(The following is a long unmodified excerpt taken from Marcus Borg’s 2006 volume Jesus, Uncovering the Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. The publisher is HarperOne, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishing, New York, pp. 110 – 112.) My observations and comments are underneath it.
SPEAKING OF GOD by Marcus Borg
The notion that God can be experienced is foreign to many in the modern world. Atheists, of course, deny that such experiences are possible, and agnostics are skeptical. But even many Christians in our time find the claim strange. To a considerable extent, this is because the most common modern Western concept of God, shared by Christians as well as by many atheists and agnostics, is that the word “God” refers to a personlike being separate from the universe. Because this “superbeing” is not here, but somewhere else, “out there,” beyond the universe, God is not a reality that can be experienced.
The term commonly used for this way of thinking of God ― as a being separate from the universe ― is supernatural theism. This form of theism seems orthodox to many Christians because of its familiarity. Language that speaks of God as a personlike being is common in the Bible. Perhaps the most familiar example is the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven.” But when taken as a concept of God, as the meaning or referent of the word “God,” it is misleading and inadequate, for it is only half of the biblical concept of God. It speaks only of God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness.
The Bible also speaks of God’s presence everywhere and in everything. This is most concisely expressed in words attributed to the apostle Paul: God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). Note what the language affirms: we live within God, we move within God, we have our existence within God. God is not somewhere else, but right here, all around us, the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. Though this notion sounds foreign to some Christians, it really shouldn’t. Most of us heard it while we were growing up: God is everywhere, God is omnipresent. The semi technical term for this is God’s immanence, which means “indwelling.” God dwells in everything, and everything dwells within God. For the Bible, and for orthodox Christian theology through the centuries, God is both transcendent and immanent, both more than the universe and present in the universe.
A term increasingly used to name this way of thinking about God is panentheism.
Its Greek roots indicate its meaning: pan is the Greek word for “all” or “everything”; theism comes from the Greek word for “God,” theos; and the middle syllable en is the Greek word for “in.” Panentheism affirms that everything is in God, even as it also affirms that God is more than everything. Though the term is only about two hundred years old, the notion is as ancient as the language of supernatural theism.
But in recent centuries, many Christians began to think of God as only transcendent. The cause of the change was the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. Before then most Christians thought of God not only as more than the world, but also as present in the world. The world was shot through with the presence of God. But the Enlightenment led to a new way of thinking of the universe, as a closed system of matter and energy operating in accord with natural forces. In effect the Enlightenment removed God from the universe; nature became disenchanted, the world became desacralized.
The notion that God is “everywhere,” God’s immanence, was eclipsed. Panentheism was replaced by supernatural theism.
Whether people use the term “panentheism” does not matter. But whether people think of God as only transcendent (supernatural theism) or as both transcendent and immanent (panentheism) does matter. For many people in our time, supernatural theism is the only concept of God they know, and it often leads to skepticism about God. When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Almost always, it’s the God of supernatural theism. Thinking that the Word “God” refers to a being separate from the universe, “out there” and “not here,” is a major cause of modern atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism. The difference between these two forms of theism matters for an additional reason. For supernatural theism, God is not here and thus cannot be experienced, except perhaps in moments of supernatural intervention. This God can only be believed in, not known. We will know God only after death; in this life we can only believe. For panentheism, however, God is here, all around us, even as God is also more than everything. It thus provides a framework for understanding what it means to speak about experiencing God.
SOME OBSERVATIONS (by Tony Equale)
I think this is a great statement. It is expressed very simply. It avoids difficult concepts and esoteric terminology even while it presents what for most of us must appear to be a radically new way of conceiving “God” and God’s relationship to the universe. As Borg says, even though the term, panentheism, is new, the notion is ancient. Throughout this book, Borg shows himself to be a master of the uncomplicated explanation using traditional terms to clarify issues that challenge traditional understanding.
This is a more difficult task than it appears. Traditional concepts were not designed to convey certain sigificant differences in meaning in the new area. Efforts at simplicity and restriction to traditional concepts, therefore, can run the risk of an over-simplification that misses the point.
For example, Borg explains that panentheism means
“what we heard when we were growing up: God is everywhere, God is omnipresent. The semi technical term for this is God’s immanence, which means “indwelling.” God dwells in everything, and everything dwells within God.”
As good as that statement is, it does not address the fact that the traditional notion imagined God to be present to but separate from the universe of material and living things, like an “invisible man” standing alongside of you, or present to all things by his knowledge. That traditional image is different from panentheism which says that God’s very being suffuses created reality the way the ocean permeates a sponge. But even that analogy “limps,” for to say we dwell in God as a sponge in the sea, still imagines that there is some part of the sponge’s organism that is not the sea … while the traditional christian doctrine of God’s immanence implies no such separation or division. And we must recognize this is ancient traditional christian doctrine, even though it was NOT part of the imagery we were taught when we were growing up.
Raimundo Panikkar, the great Catholic theologian, warns us against a notion of indwelling that imagines God as if He were a tenant residing in a corner of the soul. The concept, he says, should rather be one of complete suffusion and comensurability. In other words, there is no part of us that is ours and not God’s.
Another point. Borg also takes pains to suggest that panentheism is biblical; he even quotes from Acts 17 as I do in An Unknown God. But I think we should be honest and admit that the immanence that is part of our ancient inheritance is not the dominant imagery presented by scripture, neither in the Old nor in the New Testaments. Immanence is a philosophical concept that derives from the unicity of the concept of being. Even in the citation from Acts 17 Paul is referring to a Greek poet who is expressing the insight of Greek philosophers, that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” So, yes, it is definitely in scripture … and indeed in more places than just Acts 17. But panentheism does not represent the predominant imagery about God in the Bible. The Bible’s image of God is more like the one we were brought up in, and that in part accounts for why immanence was not part of popular preaching and basic christian education.
It might not be out of place to point out that panentheism is much more unambiguously presented in Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts.
The last observation I want to make is more academic, and less important. Borg presents the common opinion that it was with the Enlightenment that the sense of God’s immanence was lost. I disagree and I have posted a lengthy explanation of my position on this blog, entitled “The Watershed Century.” Those interested in the topic may read about it there.