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The Potential of Panentheism for Dialogue Between Science and Religion

Abstract and Keywords

After exploring the meaning of panentheism, this article looks at divine action as an example of current debate in science and religion where panentheism makes important contributions. But the essay thens also draws attention to the areas of experience and ethics implied by Rowan Williams's words, in the belief that panentheism is able to aid the connection of science to the subjective realities of religious experience and moral decision making. Panentheism represents theology that is engaging and creative, and a metaphysic with rich and sensitive moral resources. And given the moral questions which now press so urgently on science and the contemporary world, that contribution of panentheism could be of paramount importance.

Keywords: divine action, Rowan Williams, panentheism, religious experience, moral decision making

Go for a walk. Get wet. Dig the earth.

(Rowan Williams)

Thus Rowan Williams concludes the foreword to a report about the environment published by the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council in 2005 (Williams 2005: p. viii). Williams is more classical theist than panentheist; but his sentiment, urging people to re‐experience and re‐learn their connections with the natural world, finds a strong echo within panentheism. Indeed, panentheists would contend not only that panentheism is better able than classical theism to support and resource this sort of environmental activity and respect, but, furthermore, that there are many areas, of which ecology is just one, in which panentheism both corresponds (p. 636) more closely to people's experience and also is more sensitive to ethical concerns than alternative forms of theism. Among these other areas is dialogue between science and religion.

‘Dialogue’ between science and religion—the very act of using this volume— presupposes participants or readers who believe that they have something to gain from engagement between the two disciplines. All but the most hardline positions or attitudes that scientists or theologians may adopt in relation to the possibility of their disciplines' interaction suggest that such interaction might be fruitful (see e.g. the range of positions categorized in Clayton 2001c: 214–15). This essay, written from the perspective of theology and advocating a certain kind of theism over and above two main rivals, assumes that scientists will be willing to consider that the theism under consideration—panentheism—has something to offer: namely, the overcoming of some of the difficulties, both theological and scientific, under which classical theism, the hitherto dominant form of theism, has laboured. This chapter is not the place to highlight the theological advantages of panentheism; rather, after exploring the meaning of panentheism, it will look at divine action as an example of current debate in science and religion where panentheism makes important contributions. But the essay will then also draw attention to the areas of experience and ethics implied by Williams's words, in the belief that panentheism is able to aid the connection of science to the subjective realities of religious experience and moral decision making.

The Meaning of ‘Panentheism’

‘Panentheism’, from the Greek pan en theos, means ‘all in God’, and is commonly distinguished from (and conceived as the median between) classical theism, in which God is essentially separate from the cosmos, and pantheism (‘all [is] God’). The ‘in’ is thus the critical term. According to the second (1989) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘in’ expresses ‘the relation of inclusion, situation, position, existence, or action, within limits of space, time, condition, circumstances, etc.’. Its use in theology is, in common with other theological language, metaphorical (McFague 1982). As a metaphor, the ‘in’ might be most helpfully explicated through analysis of a continuum of further metaphors (cf. Clayton 2004d: 251–2) as set out below.

  1. 1. God is separate from the cosmos.

  2. 2. The cosmos will be in God.

  3. 3. God is present to the cosmos.

  4. 4. God contains the cosmos.

  5. 5. God is affected by the cosmos (e.g. God suffers).

  6. 6. God acts in and through the cosmos.

  7. (p. 637)
  8. 7. The cosmos is a sacrament, or sacramental.

  9. 8. God penetrates the cosmos.

  10. 9. God is the ground of the cosmos.

  11. 10. The cosmos is God's body.

  12. 11. God includes the cosmos, as a whole includes a part.

  13. 12. God and the cosmos are inextricably intertwined.

  14. 13. God is dependent on the cosmos.

  15. 14. God is dipolar.

  16. 15. God is totally dependent on, or coterminous with, the cosmos.

