Science and Theology News Online, April 26,
doctrine that all things exist within the divine reality, has been around
for centuries. The term itself was coined—in German—near the beginning of
the 19th century by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, and English-speaking
theologians have used it since the end of that century.
In the United
States, the term became known through the writings of Charles Hartshorne,
especially his 1953 book, Philosophers Speak of God, which
presented psychologist Gustaf T. Fechner and philosopher Friedrich W.J.
Schelling as the first of the “modern panentheists” and Alfred North
Whitehead as the “outstanding” one.
“panentheism” has come to be used positively by theists of many different
varieties. Philip Clayton has written of “the panentheistic turn” in
theology. Michael Brierley has referred to this turn as “a quiet
revolution,” and Clayton has, with Arthur Peacocke, edited a volume with
18 contributors, subtitled “Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in
a Scientific World.”
increased openness to the idea of panentheism presents both an opportunity
and a danger.
arises from the widespread understanding of panentheism as a via media
between a “higher synthesis” of classical theism and pantheism.
Panentheism thus understood retains the strengths of those traditional
doctrines while avoiding their weaknesses. Like classical theism,
panentheism resists the identification of God with the world. Rather, by
saying that the world is “in” God, panentheism holds that God is more than
the world. As such, God can exert causal influence on the world, and the
distinction between “is” and “ought” is retained.
with pantheism, however, in denying the idea—taught by classical
theism—that the world is a purely contingent creation of a deity who could
have existed apart from this or any other world. By saying, instead, that
it belongs to the very nature of God to be in relation to a world,
panentheism implies that, although our particular world is contingent, its
most fundamental principles are necessary, hence inviolable. As Hartshorne
put it, God has a contingent as well as a necessary dimension, and the
world has a necessary as well as a contingent dimension.
thereby, endorses the assumption almost universally held by the
intellectual leaders of the scientific community that the basic causal
principles of the world cannot be interrupted. Although panentheism
affirms divine influence in the world, this influence is seen not as a
violation of the world’s normal causal processes but as one of its regular
dimensions. In this way, panentheism overcomes the basic source of
perceived conflict between the scientific and the theistic communities.
With this same
doctrine, panentheism also overcomes the other primary reason for the
rejection of theism—the problem of evil, insofar as this problem has been
created by the assumption that the term “God” refers to a being who could
occasionally intervene to prevent particular evils. Also relevant to the
problem of evil is panentheism’s rejection of divine inertia in favor of
the idea that God suffers with the world’s suffering.
popularity of panentheism, accordingly, holds out the promise that in
coming generations the scientific and theistic communities might share the
same basic world view.
But this increased
popularity also brings a danger—that “panentheism” will be appropriated
for doctrines devoid of this promise. There has been a tendency to extend
the term to various doctrines that have modified classical theism
sufficiently to say that the world is “in” God, in the sense of affecting
God, but that otherwise retain the defining characteristics of classical
Clayton’s “The Case for Christian Panentheism,” for example, God could
have existed without creating a world, so a world exists only because God
freely chose to create it. Likewise, Niels Henrik Gregersen, while
referring to Whiteheadian and Hartshornean process theism as “full-blown”
panentheism, says that as a Christian he can affirm only a “qualified
panentheism,” according to which God is “truly infinite” and hence does
not need a world.
The tendency to
construe panentheism so broadly that it can include slightly modified
forms of classical theism is illustrated by Gregersen’s suggestion that
what is distinctive about panentheism—the only idea shared by all its
versions—is the idea of a real two-way interaction between God and world.
The problem is that although Gregersen, like others, characterizes
panentheism as a middle way between pantheism and classical theism, his
own “qualified panentheism” is simply a version of supernaturalism. With
panentheism defined so broadly, it loses its promise to overcome the
problem of evil and the tension between the worldviews of the theistic and
the scientific communities.
My account of
panentheism is not neutral. It is a plea to limit the term “panentheism”
to those doctrines that truly stake out a middle position between
pantheism and classical theism by stipulating that although God is
distinct from the world and our particular world exists contingently, the
existence of a world of finite entities—some world or other—is as fully
natural as is the existence of God.