Panentheism | C. S. Lewis's Christian Platonism
Panentheism (or Process Theology)
By Paul Copan
In this next installment of our brief examination of various worldviews, we look at panentheism or process theology. In this series, we have been noting the greater plausibility and explanatory power of the biblical faith over against these rival worldviews. While many worldviews will point out various truths and important insights, which is what we can expect from God’s general revelation, they still don’t do what Jesus himself does—namely, hold all things together by the power of his word and by his wisdom (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). Jesus gives coherence to reality and brings together the various fragments of truth, goodness, and beauty in other worldviews.
Panentheism: What It Is
God and His Body
While pantheism maintains that everything is God or divine, panentheism treats the relationship between God and the world as analogous to the soul and the body. There is a genuine distinction between God and the world, but a mutual, eternal dependency exists between them. The world is “within” God, and there is a kind of “dance” between God and the world. In classical panentheism, God and the world are necessarily and eternally dependent on each other.
This kind of model of God’s relationship with the world has been adopted by various feminist theologians (e.g., Grace Janzen, Sally McFague), who emphasize God’s loving relationship to the world—as opposed to a kind of commander-commandee relationship. A divine “spirit” is at work, bringing humans into greater harmony with one another and with nature. These feminists reject a traditional God—a “sovereign” who “rules” over creation (monarchical model) because this can lead to oppression of others and destroying the earth’s ecological balance.
Furthermore, process theology (e.g., Alfred North Whitehead) has emphasized two “poles” in God—that God is actually finite but potentially infinite and is constantly realizing “his” potentiality. According to another panentheist, God is continuously active in the open-ended emergent processes of nature.
Creation as Dependence
In the same spirit, the process theologian Alfred North Whitehead rejected the doctrine of creation out of nothing, because it presents God as playing too absolute a role: “He is not before all creation but with all creation.”
Indeed, certain panentheists claiming adherence to the Christian tradition and engaging in the God-science dialogue don’t emphasize the universe’s temporal origination and creation out of nothing. Rather, they use terms such as “immanence” or “ontological dependence.” In fact, Ian Barbour maintained that creation out of nothing—the universe’s absolute origination from God—isn’t a biblical concept. The doctrine of creation is nothing more than the universe’s dependence on God. Barbour believed that we must still “defend theism against alternate philosophies, but we can do so without reference to an absolute beginning.”
Arthur Peacocke, a theologian and philosopher of science, emphasized God’s immanence, and diminished divine transcendence and the significance of the universe’s absolute origination. Instead, God is “continuously creating.” Following in their train, theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton rejects “classical Christian theism” in favor of panentheism. Though he affirms some measure of divine transcendence, nevertheless God and the world are inseparable. Peacocke asserts that whether we may or may not be able to infer or assign a beginning point to the universe (such as with the Big Bang), “the central characteristic core” of creation would remain unaffected—that God is the Sustainer and Preserver of the created order.
Differences Between Panentheism and Traditional Theism
Charting the Differences
Below is a chart highlighting some of the key differences between panentheism and traditional theism:
Some Biblical and Scientific Considerations
If we examine panentheism or process theology against the backdrop of Scripture and even science, we should take note of the following points.
First, panentheism has failed to take seriously the biblical understanding of the triune God, who is inherently relational and self-giving. Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas offered this critique of one process theologian’s understanding of God: “One of the things that bothers me about [his] God is that she is just too damned nice!” By diminishing divine transcendence and overemphasizing the immanence of God, process theology’s attempt to salvage divine relationality and intimate engagement with the world becomes an effort in jumping ship far too soon.
For one thing it appears that panentheists/process theologians who have critiqued “classical theism” have treated the traditional understanding of God in a unitarian rather than trinitarian fashion. However, because the Triune God within himself is intrinsically relational and loving, process theism becomes superfluous in attempting to safeguard God’s deeply relating to the world. God is profoundly relational; he interacts with the world; and he is capable of being touched by human actions and even suffering with the world. But this sovereign God who suffers with the world is not incapacitated by it either. Rather, this supremely perfect God guarantees that our own perfection will be reached in the new heavens and new earth when Christ returns. Panentheism cannot guarantee such an outcome.
Second, pantheism goes against the findings of science, which point to the beginning of the universe. This picture of the world looks very much like Genesis 1:1—creation out of nothing. That is, although God has eternally existed, the finite universe has not. It is dissipating and winding down, suggesting it has been wound up. So God does not eternally coexist with the world as his “body.”
Third, if what we mean by God is the “greatest conceivable being” or the maximally great being, then process theism presents us with a diminished deity. God’s power is diminished by the fact that God needs the world coexisting with him. God’s transcendence is diminished by God’s immanence. Also, God has no genuine freedom to create out of nothing if he wanted to. All God can do is direct the world, but he has no freedom to bring into existence a world independent of himself.
While the Scriptures affirm both divine transcendence and immanence (Acts 17:28: “In Him we live and move and have our being”), panentheism sacrifices transcendence and other great-making qualities of God that leave us with an inferior version of deity that cannot guarantee that all things will ultimately be put to rights in the end.
 Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, 1978 Bampton Lectures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 353.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), 343.
 Ian Barbour, “Religious Responses to the Big Bang,” in Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends: Where Science and Religion Meet, ed. Clifford N. Matthews and Roy Abraham Varghese (Chicago: Open Court, 1995), 396.
 Arthur Peacocke, God and Science: A Quest for Christian Credibility (London: SCM Press, 1996), 13.
 Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, 79.
 Taken from Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976).
 Stanley Hauerwas, Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy (repr., New York: Routledge, 2018), 29.
— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at paulcopan.com.
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