Points (1) and (15) lie outside panentheism, and represent classical theism and pantheism respectively. Point (2) is a classical position, while also a form of panentheism known as ‘eschatological panentheism’, held for example by Keith Ward (2004: 72) and John Polkinghorne (1994: 64, 168; 1996: 55; 2000: 90–1, 94–5; 2002: 115; 2004: 166). On this view, while all is not yet ‘in God’, this is the situation for which God is (and the cosmos should be) aiming, and which will ultimately pertain. Niels Gregersen has called this position ‘soteriological panentheism’ (2004: 21, 24–7). It differs from the eschatology of panentheism ‘proper’, which would hold that while all is ‘in God’, God is not yet ‘all in all’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15: 28), which can happen only when evil is finally eliminated from the cosmos.

Point (4) might be thought to provide the most straightforward meaning of panentheism's ‘in’—the sense that something is contained by something else, such as water ‘in’ a saucepan. It is possible, however, on a container model, still to conceive of God as essentially outside the cosmos. The saucepan, after all, is ‘outside’ the water. In the notion of zimzum, for example, explored by Jürgen Moltmann (1981: 109–11; 1985: 86–93, 156–7; 2001: 145–8; 2003: 62, 119–20), God makes a space within Godself in which the cosmos exists. Panentheists wish to establish a closer relationship than that implied by God as a mere ‘container’; the meaning of ‘in’ that is required is one that articulates mutual coinherence between God and the cosmos.

To avoid the implication that God remains outside the cosmos, and to establish mutual coinherence, panentheists often invert the meaning ‘all in God’ to state that God is also ‘in’ everything. This notion attempts to supplement, with a closer relationship, the transcendence safeguarded by ‘all in God’ and implied by God as a simple ‘container’. The classic definition of panentheism in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, for example, specifies that God's ‘Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe’, but also touches on point (8) (and point (11)) in suggesting that ‘the being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him’ (Cross and Livingstone 2005: 1221). Ironically, however, ‘God in all’ can be interpreted in ways that are compatible with classical theism, such as divine omnipresence (point (3)). On its own, then, the phrase ‘all in God’ may not take understanding of panentheism very far; but ‘God in all’ does not take it much further, being capable of both classical and panentheistic interpretations.

Hence points (4)(8) can be common to both classical theism and panentheism. They represent modifications of classical theism (cf. Griffin 2005); even if one (p. 638) maintains point (1), it is possible to stretch classical theism to these points. Classical theism is sometimes stretched even to point (9), though this is arguably inconsistent; it has also been stretched, for example by Ramanuja and Austin Farrer, to point (10). As long as point (1) is held, the resulting outlook is classical. That is why passibility (point (5)) is not intrinsically panentheistic: it can be maintained under both classical theism and panentheism, even though it has a bias towards the latter on account of its closeness to points (12) and (13) (cf. Brierley 2001: 230–1). Similarly, the language of point (6) (on which point (7) is logically dependent) often implies a panentheistic doctrine, while it is also susceptible to classical interpretation.

Panentheism starts with point (4), but points (8) and (9) begin to signify a distinctively panentheistic doctrine. Point (9) was championed above all by Paul Tillich, and is a crucial aspect of panentheism, for it is not possible for something to be entirely separate from its ground (hence panentheism is a negation of point (1)). It is possible for panentheism to stop with points (8) and (9), a position that one might call ‘basic’ panentheism. Arthur Peacocke, for example, is guarded about point (10) and resists point (11) (1993: 371; 2004a: 145–6). Point (10) marks the beginning of ‘fullblown’ or ‘advanced’ panentheism (I prefer the terms ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ to ‘weak’ and ‘strong’, which have also been used to describe different panentheisms (Peterson 2001: 399), as less value‐laden1). Philip Clayton, who of contemporary theologians has the clearest grasp of panentheism, has called point (10) the ‘panentheistic analogy’ (1997a: 100–2; 2000a: 702–3; 2003: 209–11; 2004c: 83–4) and has shown that it lies at the very root of the whole principle of analogy. It has had a mixed reception by panentheists, however, because of the points where the analogy breaks down (Brierley 2004a: 6–7; 2005: 23–4). Not least, ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ are susceptible to dualist interpretations as well as psychosomatic ‘monist’ interpretations; also, science regards the person as emergent from the body, while most panentheists would not wish to assert that God is emergent from the cosmos (Gregersen 2004: 20; Griffin 2004: 44).

