I think I might be a panentheist – I hope it’s catching!

The ancient Celts knew a thing or two. They were not the wild fighters who the Sheriff of Nottingham brought in to drive Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood from his idyllic woodland village. They had a special understanding of the nature of things. According to “The Celtic Way” by Ian Bradley they held “a conviction that the presence of God was to be found throughout creation – in the physical elements of earth, rock and water, in plants trees and animals and in the wayward forces of wind and storm.”

Bradley goes on to say that “We are not in the world of pantheism here but in the much more subtle and suggestive realm of panentheism – the sense that God is found both within creation and outside it.”

Elsewhere I have written that God is ‘the laws of physics’ – it’s just another name for the thing which causes matter to behave in the way that it does. Without God/’the laws of physics’ there can be no matter – God and matter are not independent, and so matter is (part of) God. (see “Proof of God?”)

I have also noted that there are non-material things: love, justice, purpose etc. These must similarly be part of God – reflected in the Biblical passages which state that God is love. (see “An argument for, and definition of God”)

This understanding of the nature of God leads us to realise that you don’t need to go somewhere to meet God – he doesn’t live in church or a monastery – he is all around us, and within us, sustaining our physical bodies and our environment: “we are what we are through and within God”. (see “The God of Science”)

The Celts understood this. Not within the scientific context that I have described, but in the practical day-to-day knowledge of God. Perhaps we need to refresh our view and understanding of science to reflect this Celtic wisdom: science is simply the study of God!
There is no separate sacred / secular division, no God / nature division, no heaven / earth division; they are all part of God who is God of everything.

 

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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9 Responses to I think I might be a panentheist – I hope it’s catching!

  1. Newton Finn says:

    While rummaging around and enjoying your web site, I came upon this post made back in January of this year. I hope you won’t mind if I respond to it, the subject being both important and timely (i.e., Rupert Sheldrake’s recent religious musings). Seemingly overlooked in this discussion about panentheism, is the work of Albert Schweitzer, in which the relationship between the God one finds in nature and the God one finds in one’s heart is explained with considerable skill and depth. Working in the African jungle as a medical missionary, Schweitzer’s experience with the natural order cannot be denied, nor can one easily dismiss his stature as a theologian given his Quest of the Historical Jesus, Philosophy of Civilization, etc.

    According to the good doctor, nature presents us with a God of mysterious power, creating and destroying life without apparent purpose. You have this beautiful spider’s web, and in it are suffering little bugs about to be eaten. The brute fact of predation, upon which nature is built, rules out, for Schweitzer, any appeal to it for an ethical God. The power is there, the awe and wonder of the irrepressible life force, but apart from animal mothers briefly loving their young, you will look in vain for the God of love and compassion. He, Schweitzer says, is found only in the human heart, and while we know that in some intuitive way that the God inside is the God outside, how this works, what this union of seeming opposites is all about, will forever remain a mystery.

    I have not read a great deal of panentheist theology–and maybe you could point me in some directions here–but I can’t imagine how one bridges this gap between the cruelty that infuses nature (along, of course with symbiosis, order, and complexity) and the merciful heavenly Father who notes even the fall of a sparrow. Please continue this blog where one might have a conversation like this in the midst an ignorant world gone literally mad.

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  2. Hello Newton,

    I haven’t read Schweitzer, and whilst I enjoyed Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion I am not a follower. You describe a ” beautiful spider’s web, and in it are suffering little bugs”. In such a short sentence there are ‘human’ feelings and interpretations to what might be described as simply robotic and preprogrammed behaviours of molecules – our mind’s interpretation of the web is that it is beautiful, and our empathy with the bug implies that they are suffering. But does suffering exist in animals other than humans? Indeed, is suffering actually physical at all? (Two people in identical circumstances, one considers they are suffering, the other is happy to endure).

    “Curelty” implies motive to make a sentient being suffer. We don’t consider a hammer being cruel to a nail, so why do we consider that the spider is being cruel to the fly? Without God everything is simply robotic. With God it is the non-material that matters – the ‘heart’ and spirit.

    Other posts refer to everything’s existence requiring God (being careful of what we define/understand as God) – the part of God on the ‘outside’, but it is perhaps the God on the inside that we really want to relate to – the God of the heart you mention. After all, are ‘we’ just our physical bodies, or are ‘we’ simply inhabitants of our bodies?

    I can’t point to Panentheist theologists – I’ve simply developed my own thoughts on the question…

    Glad you are enjoying the blog. Maybe you’d enjoy my book too?

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  3. Newton Finn says:

    As for those flies in the spider web: http://reducing-suffering.org/do-bugs-feel-pain/

    I’m new to this blog, so it will take me a while to catch on to your take on things. But is life this starkly either/or in your view?–without God, meaninglessly robotic; with God, meaningful but only in a non-material way? Doesn’t this border on a Gnostic denial of the flesh?

    Anyway, I’ll continue to explore the articles and comments and hope to get around to your book. Thanks for the quick response to mine.

