Missional Panentheism

Gary Gocek bio

... and Why I Can't Please a Supernatural God

© 2013, gary@gocek.org, http://www.gocek.org/, all rights reserved. Hover for usage notes. Email a link to a friend. Other articles by Gary.

Contents

Introduction and acknowledgments.
Missional
Panentheism
Missionalism and Panentheism, Together
Appendices.
Bibliography.

Introduction

Revised 2013-01-26.

Since 2009, as a Christian layperson, I have been reading and writing extensively on Christian topics. I have read apologetic stuff, liberal stuff, secular philosophy stuff, and have viewed videos and countless web sites. Much of the content I have consumed, including from other Christians, disagrees with my beliefs although I consider myself a committed, educated Christian.

The missional approach is a hot thing in Christianity these days, but it took me a year of study to understand why it's so important, and why it won't necessarily help a struggling parish, and why it's so important even though it may not strengthen parishes. In part, I must accept that our god is not a self-aware, supernatural, interventionist being, curing cancer in one person and causing an auto accident for another. I am too limited as a "mere" human to be able to please an omnipotent, omniscient god-being, but I do recognize that my purpose is to fulfill my part of a divine plan.

Acknowledgments

I received valuable assistance in the development of this article, but this article is my own work with the help of my god and I am the only person who should be held accountable.

The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester granted me a scholarship in recognition of my in-kind contributions. I used funds from that scholarship to develop this article. This article may not represent the perspective of the PHSR.

A few members of the clergy have guided me since around 1990. This article presents my own beliefs, and these priests may not agree with some points, and they did not review all my points, so I will use first names only: Deven, Julie, Peter, Bill and David.

Thanks to my lovely wife, Susan for her support, even when she doesn't know she's being supportive.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See my bibliography for more information.

Technical and Grammar Notes

As a monist, as described below, my god cannot be separated in a way that can be named. The weakness of human language forces me to discuss the divine as if it were discussable. I don't believe in a different god for each of us, but I will refer to "my god" or "our god" or "the divine", etc., rather than "God", referring to an all-encompassing presence (details to follow). This grammar will sometimes seem forced, but I hope it drives home my monist points.

As a software developer, I have found the development of a long article for the web to be technically interesting. If you have any thoughts on the technical aspects of gocek.org, let me know. NRSV Bible verses do not capitalize "he" and "him" when referring to Jesus, but I otherwise conform to this tradition. Please report errors, misspellings, etc.

Missional

Although the concept is not modern and may even be considered first century, the missional approach is a hot topic for lay Christians these days. Maybe there is something hotter in the academic world, but for laypeople today it's the missional thing. See my bibliography for referenced descriptions, but I'll summarize here.

If you're reading an article with "panentheism" in the title, you know the greatest commandment:

Mark 12: 30"'...you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

How do I show my love for my god? If I pledge money and go to church once a week, will I go to Heaven when I die? There is nothing wrong with donations and churchgoing, but the core of Jesus' lessons is somewhat different.

I love my god by announcing the kingdom of God. Again, there is ample scriptural justification, but the question is, "How?" Preaching is one way, but not the only way and not even the usual way.

We all posses our god-given gifts. Some people write, some build houses. Some are leaders of men, but that doesn't mean their gifts are more significant. We are all the same in that we all recieve our gifts in the same way. Also, we each have a god-given purpose. I announce the kingdom of God by discerning my purpose (with divine help), using my gifts (with divine help) and then fulfilling my purpose.

That's the missional approach: by using my gifts, I announce the kingdom to others. It's not enough to talk the talk of the Bible; I must walk the walk. Jesus showed us how to find and live into the kingdom. Jesus used His unique gifts to achieve His difficult purpose. Jesus sacrificed His life for His cause, a cause we now refer to as Christianity.

The trick is to discern my purpose and my gifts. I ask my god for help, but I must not wait for an angel to swoop down from Heaven and "annunciate" it, as in the story of Jesus' mother.

Panentheism

Pantheism, without the "en", equates the universe with the divine. PanENtheism takes that farther with the notion of a divine transcendence of everything, even time. The divine encompasses everything, and is encompassed by everything, and is greater than everything. That's rather mysterious, but no more mysterious than a supernatural father figure waiting to omnisciently judge me and send me to a supernatural Heaven or Hell.

The panentheistic godhead need not be supernatural or anthropomorphized. Our god just is. If I help an old lady across the street, I not only help the old lady. I feel better for myself, improve the traffic flow on the street, save a few people a little gas and reduce the burden on the environment. Those benefits ripple everywhere. Granted, the ripples are pretty small by the time they get to Outer Mongolia or to Mars, but the ripples are there.

What is the medium through which these benefits ripple? That's our god! The old lady and I are connected to the Mongolians because our god encompasses us and is encompassed by us.

