|Ethical Monotheism and Panentheism|
This essay discusses some of the differences between various theological possibilities. I’ll define a number of terms, discuss traditional ethical monotheism, and introduce pantheism and panentheism.
Ethical monotheism includes the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religions as well as some others. A more general definition could be that ethical monotheism believes in one God that is all-powerful (Omnipotent), all-knowing (Omniscient), and perfectly good. Sometimes some restrictions are put on this definition. For example, God may not be able to do anything, but he can do anything that is possible. This avoids paradoxes like: “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” Either answer to that question implies some sort of limitation.
Exodus 3:14 "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you."
Spoken in reverent tones at the beginning of the series "Cosmos", Carl Sagan entones,
"The cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be."
Is he defining the word "cosmos"? Is he endorcing materialism? Or is he describing his God?
Pantheism believes that the universe itself is Divine. Sometimes this is expressed as a universal Self. The emphasis is on the unity and oneness of everything. The God of pantheism is usually not viewed as a God with a personality. Traditional Eastern religions tend to be pantheistic. There is also renewed interest in pantheism in the modern neo-pagan movement. The Hindu religion contains elements of both polytheism and pantheism. Here is an example of pantheistic thought from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita describing the Brahman:
“I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature;
I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all.
I am the radiant sun among the light-givers:
I am the mind:
I am consciousness in the living.
I am death that snatches all;
I also am the source of all that shall be born.
I am time without end:
I am the sustainer: my face is everywhere.
I am the beginning, the middle and the end in creation:
I am the knowledge of things spiritual.
I am glory, prosperity, beautiful speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness, and forgiveness.
I am the divine seed of all lives.
In this world, nothing animate or inanimate exists without me.
I am the strength of the strong;
I am the purity of the good.
I am the knowledge of the knower.
There is no limit to my divine manifestations.
Whatever in this world is powerful, beautiful, or glorious, that you may know to have come forth from a fraction of my power and glory.”
This could be described as a position somewhere between traditional monotheism and pantheism, containing elements of both. It generally maintains that the universe is divine, as in pantheism, but also that there is an associated infinite mind, that makes choices. Unlike monotheism, it does not locate God outside of the universe. But the lines of distinction can be a bit blurry. Depending on exactly how we view pantheism and monotheism, the definitions may be wide enough to include panentheism. We will look at a few characteristics that could be used to define a distinction.
In traditional monotheism there is a separation between the mind and the body. Much of traditional Western thought is dualistic, in this way. However, this leads to the mind-body problem. If the mind and the body exist in completely separate realms, how do they influence each other? If the mind wills the arm to go up, it does. If the body takes in various chemicals, including alcohol, it effects the mind. Descartes struggled with this problem and located the connection in the pineal gland, which seems somewhat amusing today. However, philosophers have never really solved the problem. So, in fact, most philosophers today are not dualists, although the average person still tends to think in dualistic terms. Panentheism views the body and mind as intimately connected. Bodies are objects in space. Thoughts are events in time. Events and objects interact.
Another dualism of traditional monotheism is the separation between God and the universe. God is the creator. The universe is the creation. There is a complete separation. In pantheism, God and the universe are generally regarded as one and the same. Panentheism does regard the universe as part of God, but it also allows for an infinite associated mind. The universe of objects in space could be described as the body of God, which is connected to the universe of events in time, or the mind of God, in a way analogous to the connection between our minds and bodies. In ethical panentheism God is pictured as being good. As an example, Whitehead's process theology could be described as ethical panentheism.
In traditional monotheism, God is sometimes pictured as completely transcendent, or wholly Other. It is then sometimes claimed that we can’t even attempt to understand God, because of this complete Otherness. But, this leads to a problem similar to the mind-body problem. I would argue that if A is irrelevant to B, then B is irreverent to A. That is, if the evidence we can find in the universe, is irrelevant to an understanding of God, then an understanding of God is irrelevant to this universe. In that case, it would seem we are just asking meaningless, unanswerable question, and perhaps we should just abandon the whole endeavor.
Panentheism does not claim God is wholly transcendent. There is a symbiotic relationship between God and the things in the universe. They influence each other. In Panentheism, the evidence of the universe can be used to help understand the nature of the Divine. It will never be possible for finite beings to completely comprehend the Infinite, but we can understand part. Of course, monotheism does not always insist on complete Otherness and separation either.
From Paul we have:
1 Corinthians 13:12 "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
Paul seems to be borrowing from Plato here. The world is seen as containing only imperfect shadows of eternal perfect forms. This would of course suggest that the evidence of the universe can be relevant, but our knowledge will be incomplete.
Immanence is kind of like the flip side of transcendence. Complete immanence is Omnipresence. Pantheistic religions picture the Divine as immanent. So does Panentheism. However, monotheism has also dabbled with seeing the Divine as immanent. It is just less pronounced in Monotheism. Some examples:
“I am that great and fiery force
sparkling in everything that lives;
In shinning of the rivers course,
In greening grass that glory gives.
I shine and glitter on the seas,
In burning sun, in moon and stars.
In unseen wind, in verdant trees
I breathe within, both near and far.
And where I breathe there is no death,
And meadows glow with beauties rife.
I am in all the spirit's breath,
the thundered Word, for I am Life.”
- Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179
From the non-canonical gospel of Thomas:
Thomas 3 - Jesus said, "If those who lead you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you."
This has a partial parallel in the gospel of Luke:
Luke 17:21 - "Nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."
Also from Thomas:
Thomas 77 - Jesus said, "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there."
Also in traditional Christianity neo-Platonist church fathers like St. Augustine regarded God as Omnipresent.
All vs. Infinite
Saying that a being is All-knowing is not the same as saying that a being is Infinitely-knowing. It is possible to be one and not the other. In mathematics you can have an infinite set of numbers that does not represent all numbers. For example there are an infinite number of even positive integers, and there are an infinite number of odd positive integers. Although the set of even positive integers is infinite, it does not represent all numbers. A fun introduction to the mathematics of infinities is George Gamow’s "One, Two, Three, Infinity". It is about 50 years old now, so some of the science is outdated, but it’s still a good book. One concept presented there is that it is possible to show that one infinity is greater than another, if no system of mapping one set to the other can exist. So, a being could be infinitely knowledgeable without being all-knowing. Also, if the set of all possible knowledge was finite, then a being could be all-knowing without being infinitely knowledgeable.
Another thing we need to consider is that according to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics it is not possible for any system of mathematics to be all of the following:
Stated another way, it is impossible for the system to completely "know" itself and anything else at the same time.
This could give us another potential restriction on our definition of Ethical Monotheism. Generally we would suppose God is all-knowing about our universe. However, Gödel’s theorem tells us he could not then have complete self-knowledge. This could be viewed as similar to the limitation on God’s power mentioned above. Instead of All-knowing, we may want to say, “as knowing as is possible”. Panentheism would allow a God that is both infinitely-knowing, and all-knowing about the past and present, but not the future, since in panentheism God is everything, and there is nothing outside God to know. Monotheism tends to see God as infinite unchanging perfection. Panentheism sees God as infinite, and growing in knowledge at an infinite rate, with the expanding universe. Thus, we could say that this God would have infinite knowledge, and would learn an infinite amount more, in every moment.
Some resources to explore Gödel’s theorem:
Gödel, Escher, Bach, an eternal golden braid.
Could this mind control events within the universe? If the universe is creating this mind, then can the mind effect the universe? I think the answer here, again, would have to be, “Don’t know.” But the potential certainly seems to be there. In this case we could describe the mind as creating the universe, and the universe creating the mind, or we could say that they exist together interdependently. We could say that the universe is just "God in space", and that the mind is "God in time", and they are deeply connected.
Could we communicate with this God? Well, given that we are part of the universe, and every event in the universe is a thought for this God, we would seem to be in constant contact. But, there is no clear evidence that this is the case either.
The teleological picture of the universe says that there is a purpose to everything. While I am comfortable talking about the possibility of an infinite mind, and an infinite creative process, I have some difficulty with purpose. The definition I have for "purpose" is that purpose has to be assigned to something from the outside. Something can not be its own purpose. By that definition, there can only be limited purposes. If we define ALL as everything that exists including the universe, other universes, any gods, etc. Then the ALL can not have an overall purpose. In monotheism, the universe could have a purpose, because there is an external God, but the God-universe system could not. Partial purposes within the ALL could exist, there could even be infinite purposes that were subsets of the ALL, but the whole ALL could not have a purpose. Rather, I see the ALL as an infinite creative process. The future is unknown, even if there is an infinite mind, because it has not been created yet.
Another possible distinction between monotheism and pantheism is the role of the self. In pantheism there is one universal Self. There is no true separation, only illusion. Monotheism tends to see God and people as separate individuals. Panentheism tries to stake out some potential middle ground. Panentheism believes that the self is not a completely indivisible thing. One interesting example is that of people who had the two hemispheres of the brain separated by surgery to treat an epileptic condition. The interesting result, which was carefully studied, was that we could talk with the left brain, but the right brain, which we could not talk to, seemed to want to do its own thing. People would report their one arm slamming doors as they tried to go out, or trying to take over the steering wheel of a car. Pictures shown to different eyes only reached one side of the brain. For all practical purposes, there seemed to now be two separate people, where before there had been only one. In panentheism the self may also be combinable, into larger entities.
Perhaps a key question here for many is "Does the self continue in any meaningful way after death?"
In monotheism, it is supposed that the soul is immortal. Does this mean that we continue to have thoughts? I think most tend to see it this way. If thoughts are indeed events in time, then this means that time, or at least our experience of it must continue. If at some point we stop encountering anything new, we would seem to be left in eternal boredom. This is not a very attractive proposition. On the other hand, if we have an infinite number of thoughts, and then memories, we become infinite beings ourselves, and God-like. This seems to lead toward more pantheistic views. Another possibility is that we eventually forget things. But then what defines the self, if not our memories? This seems to lead to ideas more like reincarnation.
If every event is recorded in the mind of an infinite panentheistic God, then there would seem to be a copy of our mind spread out over infinite space. Would this still be us? Would we have access to all other thoughts of God? Would we have the chance to forget things are experience the world again? All these are possible, but the questions are really not answerable. We will have to be content with just listing possibilities. Hudson Smith, in his book "Why religion matters" ends with an interesting idea. He says that if we are truly optimistic, we will believe we will have a choice in the matter.
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