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The god of Athens.

A Fortnightly Review

Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers
by John W Cooper.

Baker Academic 368pp $36.99 £19.99

By Thomas Conlon.

IN THIS SWEEPING survey of panentheism from classical antiquity to modern times, John W. Cooper conscripts so many diverse figures – Plato, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Nicolas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, Kant, Hegel, Newton, Faraday, Polkinghorne – to its banner that one begins to wonder whether,  like Molière’s prose-speaking bourgeois gentilhomme, any of us might suddenly wake to discover we have been panentheists all our lives without having made any conscious or deliberate choice in the matter.

Curious to know the bounds of the broad church of panentheism – the view, or perhaps just the feeling, that God is somehow immanent in the universe but not, on the one hand to be identified with it as in pantheism, nor, on the other, to be considered as utterly transcending it as in Islam – I turned first to the final chapter for the explanation of why the author is not a panentheist.

Here, John W. Cooper more than lives up to his stated aim of fair-minded courtesy to those with whom he disagrees. He clearly distinguishes a spectrum of positions – classical Christian theism, modified classical Christian, revised classical Christian theism, Christian panentheism, non-Christian panentheism – the finer points of whose differences I imagine only the most dedicated or partisan readers will be troubled to master. However underwriting his own disavowal is his quibble-free Christian stance as a Calvinist pastor. He expresses this as a personal affirmation of “a traditional Christian view of Scripture as divinely inspired, infallibly true and authoritative in all that it teaches.”  In this ultimately unbridgeable dichotomy of view one sees again the continuing relevance of  Tertullian’s age-old but still rather good question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem ?”

The god of Jerusalem is a god in whom the full range of human nature is manifest. He is God the jealous lover, God angry with His people, God taking vengeance when spurned, as well, of course, as God the omnipotent creator. The god of Athens is the god made in the image of man – the mystic, the designer, architect and thinker. The rabble of the polytheistic pantheon with their disedifying weaknesses and failings has been abolished and replaced by one omnipotent god who has manifested his greatness through the universe which he sustains. The nub of panentheism is to assert that the universe exhibits, directly at least, some aspects of the divine nature and that God is more than simply “the maker of heaven and earth”, as the Nicene Creed has it, but, in some sense, is heaven and earth.  Cooper traces this tendency from Plato to Polkinghorne.

Aristotle is an interesting omission. In Metaphysics Lambda 7, Aristotle  gives us his account of the Prime Mover’s relationship to the universe, which, putting it mechanistically and crudely, is to impart motion to the Primum Mobile  which, in turn, communicates this motion to the concentric spheres of the Aristotelian universe.  The threat of an infinite regress of celestial cog wheels turning celestial cog wheels is averted by Aristotle’s noble vision that the Prime Mover, Himself utterly unmoving, induces the motion of the Primum Mobile as an object of its desire. C.S. Lewis translates the Greek “kinei os eromenon” as “He moves as beloved.” Aristotle provides for a more intimate relationship between God and the universe than that merely of “Maker”. For him, the universe is sustained by its love for God – but this vision nevertheless does not qualify him as a panentheist. The universe remains separate from God and Aristotle does not affirm, as Cooper’s true panentheists do, that “the world is ontologically within the Divine.”

THIS BOOK IS intended primarily for theology students and consequently only touches lightly on what might be of greatest interest to the more general reader – the interaction between scientific and panentheistic thinking. The most clear cut and decisive interaction occurred in the seventeenth century and is primarily associated with the names of von Guericke – best known for his invention of the vacuum pump – whom Cooper does not
mention at all, and the more celebrated Newton, whose panentheism the author briefly acknowledges. The issue, whose resolution became one of the cornerstones of physics, was the objective existence of time and space. In the generation before Newton, von Guericke devoted Book II of his magnum opus, the Experimenta Nova Magdeburgica, to a philosophical and theological discussion of the nature of empty space. His final position is panentheistic, if not quite full-bloodedly so. Von Guericke writes :

We are finally brought to the view that the infinite Divine Essence is not contained in space, on other words in the vacuum. God, here and everywhere present, is not contained in space or a vacuum, but is, in and of Himself, space and the vacuum and is so quite separately from all of creation.

His views are very similar to those of Newton, who famously described Time and Space as the Sensorium Dei. Both distinguish matter – what exists in the Aristotelian category of substance – from space and time, whose existence is a direct eternal and omnipresent manifestation of the Divine nature, from material creation, which is finite and contingent. In this way space and time were rescued from those, notably Aristotle and Descartes, who, admitting only an ontology based on the category of substance, denied its existence altogether, and those, notably Leibniz and Kant, who relegated space and time to the status of constructions of the human mind to enable us to deal more effectively with the truly objective.

This partial panentheism served the scientific world well for the two centuries after the publication of Newton’s Principia. It gave way to the current dispensation where mathematical model making, whose relationship to experiment can be tenuous, is the primary activity of theoretical physicists. In respect of progress in establishing the objectivity of space and time it would appear that one set of metaphysical problems has merely been traded for another.