This raises the question of appropriate analogies for the relationship between God and cosmos in panentheism. Peacocke (1993: 173–7; 1998: 359–60; 2004a: 144; 2004b: 105–6) uses the analogy of the relationship between a composer and her or his music, but the difficulty with this, as with other analogies of artist and artwork, is that the expression of art is physically separate from the composer (cf. Temple 1934: 265–6). Similarly, the difficulty with Augustine's analogy of the cosmos as a ‘sponge’ in water (Augustine 1991: 115) is that it is possible for the sponge to exist out of water. A stronger analogy, which does not involve such separation and which is in effect a variation on Clayton's panentheistic analogy, is the cosmos as an unborn baby within (and always within) its mother's womb—dependent on the mother for every aspect of its existence, yet with a limited freedom and beyond the mother's total control (cf. Case‐Winters 1990: 220–7; Clayton 1999: 291; Peacocke 2001: 139, 142; 2004a: 147, 151–2; 2004b: 142; and McDaniel 2005). Julian of Norwich, in one of her revelations, (p. 639) exclaimed that Christ ‘is our Mother for we are for ever being born of him, and shall never be delivered!’ (Julian of Norwich 1966: 164).2

Point (13) has two stages, which could be categorized as (13a) and (13b). The first of these would hold that God is freely dependent on the cosmos, the second that God is necessarily dependent on the cosmos. Under the first option, God chooses to be dependent; under the second, the dependence is part of God's nature. The difference between these two positions is discussed further in Brierley (2004a: 10) and Clayton (2004d: 254). Point (14) is process theism: this is perhaps the most well‐known form of panentheism, but it would be unfortunate to deduce from the fact that it has been of considerable influence on doctrine in the twentieth century, and from the fact that some expositions of panentheism have misguidedly equated panentheism with process thought, that process theism is generally representative of panentheism or occupies the ‘middle ground’ (a mistake made in Thomas 1999: 286); the spectrum of points given above clearly indicates that it is not, and does not. Process theism represents the most advanced form of panentheism, with its marked limitations of the divine, to the extent that God represents one influence among many in the cosmos, suggesting a degree of separation that, ironically, would be characteristic of more ‘basic’ points on the spectrum.

I have shown elsewhere how some of the points above—(5)(7), (10), (12), and (13)—are logical entailments of panentheism (Brierley 2004a: 5–12). As is clear from the fact that some of these points are shared with classical theism, not all the points are on their own necessarily panentheistic, and not all of them are developed in every expression of the doctrine. Panentheism also has logical effects on other Christian doctrines: there are distinctive panentheistic interpretations, for example, of christology, ecclesiology, miracles, and eschatology (Brierley 2006).

Overlaid on the spectrum of beliefs analysed above is the question of whether or not evil is privative. Some panentheists, such as Tillich, following the scholastic tradition, have held that evil has no existence in itself, so that God is (‘only’) in the ‘good’ of the cosmos. For panentheisms of this variety, the cosmos has intrinsic positive value. Other panentheists, such as Clayton, regard evil as an existing constituent of the cosmos in God, with the result that the cosmos is morally neutral. Such panentheists are able to state, as do Clayton and Peacocke, that cosmic events are divine actions per se (Clayton 1999: 293 (‘Every physical event is an act of God’); 2001b: 209, 212; cf. Peacocke 1998: 359; 1999: 235; 2001: 146; 2004a: 144). Those who hold evil to be privative, and who identify God with the good, do not ascribe all cosmic actions to God in this way because of those actions' moral ambiguity.

