Questions About Other Gods – Part 3

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2000
This week Dr. Geisler explores Panentheism. Also known as “process theology,” panentheism teaches that God is changing. He is in the “process” of becoming all that He can be.

Questions About Other Gods—Part Three

(from When Skeptics Ask, Victor Books, 1990)

Panentheism—What if the World is God’s Body?

A view that is halfway between pantheism and theism is panentheism, also known as process theology. It says that God is to the world as a soul is to a body. As in theism, the world needs God to exist but, like pantheism, God also needs the world to express Himself. So, while God is beyond the world in one sense, He also is the world in another sense. What is beyond the world actualizes itself (makes itself real) in the world. So God is always changing as the world changes. He is in the process of becoming all that He can be. This is a recent view developed by twentieth-century philosophers Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, and others, but it is based on ideas found in Plato. No major religion subscribes to it, but it is currently being taught in some Christian seminar­ies, the feminist movement has given it some endorsement, and it is used in the Liberation theology of Marxists in South America and South Africa.

PANTHEISM
PANENTHEISM
God is the universe God is in the universe
God is not personal God is personal
God is infinite God is actually finite
God is eternal God is actually temporal
God is unchanging God is actually changing
God and creatures are identical God and creatures are not identical

What Do Panentheists Believe about God and the World?

God has two poles: a primordial pole, which is eternal, unchanging, ideal, and beyond the world; and a consequent pole, which is temporal, changing, real, and identical to the world. The primordial nature of God is His potential pole—what He can be; the consequent nature is what He actually is at the moment. So the world is not different from God; it is one of God’s poles. His potential pole inhabits the world just like a soul inhabits a body. There it becomes actualized or real. So what the world is, is what God has become. As such God is never actually perfect; He is only striving toward perfection. For God to be­come more perfect, He needs our help. As Hartshorne has written:

God, in his latest concrete state, is jointly “made” or produced by God and the world in prior states of each. We are not simply co-creators, with God, of the world, but in the last analysis, Co-creators with him, of himself.[1]

The world creates God just as much as God creates the world. They are two poles of the same being. This situation is eternally the case. For neither pole could exist without the other at any time and the potential pole, being infinite, can never become completely actu­alized in a finite realm. So God is “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”

What do Panentheists Believe about Evil?

Because of limitations in His actual pole, God is not omnipotent. He directs the world only through influence. But not all of the world recognizes or is controlled by His influence, so evil exists. God simply can’t control it, nor can He guarantee that it ever will be elimi­nated. However, they believe that evil opens new possibilities for the self-realization of God and presents new opportunities for growth to become more perfect, so it is not necessarily undesirable. There are some senses in which God does not want to do away with evil.

What do Panentheists Believe about Values?

Like theists, process thinkers hold that values are rooted in the nature of God. But just as the nature of God is different in the two views, so is the nature of their values. Since God is constantly changing, so are values. There may be some ideal good in the primordial nature of God, but what must concern us is that we create beauty in our lives in the real world, without reference to some imagined future state of things. We can never expect to create perfection, but only strive to do more good. Values, then, can only be defined in general terms, and the term most often used is beauty or aesthetics. As Hartshorne writes, “The only good that is intrinsically good, good in itself, is good experience, and the criteria for this are aesthetic. Harmony and intensity come close to summing it up… to be ethical is to seek aesthetic optimization of experience for the community.”[2] By this standard, we are to avoid disputes and boredom in the community as well as for ourselves. Kindness brings about beauty and harmony while cruelty brings on ugliness and discord. Concern breeds intensity, and apathy is its opposite. All moral standards must be derived from these prin­ciples and suited to influence the present experience for the better.

How Should We Respond to Panentheism?

Panentheism views God as having an intimate relation to the world, and it is able to incorporate modern scientific thought into its system easily. But one must ask the simple question of how the whole system got going. It’s like asking, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” If the potential pole came before the actual, then how was anything ever actualized? The actual pole could not have come first, because it had no potential to be­come. Panentheists would say that they always existed together, but then we have to face the fact that time cannot go back into the past forever. The only answer can be that some­thing else created the whole ball of wax. It took a creator beyond the process. It took a transcendent God to create a chicken who would lay eggs.

Also, how can one know that everything is changing if there is not some unchanging standard by which to measure change? Because we are moving along with it, we don’t notice that the world is rotating on its axis or revolving around the sun. It feels like we are standing still. The same thing happens if we toss a ball straight up in the air in an airplane. We don’t realize that the ball is really traveling at 500 miles per hour because we are mov­ing at the same speed. We can only be sure that something is moving when we measure it by something that is not moving. So how can we know that everything is changing unless we can look at something that is not changing? Panentheism has no explanation for this because it holds that even God is constantly changing.

Notes

  1. Charles Hartshome, A Natural Theology of Our Times (LaSalle, Ill.: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1967), pp. 113-114.
  2. Charles Hartshorne, “Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: A Metaphysics of Ethics,” Ethics 84 (April 1974): 214.

 

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