Is there a case for Christian pantheism? [Questioning faith #18]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2023

When I first heard of pantheism some 50 years ago, I was taught that it was incompatible with Christianity. I was taught a pantheist believes the world is God; a Christian believes the world is separate from God. That was my view until recently when I started to wonder if my emerging convictions about God as reflected in this series of posts on “Questioning Faith” should make me rethink this sense of incompatibility. I will not argue in favor of pantheism here, but rather I will reflect on what it is that I am coming to believe about God and then ask the question if this belief is moving in a pantheist direction.

All God-talk is human talk

One of the first steps in my rethinking my understanding of God was to realize that all of our thinking about God is human thinking. We can talk about what we think God is like, however we can never describe God precisely as God is. Whatever we say is also based on our human perceptions and opinions and expressed in our human languages. I would say now that this insight means that “pantheism” and “Christian theism” are both labels we create as we think about God—useful and appropriate, but still limited since they are human constructs. So, we should recognize that they are at best approximations and not mistake them for simple descriptions of reality.

We, thus, consider what we think God is like based on the various factors that influence us—personal experience, religious teaching (including the Bible and our faith traditions), scientific evidence, and other factors. Ideally, we factor in the evidence carefully and in conversations with others. We hope that our convictions are as well-grounded, evidence based, and coherent as possible. We want our convictions to be truthful (recognizing that they will never be perfectly truthful because they are always going to be human constructs). I would add that I believe all of our theological convictions should also be as life-giving as possible; that is a major test for truthfulness.

So, what does God seem to be like?

Let me mention several of the other ways my thinking about God has changed over the years and then return to the question of pantheism. To signal where this will be going, though, let me state here that after taking inventory of my emerging convictions about God, I realize that once I stop and think about it, my views may be somewhat close to at least some of the elements of what is often considered pantheistic beliefs. To recognize that all of our labels need to be worn lightly and viewed as fallible ways to try to order our thoughts (not as exact statements about reality), may make affirming some pantheistic ideas less “heretical.”

(1) God is best understood as part of the evolutionary process. When I was in college, I wrote an article for the school paper arguing for creationism and against the theory of evolution. Shortly after, I was contacted by a graduate student in biology who was an evangelical Christian. He told me that many scientists recognized that evolution was compatible with Christianity and that creationism had little serious scientific bases. What he said made sense, and after some thought I changed my view. Since then, I have gradually expanded my adaptation of my theology to evolutionary theory.

A key move for me came about 20 years ago when a philosopher friend convinced me that to accept evolution meant to accept that the process is truly random. The question then became how to think of God in relation to the history of the universe. In what sense should we think that God shaped a random evolutionary process? I don’t have an answer, but it seems that the more I understand about the universe the more difficult it is to see it being directed by God. However, love and creativity are real. So, if we think of “love as God,” we may speculate about the emergence of love/God in the processes of evolution. I have heard from a few people who know a lot more than I do that love-like dynamics—cooperation, attachment, even compassion—do play a major role in natural selection among mammals. Is this God’s involvement? I would like to think so. This would point to a close connection between God and the natural world.

(2) God is present wherever there is life. It is a pretty widely accepted view in Christianity that part of what we should say about God is that God is omnipresent, always everywhere (though this is typically, if not coherently, included with other attributes such as all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly Other, et al). It does seem easier to imagine God everywhere present than to try to figure out some physical spot somewhere in the universe where God would establish a command center. A God who is everywhere present would seem not to be separate from the world. Perhaps it makes sense to think of God as both everywhere present and yet distinct from the physical universe, but I find it difficult to wrap my mind around that notion—even though that seems to be the traditional Christian view. Of the elements of the traditional Christian portrayal of God, this “attribute” is the one that seems to me to be most relevant for peace theology.