The spectrum above helps to emphasize that there are different varieties of panentheism (Brierley 2004a: n. 132). It would be as foolish to criticize ‘panentheism’ for existing in different forms as it would be to criticize classical theism for the same characteristic. Having now analysed this spectrum, it is possible to identify panentheism's distinctiveness. This can be expressed in terms of three premisses: first, that God (p. 640) is not separate from the cosmos (panentheism as a negation of point (1)); second, that God is affected by the cosmos (either in the ‘basic’ sense of point (5) or the ‘advanced’ sense of points (12) and (13)); and third, that God is more than the cosmos (panentheism as a negation of point (15)). These premisses distinguish panentheism from the following:

  • classical theisms in which God is separate from the cosmos, although perhaps present to it (either in a general way or in a specific isolatable way) and even affected by it (a position that asserts points (1), (3) and (5));

  • classical theisms in which God is ‘in’ the cosmos but not fundamentally affected thereby (that is to say, a denial of points (5), (12) and (13));

  • pantheisms in which God is not so much ‘in’ the cosmos as the cosmos itself (point (15)).

These three premisses—that God is not essentially independent or separate from the cosmos, is affected by the cosmos, and is more than the cosmos—are specific enough to be distinctive, but general enough to include most of the detailed forms that panentheism has taken. They consist of a denial of points (1) and (15) and an adherence to either point (5) (‘basic’ panentheism) or points (12) and (13) (‘advanced’ panentheism). They amount in fact to a definition of panentheism, and demonstrate that panentheism is more than a mere ‘emphasis’. on divine ‘immanence’ of the sort that classical theism could fully accommodate (as some critics have alleged). The three premisses are also very close to Gregersen's two‐pronged definition of‘generic panentheism’: namely, that the cosmos is in some sense ‘in’ God and that the relations between God and cosmos are ‘in some sense bilateral’ (Gregersen 2004: 22; cf. Clayton 2004c: 83; 2004d: 252).

These premisses help to articulate the ‘mutual coinherence’ that is the fundamental panentheistic conviction. The second premiss, that God is affected by the cosmos in addition to the cosmos being affected by God, accounts for the fact that the words ‘relational ontology’ and ‘reciprocity’ are often used in connection with panentheism. The distinctiveness of panentheism here is well illustrated by the classical theistic and panentheistic understandings of divine love. Classical theism views God's love as agapē, or benevolence, needing no love in return; panentheism regards God's love as an inextricable mix (cf. point (12)) of agapē and erōs, ‘gift‐love’ and ‘need‐love’, so that something of God's self is fulfilled in the act of loving: God ‘needs somebody to love’ in order for the divine love to be complete. The first premiss, that God is not separate, is of equal importance, however. The dangerous implication of relational language is that the cosmos is perceived as an independent entity (Peterson 2001: 402‐3). The cosmos is not ‘independent’ of God in any way; indeed, it is radically dependent on God at every moment and at every level. Even the (relative) freedom of the cosmos is grounded in God and dependent on God.

Herein lies the importance of point (9) and the panentheism of Paul Tillich (Nikkel 1995: 29‐82; see also 199‐217). Tillich's great aphorism was that God is not a being, but Being Itself, or the Ground or Power of Being. God as a being or person implies that God is beside or alongside the cosmos, and thus essentially separate from (p. 641) or external to the cosmos (Nikkel 1995: 40, 42–4, 46, 69 n. 87). This is precisely what Tillich wished to avoid. He regarded externality as characteristic of finitude. God, however, is infinite, and nothing is external to the infinite, so the infinite includes (point (11)) the finite; God includes the cosmos (Nikkel 1995: 55). In this way, Tillich stands at the heart of advanced panentheism, on a line stretching from Nicholas of Cusa through Hegel to Clayton, for all of whom the infinite includes the finite (Clayton 2000b: 147–51; 2001a: 195; cf. 2004c: 81; 2004d: 253).

Advanced panentheism developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and the principal theological movements that have embodied the doctrine have been idealism, modernism (Brierley 2004b), process theism, and some other liberal theologies, including theologies of ‘protest’ against classical theism and some of the ‘South Bank religion’ of the 1960s. Nevertheless, it is clear that aspects of panentheism can be found within the Christian tradition stretching back to the Bible (Brierley 2004a: 4 n. 116; cf. Borg 2000: 42–3; 2004: 66, 69), as well as within other ancient religions (cf. Hartshorne and Reese 2000: 294–7, 306–10; Whittemore 1956; Gregersen 2004: 34 n. 37; and Clayton 2004d: 250 n. 1). Panentheistic sentiments have particularly been voiced by mystics throughout Christian history (Brierley 2004a: 4 n. 109; cf. Lee 1946: 252–3; Fox 1974: 361; and Dombrowski 1996: 164–71).