Another scientist of the first rank who drew inspiration from his panentheistic religious views was Michael Faraday, to whom Cooper too briefly alludes. As a man, Faraday was an exemplar of the Christian virtues to a degree probably unparalleled among great scientists. As a scientist, ignoring the philosophical tendencies of the mathematics of the day, he gave dramatic new force to long-held theological intuitions of God’s active presence throughout the universe. Empty space, hitherto the passive receptacle of material bodies and mere facilitator of the gravitational interaction between them, now became crammed at every point with potencies capable of influencing material bodies in the vicinity. Faraday was a devout Sandemanian whose concept of an objectively existing but incorporeal physical field was, arguably, born from a fruitful interaction between his reflections on his experimental researches and his theological intuitions of the unity of God and nature.

The generations following Faraday saw two remarkable developments paralleling, to some degree, the conceptual struggles of the seventeenth century. The first was the doughty defence by nineteenth-century scientists of the anti-panentheistic Cartesian principle that all physical effect is mediated through the interactions of substance – in this case the supposed aether.  The loss of one battle over the failure of this principle to account for the action of gravity without need of a corporeal medium, did not make most scientists of the period any more minded  to concede another defeat and admit that electromagnetic waves could also travel though nothing. The second development was the inauguration of a long period of mathematicians’ catching up with the intuition of physicists to produce what has become the subject of differential geometry. Thus, when the Special Relativity of Einstein and Minkowksi consigned the aether and all the properties with which it had been ingeniously endowed to scientific irrelevance, this was seen as a triumph of mathematical model-making. It could equally have been seen as a fresh vindication of the panentheistic views of von Guericke and Newton. However, when it comes to philosophically radical ideas, scientists will accept from mathematicians what they will not take from theologians.

THEOLOGY AND METAPHYSICS are antecedent to science and mathematics. Scientists taking inspiration from theology is a natural and well-attested phenomenon and some would argue that the seeds of a scientific culture could only have taken root in the soil of Christian theology. However inspiration in the reverse direction is altogether less convincing. An entire chapter is devoted to Wolfgang Pannenberg, a German theologian who died in 1994 and whom Cooper enlists in the ranks of the panentheists despite his recruit’s known reluctance to be thus conscripted. What makes me wince about Pannenberg is not his insistence that the God of the philosophers might take more than an engineering interest in the universe and choose to stand in an intense relationship to humanity, the summit of His Creation, but his purloining of precise mathematical concepts for imprecise use in theological contexts. The ubiquitous abuse of the scientific concept of energy in mystical pagan circles has made this sort of thing very familiar, but no less irritating. When Pannenberg writes “the spatialisation of time in physics – already in the model of space-time or a universal field comprising space-time and energy – may be described as an extrapolation of all limited participation in the eternal presence of God” one wonders whether Wittgenstein’s exhortation “whereof one cannot speak, thereof should one be silent” has been sufficiently heeded.

A writer, to whom this injunction certainly does not apply, at least as regards cosmic force fields, is the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne. However he does not tie his theological opinions to the metaphysics suggested by this or that mathematical development however sophisticated and useful the latter may be.  He has an interesting variant on full-blown panentheism. On the one hand his view on the universe seems essentially Augustinian – all of it, matter, space and time, came into existence in one free creative act of God but the created is distinct from the Creator. Cooper quotes him thus. “Panentheism’s defect is its denial of the true otherness of the world from God.” However, he is eschatologically panentheistic – that is to say that the state of being, after the resurrection, described by orthodox Christianity with affirmations such as “with our glorified and immortal bodies we shall see God face to face”, is, in fact, a state of being subsumed into ontological unity with God.

TO RETURN TO the tensions between Athens and Jerusalem, the God of panentheism is not the God of the Christians because panentheism insufficiently acknowledges the singularity of the Incarnation in Christian orthodoxy. Christians are panentheists in the very limited sense that they believe that 2000 years ago God became man for a short period.  Any wider identification of God with any part of nature weakens the force and radicalness of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Although some of his best friends may be panentheists, Cooper, the biblical Christian, is not about to join them.

Readers will find this book is more a good browse than a good read. It does perform the useful function of describing the wistful religious sensibility which commends itself to the many who find appeal in the idea of a psychologically remote but omnipresent creative and supportive God, rather like a benign European government, and more congenial than the God of Christian orthodoxy who cares intensely about the life and eternal destiny of each human individual. One could wish that his treatment of the interaction of panentheism with the metaphysics of science had been fuller – or suspect that the whole book is perhaps too long for what it has to say and could profit by pruning. However I find myself not wishing to cavil that he has met his own aspiration for his book: “May all readers find it, on the whole, to be an instructive,  fair and accurate presentation.”

Thomas Conlon, Ph.D, is the author of Thinking about Nothing, a study of Otto von Guericke. He is currently working on a translation of von Guericke’s letters to the Jesuit Kaspar Schott in the late 1650s.

Also in the Fortnightly: Thomas Conlon on Otto von Guericke and…Nothing


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