(3) Every part of creation is interconnected. I tend to think that it follows from thinking of God as everywhere always present in the universe that we also would see the universe as in some sense an interconnected whole. Walter Wink, who I believe is one of the most important contemporary Christian thinkers, wrote in one of his final essays, “The New Worldview: Spirit at the Core of Everything,” about this interconnection. “Everything is related. All the matter in the universe derives from the Big Bang. We are all one matter. Our bodies are mostly water, and every drop of water in our bodies has been in every spring, every river, every lake, and every ocean during the last four and a half billion years on earth. We are all one water. Every breath we breathe contains a quadrillion atoms …, and more than a million of these atoms have been breathed personally sometime by each and every person on earth” (in Gingerich and Grimsrud, eds., Transforming the Powers, p. 23).

It seems typical of many people in the Western world to see the world more in terms of isolated, non-connected elements. Such a view of reality makes it easier to draw boundary lines, justify violence against people and things, and to think of the world in competitive terms. To see all things as connected and to see God as everywhere present makes it more likely that we will think more in terms of a sense of commonality rather than difference—with a greater likelihood of more peaceable living.

(4) Matter is “vibrant.” There is a growing tendency among many social philosophers to see material “things” in the world as having vitality, potency, and energy. One influential thinker who has been especially important in articulating this perspective is political theorist Jane Bennett, as in her recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Seeing liveliness in the physical world does not per se directly imply anything about God. However, if we do see the world this way, we will have a much easier time imagining a close connection between it and God, especially if we think of God as our life force—an image that goes back to the biblical creation story and the in-breathing of life in the story Genesis 2 tells. Could it be that we should affirm that the breath (or Spirit) of life that we understood to be linked with God touches all animate and inanimate nature?

Understanding that human beings have much more in common with other animals, with plant life (note research into the intelligence of animals and trees, Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals), and even with the physical world may point us to seeing “the image of God” as having a wider scope than Western Christianity has previously recognized.

(5) God’s power is love, not control. I have discussed this final point at length in earlier contributions to the “Questioning Faith” series. The power of love as “weak” power seems to fit with the radical immanence of pantheistic views of God. At the least, the more closely we link God and love and understand love as noninterventionist, non-controlling, and noncoercive, the further we will move from the more extreme Western Christian notions that see God as Other, as all-powerful, and as utterly transcendent.

Is this kind of God pantheistic?

In the process of writing this essay, I have clarified my sense that even the style of Christian theology I am advocating that emphasizes God’s immanence, still should not be characterized as pantheism, if by pantheism we mean in an ontological sense that the universe is God. However, maybe I would want to say that Christian theology should nonetheless have a pantheistic sensibility—and that we should reject the traditional theistic notion that God is sharply separate from the universe.

Some of the more pantheistic notions that I am sympathetic toward include a sense of the divine as immanent and indwelling more than remote and separate; understanding in the universe a basic unity among spiritual and material aspects rather than a sense of separation; viewing God more as being within time and changeable than outside of time and never changing; experiencing the physical world as in some sense having the characteristic of sentience rather than of unfeeling matter; and denying a sacred/secular split in understanding reality but more inclined to see all aspects of life and the physical world as in some sense sacred.

There are some aspects of some pantheistic approaches that I don’t think are compatible with the Christian theology I advocate—such as a denial of human (and other creaturely) freedom, a sense that ultimately the physical universe is illusory, or the notion that time also is illusory. I think it is a mistake with pantheism, as with all other general philosophical or theological frameworks, to force it into a strict grid where one would insist that all pantheists agree on all the main points. At the same time, I greatly prefer to think of “pantheistic sensibilities” more than pantheism as a system of belief.

I have been surprised, in the end, to see how many pantheistic sensibilities I have come to find attractive. I hope to continue reflecting on the issues I have raised here. I no longer feel afraid to be open to pantheistic influences. As I have alluded to above, I have come to see the traditional Western notions of God as deeply problematic. For me, the most important criterion for theological convictions is that they help empower the person of faith to the love of neighbor as Jesus taught and practiced. I have come to believe that the bloody history of Christianity in the West is inextricably linked with its understanding of God as wholly Other, all-powerful, and retributive, and other violence-enabling beliefs. Allowing pantheistic sensibilities to inform our theology might be part of what we need to help Christianity be part of the solution more than part of the problem.

