God’s Good, Green Earth: An Inquiry into Panentheism

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer – June 24, 2012

Genesis 1:11-12, 29-31

Tomorrow night we begin Vacation Bible School.  We have chosen for the theme this year “God’s Green Earth: Celebrating the Wonderful World of Plants.”  Each night we will look at a biblical passage having to do with some different form of plant life on earth, as well as a different ecosystem.  We will look at the opening chapter of Genesis when green life began to appear on the earth, a passage about the Hebrews in the desert longing for fruits and vegetables, the passage where Jesus instructs us to consider the wildflowers of the field, and a passage that talks about life and beauty to be found even in the desert.  We will look at rain forests, grasslands, the tundra, and the desert biomes.  It promises to be a fun week as we learn about trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables, and medicinal herbs.  As always, we will blend the Bible with science to make it a fun, informative week for both children and adults.

And so, as I thought about today’s sermon, I wanted to give an introduction to this week’s theme and activities.  But also delve into the topic of God’s good, green earth a little deeper and do some study and share some information that might be of interest.  So one afternoon as I meditated on the topic of “God’s Good, Green Earth,” I jotted down some initial thoughts as I asked myself, “What does God’s good, green earth speak of?”  And the obvious answer was, “God’s good, green earth speaks of life, growth, and energy.”  It is sort of elementary, isn’t it?  When we take time to consider the greenness of the earth around us, that is what we see: life, growth, and energy.

But as I thought a little deeper, I was naturally led to the topics of pantheism and panentheism.  Because both pantheism and panentheism speak of life and energy inherent in the natural world.  And so, I thought today’s sermon would be a good opportunity to inquire into these topics since they go along quite well with our theme of the week and they are something of great interest to me.

First, some basic definitions.  Pantheism and panentheism are religious ideas that probably are as old as religion itself.  And the latter, panentheism, has had a place in Judaism and Christianity from the beginning, as well as several other major religions of the world.  The distinction between the two is somewhat difficult to define, yet at the same time there is a vast difference between them.  Simply put, pantheism literally means “all is God; or everything is God and God is everything.”  In other words, God and the Universe are considered to be identical.  Although the term “pantheism” did not exist before the 17-century, the beliefs that the term signifies are pre-Christian and include the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, the Stoics, ancient Hindu religious texts, some African traditional religions, some Native American religion, and so on. 

Panentheism, inserts the little Greek word en and means “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  Whereas pantheism states God is the universe, panentheism states God is in, but also greater than, the universe.  Or to put it another way, as one scholar has stated, “As a concept of God, panentheism attempts to do justice both to divine transcendence—that God is ‘beyond’ or more than the world—and divine immanence—that God is ‘in’the world.”1  For many, pantheism (the older of the two) falls short—it leaves too many unanswered questions.  Panentheism might be seen as a natural evolution from the earlier pantheism, as panentheism seeks to answer some of the questions raised by the former.  Religion, you know, is not static—not within whole religious communities and not within individuals.  Religious ideas are always changing, evolving.  In panentheism, God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe.  As opposed to pantheism that asserts that God is the universe, panentheism asserts that God is in, but also greater than, the universe.  It would seem that panentheism establishes a relationship between the natural world and God, where God is separate from, but also inseparable from the natural world.  Could it be that God benefits from creation and humanity’s interactions with the natural world as much as humanity benefits from the interactions with the natural world and with God?   

Panentheism as a distinct idea really began to blossom with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), who claimed that “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.”  But it was the German philosopher, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832) who coined the term “panentheism” in 1828, seeking to reconcile classic theism (the belief in God as a Being that is transcendent, outside of the universe) and pantheism, that holds that God is the universe.  A classic panentheistic verse in the Bible is found in Acts 17:28 where Paul is quoted in his sermon to the Athenians as speaking of God, “In him we live and move and have our being.” 

Well, who are some well-known panentheists?  Well, it is not always easy to peg someone either as a pantheist or panentheist.  In studying the topic, I saw several names in both categories.  In addition to the those described above as pantheists, others who fit into one of the categories, but mostly panentheists, include other Native American Peoples; the Central American empires of the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incans; some Sufi mystics; some Jewish mystics; early Christian Gnosticism (exemplified in the verse from the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus says, “Lift up a stone and you will find me there”); many Unitarian Universalists; Ralph Waldo Emerson; poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walt Whitman; Henry David Thoreau; Albert Einstein (who wrote, “We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul”); theologian Paul Tillich (who uttered the famous phrase “God is not a being, but being-itself”); and many modern Christian theologians now hold panentheistic conceptions of God, which probably includes theologian Marcus Borg.   In fact, Borg notes in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, “panentheism is becoming more and more common among mainline Christian theologians.”2   Many Christians who believe in Universalism also have a panentheistic view of God.

Well, what makes all of this significant?  I think for many of our post-modern world, panentheism holds the promise of a viable religious alternative to more conservative forms of Christian thought that many of us are no longer comfortable with.  At the very least, panentheism provides a new avenue to explore.  In the words of Matthew Fox, “Panentheism is desperately needed by individuals and religious institutions today.  It is the way the creation-centered tradition of spirituality experiences God. . . Panentheism is a way of seeing the world sacramentally.”Panentheism offers belief in a God that is intimately involved with the world, continuously creating in our ever-expanding universe.  It holds interest for those who have a love for the world of nature and find a sense of Sacredness there.  But it is a good alternative for those who love both the idea of God and love science.  In other words, panentheism is a good course of spirituality for those interested in the intersection of science and religion, which makes it an excellent choice for many people living in Oak Ridge.

The truth is, many may be practicing panentheists without even knowing it.  There is a particular hymn that we sing often that could be considered a classic panentheistic hymn.  Can you guess which one it is?

“This is my Father’s world; He shines in all that’s fair;

In the rustling grass I hear him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”

So, as we consider God’s good, green earth, it may be worthwhile to consider the energy, the vitality, that Great Mystery behind it all that gives life to our world.  For many, that energy, that vitality, that Great Mystery is nothing other than God.  And that is the God that they honor when they sing a hymn such as “This Is My Father’s World.”  Amen.

 

1David H. Nikkel, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, 2003.

2Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperOne, 2001, p. 83.

3Matthew Fox, Original Blessing  New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000, p. 90.

Some definitions taken from Wikepedia online encyclopedia.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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