By Tony Equale

This posting is an attempt to explain what exactly I mean by pan-en-theism and what I don’t.  The view here is mine.  It is premised on the exclusive existence of matter.  There are other versions of pan-en-theism, like Thomism, that admit the possibility of a spirit-matter dualism.  This one doesn’t.

Whatever the metaphysics, the concept of pan-en-theism is not easy to grasp, because it involves imagining physical / metaphysical suffusion and compenetration … in effect many “things” existing in and as the same reality.  There is only one reality, but it supports subordinate “spin-offs” that are perceptible sub-phenomena even while remaining always and only the one reality.  In the case of Thomism it is “being,” in my system it is matter’s energy, which is existence.

Let’s begin by looking directly at what I am talking about:  “I” exist and I am a physical organism.  A body.  Every fiber and function of my existence is matter.  This matter is also what everything else in the universe is … from gluons to globular clusters … from protons to primates.  We’ll talk about “God” in a minute, but right now we are focused on grasping the way individual “things” and the substrate — material energy — of which all things are made, are related.  For in the system I am proposing the relationships are exactly as we perceive them.  There is nothing arcane or hidden.  There are no formulas, equations or algorithms needed to decipher or discern a reality we cannot see.  What we see is what is there.  There is nothing more.  There are “things” one of which is “me” … and there is the universal homogeneous substrate of all those “things.”  The question is: how are we related?

I want to offer some images that may help visualize this.  The first image comes from a suggestion of David Bohm in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1994)Imagine a current, like a river … as this river passes over various formations on the riverbed, turbulences are produced that generate whirlpools, “vortices.”  These vortices take on a particular well defined conical shape — they are perceptible visually, tactily and by sound — and produce an activity that is also perceptible, even measurable and can have a significant effect on things floating in the river.  The vortices, in other words, are phenomenally present and have a function that impacts other things in their own peculiar way that is different from placidly flowing water.  Now the question is this: how would you describe the vortex?  What is it?  It is not something apart from the river even though it is identifiably itself.  It is only “river.”  But, the river is also “more” than the vortex; it produces other vortices, as well as other formations, and clearly it is the river’s downhill energy — a product of gradient, channel area and volume — that is responsible for the shape, size and intensity of the whirling cone displayed in the vortices.  The river and its vortices are one and the same thing.  The river is the reality, the only reality — the only “stuff,” the only “designer” and the only engine — but not the only phenomenon.  Everything the vortex is, from its components to its unique activity, is given to it by the river.

Let’s take another similar example.  This one comes from Thich Nat Han a Buddhist spiritual teacher.  He says all reality is like an ocean which he is looking at from a helicopter.  He notices that, marching toward shore with a regularity like soldiers in formation, there are lines of waves, one after another.  Each wave has a clearly defined shape.  Its volume and speed may even be measurable, and its particular progress toward shore can be followed clearly and unmistakably.  Once it reaches shore it changes shape to become a curling crashing breaker with a character and power that can be awesome and harnessed.  There is nothing there but ocean, and yet the ocean is comprised of these wave formations everywhere.  Does the wave have its own reality?  In a sense, yes.  We can see it, feel it and hear its roar.  We can ride it and it can hurt us.  Over time it shapes shorelines, builds barrier islands and erodes rock formations. But in a deeper sense, no. It is only ocean. It is only water.

“Every analogy limps,” of course, and these images should not be taken to illustrate anything more than the homogeneity of the substrate and material organisms, the “spin-offs” of the substrate, and the way they are related.  The examples are meant to  provide an imagery for our being made of matter’s energy.  They do not, for example, illustrate the increasing individual autonomy of perception and response as organisms evolve into higher and more complex forms of the substrate.

The pan-en-theism I espouse claims that the universal material matrix, of which my flesh is an extrusion, is a living dynamism that unfolds into all things.  It sees this material matrix as having all the qualities and characteristics once attributed to what the western religious tradition called “God.” I list them briefly here:

  1. matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed and so appears to approximate esse in se subsistens, which is the classic philosophical definition of “God.”
  2. matter’s energy is the creative cause, both proximate and remote, of every formation, structure, organism, force, energy and activity in the universe.
  3. matter’s energy is the exclusive source of the conatus sese conservandi, the instinct for self-preservation, that characterizes every observable living thing.  The conatus, in turn, is the sufficient and necessary explanation of the human “sense of the sacred.”
  4. matter’s energy is the one, homogeneous and universal matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being,” thus corresponding to Paul’s definition of “God” at the Areopagus as reported in Acts 17.
  5. material energy seems to be maternally available to become virtually anything other than itself and to offer itself in a kenosis (self-emptying) without reserve allowing other things to be, develop and survive.  (These are also traditional images of “divine benevolence.”)

