The “Not Yet” of Panentheism

The word “pantheism” is comprised of two Greek words: pan (which means all or everything) and theism (which means belief in God). Pantheism asserts that God is everything and everything is God. God does not exist apart from the universe. In other words, God and the universe are identical. In pantheism, there is no transcendent quality to God. Process naturalism is a form of pantheism with a focus on God as a process working within creation. However, even in this offshoot of process philosophy, God does not exist apart from the universe. God may be imminent but is not transcendent. 

Panentheism maintains that God is in everything (and, therefore, everyone) and everything (and everyone) is in God.

Panentheism is another way of thinking about God and has become quite popular in our day among theologians and laypeople alike. The two letters en (meaning “in” in Greek) distinguish panentheism from pantheism. Panentheism maintains that God is in everything (and, therefore, everyone) and everything (and everyone) is in God. However, God is also beyond the universe. God’s “existence” doesn’t depend on the universe. With this philosophical construct, God is both imminent and transcendent. God is both within and beyond God’s creation. 

There are scriptural passages which support some form of panentheism. Psalm 139 says that wherever we go, God is there (even in the grave). We cannot escape the presence of God. We are surrounded by God who even knows our private thoughts.  Paul, quoting the Greek Epimenides, says to the Athenians, God “is the one in whom we all live and move and have our being” (Act 17:28). Ephesians 4:4-6 refers to “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all, and in all.” Theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart writes, “No reality can exist in and of itself, or be self-sustained or void of God’s presence.” Hart sees God as “the actualizer and energizer of being. For out of and through and into him are all things. All things. Which includes all things.” He goes on to write that God “is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever.” (The Experience of God, p. 8)

I have been attracted to panentheism for at least forty-five years. I have no problem believing that all things are in God and are totally dependent on this omnipresent and omniscient God. I believe that God feels every joy and sorrow, every hope and tear, every act of love and every result of cruelty. I believe in a God who is crucified over and over again by humanity’s suffering and evil. 

However, there is one part of panentheism that I question. If Jesus reveals to us the eternal nature of God (which is unconditional and indiscriminate love), it’s hard for me to see God in people and situations like the following:

  1. The Holocaust and those who tortured and killed innocent children, women, and men 
  2. The girl who is in paralyzing terror because once more she hears her father’s footsteps as he comes up the stairs to rape her 
  3. The hundreds of millions of slaves who have suffered through human history
  4. The emotional abuse heaped on children and women by heartless men
  5. The horrible treatment of innocent animals (pets and otherwise)

I could continue this litany of evil, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. I certainly believe God is with the person who is being ill-treated. God feels from the inside out that person’s fear, pain, hopelessness, and confusion. I embrace the faith that God is “with the least of these” and when we do something harmful to others, we are also doing it to God. That’s the whole point of the crucifixion in my theology. God is in solidarity with not only humanity but with every part of creation. My problem is believing that someone like Hitler and his inhuman henchmen have God or Christ within them. There is certainly nothing in these people which remotely resembles Christ. I have struggled with this problem for decades and recently found a helpful analogy which allows me to believe that all things are in God even if I cannot believe that God is in all things.

The analogy comes from the theologian Keith Giles in his most helpful book, Jesus Undefeated: Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment. He writes:

For example, it’s possible that we are “in Christ” the same way that an empty water bottle with the cap on top can be submerged deep in the center of the ocean. The bottle is in the ocean because it is surrounded by the ocean on all sides. But the ocean is not in the bottle. This is a very important distinction to make. The bottle can be in the ocean without the ocean being inside the bottle. And perhaps this analogy can help us to understand in what ways we are in Christ but Christ may not necessarily be in us. The only way for the ocean to enter the water bottle is for someone to take the cap off and allow the ocean to flood inside of it. (p. 117)

One who is empty of Christ can choose to “open the cap” and experience the joy and healing of abundant and eternal life. 

I find this suggestion helpful and hopeful. One who is empty of Christ can choose to “open the cap” and experience the joy and healing of abundant and eternal life.  Such a person is always immersed in the unconditional love of God even if he rejects such love and refuses to live in ways that reflect the compassion reflected in Jesus.  I’m also sure all of us who claim to be Christian have been aware of times when Christ was not in us as we chose to live in ways alien to his nature. Maybe our “bottles in the ocean” have different compartments which need to be opened. I’m sure there are “compartments” in me which I have not yet invited Christ to occupy. And I suspect I am not alone in this failure. 

With this modified panentheism, I can believe that all is in God and Christ. And I can be aware of the tragedy that not all have God and Christ in them. And maybe if I become deeper immersed in the love of God, I can say of those who seem to have nothing within them that resembles Christ two hopeful words: “Not yet.” Why? Because I do not believe God gives up on anyone—even me. 

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