Panentheism and Debate on Divine Action

Scientists can find panentheism resonating with many aspects of their endeavours. There are points of connection between the interrelation of matter and energy in contemporary physics and Joseph Bracken's ‘field’ version of process panentheism (Bracken 1991, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2004); between concepts of emergence and panentheist ‘internalism’; and between theories of vitalism or life force and the interrelationship that panentheism allows between Spirit and spirit.

Panentheism has also illuminated recent debates on divine action, an area of particularly thorough interdisciplinary research and an area that historically has been one of the chief causes of science's distancing of itself from religion.3 Recent theories of divine action range from theistic naturalism to objectively special divine action without ‘gaps’ in the causal order, to objectively special divine action with ‘gaps’ in the causal order (for typologies, see Russell 1995, 2001, and Southgate 2005: 269–82). Panentheists argue for the first two positions, as exemplified in the work of Christopher Knight, Clayton, and Peacocke.

(p. 642) An exponent of theistic naturalism, Knight suggests that there is no ‘special’ action of God in the cosmos beyond the ‘single act’ of God's general providence, infusing the cosmos with grace and sustaining it in being through the laws of nature and their intrinsic potentials (which are not of course fully known) (Knight 2001: 11–22; 2004; 2005). The problem of the ‘causal joint’ is thus solved by grounding all causal joints in divine love. Maurice Wiles, whose panentheism was less explicit than that of Knight, was an earlier exponent of a similar view. Knight defends his view from the charge of deism by holding that God, as ground, participates, and thus is still intimately involved, in every event. Theistic naturalism has the advantage of not conceiving of God as ‘a cause among causes’.

Clayton's theory of divine action rests on his panentheistic analogy: God's relation to the cosmos is like a person's relation to her or his body. Some of the body's functions happen automatically and unconsciously, such as breathing and the beating of the heart. While Clayton would wish to assert that God is nevertheless conscious of all action, this ‘automatic’ action corresponds to the general law‐like regularities of the cosmos and God's general providence, equivalent to Knight's naturalism. Clayton also wishes to assert, however, that there is special, or focused, divine action in the cosmos, corresponding to the conscious and intentional acts of a person on her or his body. He uses the scientific concept of ‘supervenient’ properties, which ‘emerge’ from lower levels but are not reducible to those levels' causal influence, and which themselves exercise a ‘top‐down’ causal influence on lower levels, to suggest that God as a ‘whole’ influences or lures the ‘parts’ of the cosmos (Clayton 1997a: 232–69; 2001c: 231; 2004d: 263–4). The doctrine can be called strong emergence: ‘God could guide the process of emergence through the introduction of new information (formal causality) and by holding out an ideal or image that could influence development without altering the mechanisms and structures that constrain evolution from the bottom up (final causality)’ (Clayton 2004b: 632–3; cf. 2004a: 187–99). This influence seems to be at the mental level of ‘integrated persons’, by God as (the unitive category of) Spirit (Clayton 2004d: 264; cf. 2001a: 194 and Bracken 2004: 219).

The position of Peacocke, who has been an important influence on both Knight and Clayton, seems to hover in between their two views. He is clear that God acts in the processes of the world and is not an ‘additional’ influence in any way; moreover, he uses the term ‘sacramental panentheism’ as an equivalent to theistic naturalism. Like Clayton, however, he also uses the language of emergence and supervenience, and indeed pioneered the suggestion that divine action can occur through ‘whole— part’ influence, which is ‘special’ in its effects (Peacocke 1993: 159–60; 1995: 282–5, 287; 2001: 110; for commentary, see Clayton 1997a: 220–7). Knight suggests that Peacocke has become decreasingly naturalistic (2001: 15–17), while Clayton suggests that Peacocke has become increasingly naturalistic (2004d: 262–3, though cf. 2002: 272 n. 34). The fact that Peacocke regards divine action as intended in its effects suggests that he might be nearer to Knight's theory of divine action than to Clayton's.