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    • Only able to skim the link i’m afraid. In my book I raise the question of the intelligent cell – although I don’t define quite what ‘intelligent’ means. And if bugs ‘feel pain’ then might computers when we switch them off?? I doubt that we will ever know whether spiders / bugs do feel pain – after all, do we know what it actually means to ‘feel’? What is it that defines the ‘us’ that feels? It’s not simply our responses to stimuli, since we can still respond when asleep (sleepwalking etc.).
      Thanks for the interest anyway and I hope you are finding things that are enjoyable / stimulating reading. All the best, Phil

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      • newtonfinn says:

        Phil, I’ve begun your book. Still in the science stuff. So far, accurate and well-selected observations about the current (always precarious) state of scientific knowledge. While I cannot scientifically prove that animals, including insects and indeed all life forms including plants, feel something like what we call pain when we talk about ourselves, my observations of a writhing worm as I put it on a hook (back in the days when I still fished with live bait) sure looked like there was some discomfort being felt. As you point out in your book and as every first year philosophy student learns, the only thing that we can really know as an indisputable fact is that I exist since I am conscious. Everything else could be illusion as far as absolute knowledge is concerned. But surely, it would be foolish to LIVE a life of solipsism. Equally foolish, it seems to me, would be to live a life that refuses to recognize the suffering of life forms other than us. Not only foolish, but frankly evil, because it’s that very attitude (or faith, in your terms) that has led to the rape of the planet, the horrors of factory farming, etc. After all, who is to say that Blacks or other so-called minorities are capable of suffering like we White folk. For how many centuries was it assumed by Whites that Blacks were not fully human and weren’t fully capable of human feelings? “Don’t worry about selling those children. The mother, like a cow, will forget about her offspring in just a short period of time.” I’m not intimating in any way that this is what you believe–I’m sure it’s quite the opposite–but that is where this over-emphasis on understanding life solely through science lead us, inevitably, without a simultaneous faith in a God for whom all men and women are brothers and sisters, and who, to repeat myself, notes even the fall of a sparrow. I look forward to my continuing reading of The Big Picture.

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        • “that is where this over-emphasis on understanding life solely through science lead us” …. exactly! That’s really why I write, because the prevailing message today is that everything is explicable by science – and the unavoidable conclusion of that is that nothing matters and so we should all live purely for ourselves and if others suffer then it’s just our perception of it and they don’t really matter. Even if we choose to ascibe importance to something, then that importance will disappear when we die because we are no longer there to give it importance.

          So it seems to me that so many today are living the double life of behaving as if there is purpose, but persuading themselves that everything has a materialistic explanation – without following that faith to a logical conclusion. And worse than that, people are then missing out on the chance to find their true purpose, and right relationship with the God who gives it to us.

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  4. newtonfinn says:

    Phil, just finished your book. For someone who has neglected or rejected Jesus in a knee-jerk scientistic manner, it presents a considerable challenge and should cause some much-needed unsettling and rethinking. Thank you for writing it and putting it out there. I’ve been a believer in Jesus all of my reflective life. I’ve studied Christianity and the Scriptures not only in church, college, and seminary but in decades of reading and pondering theology, metaphysical philosophy, and Biblical scholarship across the spectrum from far left to center right. So I don’t fall within your intended audience, yet I too learned and benefited from the comprehensiveness and clarity of The Big Picture. I urge others to give it a go, especially those still sitting on the fence between materialism and, let’s just say, something more. I have little or no quibble with the science you describe so well–an area I also try to keep abreast of as much as a layman can. But I do have a quibble or two with what seems to be an apologetic stance concerning the historical reliability of the New Testament (frankly, something overstated in your book IMHO but not of essential relevance to its overall thrust), and MUCH more importantly, with a portion (or I should say, a missing portion) of the core teachings of Jesus. As you know, I’ve written a little book of my own on this subject. What I want to do at this point is read through more carefully the sections in your book which distill the essential teachings of Jesus, and then try to capture in the space of a post where you and I diverge in our understandings of the message and meaning of what we seem to agree is God’s ultimate, most personal revelation. And just so that the wrong impression is not left here, I’ll be coming from the left of you in this regard, not the right. I will be advocating for an even more minimalist position and, assuming you’re game, look forward to a constructive intellectual and spiritual engagement. Again, The Big Picture deserves a wide audience and could make a difference–for the better–in many lives and the wider world.

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    • newtonfinn says:

      Didn’t mean to “like” my own post. At 66, I find myself increasingly technologically challenged. For me, the computer is little more than a quick reference library, an opportunity to read news and commentary outside the mainstream (like this unusual blog), and an almost magical typewriter. It’s hard to believe that all of my early academic work, from grade school essays to dissertation, was done either by handwriting or pecked out on a little manual Corona typewriter. Those were the days…

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    • Thanks for the positive feedback Newton. The last sentence is a challenge though because I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to promote the book with disappointing results. If there is anything you can do to help it would be greatly appreciated… (personal recommendation, Amazon review, social media?) All the best, Phil

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