural being "out there" that is being accepted or rejected.

The second root concept of God in the Christian tradition thinks of God quite differently. God is the encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." I will call this concept of God "panentheism." This way of thinking about God is found among many of the most important voices in the Christian theological tradition.

Both concepts of God have nourished Christian lives through the centuries. For most of that time, the majority of Christians thought of God within the framework of supernatural theism. There is nothing wrong with this. Thinking of God as a supernatural being "out there" is the natural inference from many biblical passages, as well as the natural language of worship and devotion. And for most Christians until recently, this posed no serious problem. But in our time, thinking of God as a supernatural being "out there" has become an obstacle for many. It can make the reality of God seem doubtful, and it can make God seem very far away. And many people are not aware that there is a second root concept of God within the Christian tradition--namely, panentheism.

So it was for me. Though I did not know about panentheism as another Christian option for thinking about God until I was in my thirties, it has since become of utmost importance. It resolved the central religious and intellectual problem of the first three decades of my life. Indeed, becoming aware of panentheism made it possible for me to be a Christian again. The story of my own Christian and spiritual journey thus involves the movement from supernatural theism through doubt and disbelief to panentheism. The God I have met as an adult is the God I never knew growing up in the church. (Link)

You can read a review of Borg's book here and here.

Mystical Seeker has been exploring the question of panentheism and reflects on Borg's ideas. See Supernatural Theism or Panentheism and Who Needs the Holy Spirit Anyway?

I like the idea of panentheism. For me it means that the Universe itself is God and yet God transcends the Universe. Sallie McFague used the metaphor of Earth as God's body. This conceptualization might make us feel more reverent to all of creation as it is sacred and holy.

Ah, yes. The quiz a few posts ago. This from the worship center at the Regional Indo-American Community Center in Kingsport. Click the image to enlarge. Who are these figures and what do they represent?

Here is the answer:

From Left to Right: Lord Ganesha, Lord Krishna, Lord Radha, (or together as Lord Radha-Krishna, and Lord Balaji.

Click the links to learn more and explore this fascinating religion.



  1. I had never heard of Marcus Borg when I picked up a copy of "The God We Never Knew" a few years ago. I had no idea that he was a famous and controversial figure within Christianity, admired by some and denounced as a heretic by others. I don't remember what it was that made me pick up the book and buy it. All I know is that once I started reading it, I was amazed to discover that he spoke so directly to my own concerns about religious orthodoxy while offering a positive alternative paradigm of Christianity that I could relate to. I credit him as having been an importance influence in helping rekindle my interest in religion after years of neglect of my spiritual life.

  2. It is great to find other people from the bible-belt (I'm in georgia) that appreciate Marcus Borg. I often credit his books as "saving my faith". I'm not sure it was "him" but he has done such a wonderful job of giving "thinking-christians" a way to keep their faith without checking thier brains at the door.

    I envy you for having a progressive church. I wish that was an option in my town.