For centuries religion has suffered from the concept that God acts by intervening in the laws of nature and the affairs of the world. Science has recoiled from religion partly because interventionist classical notions of divine action simply are not (p. 643) compatible with what science has revealed, just as society has generally reacted against theism, towards agnosticism and atheism, in philosophical and moral reaction against the excesses of classical theism. The three theories just summarized offer a form of theism without interventionism or irruptionism; panentheism removes the need for distance, and thus can bring scientists and theologians closer together.

Panentheism and Religious Experience

Clayton has outlined seven possible reasons for adopting panentheism as a doctrine (Clayton, 2004c: 73–4):

  • belief that classical theism is no longer viable;

  • belief that panentheism is more compatible than classical theism with science;

  • belief in a metaphysic which panentheism underlies;

  • belief that panentheism is better able than classical theism to support religious doctrines (a development of the first reason);

  • belief that panentheism can mediate between different faiths;

  • belief that panentheism can respond better than classical theism to objections to religious belief (this seems to be a negative version of the positive, fourth reason);

  • belief that panentheism has better ethical or political implications than classical theism.

My own assentto panentheism has stemmed from a gradual convergence of convictions: first, from the philosophy of religion, that forms of theism other than classical can better respond to certain common objections to religious belief, and in particular to the problem of theodicy (the sixth of Clayton's reasons); and second, from the theological conclusion that authentic love entails limitations of the divine that classical theism cannot accommodate (approximating most closely to the fourth of Clayton's reasons), a conviction that corresponds to the human subjective experience of love.

This correspondence with subjective experience would not be significant unless it correlated with broad patterns of religious experience. As it turns out, religious experiences have indeed often been panentheistic in orientation. This is characteristic of the intense religious experiences that are categorized as mysticism, but is also true of religious experiences more generally, as seen not least in the New Age movement and in the counterpart interest, within Christian faith, in Celtic spirituality (Brierley 2004a: 14 n. 204). Such experiences are invariably of something transcendent, or ‘more’, which comes in or through something everyday, ordinary, or routine. Marcus Borg relates an experience of the British theologian Leslie Weatherhead, who, in the dingy corner of a train leaving London one murky November evening, felt the compartment filled with light, and himself overwhelmed and possessed by a sense of love, humility, and joy, particularly towards his fellow passengers (Borg 1997: 44). (p. 644) Many other individuals have felt a particular environment suffused with light or love, and themselves at peace with the world or united with the world. Their experience is of something more than what the world offers on its own, yet at the same time that something is intimately connected or bound up with the particular part of the cosmos in which they find themselves. It is something ‘more’ than, yet also organically ‘in and through’, the cosmos as they know it; it is transcendence ‘within’ immanence. It is not separate from the cosmos, yet neither is it simply the resources of the cosmos itself. It is a feeling of mutual coinherence; it is panentheistic. Borg has testified to his own experience of being brought up under a classical theistic model, only to discover panentheism as a framework that made more sense: ‘becoming aware of panentheism made it possible for me to be a Christian again’ (Borg 1997: 12, 37–48; cf. 2000: 42–4).

Hence to Clayton's seven reasons can be added an eighth:

  • belief that panentheism represents more accurately than classical theism people's (religious) experience.

if asked why panentheism has come to the fore in modern theology, one need go no further than the fact that it articulates a metaphysical position which is consonant with much, and often popular, religious experience, instances of which are increasingly articulated.

Given the foundational nature of experience for human being, it is unlikely that scientists or theologians will be attracted to panentheism purely on the basis of Clayton's second reason above, that panentheism is more compatible with science than classical theism. Scientists are human beings, after all, often with religious experiences. The attraction of scientists to panentheism is therefore likely to involve, in addition to theoretical consonance, convergence between theory and any personal subjective experience of ‘God’. Part of what panentheism offers is a holistic integrity between ‘head’ and ‘heart’.

