a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God

This lucid introduction to panentheism by David Armstrong is shared here with his permission. (He originally posted it to his social media page on June 7, 2021. David is a graduate of Missouri State University’s Religious Studies program.)

There are only so many ways to phrase the God-World relationship. If God is something in the World, like one object among others, then he is no more than a god; classical monotheism tends to believe in gods that exist within the World created by God, but distinguishes the two by an infinite differentiation. Roughly speaking, this is the view of the so-called “theistic personalists,” for whom God’s finitude and mutability is a biblical non-negotiable, but this does not provide a long term philosophical foundation for talk about God. The immediate move is to radically differentiate God and the World: God is not the World, and the World is not God, and never the twain shall meet or be confused, for God is infinite and uncreated and the world finite and created. But there’s an internal contradiction in this view: on this reading of things, God’s infinity is immediately contradicted by his exclusion from the World, which now conditions him as an Aliud, an Other that stands alongside God. This is more or less the view of the Old and Middle Academies: Plato’s God is a Demiurge working with Eternal Forms and preexistent, Eternal Matter that exist alongside of him, with which he is always in a kind of competitive dominance. But this does not succeed in establishing God as the infinite, primary reality: such a God could never have true ultimacy as a fact of his existence, for he would always coexist alongside a second principle of origination.

So we are left with two options. The first is to simply collapse God and the World together: God is the World, in its quantitative infinity, is controvertible with the numerically infinite catalogue of finite beings that constitute the World system and order. The second is to qualify this picture by saying that God is more than the World, but God is also Not Other (Non Aliud) than the World: the world exists from God, in God, through God, and for God, as a qualitatively finite, created manifestation of God, an intentional overflow of God’s own being into the infinitely myriad possibilities of essence and existence that creatures display. The first is sometimes called “pantheism”–literally, τὸ πᾶν or “the All” is God (ὁ Θεός)–while the latter is sometimes called “panentheism”–“the All” is “in” (ἐν) God, and therefore, God is in the All. Conceptually, these positions are really not very far from one another: to say, as Jesus Ben Sirach does in Ben Sirach 43:27, that God “is the All” (τὸ πᾶν γὰρ ἐστιν αὐτός), is not to reduce God to any one finite creature in the order of the World, still less is it to reduce God to the catalogue of creatures in the World, but rather it is to say that God himself is the unifying Being by which the variety of spiritual and material creatures in the universe can be construed as belonging to a common order, a cosmos, and therefore be an “All” to begin with. And so most intellectually curated forms of pantheism end up being panentheism, while panentheism, taken to its logical conclusion, requires some rather pantheist ideas about the value of the spatiotemporal and material universe as the arena of divine manifestation, about the meaning of the actual existence of creatures and the stillness in which they reside.

Both pantheism and panentheism, then, are really just forms of what Mary-Jane Rubenstein calls “Pantheology”–that is, an attempt to provide an account of how God is the All and the All is God. And in its most sophisticated and authoritative formulations, classical monotheism is always a Pantheology: whether the Vedantic system of the Principal Upanisads, the Stoicized Middle Platonism of Philo of Alexandria or Plutarch of Chaeronea, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Iamblichus, the cosmology of Origen of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers Sts. Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nyssen, the mystical theology of Ps.-St. Dionysius the Areopagite, the clarity of the theoria of St. Maximos the Confessor, the summative patristic philosophy of John Scotus Eriugena or St. John of Damaskos, the gradually developing worldview of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah, the Sufi metaphysics of someone like Ibn Arabi or Avicenna, the God-World relationship is typically phrased as a kind of Pantheology. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this Pantheology does not permit, as it does in Vedic and Greco-Roman pagan systems, the worship of cosmic or hypercosmic gods and their idols, though for Christians at least, it does provide the philosophical basis for seeing the unity of God and the World in the hypostasis of the Son, the Logos of God who is the infinite logoi of the World, enfleshed, crucified, and raised as Jesus Christ to secure the World’s true creation and deification. But even while the Abrahamic or Adonaistic monotheisms are differentiated from these other monotheisms on the grounds of cult, their metaphysics no less justifies the basic insight of Hellenic philosophy as it was summarized in late antique Neoplatonism: the World is full of God, and therefore it is also full of gods, or at least possible gods.

The God-World relationship presupposed by the Nicene Symbol, then, is one in which creatio ex nihilo–creation “from nothing”–is really creatio ex Deo: creation “from God.” That is to say, the fundamental philosophical shift in Christian discourse toward the idea that God created the universe “from nothing” is a rejection precisely of the notion that there is any secondary principle of origination exterior to God from which God constructed the World: there is non aliud, “No Other” than God from which the World could have arisen, and therefore by which it can be sustained or toward which it can move as though to final consummation. The World’s creation “from God” also, by the logic of the apophatic metaphysics of the divine nature which obtain in this system, does not mean that God creates the World through some kind of depreciation, depletion, or exhaustion of his own resources, but rather as the superabundant effulgence of his divine being and nature, which are always perfectly complete in himself in the Trinitarian perichoresis. That is to say, God creates as nothing other than celebration of his own infinite self-realization, that the fully realized life of God in the Trinitarian processions and love may also come to be realized in the economic acts of creation, incarnation, and deification, so that created “others”–or perhaps, the Logos in creaturely form–may participate by grace in that which God is by nature. At its most basic substrate of metaphysical truth, the universe is rooted in the Trinitarian life: first, the Father’s contemplative vision of all the logoi which he beholds in the Son as Logos, and his loving will in breathing forth the Spirit upon the Son that all these logoi should come to be vivified; second, the Son’s kenotic consent to the Father’s will, divesting himself of the divine glory which he shares with the Father that he might exist as the logoi and that they might come to be in the void of his self-abasement; and third, the Spirit’s delight to exalt the Logos in the vivification of the logoi, in, through, and with which the Son now presents himself to the Father in worshipful love and the Father, in his adoration of the Son, receives in gladness.

There are a few corollaries to this vision of things. First, God is the innermost being, awareness, and infinite potential of every creature: if the universe is created from nothing other than God, and in the Christian vision, specifically the Trinitarian life of divine knowledge and love shared between Father, Son, and Spirit, then at the heart of every created being, from stars and planets to humans and animals to plants and dirt, is God–the Father as the arche of that thing’s existence, the Son as the interior logic of its being, and the Spirit as that vivifying presence activating and expanding its being so as to participate ever more deeply in the life of God. We live in the midst of a theophany, not merely of God in the abstract, but of God the Father in the Trinitarian processions of Son and Spirit. Second, because the Logos is God, and is therefore qualitatively infinite, the logoi which subsist in him are quantitatively infinite; and so in the eternal instant that God pours forth the Spirit upon the Logos, vivifying the logoi resident within him, it must be that an infinite number of such logoi are so actualized. This is the surest Christian philosophical argument for what Rubenstein, again, calls the “ultimate Multiverse,” that is, the actualization of an infinite number of universes or Worlds. Insofar as this constitutes a single system, we may continue to think of such quantitatively infinite creations as a single World; but insofar as there may be spatial, temporal, material, or otherwise dimensional divisions between these realms that are not passed or at least not easily navigated by finite beings, without divine or preternatural assistance, we may continue to think of them also in their multiplicity, what Rubenstein calls their “plurisingularity.” We live in a theophany, but in a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God.

Artist’s impression of the galaxy COSMOS-AzTEC-1 (located 12.4 billion light-years away and forming stars 1000 times more rapidly than our Milky Way Galaxy). Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

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