[Afterword] Is Gandhi a Christian-like pantheist?

As I wrote this piece, I was struck with the idea that maybe briefly looking at Mohandas Gandhi in light of our discussion might be instructive. I have always understood Gandhi to be pantheistic—he was, at least in a broad sense, a committed Hindu, though he was also shaped by his ancestral Jainism. In any case, both Hinduism and Jainism are understood to be pantheistic. As far as I know, Gandhi never expressed any questions about whether he was a pantheist, though I don’t think that rubric was particularly an important part of his identity.

He was, in any case, extremely ecumenical in the sense of being open to insights from all faiths and understanding his philosophy to be applicable in any religious or philosophical context. He believed that his core convictions—nonviolence, truth-seeking, satyagraha—all could be found in any of the main religions of the world. What seems most relevant to me in the context of this essay is that for Gandhi, it appears that his pantheism was an asset for the development of his ethical convictions and practices—and that these ethical convictions and practices seem to be very similar to Jesus’s. So, I wonder if Gandhi’s faith could be seen as an exemplary expression of pantheism. Thus, learning more about Gandhi’s understandings could be a helpful entry into thinking about the relationship between pantheism and Christian convictions.

Questioning Faith blog series

15 thoughts on “Is there a case for Christian pantheism? [Questioning faith #18]

    1. Hi Gary. If I had to choose a position, I’m pretty sure it would be “panentheism.” What is new for me, though, is a sense that pantheism is not the kind of anathema that I used to think it was.

  1. The question of panentheism or pantheism is one of nuance.
    Panentheism has been around in Christian thought since Dionysius, or Pseudo-Dionysius, the Aeropagite and Maximus Confessor. John Scotus Eruigena wrote supporting a panentheism based on Dionysius the Aeropagite and Maximus Confessor in his book _De Divisione Naturae (“The Division of Nature”), or Periphyseon_.
    The Periphyseon is still in print, or should be found at any larger library.
    That said, I do concider myself a Panentheistic Jesus Follower with indigenoys Irish tendancies.

  2. What you are pointing to sounds a lot like the panentheism in process metaphysics and theology.

    1. I have no problem with that and intend to try to learn more about panentheism. I don’t like the overlay of philosophical systematizing I have sensed in the process theology I have read, though I am very sympathetic with most of its points.

      1. I can understand that. But for me (as a philosopher), it was the philosophical systematizing that attracted me. It was an interesting and suggestive alternative to the philosophical systematizing that has implicitly undergirded much of Christian theology.

  3. Neither Ted always enjoy your writing and thoughts. I do have a suggestion. I would appreciate much on your blog page if you would use a darker font The light color us difficult to read. I copy and paste it so is darker. But enjoy much when darker. Sturs my head.

    1. Hi David. I am sorry about the font lightness. I don’t know if I can do much about it. I did just now change the font to one that looks to be a bit darker, but I can’t tell much difference. I hope it helps!

  4. About fifteen years ago I discovered process philosophy/theology and found a home. It is compatible with pantheism, but more importantly it answers (for me) the absurd logic of an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving divine being who capriciously “allows” profound trauma in the world.

  5. Like other commenters, I find quite a bit of resonance with the notion of panentheism, in which God is not everything but rather God is *in* everything.

  6. What you describe, Ted, sounds very similar to what I learned in seminary as Process Theology –which also could be described as a form of panentheism. I found this to be such a helpful way to think about God! My mentor at seminary (Pittsburgh, in the early 80’s) was Marjorie Suchocki, whose book “God-Christ-Church” is a great introduction. A God who is always present, with every entity in every moment, presenting possibilities that lead in the direction of love … while also allowing for freedom of choice. That’s a God I want to connect with!

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