Pan-en-theism projects that all the human affect and self-disposition once directed by traditional religion to an imaginary theistic “God” will not only be re-directed, but it will be re-formed in accordance with our relationship to this self-unfolding matrix which is the source of everything that is, and everything that can ever be.  And the primary characteristic of this “maternal” source of my body-self is that my body-self is only THAT, i.e. material energy.  In other words, my body-self and material energy are the same “stuff.”  Matter’s energy is not a “thing” separate from myself nor is it at any point in time phenomenally anything other than this universe as it is displayed before us.  There is only one thing out there … material energy, perceptible in whatever forms it has currently evolved, including me.  But material energy is not an inert passive mechanical “substance.”  It is a living dynamism.  It is like the downhill energy of the “river.”

We’ve introduced the image of the “vortex” as an analog to organisms and other “things.”  Do “I” exist separately or am I like the vortex in the river, which is “nothing but river”?  In other words, is there something else besides matter’s energy that explains what I am and what I can do?  In classic terms, is there another principle of being, like an “essence” or a “soul,” apart from matter’s energy, that produces and explains the phenomenon of my “self” — what I am and what I can do?

The view I am proposing says “no.”  This “I” is the self-conscious self-identity of my material flesh.  There is no separate “I” that can look at myself “from the outside” because the “I” exists only by reason of the flesh of which it is the gathered self-conscious self-identity. … it is the self of this flesh.  There is no other principle of being than matter, just as there is no principle of the independent phenomenon of the vortex than the river.  It is the body, the flesh, that determines the “I,” what it is and what it can do.  The “I” is a derivative of this particular configuration of matter’s energy.  Without matter, specifically as configured in this body, there is no “I.”  And correlatively, wherever there is matter, there is, at some level, perceptible to us or not, an “I.”

And as the configurations of matter’s energy become more complex and integrated through the myriad levels of emergence, the “I” which derives from the organism’s awareness of its surroundings becomes increasingly more aware until, at some level, it becomes aware of itself.  Animals, like Chimps are aware of themselves.  Later then, at our human level, through the cultural molding of a society which focuses great attention on the individual, it becomes “self-conscious” to such a degree that the “I” thinks of itself as “independent” and separate from the flesh that it gathers and identifies.  At this point, one may ask: is this degree of “self-consciousness” too much … i.e., pathological?  That’s not a rhetorical question. The self is no longer psychologically bound to its organic foundation even though at no moment is it ever anything else than the center, the “self” of this configuration of flesh. The “I” forgets what it is because the very complexity of its consciousness mediated exclusively through society’s words and language allows it to imagine itself without reference to the body.

The imaginary alienation of the “I” from its material foundations — its flesh — is such a universal phenomenon, that it has spawned a universal reaction within human society.  It has taken the form of remedial programs that propose to return the alienated individual to a phsyical / metaphysical integrity that seems almost impossible to recover.  These therapeutic programs claim that the alienation is so advanced and self-protected that mere “thinking” will not change things.  There needs to be a sustained and focused ascetic discipline (in Freudian psychotherapy, a transference-replay of failed past emotional connections), aimed precisely at overcoming the sense of separateness that derives from human self-consciousness.  It should be noted that this is a species-specific problem that has emerged only over the past 35,000 years and is limited to the only surviving sub-species of homo — sapiens sapiens — as far as we know.  Certain ascetical religious programs that have emerged in complex societies, have taken on the role of a therapeutic response to this particular problem.  However, in the majority of cases, religion has intensified and encouraged this somatic alienation by promoting “doctrines” like that of the immaterial “soul” capable of living without the body, and projecting a world other than this one, where it will live.


