Panentheism, Sacred Texts, Creation: Conversations with Martin (part 1/2)

I recently had an intriguing email discussion with my good friend Martin (not his real name – he wanted to remain anonymous) that started with the subject of panentheism and grew to incorporate sacred texts, morality, and a whole lot more.  I wanted to share a few highlights from our chat; I hope you will find them interesting.

I have separated our discussion into sections, each prefaced with a question that was being considered.  I thought that this was the best way to sensibly convey the content of an email discussion that contained many comments/quotes and jumped all over the place.

~~~~~

Panentheist or pantheist?

Steven:
I don’t know if you’ve ever come across panentheism or pantheism?  Panentheism is basically the belief that the whole universe is ‘in God’, and it’s what I believe.  The trouble is Christians tend to believe that some things exist apart from God, like the devil for instance.  I find it impossible to understand how something can exist in opposition to God, who for me created and sustains everything.

Martin:
I would certainly say that what seems to have most in common with what I think (or what I used to think when I used to spend more time thinking about such things) is pantheism, rather than panentheism [pantheism is the view that the world and God are identical – ed]. I believe that ‘God’ is one with nature/the universe rather than a separate creator of the universe. Perhaps my main reason for this is that I struggle to think of something existing outside the universe and time, when I can’t (and who can?!) conceive of the vastness of the universe and time as they are.

~~~~~

How are we to understand panentheism?

Steven:
In my view of panentheism, God is creator and, importantly, sustainer.  I have a very “present moment” understanding of God, i.e. the reason why blood is flowing round my body, my hair is growing and my heart is beating, is because God is ‘doing’ those things.  The scientist would of course argue that they are biological processes, but the question then for me is, what is making those processes happen?  Can this vast and complex universe be purely mechanical?  I don’t think so, I think the universe is alive with what I call ‘the animating power of God’.

Martin:
I feel the same as this, I agree that ‘God’ is ‘doing’ these things, and that God is the ‘reason’ all things happen  –  and that scientific mechanical explanations and biological processes can fit in perfectly with this.  But how is your above belief panentheism rather than pantheism? Because God is creator? I would like to know what pantheists think about how the world was created? In panentheism, if god exists externally to the universe, is he doing something else too? Or is he just sustaining the universe externally – yet also internally because he is the sustainer?

Steven:
I love your question about ‘what else is God doing’ other than the universe!  It’s a little tricky to answer.  I think my answer would be that there may be a way in which God exists but is doing nothing, as well as everything, and that there is also the potential within God for infinite creativity that is unexpressed.  Perhaps these things make Him more than His creation? (I use the capital ‘H’ in ‘Him’ and male gender out of Christian habit!).

~~~~~

Is the universe ordered by a living God?

Steven:
I believe that although the universe is chaotic in certain respects there is a very definite order to things.  Like the way the planets move, and like the way that if you look down at the earth from an aeroplane at motorways and cities everything seems to be ordered.  And there are ecological systems, the bees and the honey and flowers and oxygen and light and how all of that works together, that seems to represent order.  How does all this order come about? For me, God is ‘doing’ everything!

~~~~~

Do human beings have a special place in creation?

Steven:
As regards humans having a special place in creation, I’m not sure about that one.  I can understand that human beings might have more ‘power’ (e.g. nuclear weapons, huge cranes, space rockets) and some philosophers would say that we have reason which sets us apart, but are we more valuable than other creatures?  I think panentheism would veer on the side of ‘no’, because God permeates the universe and is therefore in birds as much as humans.  But Christianity certainly seems to have a special place for humans, as you suggest.  I suppose if the Bible really is the true word of God as many Christians believe
then we would have to believe humans have a special place because of the scriptures in Genesis about man having dominion over the other creatures.

Martin:
I think that I disagree with scientists who say that reason sets us apart from other animals. Although I would agree that we have a very well developed capacity to reason, I think that animals also have the capacity to reason, and I also think that we are very similar to other animals in that we obey our instincts and what we have learnt from our past experiences and upbringing, rather than abstract reason far more often than not. So behaviourally I do not think we can wholly separate ourselves from other animals (maybe only in degrees), and thought-wise – we simply do not know what animals think (I think!). So for this reason I don’t think I can ever believe that any sacred text is the word of god. We are just attributing human characteristics to god in my opinion.

I think what I am trying to say here that as I believe that there is no distinction in terms of importance  between humans and other animals in the universe, anything that humans ‘create’ (sacred text wise) has no more value truth-wise than anything any other animals may attempt to create / communicate.  I realise that I may have just provided a good argument against myself in that its seems nigh on impossible that any other animal could create a system of beliefs and communicate it, but I suppose it is logically possible!?

