Panentheism

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Panentheism is a doctrine of God which attempts to combine the strengths of classical theism with those of classical pantheism. The term is particularly associated with the work of Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne contends, however, that other philosophers and theologians have elaborated panentheistic doctrines of God, especially Alfred North Whitehead but also Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber, Gustaf T Fechner, Mohammad Iqbal, Charles S Peirce, Otto Pfleiderer, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Friedrich W J von Schelling, Allan Watts, and Paul Weiss.

According to Hartshorne, God, while including an element which may be described as simple, is a complex reality. God knows the world, a world in which change, process, and freedom are real elements. For this freedom and change to be real, and for God's knowledge of this freedom and change to be perfect, Hartshorne reasons that God's knowledge must itself grow and change. That is, as new facts come into being, God comes to know those new facts (some of which are the result of genuinely free will), and thus God's knowledge grows. A perfect knower includes within himself the object which is known. Through perfectly knowing the world, God therefore includes the world (as it comes to be) within himself. As the world grows, God grows. God becomes. Through perfectly knowing and including the world, God is the supreme effect.

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That is, everything that happens affects God and changes God, e.g., God's knowledge changes. Therefore, the concrete God, the complex God who is actual, is the God who knows, includes, and is changed by the world. This, according to Hartshorne, is the God who loves the world and who shares the joys and sorrows of each creature in the world.

To be the supreme effect, God must not only be affected by each event in the world, he must also retain his own integrity and wholeness during this process. If God's reality were destroyed or his purpose (for goodness) deflected by the events in the world, then God would not be the supreme effect, the perfect receptacle for the world. Therefore, there must be some element in God which remains the same regardless of what happens in the world, i.e., an element that is not affected by any particular event in the world. This element, since it is not changed by any event, is eternal. It is also abstract. (The fact that God's eternal, abstract, essential self - identity is compatible with any state of affairs in the world is the basis for Hartshorne's well - known revival of the ontological argument.) Since God's eternal, abstract self - identity is presupposed by any state of affairs whatsoever, it follows that God is the universal and supreme cause.

It should be noted that while God (as eternal, abstract, essential self - identity) is independent of any particular state of affairs in the world, he (even as abstract self - identity) still requires that a world (of some sort or the other) exist. We may explain as follows. God as supreme cause refers to God's eternal, abstract, essential self - identity which is presupposed by every event in the world. But that which is eternal and abstract is deficient in actuality and can exist only as an element in a larger whole which is temporal and concrete. Thus God's eternal, abstract, essential self - identity exists only as an element in the temporal, concrete, complex reality which is God in his completeness. But God can be temporal, concrete, and complex only if there are contingent states of affairs to which he is related. These states of affairs are the world (which is included in God). These states of affairs are accidental (as opposed to essential) qualifiers of God's character. Thus God even as eternal, abstract, essential self - identity requires some world to exist, without requiring any particular world to exist.

Some of the events in the world are evil. God knows and includes those events within himself. Does it follow that God is evil? Hartshorne answers no. Consider this analogy. A certain event happens in my body. I know and include that event within myself. And yet as a person, while including that event, I remain in an important sense distinct from that even. Not only is my abstract and timeless essence as a man distinct from that event, but even my concrete and changing consciousness (while including that event) is distinct from it. Likewise, God, while including the evil event within himself, is yet distinct from that event. God is distinct from the event not only in his abstract, eternal, essential self - identity but also in his concrete, temporal, and complex consciousness. That is, God's consciousness, while aware of and including the evil event, is more than and distinct from that event.

Is it possible for a panentheistic God to be perfect? The problem is this. If God changes, and if total perfection is not compatible with change, it would follow that the panentheistic God is not perfect. Hartshorne's response runs as follows. The challenge as stated assumes that there is one type of perfection, specifically, changeless perfection. But in fact there are two types of perfection: changeless and changing perfection. God is perfect in both senses. God's abstract, essential, eternal self - identity is perfect. His drive toward goodness in general does not waver. To this extent God's perfection is changeless, but this perfection is abstract. As a concrete reality God changes, as does his perfection. That is, at any time, God infinitely surpasses the perfection of the world, regardless of whether we consider the perfection of the world at that same time, at some previous time, at some future time, or at any combination of these. As time progresses, however, God does surpass his own previous states of perfection, e.g., his knowledge grows, and he has more opportunities to love his creatures. God's perfection changes in that he perfectly surpasses his own previous states of perfection.

While Whitehead's doctrine of God is quite similar to Hartshorne's, Whitehead does have several distinctives worth nothing. In Whitehead's metaphysics the basic building blocks of the universe are called actual entities. Actual entities are units of energy / experience. Electrons, rocks, stars, and people are composed of actual entities. For Whitehead, God is a single, everlasting (but continually developing) actual entity. The contemporary theologian John B Cobb, argues that on his own principles Whitehead should have conceived God to be a series of actual entities. Cobb's proposal would make God more like a human person which, according to Whitehead, is a series of actual entities. It should be further noted that in Whitehead's system it is the very nature of an actual entity to incorporate other (past) actual entities into its own identity. Therefore, whether on Whitehead's original definition of God as a single everlasting actual entity or on Cobb's revisionary understanding of God as a series of actual entities, it is the very nature of God to include the (past) world within himself as a part of his very identity.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Whitehead's doctrine of God is his distinction between God and creativity. Creativity is, in Whitehead's metaphysics, the power of being / becoming. Thus the fact that anything exists at all is ascribed not to God but to creativity (which in conjunction with the notions of the "one" and the "many" constitute Whitehead's category of the ultimate). In contrast, God's primary function is to help shape the character of the world. Thus that a thing exists must be referred to creativity; what a thing is must be referred, in part, to God. As a consequence, in Whitehead's system God's own existence is explained by reference not to God but to creativity. To put it bluntly, we may say that both God and the world are creatures of creativity.

Whitehead's postulation of creativity (in conjunction with the "one" and the "many") as an ultimate that is more fundamental than God is, perhaps, the most problematic aspect of his doctrine of God, not only for evangelical theologians but for other Christian thinkers as well. While a few Christian scholars, such as John Cobb, affirm Whitehead's distinction between God and creativity, others, such as Langdon Gilkey, insist that creativity must be "put back" into God before the panentheistic doctrine of God can really be made available for Christian theology.

S T Franklin
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
J B Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology; J B Cobb and D R Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition; B Z Cooper, The Idea of God: A Whiteheadian Critique of St. Thomas Aquinas' Concept of God; L Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language and Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History; C Hartshorne and W L Reese, eds., Philosophers Speak of God; R C Neville, Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology; R E James, The Concrete God: A New Beginning for Theology.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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