However, — and here is where the pan-en-theism I am proposing may be said to separate from other systems, “theistic” and a-theistic — as I see it, the substrate, the very material energy of which my body is made, transcends me.  It is “more” than “I” am, both physically and in range of ability; it does more than “I” can do.   It is “more” than I am, (1) physically, because it is also all things.  I am not all things, even though I am made of the same stuff as all things.  (2) It is “more” than I am because even as my own body, it does things about which I have no knowledge and over which I have no control.  My reproductive power, for example, is a function of my flesh, the material energy that is my body.  The rational, purposeful “I” that thinks, plans, designs, intends, calculates, gathers components and constructs “things” (houses, cars, symphonies, computers, therapeutic programs, philosophies) cannot construct a human being, much less program it with all the developmental algorithms that will bring it infallibly from conception, through birth, growth to full adult maturity.  I simply copulate with my partner in a mindless paroxysm of ecstasy — driven by my “flesh” — and the rest, the conception, fetal development, birth, growth and future mature perfection of the resulting zygote, is the “work” of flesh, operating independently of the human “selves,” with plans, tools, materials and timed sequences of which even my science has only the beginnings of a clue.  Hence, I say my own portion of matter’s energy, my flesh, is “more” than I am.  (Please do not assume I am imputing rationality or “intelligent design” to this process … either from outside or inside … I am not.  I am imputing “life,” transcendent power, endless creative potential to matter’s energy, not rationality.)

We take for granted our body’s developmental process, guiding us from chilhood, through adolescence to maturity.  I was always dumbstruck even as I was growing up, how all the right things happened at the right time.  It was a mayhem of miracles.  I just sat there and it all happened.  My flesh was doing it … matter’s energy was doing it.  I didn’t have the vaguest idea what was going on.  At the end “I” emerged as if from a cocoon.  And that last allusion could be adduced as a parallel example.  These are the operations of material energy drawing on potential that resides nowhere else except within its own depths.  For there is nothing else responsible for these effects … and most certainly not “I” whether “I” am a human or a lepidopteran.

(3) Still on the issue of transcendence: matter’s energy is also “more” than the entire universe such as it is at any given point in time.  Imagine yourself a time traveller.  400,000 years after the big bang, the universe has cooled enough to allow for light to travel uninhibited for the first time, and for protons to capture electrons thus forming the very first hydrogen atoms, which fused into helium, and from that the creation of suns and galaxies.  Would you, peering out on this spectacle, ever have guessed that there was resident in what was only hydrogen fusing and gathering into stars, the potential to fill at least one and maybe many planetary worlds with a near infinite variety of living things including rational intelligence?  Could you ever have imagined, in other words, that what was then only protons and electrons, might combine, and recombine, and then aggregate and reconfigure their recombinations in such a way as to produce a human being?  “Reduce” the human being to its components, and it is nothing but protons and electrons.  There is a “metaphysical” principle that states, ex nihilo, nihil fit, which means “nothing comes from nothing.”  I claim it is validly applied only to the totality of material energy.  What you see is what you get, and what you got you always had … potentially … meaning the power to be and to make be.

Material energy is and was always what it is.  It is not now, nor ever was any different from what began the 14 billion year expansion started at the big-bang.  It is only as later developments manifest the inner capacities, the real potential, of material energy, that we begin to see it for what it really is … a living dynamism capable of constructing out of its own “self” an apparently endless variety of increasingly complex versions of itself.  This to me is transcendence.  No “Santa Claus” theist projection could be any more “God” than what we see actually unfolding before our astonished eyes.

“God” — theism and pantheism

The cat is out of the bag; we have used the “G” word.  Pan-en-theism, while it says we are part of “God,” reluctantly uses the word “God” because the word immediately conjures the image of a separate “entity” … even a “person” … who thinks, reasons, works and achieves planned results on matter from a realm of “spirit” that supposedly exists beyond matter.  Theism rests on a real distinction (physical and metaphysical) between “God” and the material universe, and it assumes a “rational” God-entity.  While “theism” claims to hold that “God” is immanent as well as transcendent, in fact it imagines divine immanence as some sort of “presence” as of one thing to another, vitiating the very notion of immanence.  It’s a pseudo-immanence that Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar ridicules as imagining “God” residing in some corner of the soul like a tenant in an attic room, or just simply “being everywhere“ but always as “other” and “next to” the things “he” accompanies.  Rather he says, immanence refers to complete commensurality and suffusion.  Pan-en-theism does not accept theist imagery.  So to include the word “theism” as part of the term “pan-en-theism” is somewhat misleading.  It amounts to defining pan-en-theism in terms of theism.  But pan-en-theism is not “theism” in any shape or form.  They do not share the same idea of the “G” factor.

