A panentheological outburst

A disorderly spew of thoughts on the theory and practice of panentheism…

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According to the New Oxford American Dictionary,  panentheism is “the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.”

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How do you live toward being who contains you entirely and who exceeds you infinitely?

How do you relate to fellow beings who, like you, are finite organs of this infinitude?

When I say fellow beings this is not limited to fellow humans, nor even to fellow life, nor even to all being as we experience and understand it at any single moment.

The operative word is toward.

A proposed goal of religion: the attempt to live fully toward what is not only me, not only us, but toward what infinitely exceeds any and all of us. It is the practice of panentheistic relationship with reality on the whole and in every part.

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Jesus of Nazareth presented the Shema and Leviticus 19:18  as
two facets of a single highest moral principle:
a twofold commandment to
simultaneously,
inseparably,
irreducibly
a) love God with all my being — all my heart, all my soul and all my strength,
and
1) love my neighbor as myself.

This is a miraculously elegant and condensed crystallization of Judaism’s red thread as I experience it. It is the principle of participation in panentheistic life, beginning with our fellow human beings.

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Panentheism means relating out, beyond, toward reality that exceeds the bounds my own being. Where are the bounds of my being? The bounds of my being are the contours of reality as I know it — the outer and inner limits of my own universe-sized soul — a soul overlapping and entangled with myriad fellow-souls. Every one of us is another instance of everything, each with a different size, density and topology.

Beyond these limits, intermingled with the being of those around us, is twofold surprise: compelling love and repelling dread.

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According to my own peculiar panentheology, many of us have misconceived the terms of transcendence. To see transcendence as “climbing above” the sphere of mundane reality into a sphere of supernatural being attracts us toward exoticism, magic and thaumatolatrous religion.

It is far better to conceive transcendence as climbing beyond the sphere of reality as we conceive it it into spheres of reality as it can be known if we are willing to allow reality to be more than we know how to conceive. But why wouldn’t we allow reality to be more than what we know how to conceive? Because of the repulsion of dread — as much as we are drawn toward what is beyond us, we are repelled by intense anxiety of inconceivability. Beyondness fascinates, but it hurts.

(A maladjustment to the pull-push of love and dread, by the way, is at the heart of abusive relationships. When I “objectify” what I intuit as painfully more than I can possess in order to make it mine, I abuse an other as something that is no more what I’ve made of them, my idea of who they are or ought to be. Fundamentalism can be seen as an abusive relationship with the entirety of reality.)

This “more than we yet know” must every time be a new particular finitude — much as scientists forever expand their detailed theories, knowing they are fallible, but loving their knowledge no less for that fact. Beyond whatever comprehensive knowledge of reality we develop, inexhaustibly more reality and knowledge exists.

It is crucially important to resist the overwhelming urge to imprison potential particularities of “inexhaustibly more” inside our own souls by encapsulating “unknown” in the general category “mystery” idolized by so many mystics. The fact that the inexhaustible cannot be exhausted is no reason to stop accepting its abundance of particularities.

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2 Responses to A panentheological outburst

  1. Barry says:

    Beyondness reminds me of otherness: both fascinate and hurt, as you beautifully describe beyondness. But I wonder if our inability or unwillingness to conceive of reality as beyond our what we believe can be known is more a symptom of our corporate dullness and laziness, rather than fear of the pain of seriously pushing our understanding and expression of reality.

    Nice post, Stephen. I’m going to chew on the Shema in Hebrew in embrace of knowing a deeper reality.

    • anomalogue says:

      Barry, I see otherness as the near-side of beyondness — a signal of “not-I” at the threshold of dialogical relationship. Encounter with otherness represents a choice between self-transcendence to relationship or non-relationship in fight or flight.

      I’m pretty sure non-relationship is not always the wrong choice, but I do think it is always better that we know when we are making that choice.

      Re: laziness as a (non)-motivation — that’s definitely true. As with the choice of non-relationship, sometimes laziness is fine, but it is best to know when we are choosing that path. It seems obvious to me that not everyone is constituted to focus all personal energy on religious pursuits, which is, IMO, something to be grateful for. And even those who do focus much or all energy on religion, I don’t think many of us should exhaust ourselves in constant emersion in dread for the sake of love. It’s like any other exertion. We’ve got to rest, recover, re-gather our forces. Maybe the choice of laziness is better seen as the choice to rest.

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