In another column, I challenged academic theologians to explain the differences between theism, pantheism and panentheism in terms that a teenager could understand.
No one took the challenge. But a reader asked, “Why don’t you do it?”
OK, I’ll try.
Let’s start with theism. No, let’s start before theism. With nature religions. Which had hundreds of gods—river gods, tree gods, fertility gods, earthquake gods… They all had to be appeased with sacrifices, to avoid floods and fires, to seek a bountiful harvest, etc.
Theism, or monotheism, gathered all those gods into one supreme deity. Classical theism defines a God “out there” somewhere, utterly separate from this world. This all-powerful, all-knowing God controls every detail of the universe, from a distance. Of course, as Creator, God reserves the right to amend His plan as necessary—whether landslides, volcanoes, or who wins the Super Bowl.
Initially, humans believed this God punished us with disease and disaster. So like His predecessors, He had to be appeased with sacrifices. Later, we believed we could earn God’s favour by worshipping Him.
All subsequent theologies deny one or more elements of classical theism. That makes them all a-theistic. Not necessarily denying God, but denying a particular portrayal of God.
So pantheism says God is not out there, but right here. God is nature. Or nature is God. People who insist that they find God in their gardens, on a golf course, or in a fishing stream, are essentially pantheists.
But pantheism still separates us from God. Nature acts on us, for good or ill; nature does not act through us.
Panentheism abolishes that separation. God is found in nature, yes. But God is more than nature. God is in everything—in the laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry; in psychology and economics; in birds and bees and flowers. And in us. We act as God’s agents. When we harm nature, we harm God. When we harm each other, we harm God.
Note that implication—God can be harmed! God is no longer invincible, untouchable. God created all this for a purpose; we humans can choose to assist or impede God’s purposes.
Process theology pushes that awareness further. It asserts that God can change. We come from God, we are part of God and when we die, we are absorbed back into God. In that sense, God is the cumulative experience of all living things. If you count the planet, or the universe, as a living thing, then God includes their evolving wisdom as well.
From which it follows that God can learn. God learns as God incorporates into the Godly presence, whatever that is, what each living creature—from the lowliest amoeba to Carl Sagan—learned during its lifetime.
In this progression. God moves from out there, to right here. From being separate, to being in and among us, to being actually affected by us. From something that does things TO us, to something that does things FOR us, to something we participate IN.
Don’t ask which version is right. Rather, ask at which portrayal you feel most comfortable with. That’s where you are now.
Where will you be 10 years from now? God only knows.