If we are to evolve in our relationship with Theos, we have to accept that the quaint Sunday School image of “God” as an old guy with a long white beard, sitting on a throne on a cloud just isn’t adequate any longer. Theos is neither “Zeus” nor that guy that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We’ve known for a long time that the sky isn’t a bowl over a flat earth; that the stars aren’t little lanterns in the sky; and that God doesn’t live on a mountain named Sinai, Olympus or anything else. Besides, clouds make a lousy platform for heaven. If nothing else, all those high flying jet airplanes have surely ruined the flower beds around the Pearly Gates by now.
The “mystical” model of God isn’t any more helpful. A god who only exists as part of the things of Creation – you, me, the chair I’m sitting on, the dog lying at my feet, the tree outside my window – might be “connected” to all of us. But even if we modify the image a bit and make it fit the more traditional Christian concept of the Holy Spirit I find it hard to relate to a God who is little more than a wisp of smoke.
There are innumerable variations on these two perspectives. Written in specific circumstances for specific people in specific places at specific times in their history, they spoke to the societies they were intended for, defining religion and “God” in the most relevant terms for their cultures.
While they were appropriate then and there, none have been completely and universally satisfying. And for good reason – none are complete.
Theos is, by definition, beyond definition.
As human beings, however, we still yearn to understand that in which “we live and move and have our being.” The nature of Creation is a fundamental part of our existence, and remains so whether the label we choose is “God” or simply “the universe.” We exist within it, and have an innate need to seek the Grand Unified Theory of Everything.
And as I explored some of the myriad images of God that humanity has created, I couldn’t help but recognize that underlying unity in their diversity.
The challenge, for me, was to find an expression of that unity that acknowledged the evolving nature of my own experience of, and relationship with, Theos. And that did it without conveying the same hubristic claim that I take others to task for – thinking that whatever definition resonated with me encompassed all of God.
John Shearman, one of my long-time friends and mentors, suggested I explore panentheism. The “en” in the middle is important. Panentheism is not pantheism. Rather, it’s a perspective on God that suggests that we don’t have to choose a single image. Indeed, its premise is that there’s no choice to be made.
Panentheism views Theos as both transcendent and immanent; apart from us and intimately part of us. But the transcendent God is more than a man writ large. And the immanent God is more than a wisp of smoke.
It’s not a new concept.
It’s been part of Hindu religious understanding for millennia; and even Judeo-Christian thought, which is traditionally fixated on the concept of separation, has explored panentheism in one form or another since at least the time of Spinoza in the 1600s.
By seeing God from a panentheistic viewpoint, we free ourselves from the temptation to define God by projecting human emotions, whether of anger or love, wrath or forgiveness, onto Theos’ transcendent consciousness. As Isaiah puts it, “My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are my ways your ways.”
Panentheism allows us to see God’s immanence in other people, other faiths, and other worldviews. We no longer need others to adhere to our doctrine or dogma in order for us to be “one” with them. To paraphrase a popular Celtic prayer – “We may see the face of Jesus the Christ in everyone we meet.”
Looking at Theos this way we become liberated from the fear of rejection by some sort of “jealous” Zeus-God. More, we can deepen our relationship to the immanent Theos who is never apart from us.
Panentheism encompasses all of our past attempts to “define” God while recognizing our ever-changing understanding of Creation. It acknowledges the relationship that exists inseverably between God, the universe and ourselves. By doing so, it provides a framework for us to explore and evolve that relationship.