One of the arguments against panentheism is a perceived denial of the immutability of the divine, i.e., a denial that our god is constant and never changes. However, immutability proponents also argue, "God gets angry when we sin." Well, if their god wasn't angry before we sinned, and gets angry later, didn't something change? Whether as a supernatural being or as a connecting medium, our god is unfathomable to us finite humans. Therefore, the immutabilty of our god is also unfathomable. Everything changes, and our god encompasses everything and is encompassed by everything, and it has always been like that, so what's new? No matter how I behave, I am still encompassed and part of the encompassing everything.

Consider the notions of monism and dualism. American Christianity inherited a dualistic theology from Europe; "God" is a supernatural being "out there", while we puny humans are "here". Dualism is the notion that in at least some respects, God is separable from humans and other aspects of the universe. We build churches in which we believe God is more present than in other places. We believe God will raise us from our graves at some future time by presuming there is some place to which we can be raised that is closer to God and presuming we are not fully with God until that happens.

Monism denies the separability of our god from humans and the rest of the universe. Humans are not divine, but this means we are always with our god and our god is always with us. Resurrection is not an event; the deeds and memories we leave behind remain encompassed by our god. Bad people are resurrected, but we hate them; that's the quality of their resurrection. They are not comforted in Heaven by their dead mother, nor will I be, but living humans are comforted by the presence of the departed with whom they are encompassed.

My purpose is to use my gifts as Jesus used His gifts. I have found Christianity to work for me, but one does not need to be Christian to live as Jesus lived, i.e., to use one's gifts as an expression of one's love for the divine. The reward for such a life is a positive resurrection, in which we remain present even after death, just as Jesus remained present in the post-crucifixion appearance stories and remains present today.

Leaps of Faith

As an aside, I am making "leaps of faith". I don't think an atheist gets anything out of my statements here. I don't think I could say that our actions ripple around the world and we are present even after death without accepting a notion of being transcending by the divine.

Missionalism and Panentheism, Together

The missional approach, for monists and dualists, focuses on using one's gifts to fulfill a divine purpose. However, a dualistic view of our god results in a perceived contradiction between Paul and James.

(Paul's letter to the) Ephesians 2: 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of Godó 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

James 2: 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

1 Timothy 6: 17As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

If I believe a supernatural god will someday raise me up to a supernatural place, what works can I possibly perform to accomplish that? I can't really know this god's unilateral judgment criteria, and, being human, I don't have the ability to help to establish that supernatural place. As a result, I find a parish and enjoy the company of my faith community. I satisfy James' verse by giving money to the parish and to other charitable causes. That's not "bad", not at all, but like the separation seen by dualists between their god and humans, that approach leads also to a separation between people, e.g., parishioners and non-parishioners. We don't fully feel the pain of the hungry or war-weary when we are dualists and have food and relative peace.

Granted, humans are separate from each other, physically and emotionally. Humans are not all-encompassing. Our connection through our all-encompassing god is understood through faith. Our faith tells us the connection is really there, but in the dualism case, the connection breaks down, at least a little, because the connection to that god is not all-encompassing. A dualist cannot believe he or she is fully connected to aliens on another planet because he or she doesn't even believe he or she is fully connected to his or her god.

When a monist panentheism is applied to the missional approach, the significance of the neighborhood church changes. The local parish can serve as a staging point for missional work, but only if the parishioners are coincidentally interested in overlapping missions. Traditionally (and maybe idealistically), local parishes accept all comers and provide social, educational, youth and other programs to keep them coming, but this tends to make the parish as important as the mission. But, the mission is not the parish; it's the fulfillment of purpose.

The monist feels the pain of the hungry and oppressed because the monist believes we're fully connected. The traditional, dualist parish that focuses on the lives of parishioners doesn't amplify this connection, but I claim Christian communities should support the mission.

There is nothing inherently bad about traditional parishes, but Jesus did not teach us to form communities to talk about Him and claim that's enough for salvation. Jesus taught us to go into the world and use our gifts.

Conclusion

I have addressed the general role of Christians and anyone who wants to "live into" my understanding of a panentheistic, non-supernatural kingdom of God. However, each person must individualize this. I, with divine help, must discern my gifts and my plan and then fulfill the plan. I know my strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, etc., and there are numerous "self-help" resources for these tasks.

The fulfillment part is hard. I am a 50-something, lifelong Christian who has maintained a relationship with one parish another for most of that time. The missional approach is to build and abandon relationships as my mission work evolves. I should not expect one parish to meet my needs forever. And yet, my human tendency is to stick with what's comfortable, and old relationships are comfortable.

Jesus had his moments of comfort, but the Gospels don't describe very many. He drove himself hard for His cause, constantly using His gifts to do His god's work, to the point of getting Himself executed. That's the path He taught us. That's Christianity. It's missional (always doing the work) and panentheistic (strengthening the connections we have through the all-encompassing and all-encompassed god).

Appendices

Biographical Notes

Here are some biographical notes on authors whose works were researched for this article.

Bibliography

Click to view the bibliography.