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A theologian explains panentheism to the bishops, beautifully.

By ELIZABETH A. JOHNSON, CSJ [from a letter to the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in response to charges that her book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, ‘contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors with regard to Catholic teaching,’ via the National Catholic Reporter] – The category panentheism (all-in-God) has been developed precisely to delineate and demarcate a view different from pantheism (all [is] God). As used in contemporary theology, it provides a third option between theism and pantheism, one which gives stronger play to divine immanence than does modern theism, while maintaining the absolute transcendence of God which pantheism does not.

By definition, panentheism is “the belief that the being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but as against pantheism, that his being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). Karl Rahner’s Dictionary of Theology notes further that panentheism is heretical only if it denies creation and the distinction of the world from God, which Quest obviously does not do.

As the title of this chapter [‘Creator Spirit in the Evolving World‘] indicates, my main interest lies in bringing pneumatology back into the discussion of the relation of God and the world, to ask about divine presence in the evolving world. It seems to me that the doctrine of God the Holy Spirit is a largely untapped resource that could help theology think through the doctrine of creation in light of recent scientific discoveries. Panentheism as a model lends itself to this retrieval. Quest (188) declares that “The mystery of the living God, utterly transcendent, is also the creative power who dwells at the heart of the world sustaining every moment of its evolution.” The book goes on to suggest that the Spirit not only dwells within the world but also surrounds our emerging, struggling, living, dying, and renewing planet of life and the whole universe itself. It illustrates this with Luther’s great image of God in and around a grain; with Augustine’s magnificent image of the whole creation like a finite sponge floating in an infinite sea, necessarily filled in its every pore with water; and with the beautiful image of the pregnant female body (backed up by Moses’ reprimand of the Israelites’ infidelity: “you forgot the God who gave you birth” – Deut 32:18).

These are all heuristic images that help theology explore divine immanence. As Quest explains, they increase understanding of the utterly transcendent God who yet is not far from us, being the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is interesting that the Statement also cites this biblical text but neither credits Quest’s exploration of its meaning nor presents its own understanding of this text. But the “in whom” opens the door to the model of panentheism: God in the world and the world encircled by God who infinitely transcends the world.

Examining this chapter again, I see that perhaps it would have forestalled its misunderstanding of panentheism if Quest had stated explicitly that creation is God’s free gift, a gratuitous act of love and thus not necessary. I assumed this, given the book’s basic understanding of God, as this excerpt indicates: the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future. Throughout the vast sweep of cosmic and biological evolution, the Spirit embraces the material root of life and its endless new potential, empowering the cosmic process from within. The universe, in turn, is self-organizing and self-transcending, energized from the spiraling galaxies to the double helix of the DNA molecule by the dance of divine vivifying power (191). Far from making the world ontologically necessary to God, Quest’s discussion of the Spirit’s presence and activity explores the transcendent God’s free and intimate relation with the world.

The Statement criticizes Quest for its brief treatment of the evolution of human beings. Let me reiterate that the text never takes issue with anything the church teaches on this point. What it does is bring this belief into dialogue with the contemporary theory of evolution, a dialogue encouraged by Pope John Paul II: “Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as imago Dei, the problem of Christology, and even upon the development of doctrine itself?” (Message to the Vatican Observatory, 1988).

Quest has listened carefully to the scientific account of the evolution of the human species. This account sees human emergence as being of a piece with the whole story of the evolution of life on this planet, scientifically speaking. Matter evolves to life and then to consciousness and then to self-consciousness, and this can be accounted for without positing divine intervention, scientifically speaking.

What to make of this, theologically? If one has a radically dualistic idea of matter and spirit, a way forward is difficult. However, Rahner’s work in his book Hominisation and elsewhere argues for the idea that matter has been gifted by its Creator with the power of active self-transcendence. This means that “a development of the material in the direction of spirit and the self-transcendence of the material into the spirit is, both philosophically and in the Christian sense, a legitimate conception” (“Unity of Spirit and Matter in the Christian Understanding of Faith,” Theological Investigations VI). I myself think it would be fruitful to pair this idea with primary and secondary causality, so that God accomplishes the creation of the human species in and through the processes of nature itself. But I am still thinking about this.

Continued at the National Catholic Reporter | More Chronicle & Notices.

[Paragraphing added.]

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Would that not be a fourth option (rather than a third option) after the inclusion of Deism, which was around long before the term or idea of Panentheism was coined, or even a fifth option with Pandeism having been considered as well some few years before it (and enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity). Theism, Deism, Pantheism, Pandeism, Panentheism, and modernly there is even Panendeism.

    Saturday, 25 June 2011 at 15:23 | Permalink

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