But in our times, we insist on “one-word” descriptors and so we use the label “pan-en-theism” despite the fact that it distorts the issue and guarantees that any explanation of the term will first require a thorough disclaimer of many of its implications.

Pantheism for its part is claimed to assert that God and the universe are one and the same thing … that they are not distinguishable in any way.  Materially speaking, pan-en-theism says the same thing.  Where they differ is in the transcendence which I am equating with matter’s potential for producing new things.  If pantheism could mean anything, it would have to deny transcendence to the matrix altogether, which would necessarily belie the 13.7 billion years of unpredictable development we see before us.  Since I have never known anyone who says these things, I am inclined to believe that there really are no “pantheists.”  Rather, I believe that pantheism is a misnomer that was traditionally applied by the Church to any and all religious visions that did not conform to the anthropomorphic imagery of the separate theist “God-person” used by the “Book” and exploited shamelessly by the Roman Empire to exact obedience from its subjects.  “Pantheism” was used to condemn what in reality was pan-en-theism.

In this regard, the discoveries and recent dissemination of information about Gnostic Christian documents unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 indicate that some forms of gnosticism were really a christian “pan-en-theism” that was persecuted into extinction by the Roman authorities in the centuries immediately following Constantine. The writings in these codices, dating back to the 2nd century AD, were believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the posses­sion of such banned writings, denounced as heresy, was made an offence.  I am inclined to interpret this development as an instance of the same theocratic imperative, suppressing what did not work for state authority, that motivated the Roman embrace of Christianity to begin with, and has characterized western Christianity ever since.

In another example, the vision of the brilliant Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century which recapitulated the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, of great interest today to scholars and spiritual teachers alike who recognize it as pan-entheist, was condemned in the 13th century, 350 years after his death, as “pantheism.”

Thomistic “participation-in-being”

I myself have recently been accused of being a pantheist.  This is an example of how the word is applied ignorantly by those who have no idea what it means.  These people are the product of Roman dogmatic fundamentalism.  They don’t understand pan-en-theism, which is just a new word for the old concept of “participation in being,” the basis for understanding divine immanence in the scholastic system.  But they don’t understand “participation in being,” or divine immanence either .  These are essential components of our tradition.  These people call themselves Catholic because of ethnic inheritance, but they make no effort to know or understand our tradition.  Nevertheless, they love to hurl anathemas in its name.  They are the “tea-party” supporters of knee-jerk Roman absolutism, and they abound.  They have helped turn the Catholic Church into the ideological flag-bearer of the fascist far right and a once robust corps of scholars and intellectuals into groveling toadies, ready to sign away their right to think just to hold on to their jobs.

The Roman fundamentalist mindset supported anti-intellectualism.  Roman Catholics were taught they had infallible truth in the ordinary magisterium.  That meant the catechism was all you needed … and too much knowledge would “puff you up.”  Thus “divine immanence” was effectively eliminated.  Like the “resurrection of the body,”  it was retained in name only, but lost all its meaning.  And both the material and the mystical sides of our tradition were gutted.   It left us with a moralistic authoritarianism that encouraged fear, estrangement, groveling obedience and smoldering resentment.

Divine Immanence

Let’s review “divine immanence” in traditional terms.  “Participation in being” re-presented essentially the same conceptual relationships between “God” and “creation” as any form of pan-en-theism.  Thomism is a good example.

