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Where is God?

By Trisha Elliott

Where is God? “Nowhere” and “everywhere” are the typical answers. For Christians in the “everywhere” camp, there are deeper questions: How exactly is God everywhere? What is God’s relationship to the universe?

When former Christians reject the idea of God and end up in the “nowhere” camp, it’s often one theological understanding of God they are rejecting: the theistic, supernatural, puppeteer God in the sky.

Christian theology offers other, perhaps less known, ways of thinking about the relationship between God and the universe.

Typically, theology answers the God-Universe question in three broad ways: theism, pantheism and panentheism. In a nutshell, traditional theists believe an ultimate reality or God created the universe and continues to be active in the world but is distinct from it. Pantheists say that God and the created universe are one and the same, that there is no aspect of the divine that is apart from the universe. Panentheism is a combination of the two, sometimes called “the middle way”: deity is everything in the universe but also greater than the universe.

This last theological stream — panentheism — has been gaining steam among Christian progressives. But it isn’t new. Panentheistic ideas have been traced back to at least 1,300 BC. The German philosopher Karl Krause coined a term for these ideas in 1828. “Panentheism” (literally pan-en-theism, “all-in-God”) eventually became a cornerstone of process theology through the work of Charles Hartshorne, a follower of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Panentheism is often described using a cell analogy: organisms exist as a semi-autonomous collection of individual cells, but an individual is more than a collection of cells. Likewise, God is a collection of all aspects of the universe but is more than the universe. Our actions aren’t controlled by God any more than we can consciously control all of the activity of our cells. Yet we depend on our cells to live.

Of course, nothing about theology is that simple. Panentheism is an umbrella term, not a single idea. Niels Henrik Gregersen counts three different versions of panentheism in an essay in the 2004 book In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being (edited by Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke). John W. Cooper counts five in his 2006 book, Panentheism — The Other God of the Philosophers. Panentheism has been baked into a wide range of philosophies and theologies, which have in turn imbued the idea with their own flavour.

No matter how you slice it, panentheism and all its variations tend to appeal to abstract thinkers and believers who are comfortable with mystery. As with all theologies, it has its share of critics. Still, if a supernatural God doesn’t ring true, have a look at panentheism before jumping the theological ship. Christianity is a big boat. Panentheism may prove a comfortable place on board.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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