On Orthodox Panentheism, Part 2: Preliminary Evidence and the Primary Problem

(This is the second 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 1 is here.)

3.  As I explained last time, panentheism in the broadest sense is the claim that all things are in God (and vice versa), yet without God thereby being limited or identified with things.  This is a position which can be found throughout the writings of the Church fathers.  Indeed, the statements of it are so numerous and so striking, and so little discussed in the philosophical literature, that I think it is worth at least listing and pausing over several examples from different periods:

  • “Who, looking at the universe, would be so feeble-minded as not to believe that God is all in all; that he clothes himself with the universe, and at the same time contains it and dwells in it?” – St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent.)[1]
  • “In thee alone all things dwell.  With a single impulse all things find their goal in thee.  Thou are the purpose of every creature.  Thou art unique.  Thou art each one and art not any.  Thou art not a single creature nor art thou the sum of creatures; All names are thine; how shall I address thee; Who alone cannot be named?” – St. Gregory the Theologian (4th cent.)[2]
  • “God always is…And he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For he contains and possesses the whole of existence in himself, without beginning or end, like an endless, boundless Ocean of Being, extending beyond every notion of time and nature.” – St. Gregory the Theologian (4th cent.)[3]
  • “God is self-existent, enclosing all things and enclosed by none; within all things according to His goodness and power, and yet without all [things] in His proper nature.” – St. Athanasius (4th cent.)[4]
  • “For who could really understand or explain how God is completely in all things as a whole and is particularly in each individual thing yet neither has parts nor can be divided; how he is not multiplied in a variety of ways through the countless differences of things that exist and which he dwells in as the source of their being; how he is not made uniform through the special character of the unity that exists in things; how he offers no obstacle to the differences in created essences through the one, unifying totality of them all but truly is all in all things, without ever abandoning his own undivided simplicity?” – St. Maximos the Confessor (7th cent.)[5]
  • “God both is and is said to be the nature of all things, in so far as all things partake of him and subsist by means of this participation…In this sense he is the Being of all beings, the Form that is in all forms as the Author of form, the Wisdom of the wise and, simply, the All of all things.  Yet he is not nature, because he transcends every nature; he is not a being because he transcends every being; and he is not nor does he possess a form, because he transcends every form…He is everywhere and nowhere; he has many names and he cannot be named; he is ever-moving and he is unmoved and, in short, he is everything and no-thing.” – St Gregory Palamas (14th cent.)[6]

These quotes all say things that look panentheistic in the very broad sense, and it is worth noting that these are not fringe figures–they are all important saints who played major roles defending the orthodox side in theological controversies.  Nevertheless, they remain unilluminating in the way that the views of many contemporary defenders of panentheism are unilluminating.  While they indicate that God is intimately connected with the world while yet transcending it, they don’t on their own contain any account of how that works.  And without such an account, it is not really clear what they are saying or if they offer a distinctive alternative to other conceptions.  In an essay in the Oxford Handbook to Science and Religion, Owen C. Thomas singles this out as a primary problem facing panentheists:

There are some serious problems in the understanding and interpretation of panentheism in what has become a fairly widespread movement that has gathered under this banner. These problems arise from the fact that panentheism is not one particular view of the relationship of the divine to the world (universe), but rather, a large and diverse family of views involving quite different interpretations of the key metaphorical assertion that the world is in God. This is indicated by the common locution among panentheists that the world is ‘in some sense’ in God, and by the fact that few panentheists go on to specify clearly and in detail exactly what sense is intended.[7]

Thankfully, we get something like such an account in the writings of St. Gregory Palamas, which I’ll begin discussing next time.

[1] Catechetical Orations 25 (PG 45, 65); quoted in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press, 1995), p. 39.

[2] Dogmatic Poems (PG 37, 507-8); quoted in ibid., p. 28.

[3] Oration 45.

[4] De Decretis 3:11; In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. IV. Ed. Philip Schaff (Christian literature Company, 1892), p. 157.

[5] Ambigua (PG 91, 1257B); quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According ot Maximus the Confessor (Ignatius Press, 2003).

[6] In Philokalia, vol. IV, trans. and ed. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), p. 382.

[7] Owen C. Thomas, “Problems in Panentheism,” in Philip Clayton, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford University Press, 2008), 654.  See also R.T. Mullins, “The Difficulty with Demarcating Panentheism,” Sophia (2016) 55:325-346.

5 thoughts on “On Orthodox Panentheism, Part 2: Preliminary Evidence and the Primary Problem

  1. This is a delightful unpacking of Orthodox Panentheism. The first post seems to reference a paper you are working on. Is that paper finished? Or is it the same as the 3 part post here?


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