For Thomas, God is “Being” and all things, insofar as they exist, participate in the one act of existence which is the Divine Essence itself.  “God’s” essence, those trained in the Thomist system will remember, is to exist.  In “God” essence and existence are one and the same thing.  God”s “essence” is the act of existence … the only one..  There is no existence that is not “God” “him”self. Nothing exists on its own.  We remember that the “concept of being” had certain characteristics … one of which was that it was “one” … this is what it means.  There are no multiple “existences.”  God doesn’t break off a piece of being and give it to you.  God does not “give” some “being” to a creature who then “has it as his own.”  In the Thomist vision, God shares his own act of existing with us from moment to moment.  Our existence, in other words, is not just “God’s,” it is God.  All things exist in God.  Hence the word pan- (all things) -en- (in) -theos (God).  Classic Thomism is a pan-en-theist system.

So, if I claim to be a pan-en-theist, why don’t I just subscribe to Thomism, and stop creating so many problems?  Precisely because Thomism is idealist, essentialist and dualist and that means it presents a false picture of reality.  Those terms mean that it does not conflate with modern science or common sense, and in certain respects it is internally incoherent.  Let me explain:

Idealism suggests that God “thinks” and has “ideas” — that there is a “rationality” operating in the Mind of God, an Intelligent Designer.  I do not believe that.  From what we can see there is no rational purpose in the universe until it emerges in intelligent organisms under the guidance of natural selection … and science accumulates more evidence for it everyday.  But we have to realize there is nothing new here.  Even for Thomas God does not do things for “purposes” because he is already in full possession of everything there could ever be.  God has no purpose beyond being “him”self … and that means simply “to be.”  If “he” wills us to be, it can only mean we are part of “him”self.  So the Aristotelian-Thomist insistence on the primacy of final causality, which implies purposes and from there thought, is internally inconsistent with Perfect Being in Pure Act.  Ends, purposes and therefore ideas-as-plans are exclusive features of finite existence which by definition lacks something that it needs and therefore has to make plans to get it.  Perfect Being can have no plans … no plans whatsoever … because it needs nothing! And without purposes there are no plans, and without plans there are no ideas.  Without ideas there is no rational mind, as we understand the term.  Whatever “mind” there is, is doing something other than “thinking.”

Essentialism assumes that created entities have the form and function they do because “essences” — which are (necessarily finite) ideas originating in the self-contem­plating Mind of God — were inserted into “prime matter” by God at creation, giving it purpose and form.  But this vision lacks internal coherence.  “God” as Pure Act cannot possibly have a multiplicity of finite ideas … and all “essences” are the ideas of finite creatures and necessarily finite.  Besides, the real world shows absolutely no evidence for this theory, and in fact, suggests the contrary.  Evolution indicates that the form and function of entities is rather the result of the organism’s drive to survive.  There is no purpose beyond simply existing with whatever form and function works.  There is no teleology that is not introduced by the evolving entities themselves.

And dualism insists there exists a separate genus of being called “spirit” which is totally opposed to matter.  It is what God supposedly is and what our immortal souls supposedly are.  It says we are different in kind from the rest of the entire material universe.  But why should an immaterial “God” create matter, a “substance” that is opposed to what “he” is in every way?  And why should “God” enclose our immaterial souls in bodies of flesh and a universe that is nothing but matter.  It makes no sense.  Besides, there is no evidence for it in the real world.  I conclude: there are no spirits, there is no other world, there are no “ideas” emanating from the mind of God, and there are no immortal souls.  What we see is what there is, and what there is is a universe of material energy which has to exist and in pursuing that “need” produced this incredible universe.

Matter’s energy is a living dynamism that has drawn out of its own inner depths everything that exists in this spectacular universe, too huge to imagine and, in the life forms that have evolved on earth, too complex and far ranging in their capabilities to comprehend.

Please notice: the phenomena that I am bringing forward for examination are simply the exact parallel of Thomas’ relationships within being, but given in material terms.  If it were the 9th century Irishman Eriúgena making this case instead of me, he would say that Spirit emanated matter and that explains why the relationships within the material universe are the material analogues of the relationship of Natura naturans to natura naturata.  They exactly mirror “ideal” reality because they are the material expression of it.  “Creation,” he says, “is a theophany — the Mask of God.”

I do not bring this up in order to promote Eriúgena’s neo-platonic vision.  I am simply showing that pan-en-theism represents a set of conceptual relationships that can function within any number of cosmo-ontological hypotheses about the ultimate nature of reality.  A materialist pan-en-theism preserves those same relationships.  Dualism and idealism do not work for reasons of their own … not because they happen to be pan-en-theist.