Shuck and Jive

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What is Panentheism and Does It Itch?

Hey Bob!

I think we affirm a number of things together...

1) Other faiths have truth. We need to listen to others. We may not agree about the quantity of truth ours or another faith tradition possesses or the measuring stick for it.

2) God works in us and is immanent as well as transcendent. I do find panentheism a valuable way of understanding God. More on that later.

3) We both see the problem as spiritual. You call it sin. I guess I would need more definition regarding that. I might call it lack of awareness.

4) We hold a common commitment on behalf of ethical and social justice issues (ie. war, abuse of creation.) That to me is a big point of agreement.

Now, to some of your questions and a couple of thoughts of my own.

1) Life after death. I really haven't changed my position. I think that issue is peripheral. I think Buddhism makes more sense regarding that than popular Christianity. There certainly are a lot of religions and philosophies and near-death experience literature out there if folks are concerned with that. I certainly don't think the religion we choose (or become because of where we happen to live) will determine whether our consciousness survives or not (or survives to a "good place" as opposed to a "bad place)."

I will put a question to you: do you think that only Christians are going to heaven and that all non-Christians are going to hell? I am not asking you to judge specific people, just in general.

2) That people are "elected" is a Christian or Reformed way of speaking of the grace of God. I think all people are "elected." We all reflect the image of God. We often just don't realize it. To me that doctrine symbolizes that we are loved and blessed by God unconditionally. Therefore, we don't have to worry about measuring up, earning God's love, or worrying about our fate in the afterlife. If there is life after death that is how God made it and it is great. If there isn't then that is how God made it and it is great. It seems all speculative to me. What is not speculative is this life. You and I exist! Isn't that incredible! A far more central concern is to do what we can so that others may exist.

3) I think that panentheism (God is in all creation and yet transcends it) makes a lot of sense in light of our cosmology and in light of evolutionary theory. Is there a place where God is not?

4) You wrote: "I believe all claims to truth, and I’m speaking theologically here, not scientifically, must be held up to the Truth that God shows us in Jesus Christ and the truth that God reveals to us in the Bible." We agree on the science part. I suppose we will have to have some discussion about what "truth" is as well as what the Bible is. There are many truths. There are many aspects of other faith traditions as well as other ways of determining truth (science for instance) that are more true than the Bible or Christianity. I also think that what we once thought was true, may no longer be true. That is why our theology is always in need of revision.

5) I think where we may disagree on all of this involves the exclusive claims that popular Christianity makes as well as the authorities cited for those claims.

6) I feel the need to say this at this point. What I find most obnoxious about organized religion is its abuse of power (who is in, who is out, who can lead a church, who cannot) and its unwillingness to see beyond its own dogma. I cannot imagine that the Creator of the Universe, who has created the Milky Way and all of the other galaxies, and even all of the variety of human life on Earth, decided that the most important thing was to make people believe in Christianity. What is even more bizarre to me is the thought that there is one Truth in the entire Universe and that I have it. We are living in a time in which so much of religion is concerned with circling the wagons. The Pope's latest statement is an example. But, not just him, it is everywhere, including our own denomination. My faith is one that is on the move. I don't want to be the same. I want to learn and to seek. So often organized religion stifles growth and the search rather than inspiring it. I think there is another way. I think that organized religion can be a good thing, especially if it inspires people to search and to grow. That is why I call myself progressive.

7) I conclude this post with this: Christianity is not about possessing or disseminating Truth. It does not have the corner on it. Far from it. Christianity is for me, however, a wonderful way to live, to grow, and to face the struggles of life. My Christian faith has enabled me to find courage in face of fear, to love when I would rather not, to hope when I despair. It is my Christian faith that has opened me to the sacredness of people of other faiths and to those who have none.

8) Oh, I guess I have one more thing. Some who posted comments previously were concerned that if I didn't particularly care about life after death, that I couldn't do a funeral! Well, I have done plenty. The funeral is not about me. I try to approach each with compassion and a sense of the Sacred. I seek to do what is most meaningful to honor the deceased and to honor those who grieve. For those for whom it is important that their loved one is in heaven, of course I affirm that for them. I usually use the
Book of Common Worship. It is a beautiful service with wonderful passages of scripture and comforting prayers. People can interpret it as they wish. My favorite line is this: "They rest from their labors, and their works shall follow them." I think that is true. We rest. And what remains is the good, the love, and the joy that we leave to others and to Creation. I don't think any of that is lost. I believe that those works continue. I think it is important to name those works in the funeral service. When I face my own death, I hope to be aware. I do not want to cling or to be anxious, but to be grateful for the opportunity to be conscious and to have life. I think that is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said, "The kingdom of God is within you." If there is some other surprise God has for me, I hope to be awake for it.



  1. Is there a place where God is not?

    I think in that single rhetorical question you have summarized the issue perfectly. I believe that there is no place where God, who is infinite and boundless, is not. God is there when we suffer, God is there when we love, God is there when we live and when we die. God is always with us, because it is impossible to exclude God's boundless infinity.

  2. Clarity:
    "Main Entry: pan·en·the·ism
    Pronunciation: panen(t)thizm
    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): -s
    Etymology: German panentheismus, from pan- + Greek en in + German theismus theism (from Greek theos god + German -ismus -ism) -- more at IN, THE-
    : the doctrine that God includes the world as a part though not the whole of his being

    Citation format for this entry:

    "panentheism." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (19 Jul. 2007).

  3. John,

    This may strike you and others as an example of a lack of sophistication or understanding on my part, but isn't it better for a pastor to actually believe what s/he preaches? I refer to your comments on heaven. You show a good heart in affirming that for people who believe in it, but are you saying something to them you don't actually believe yourself?
    And what if these people know that you don't really believe in heaven, or at least don't consider it to be important?

  4. John,

    I was a parish minister for over 20 years and this post describes exactly what I came to believe both as a Christian and a pastor. I still believe this. As you, I performed hundres of funerals, trusting there is something bright and welcoming after death, but not worried if there isn't. Your theology, your approach to ministry, and your blog are wonderfully refreshing. If I was looking for a church I'd look for yours. By the way, I was a Baptist all those years. Loved that joke of the guy in the bar. And yes, I did as a pastor and still do, love a good cocktail or a cold beer.

    You are doing a great work, keep it up!


  5. Thanks Seeker! And thank you for the nice post on your wonderful blog!

    Thanks Viola for the clarity. I would just add that the dictionary doesn't necessarily define theology. Nevertheless, that is helpful.

    Hi Presbyman, you are right...your comment does strike me as a lack of sophistication and understanding on your part. I do believe what I preach.

    Hi Timothy! Thank you for the nice words, the encouragement, and your awesome blog!

  6. I've never heard John preach, but I get the impression that if there is one thing that you can say about him, it is that he is theologically honest and that he believes what he preaches. After reading the Jack Good book "The Dishonest Church", about clergy who know that the Biblical mythological stories aren't literally true but who then dance around that fact and don't really come straight with their congregations, I think that John's honesty about these theological questions--at least in his blog--are refreshing.

  7. John,

    So you do believe in heaven and in life after death?