Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: Why worship?

Next, Connor and Jennifer hand us this question regarding the God described in the previous posts.
What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him?

I think I'm going to have to begin by unpacking some of this panentheism stuff. Briefly, panentheism is the belief that God both transcends and is radically present within the universe. It is distinct from pantheism, which teaches that God and the universe are identical. So in terms of set theory, pantheism teaches that Universe = God, while panentheism teaches that Universe ⊂ God.

Paul's speech to the Areopagus begins to move in this direction:
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

There are lots of metaphorical approaches to this idea, each with slightly different implications. You might take the Platonic route and think of God as the Divine Nature or Form of Divinity, and all the things in the universe as being instances that reflect this form to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Pattern, with all things in the universe exhibiting this pattern to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Mind, a consciousness arising from the interactions of the physical universe in the same way that a creature's mind arises from the physical interactions in its brain.

Each of these metaphors provides a different way of describing God's relationship with the world, and each has slightly different implications for God's relationship to the good. If God is most accurately described as a Form that exists separately from the world, but is instantiated within the world, then good becomes the degree to which an instance reflects the divine form.

If God is most accurately described as a pattern that is replicated on small and grand scales throughout the universe (think fractals), then good becomes a part of this pattern, or perhaps is identical with the pattern itself.

If God is the mind that arises from the interactions of the universe, then the good is likely an idea that has some independence from God, but the mind of God would always affirm the good, and insofar as the mind of God could interact with other minds, the mind of God would always promote the good.

I think that these metaphors present sufficient reason for feeling worshipful awe and affection toward God: First, because God is immense, subsuming the universe we know and probably all the universes that we don't know; second, because God is present, immanent, intimately involved in every moment, suffering as we suffer, and rejoicing as we rejoice; third, because we can identify God with all the good we experience, either because God is the source of that goodness, or evident within that goodness, or personally affirming that goodness.

12 comments:

shane said...

Spell this out for me because I am stupid: What's the fundamental difference between Panentheism and the traditional understanding of God other than jettisoning the awkward parts of the Biblical narrative? I understand these views are not mutually exclusive.

"third, because we can identify God with all the good we experience, either because God is the source of that goodness, or evident within that goodness, or personally affirming that goodness." Why then couldn't we add:

fourth, because we can identify God with all of the bad/evil/horror we experience, either because God is the source of that badness, or evident within that badness, or personally affirming that badness.

Other than the Platonic move of form, what gives a Panentheistic Deity a break from responsibility, association, and/or guilt regarding bad/evil/horror?

Matthew said...

@shane:
Spell this out for me because I am stupid: What's the fundamental difference between Panentheism and the traditional understanding of God other than jettisoning the awkward parts of the Biblical narrative?

Hm, this should make sense even to stupid people, so I guess I wasn't clear. ;)

The traditional understanding of God is transcendent and dualistic: God is "spirit" and exists in some other "spiritual" realm. The transcendence of God is emphasized at the expense of God's immanence. This approach emphasizes language of omniscience like, "God sees everything" rather than language of omnipresence like, "God is in everything".

A pantheistic view says that God is in fact nature, and nothing more, which emphasizes immanence at the expense of trancendence.

A panENtheistic view allows for both immanence (we are awash in a sea of God) and transcendence (God also has parts, or exists in ways, that transcend matter). It also allows for God to be present in evil events but have negative opinions about the things that go on within Godself: "This murder is hurting me, as I am present in both the murderer and the victim," or, less anthropomorphically, we might say: "This murder does not fit the God-pattern."

"what gives a Panentheistic Deity a break from responsibility, association, and/or guilt regarding bad/evil/horror?"

I haven't really said much about how the panentheistic move might affect God's relationship to evil ... partly because I'm not sure how it does. Before I can get there I have to decide how guilt relates to personhood and volition.

Because, for example, if God is not a person, but more like a pattern or idea, we would probably be silly to accuse God of perpetrating evil.

Or if the mind of God is epiphenomenal and does not have "free will" ... that is, if even God's action is constrained and depends on what happens rather than the other way around ... then most of us would probably not hold God responsible for, say, a tsunami.

But the most important move, I think, is the one that says "God doesn't intervene", which can be taken independent of Panentheism ... it's just that some panentheistic metaphors poke at possibilities for *why* God might not intervene.

Richard Beck said...

Okay, the metaphors with fractals is a stroke of genius.

Paul said...

