Church, Grounded

Whose Afraid of The Big Bad Panentheist?

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

The one foray into the weeds of theological discourse that Grounded allows takes us into the field of “pans,” namely pantheism and panentheism. The book is arguing for a more wholehearted appropriation of the latter of those two pans among the ranks of liberal Protestants.

Here’s how Bulter Bass spells out the distinction between the two pans:

Pantheists believe that God is everything, and everything is God . . . Panentheism is the idea that God is with or in all things.

Both of these terms earned spots on the theological no fly list I learned at my evangelical Christian college and in a subsequent Systematic Theology course I took at a bible college in Kansas City. They failed, I was taught, to appreciate the transcendence of God. Pantheism makes no distinction between the Creator and the creation (which is idolatry), and the distinction panentheism makes is too fine to withstand scrutiny. Too much rests on prepositions.

Grounded’s enthusiasm for panentheism as a compelling theological lens for our era proceeds from a place of ecological concern. We heirs of the Industrial Revolution have unleashed havoc on the earth’s soil, a sin that has flowed from a theological framework that allowed us to see the soil as a thing out of which to extract value.

Not only did that [Industrial] revolution move us away from the soil; it also turned the land into an object to be managed instead of a relationship to be experienced. Western religion, often afraid to lose the Creator-creation distinction, quickly baptized theologies that distanced God from the dirt and emphasized human lordship over the land.

Yep. I cut my teeth on those theologies. I wonder how much of my difficulty with finding God in the dirt stems from them.

Panentheism rests on solid theological footing. It places a great deal of weight on the relational nature of God as Trinity. “With,” “for,” and “in” are really important prepositions for talking about who God is and what God is doing. I’m not spooked by the panentheistic collapse of transcendance, because I don’t think immanence and transcendance are the opposites I was taught they are. It is God’s way to be with us–and, to Grounded’s point, with the soil–by way of being not-us, and to be bigger than us by being with us.






7 thoughts on “Whose Afraid of The Big Bad Panentheist?

  1. This is the only section of the book in which I use a technical theological term. I was interested in your experience of the word “panentheism” and the evangelical college. I first heard the term from Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982 — when he referred to Jonathan Edwards as a panentheist. The entire class just stared at Lovelace. Half of us didn’t know the word; the other half thought it was heresy. Lovelace stopped the class and patiently explained the difference between the two ideas.

    That day, I realized that the word “panentheism” was the first time I’d ever heard a theological term that pointed toward what I really understood about God and spiritual experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s