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Are Panentheists Atheists?

Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God

Updated 17:09 central time to fix video link.

Last night I interviewed Dr. Bruce Epperly, process theologian, as an excursus to my study of According to John using Google Hangouts on Air. I’m following the book Meditations on According to John by Dr. Herold Weiss, but I wanted to talk to Bruce about his book Healing Marks, in which he discusses the healings recording in John 5 & 9. More relevant to this extract, however, is his book Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.

Since there has been some recent discussion of panentheists in particular, and liberal Christians generally, I thought would be nice to hear an actual panentheist answer the question. I started my interview by asking Bruce: Are you an atheist? I’ve extracted his answer to this and posted it to YouTube. Here it is:

Now I do not embrace process theology or panentheism, but I’m also not allergic to either term. It seems to me that one of the great tensions in scripture is between the story, which often reads very much like panentheism as Bruce noted, and the theological affirmations, which tend to separate God from the world more. I’m not sure that this tension is not valuable in itself, in that it keeps us from being too certain of our answers. We can see both in action, as God repents of making humankind or bargains with Abraham about how many righteous people need to be found in Sodom for that city to be spared. Both stories speak as if God doesn’t actually know the answers ahead of time. Yet at the same time we have the affirmation that he knows the end from the beginning, and indeed some scriptures that seem to say that he predetermines all. I see a parallel to the “God is sovereign” and “people have freewill” affirmations. Many Christians affirm both (whether they are Calvinists or Arminians), but explaining how they work together is much more difficult.

For those who watched the interview and would like to know where I started with this discussion, James McGrath’s post Is This Atheism? is a good place to start. In fact, it links to one of my points in turn. I’m also planning to post another excerpt from the interview, in which I ask Bruce whether Jesus was a healer. His answer there might be enlightening in connection with asking whether he’s an atheist!

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  1. Some of the comments on James’ blog are well worth a read too (I except my own…).

    The thing I think I need to stress about panentheism as a stance drawn from mystical experience is that it is not a cool theological theory extracted from a close reading of scripture or from a philosophical investigation, though as you comment it can be fitted to a fair proportion of the Biblical witness. The article from Tuggy to which James links seems to me very much to regard panentheism as just another theological theory, so it misses the mark rather.

    For at least a substantial proportion of mystics (and F.C. Happold argued in “Mysticism, a study and anthology” that this held for all mystics), a panentheist stance is the only way of conceiving of God which can come anywhere near giving expression to what they experience, and as I commented to James, the mystical experience is massively self-verifying.

    What is more, my experience has been that even if the mystic also has a peak experience of God-as-person, the unitive experience is far more powerful and therefore takes precedence, relegating the God-as-person experience to that of a more partial vision. Not, of course, an untrue vision, merely a less complete one.

    That said, the mystical experience is very difficult to communicate in a way which feels entirely satisfactory, so most mystics tend to have a certain amount of humility regarding their expressed panentheism; what I have to clarify is that that-which-is-God cannot, for me, be *less* than the panentheist conception. The supernatural theist conception is, of course, less in some very important ways, but is also potentially more – if, for instance, you are desperate for a hand to come out of the sky and fix your problem in any material sense, the panentheist conception renders that vanishingly improbable!

    Is it, however, an atheist vision? Well, I do have experience of quite a few atheists saying that if they ever felt in need of a God-concept, the way I talked was very attractive! Certainly if you define atheism as denying the interventionist supernatural theist concept of God, which I tend to ridicule as “the God who wears his knickers outside his tights” in a Superman reference, panentheism is atheist. But then, historically people have been called atheists every time they denied any specific God-concept, even if they were staunch supernatural theist monotheists. Both Jews and Christians were accused of atheism for denying the godhood of the Emperor, for instance. This tends to be a stance these days which says that the only possible theism is supernatural theism.

    On that stance, of course, Buddhism (at least in its Western forms) is an atheist religion. That said, neither the panentheist nor the Western Buddhist will grant the claim of hard atheism that there is nothing beyond the material which must be taken into account. The panentheist generally calls at least one aspect of that something else “God”, the Buddhist might refer to “Dhamma”.

    1. While I don’t embrace panentheism myself, I do find that it does agree with a great deal of the Bible story and also of my own. I simply have a broad tolerance for different expressions. Then again, there are moments in my experience which feel almost Calvinist, but only moments. 🙂

      Might you post your comment on your blog so I can link, or would you mind if I promote this comment to a post of its own. I’d like to see where the conversation will go.

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