How do you distinguish pantheism's God as "nothing more than nature" from panentheism's God as "both transcending and radically present within the universe?"

Do we really know enough about the nature of nature?

In other words how can we tell that any force, energy, entity, that at once transcends and informs what we now understand as nature or the universe, isn't part of the only One in whom we live and move and have our being without yet fully understanding it? Anything existing in transcendance of nature (including any of my mispellings) would seem to have to have an important, integral relationship to the rest of nature such that transcendance itself might be part of nature - a natural phenomenon. Conversely, maybe the inexplicable giveness of nature is as "supernatural" as what transcends it.

Essentially, how do you distinguish a Something that nature or the universe(s) is steeped and saturated in and metaphorically gives off as a kind of vapor, from an aspect of a single universal Entity or Process of All That Is Happening?

Is "supernatural" itself, whether God as Man in the Sky or transcendant/immanent Supernatural Force, a compelling construct; and if so, why?

Matthew said...

@paul:
"Is "supernatural" itself, whether God as Man in the Sky or transcendant/immanent Supernatural Force, a compelling construct; and if so, why?

Curse you, William of Ockham!

Ok, um ... first, I'm not sure that "transcendent" has to mean "supernatural" in the sense that God is made out of different stuff than the universe, is somehow "spiritual" while the universe is "physical". The plain old pantheistic model might also say, "the universe is made of God", while the panentheistic model might be to say, "and there are parts of God that extend beyond the universe we know/understand/are capable of comprehending."

The Christian tradition, at least, suggests that while God may be identified with nature, God is not merely the world as we experience it. The EN in panentheism attempts to capture this idea, and I don't think it excludes the possibility that, "transcendance itself might be part of nature - a natural phenomenon."

The transcendence part is important to me personally because pantheism seems to have a bias against saying things like, "God is less present in A than B", or "God affirms A and not B."

Paul said...

So "supernatural" vs. "natural" isn't the key distinction for you here. The important thing to you is transcendence.

I've thought about that too - regarding pantheism. If everything is God, then how do you go about drawing distinctions of quality - in the realm of ethics as well as the realm of thinking about what meaning concepts like transcendent or divine might have. If everything is equally divine then "divine" loses its meaning.

I struggled for literally years trying to work this out theologically, even resorting to drawing diagrams! (During this period I also managed, barely, to brush my teeth, bring out the garbage, go to work in the morning etc., lol...)

I got nowhere that struck me as really compelling or satisfactory and ended up taking what might be called an observational rather than theological approach. It will be interesting to see where you end up with this. Meanwhile, don't forget to bring in the mail!

scoots said...

I can't remember if you said this yet, Matt, but would we understand a panentheistic God as having created the cosmos, i.e., with some form of intention? Because if we don't, then we still need some explanation for why there's a universe, and if we do then that god would still bear culpability for making a world where horrors would take place.

Matthew said...

I guess you could think of it either way, although the degree of identification between God and the universe would probably dictate which metaphor you used ... hm.

I better make this its own post.

masterymistery said...

I think everyone in this thread is missing the point. For me, deity is context-independent and values-free. Deity does not espouse the particular only the general. Deity does not espouse any particular values but does espouse all values. That is, deity requires nothing, identifies with everything (and therefore nothing), is not partial to any particular values, doesn't rate good "better than" evil. Deity has no particular attributes: Deity has all attributes: cruel, loving, distant, near, young, old, real, unreal, and everything in between. God contains good and bad.

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

masterymistery said...

Scoots, Deity includes horrors and joys. If Deity is identified as the universe, then all parts of the universe are contained within deity---death and life. Why do good things happen to bad people? And bad things to good? The reason lies in the Law of Conservation of Karma.

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

masterymistery said...

Paul,

Weak pantheism identifies "nature" as deity. But why stop there? A stronger pantheism identifies the universe (including nature) as deity. But why stop there? An even stronger pantheism identifies reality (including the universe including nature) as deity. But why stop there? The strongest expression of pantheism identifies Everything That Is (ETI) (including reality including the universe including nature) as deity.

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

Matthew said...

Hi, masterymistery. These posts are kind of old, so it's unlikely that many people are going to read your comments.

In general, though, this post is about panENtheism, not pantheism. Furthermore, the people whose comments you responded to don't share your view of deity; they think that deity is more than the universe, and that its essence is entirely loving and good. Unless there's some way to resolve that fundamental disagreement, I don't think there's any way for your argument to progress.

But thanks for commenting anyhow.