The Moral Potential of Panentheism

Clayton's seventh reason above for adopting panentheism is the belief that panentheism has better ethical or political implications than classical theism. Herein, I believe, lies panentheism's greatest potential. However close God and the cosmos are made to be, there is in classical theism a basic separation that panentheism overcomes. ‘Despite the goodwill of its defenders, classical theism is fatally mired in imagery of divine aloofness and detachment’ (Cowdell 2000: 21). Conceiving of God as independent or separate from the cosmos has a cost; each version of classical theism has a cost. The cost is moral, because the relationship of God to the cosmos sets the tone or example for internal relationships within the cosmos.

(p. 645) Sophisticated forms of classical theism employ a variety of means to try to establish intimacy between God and the cosmos (see e.g., the analytical theists challenged in Dombrowski 1996). Even Aquinas held that God was ‘in’ the cosmos as an agent is in that in which its action takes place (Gregersen 2004: 23). Norris Clarke suggests that ‘outside’ God in classical terminology means simply ‘not identical with God; they are not God’ (Clarke 1990: 108, Clarke's emphasis). But being a ‘part’ of God in no way suggests identity with God; there are ways of distinguishing between God and the cosmos, without the nuances of separation and independence (and their attendant moral difficulties) that the word ‘outside’ involves. Being a ‘part’ of God does not compromise distinction. Similarly, in an essay of characteristic depth, Rowan Williams rejects panentheism because of God's character as sheer gift, of being for others, which needs or receives nothing in return (Williams 2000: 63–78). But does a lack of receipt necessarily follow from sheer gift? Is that not a presupposition? Conceiving of God as not separate from the cosmos and needing the cosmos does not reduce the cosmos to the level of functionality for God; God's receipt need neither detract from nor undermine the unconditionality of divine love. God's receipt can be a consequence, without being the purpose, of loving. Indeed, if God is not to be the object of the cosmos, then God's indwelling grounding of it would seem to be the only possible alternative.

The moral edge of panentheism stems from the fact that it corresponds more closely than other forms of theism to the basic religious conviction of ‘mutual coinherence’ or human connectedness with the divine—the conviction that God is ‘more inward than [our] most inward part’ (Augustine 1991: 43), ‘closer [to us] than breathing’ (Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Higher Pantheism’, in Ricks 1987: 706). Panentheism seeks to stress that ‘the infinite God is ontologically as close to finite things as can possibly be thought without dissolving the distinction of Creator and created altogether’ (Clayton 1999: 290, Clayton's emphasis). Relations under panentheism are always, as David Nikkel observes, ‘internal’ (Nikkel 2003: 641). Inclusion is understood ‘organically’. The ‘in’ of panentheism is a fundamental conviction about the closeness of God and the cosmos, in contradistinction to any concept of God as separate or entirely independent. Panentheism is able to say that whatever the situation in the cosmos, however small or large, however catastrophic, it is still ‘in’ God. God is not just present to it, but inseparable from it. God is not so much a compassionate friend as a pregnant mother who bears the pain (cf. Romans 8) with infinite capacity to redeem, restore, and renew. This is not necessarily to say that every action in the cosmos is divine action, even if the cosmos is ‘part’ of God. One would not say that the action of the foetus is the mother's action, even though the foetus is entirely ‘in’ the mother and ‘part of’ the mother. It is important to recognize the moral ambiguity of the cosmos (Page 2004), and that this ambiguity extends to the cosmos's deepest level. The point is that all takes place ‘within’ God, and that the goodness of God is ‘in’ everything to some extent, however morally ambiguous. The ‘within’ of panentheism is required if only—and perhaps only—to avoid the negative connotations of having God ‘without’.

(p. 646) The moral implications of conceiving of God as ‘in’ the cosmos and as necessarily affected by it are manifest in many different fields of theology: pastoral theology, feminist theology, ecotheology, ‘economic’ liberation theology, sexual theology, theology of religions, and so on. Why is it that much ecotheology is panentheist in orientation? It is because respect for the cosmos is greater when God is conceived as ‘in’ it than when God is regarded as independent of it. Why is it that feminism finds a natural ally in panentheism? It is because patriarchy and its ill effects are associated with ‘independence’, whereas feminism celebrates the closest possible relatedness— which is precisely how panentheism characterizes the relationship of the cosmos with the divine. Why is it that interfaith dialogue develops further when participants subscribe to panentheism? It is because God in these cases can readily be seen ‘in’ different traditions and religious figures (while panentheism is capable of trinitarian interpretation, it is not necessarily so, contra Clayton (1997b: 133–5, 137–8; 1998: 202, 207–8; 2005: 252)). Similarly, it is no coincidence that a key theologian for the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships, Norman Pittenger, was a panentheist (Brierley 2006). There are also connections between panentheism and ‘economic’ liberation theology.

