On Orthodox Panentheism, Part 1: Why ‘Panentheism’?

(This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll be going through a paper in progress on “Orthodox panentheism.” In this post, I discuss the concept of “panentheism” in general and why I think it’s a concept worth applying to the Orthodox view. Part 2 is here.)

1. “Panentheism”, in its broadest sense, refers to a particular way of viewing the relation between God and the world, one which sees God as fully present within, while still yet transcending, the world.  It aims to be a sort of middle ground between two alternative conceptions. On the one hand, there is the pantheistic God, which is said to be identical to the world.[1]  On the other, there is a theistic conception of God as existing “alongside” the world he created, a person whose primary relation to the world is that of maker or designer (though he may more or less regularly intervene in its workings).  In contrast to the former, the panentheist insists upon a radical ontological difference between God and the world.  In contrast to the latter, that God is both fully “in” the world, and the world fully “in” God.  God is not (or not primarily) to be thought of as the Architect of the cosmos on this approach but rather as the inexpressible mystery at the center of all things and of each particular thing while still transcending them.

 Of course, much depends on how we understand this idea that God is “in” the world, and vice versa.  What I’m going to try to do in this paper is to discuss, and hopefully show the appeal of, one particular way of spelling out this idea which developed in the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition.  Though the basic approach can be found in more or less developed ways throughout that tradition, it became most fully realized in the distinction utilized by the 14th century monk and bishop Saint Gregory Palamas between God’s essence and his energies.  The former is said to be unknowable and imparticipable, while the latter both provide knowledge of God and give created things their being through participation.

2. Before unpacking this distinction, I need to say a bit more about the label “panentheist” and address a worry that may make this way of framing the project, at least, look like a non-starter.  First, panentheism is most closely connected with the process theology of Charles Hartshorne and others who more or less explicitly reject central features of traditional conceptions of God.  Indeed, in several recent treatments of the concept, it is assumed that panentheism must hold that God’s own being or existence in some way depends on creation.[2]  Second, it may seem that I have not done justice to theism in the above description, at least if I meant to distinguish it from holding the views I attributed to panentheism.  For, it might be said, classical theism does claim that God is omnipresent, timeless, holds all things in being at every moment, etc.

Since I do want to defend a conception of God that is consistent with traditional, conciliar Christianity, both of these lines of thought push against the use of “panentheism” as a helpful label.  Since it risks being associated with clearly heterodox formulations, and since there seem to be resources within traditional theism for securing both the immanence and transcendence of God, why not eschew the former and stick to the latter?  However, I think that there are reasons to find the label attractive.

The first is that much of what we might call “mainstream theism” is not entirely consistent with the conception of God presupposed by much of philosophical theology up through the modern period.  Thus, Brian Davies, for example, feels the need to distinguish between two concepts of God, which he calls “classical theism,” on the one hand, and “theistic personalism,” on the other.[3]

The first he identifies initially by saying that it is the basic picture of God shared by the medieval Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophers Maimonides, Avicenna, and Aquinas.  This concept starts with the idea of God as Creator, and from this draws the conclusion that God is both radically different from creation (thus not, strictly speaking, a being among other beings), and yet is constantly present to creatures as their sustaining cause (thus, in a way, Being itself).  Classical theists go on to draw from these starting premises the whole panoply of traditional attributes of God: timelessness, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, etc.

The second concept of God is formed by laying primary stress on the idea that God is a person.  Davies singles out, as an example of such a view, Richard Swinburne, who claims that a theist is “a man who believes that there is a God,” where by “God,” the theist “understands something like a ‘person without a body.’”[4]  Later in the same work, Swinburne says that the claim “[t]hat God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism.”[5]  Insofar as any understanding of persons must be based on an understanding of ourselves, this picture of God is more or less explicitly anthropomorphic.  From this starting point, theistic personalists often go on to reformulate or reject many of the classical attributes of God.  For example, well-known and influential theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Lane Craig have all gone on from this starting point to reject divine simplicity or timelessness (or both).

Though this distinction of Davies’ has not, as far as I can tell, been widely influential, it does strike me as capturing something very important about recent analytic philosophy of religion.  It seems to me that what Davies calls theistic personalism is mainstream both among non-philosophers generally and among at least Protestant analytic philosophers, and that it is very different from what one finds in much of the classical Christian theological tradition.  But if this is true, and if part of what I want to do is provide an alternative to the overly anthropomorphic picture of mainstream theism, why not just stick to Davies’ label of “classical theism”?  Why panentheism?  There are two reasons.

The first is that the label “classical theism” is itself still somewhat contested.  Some use it simply to refer to broadly orthodox views of God.  I still remember my first course in the philosophy of religion (from someone taught by Plantinga), where “classical theism” was used to pick out proponents of the three main theistic religions, and more specifically any view according to which God is both personal and creator.  Thus, many of those whom Davies considers theistic personalists may consider themselves classical theists.

But secondly, and more importantly, Davies’ own use of “classical theism” is too narrow.  It refers explicitly to a broadly Aristotelian sort of medieval Latin or Arabic theology.  The view I want to discuss, however, is not a part of that tradition.  It is rather a part of the eastern, Greek speaking, form of Christianity, as that became crystallized near the end of the Byzantine period.  While perhaps not inconsistent with the former tradition, it was at the very least different in its emphases.  The character of its metaphysics is more Platonic than Aristotelian, more mystical than scholastic.  And, as we will see, these differences make the application of the label “panentheism” more appropriate.

[1] This way of understanding pantheism seems to me unhelpful, as I’m not sure it describes any actually existing religious tradition.  However, it is described this way in the contemporary literature (and defended as such by, e.g. Andrei Buckareff in his book Pantheism (Cambridge, 2022)), so for the sake of simplicity I’ll stick to this definition.  In this essay, I’m concerned mainly with differentiating the Orthodox view from other forms of theism, and explaining why I think the label “panentheism” fits.  In other work, I hope to deal more fully with “pantheism.”

[2] See, e.g., Michael Stenmark, “Panentheism and its Neighbors,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2019).

[3] An Introduction to the Philospohy of Religion  (Oxford University Press, 2004, 3rd ed.). Similarly, Diller and Kasher, in their edited volume Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities (Springer 2013), make a similar distinction between “classical theism” and “neo-classical theism.”

[4] The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1993), p. 1.

[5] ibid., p. 101.

5 thoughts on “On Orthodox Panentheism, Part 1: Why ‘Panentheism’?

  1. I was thinking about the meaning of pantheism the other day while trying to understand why Ed Feser and others think that David Hart is now espousing pantheism. Given that he maintains a clear distinction between uncreated deity and created contingent beings, it doesn’t make any sense to me. At the same time I’ve been wondering if Hart’s view might be understood as a form of panentheism; but the term is so broad and is popularly used to describe process theists, which Hart clearly is not.


    1. I think the way most people use “pantheism” is problematic, and doesn’t really pick out a single sort of view, which is partly why I just defined it in the way some contemporary philosophers do, that God and the world are identical. But, as I said, I don’t really think any major religious tradition or philosophical school has ever held that view. I also agree that “panentheism” is controversial because of its connection with process theology. But I do like it, simply because it does seem to strike a balance between two extreme views that abound at least in popular culture, and because on the face of it, it seems to fit with the Orthodox view. It’s something I want to think more about. Maybe the best term is Rowan Williams’s “non-dual non-identity”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s