Steven:
I agree in that I think animals also have the capacity to reason.  As you suggest, we cannot know, but I see birds making decisions to sit on a branch or swoop for that worm, and I’m not sure how much that
differs from our reason.  Animals may also have imaginative thoughts.  I’m not sure it’s simply a matter of brain size, as you get some animals without brains (Jellyfish I think?) that live lives of doing and moving and eating just as we humans do.

~~~~~

How important are ‘sacred texts’?

Steven:
Is there something special about the Bible?  Perhaps.  I know that all three times I have been in psychiatric hospital, for reasons that I can’t explain, I turned to the Bible for truth and for help.  In those
dark moments it seemed to provide light and encouragement.  Who can explain why I turned to the Bible and why it spoke to me so profoundly at those times?  Why has the Bible lasted for two thousand years?  Why do Islam, Judaism and Christianity all have scriptures in common, i.e. the old testament prophets?  Can man alone make these scriptures so globally important?

Martin:
This is the crucial point I suppose.  Where I cannot believe that any sacred text, or any human made religion (as I see them) to have really stemmed from God in any way more vital or powerful than anything else that exists in the world, I can completely empathise that a feeling of faith is the only way a person ever could or should believe in one particular religion or text, and that this faith is surely more worthwhile when grounded in a specific experience (or 3!) rather than something that has been taught.

~~~~~

Which religion is correct?

Steven
With a panentheistic view, God has created all religions, therefore how do we pick which one is correct?

Martin:
My immediate response to this, and it most be crucial to our different views, is that humans have ‘created’ all religions, not god, in my view. Although I would agree that god is and does everything in the universe, and so in that sense has created all religions, in my opinion god has no more created religions that he has created cars. In my opinion, humans have invented cars and religions, though cars and religions are part of God’s creation, if you follow what I mean!? And therefore it would be logical in my view that religion has no more value truth wise in informing us about God than cars do.

Steven:
Ah, now this important, and to me is about the whole question of what God is doing and not doing.  You see in my view, God is responsible for all human action, and that goes back to what I was saying about how it is God that makes my hair grow, my blood flow, etc.  So I see the world as kind of like a play, wherein we are animated entirely by God.  I get the impression you don’t see things in quite this way, and believe in free will?  I don’t believe there is any will aside from God’s will, so I don’t believe in free human agency.  How can God be in all things, and doing all things, and there still be free will?  Very interested to get your thoughts on this.

Martin:
Can’t god’s ‘will’ be that all beings have free will? As god has free will (though I’m not sure it does – see below) and we are all part of god (god makes our hair grow etc), it seems to me that we can’t but have free will – all actions we take are gods actions as we are part of god. It is logically impossible to act against god’s will, as our will is gods will. The thing that strikes me as I write this is that I don’t believe that god has a will as such, god just ‘is’. It may be just a language problem, but whenever we use human attributes when talking about god, it doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t think god cares whether we have free will or not, and it doesn’t care whether we manufacture items, sports or religions – although god is the force that enables us to act/manufacture (and any other verb).

Probably the reason why we seem to agree that god is the motivating force behind everything, and indeed, in my view, is everything, but yet we don’t agree on much / anything else, or perhaps even understand quite what the other is getting at (not so surpirising given our method of communication!) is that we probably mean different things by ‘god’. I don’t think god has desires, a will, emotions, requirements, or a ‘mind’ as such. I think god is nothing like a being that we would recognise. God to me is a force, and not just a force, the force. The force that forces all forces, and would not ‘be’ otherwise.

~~~~~

How important is Jesus to all of this?

Steven:
In terms of choosing a religion, if Jesus really was the son of God then I would have to choose Christianity, but the degree of difference between Jesus and other human beings is troublesome in panentheism, because if God is in everything, there is a sense in which we are all sons and daughters of God.

Martin:
I agree with this view – all beings are sons and daughters of god of equal value.

Steven:
But I can still conceive that Jesus may have been different in some way, set apart as unique by God.  At Jesus’ baptism there was a voice from heaven that said “This is my son, the beloved, in Him I am
well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  What does this mean?  Do we have to assume that this was some kind of false vision?

Martin:
To me this is purely a matter of faith, not reason, so I can’t comment on it as I don’t have religious faith.

Steven:
OK but to me there is an important question about whether or not to believe these things.  Because Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is very significant and has implications for everyone on earth.  One still has to ask questions (and reason) about the truth of Jesus’ claims, no?

Martin:
I don’t believe in the truth of Jesus’ claims to be the son of god. Not as being son of god in anyway more significant than all beings are caused by god, and are as such ‘sons of god’.  So Jesus’ claim to be the son of god has no implications as such for me as I don’t have faith in this. No Islamic beliefs have any implications for me, and no religious beliefs have any implications for me unless / until I start to subscribe to a religion.

For the second part of this discussion see the post Conversations with Martin (part 2/2).

7 comments

  1. In his concluding statement Martin assumes that the implications of a true proposition are significant if and only if one affirms it’s truth. Barring the possibility that Martin is a solipsist, this is quite obviously problematic. I am neither Ptolemaic nor Islamic, but the truth or falsity of their claims bears profound implications none the less.
    Would you agree?

    1. I agree with your point, Ian. If Jesus really was/is the Son of God in the way many Christians claim then that does indeed have implications for us all. It is THE crucial question for me these days… but there might well be claims made by other religions that will prove just as troubling…

      Do you believe there is any absolute truth to who Jesus was, or are there actually only perspectives about him?

  2. Really enjoyed your discussion on panentheism. I first became aware of it through a dream I had which might be of interest. It is on the above webpage entitled The Dream. Would enjoy your thoughts on this. Thanks
    Lewis

    1. Hi Lewis. I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion. Your dream sounds fascinating! I will go to your website now and have a read…

      Best wishes,

      Steven

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