Panentheism has moral potential in pastoral theology, particularly in the context of suffering. Its concept of a non‐interventionist God is a natural home for theodicean strategies such as the limitation or reconception of divine omnipotence, and the free‐will defence. The notion of a passible God with the closest possible relationship to the cosmos can (but not must) bring pastoral benefit. To be of assistance here, however, it is necessary for panentheism either to adopt the scholastic and Tillichian notion of evil as privative, rather than having actual existence itself, in order to keep God unsullied, or to adopt the process conception of God's dipolarity, whereby the evil of the cosmos exists as part of God, but not at God's absolute ‘pole’. I prefer the Tillichian view as avoiding the ‘inconsistency’ of the process dipolar God; it is also interesting to note the connection between the doctrine of evil as privative and the ‘absence of God’ sometimes experienced by those in situations of suffering.

Panentheism shows how contemporary work in science‐and‐religion should not be detached from questions of practical ethics, ‘earthly, everyday concerns’, as such work has been criticized for being (Deane‐Drummond 2004: 234).4 Panentheism can provide a metaphysical basis for challenging science's assumption that the biosphere is endlessly malleable, ‘to our pleasure or whim’ and to the benefit of only a few (Conway Morris 2003: 311–30). All these practical implications are moral dimensions of panentheism, and they derive from the closest possible association of God and the cosmos, which panentheism represents. Clayton is wary of attributing too much value to a metaphysical position because of its political consequences (Clayton 2004d: 259), but ‘moral truth’ and ‘metaphysical truth’ are by no means mutually exclusive (Harris 2004), and indeed may themselves be ‘inextricably intertwined’.

(p. 647) Conclusion

Enlightenment science presented data which were incompatible with classical theism and required that alternative theistic conceptions be found; it led both to deism and, more consonant with people's religious experience, panentheism. Now religion can come back to science with the gift of advanced panentheism as a theology which is compatible with scientific disciplines and can express scientists' own religious experience. In this way, science and panentheism have come full circle. The history of theology from deism onwards, in reactions to Essays and Reviews, Lux Mundi, modernism, and all the rest, is littered with the tragedy of theological defensiveness, entrenchment, and opposition to science, simply because theology itself was operating with a problematic doctrine of God (for some of this history and its nuances, see Bowler 2001). Theology now does not have to survive in this way or to perceive science as a threat. Scientists now do not have to reject theology for the wrong reason. But that is just to put the benefit negatively. Panentheists are not just making up for the past; they have something positive to offer. They offer alternative and subtle doctrines of God of which scientists may not be aware (cf. McDaniel 2005: 39) and which provide a metaphysical ‘fit’ for those scientists who wish to integrate religious experience into their interpretations of reality (Clayton 2001c: 233–4), and who look for a metaphysic with moral ‘edge’. Panentheism, in short, represents theology that is engaging and creative, and a metaphysic with rich and sensitive moral resources. And given the moral questions which now press so urgently on science and the contemporary world, that contribution of panentheism could be of paramount importance. ‘Go for a walk. Get wet. Dig the earth.’


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                                                                                                                                                                                  (1) I would not now regard the distinctions between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ panentheism as ‘superficial’, as I did in Brierley 2004a: 6.

                                                                                                                                                                                  (2) There are of course disanalogies with this as well: a mother does not need a baby as points (12) and (13) would have God in relation to the cosmos.

                                                                                                                                                                                  (3) See esp. Russell et al. 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001. For an introduction to the discussion, see esp. Russell 1995, 2001 and Clayton (forthcoming).

                                                                                                                                                                                  (4) Ironically, Deane‐Drummond believes the answer to lie in the relationship of ‘otherness’provided by classical theism.