Pan-entheism and “prayer”

(first of a series on “Prayer in a Material Universe”)

1. Pan-entheism

“Pan-entheism” is a term that tries to say in one word that a “divine principle” constitutes the structural core of everything that exists.

To put it another way, pan-entheism means that existence as we experience it in ourselves and in the world around us is the active presence — the energy — of a divine principle or source.  It is all there is.  There is nothing else.  It is the definition of existence, esseThe use of the word “divine” is meant to describe the psychological effect — the relationship — which this existential “donor” activity has traditionally generated in the human recipient.

I am intentionally avoiding the word “God,” because it immediately connotes a rational humanoid all-powerful and all-knowing immaterial personal entity who plans, chooses, acts and guarantees the realization of “his” plans for our material universe.  I claim that such a “person” — the traditional “God” of supernatural theism — does not exist.

The “divine principle” I speak of, as far as human knowledge can discern, is not an entity.  It is not “an individual,” much less a “person” rational or non-rational.  What is undeniably known is that it is a “prin­ciple,” “source” or “wellspring” of our material existence — what the Greeks called archē (αρχη),[1] that is perceptible, i.e., empirical: able to be experienced, observed, measured or related to only in its “concrescences.”[2]

“Divine principle” does not refer to any entity or quantity that is directly known.  It refers to whatever it is and however it may achieve its results, that either is, or is responsible for, the following effects that impact human beings at the very core of their existence and identity:  (1) the existence of a universal and homogeneous indestructible material energy, observed, measured, described and made clearly known to us by science, that constitutes the basic components of every structure and every force and feature of the cosmos including ourselves; (2) “life” experienced as a conatus sese conservandi, an “instinct for self-preservation,” derived from the existential energy of matter, characteristic of all known organisms which is expressed as the spontaneous desire to survive, defend, enhance the organism and to reproduce, thus sustaining an evolutionary process from which emerge new and unforeseen entities that populate our planet in a near infinite number of species; (3) a necessary embrace of existence, also known as a sense of the sacred in humans, springing from the connatural concurrence of our organismic conatus with the availability in the environment of the resources necessary for the successful pursuit of survival and reproduction.  Humans necessarily take joy in being-alive and necessarily cherish whatever provides, protects and enhances their life … I repeat, necessarily.  It is a function of the conatus which is itself a necessary function of material energyNo one can suppress their existential hunger, nor their joy when that hunger is satisfied.  These are bodily reactions beyond voluntary control.  We are physically predetermined to love being-here.

The “divine principle” is the unknown “source” that is, or provides, the matrix which makes us ourselves and the means to remain ourselves.  Logically speaking, the sense of the sacred that arises spontaneously in us is not an option; we are locked into an auto-appreciation whose denial is not possible without being pathological and self-destructive. The inner logic of the constitutive connection between the individual and its various sources of support reaching ultimately to its existential source extends the diagnosis of pathology to cover the denial of the divine principle itself.  One cannot cherish oneself without appreciating the sources of one’s support.  The alternative is a self-contradiction and therefore — theoretically — not an option.  That it has, in fact, been claimed a valid choice is an anomaly made possible, and in some cases seemingly inevitable by a severely distorted social history regarding “religion.”  This is a very big topic that we will deal with at another time.

Defining the source of existence as a “divine principle” is also an attempt to identify all the “being” there is (whatever exists) as its manifestation while at the same time refusing to say that the two are simply one and the same thing.  From the side of the concrescences, the concrete existents, there is nothing there that is not the activated divine principle, while from the side of the divine principle, whatever it is, there is obviously always more potential than what has been activated in the various concrete existents, singly or collectively at any given point in time.  In other words, what actually exists and the divine principle are not simply one and the same thing … but what actually exists is only an expression — an observable activation — of that one same divine principle.  The scholastics called it esse.

That means that the only visibility, the only empirical reality this “divine principle” has is in the concrete existents which it constitutes and enlivens.   “Constitutes and enlivens” is intended to evoke an immanence that is quite thorough.  To repeat what was said earlier, “It is all there is; there is nothing else” but this divine principle.  The archē does not reside in the “thing” as a separate entity/tenant, but rather suffuses it totally: for it is the very existence of the “thing.”  They are completely commensurate.

That is what I mean by pan-entheism.

2. Experience and intention (attention)

Based on the foregoing, it follows that all human experience — interior or exterior — is necessarily, in fact if not in awareness, an experience of the divine principle.  Existential energy’s empirical qualities are palpable in the conatus of each respective concrescence; the archē, source, is not experienced as separate from the entity driven by the conatus (mine or others’).  Nor does it immediately imply that the experiencing subject adverts to the relationship.  There is no immediate evidence that there even is a relationship.  The conatus is not spontaneously reflective; it is focused on the survival of the composite organism in space and time, the tasks that survival requires and the enemies that threaten it.  The conatus is a drive emanating from the existential energy of matter; it is common to all matter; it is not an exclusively human phenomenon and it is not fundamentally rational.

Since the divine prin­ciple is not an entity it is not directly or separately perceptibleIt is not a thing.  Its active presence takes the form of the concrescence in question.  That means there is no distance, no difference in fact between the divine principle and the existing “thing” which it activates.   Whatever distance (and difference) there is between them, is due to the focus of human consciousness alone; it is entirely a question of human cognitive attention.  Consciousness does not directly experience the divine principle as such; it only experiences the concrete existent and its intentions, driven by its conatus; any conscious focus on the divine principle is indirect — an inference.

We directly experience the divine principle because, metaphysically speaking, it is all there is.  But, psychologically — from the perspective of our awareness of it — that it is a “divine principle” is an inference.  It is what we are experiencing, but it is a mediated experience, a “cause” known only in its effects.  Our awareness of what it is goes beyond what we experience; it is metempirical.   But the “distance beyond” is exclusively due to the empirical focus — the intentionality — of human consciousness.  There is no relationship as between two entities, for there are not two entities there.  The divine principle is not an entity.  There is only one entity, the concrescence, and it is constructed of the “divine principle.”  The unity here is total.

Reductionists claim this metempirical designation is really a pretext for admitting illusion and duality into the equations about reality.  They say it is “mysticism,” which for them means conjuring imaginary entities and forces and a world that does not exist.  They speak as if this inference were a gratuitous projection.  But it is not; it is similar to my knowledge of the components and functions of my body — from large organs down to the quarks and muons that are the substrate of matter.  My know­ledge of my own substructures is an inference based on the observations and measurements of science expanding on what I have learned over a lifetime of experiencing life in my body.  It is a valid way of knowing certain things so long as it is employed with due regard for its limitations.  This inferential “know­ledge” does not imply there is more than one “thing” there.  No substructure or component of my body has any identity or conatus-energy that is independent of my integrated self.  They are all known to “me” as if they were “other” than me, for my only direct experience is of my self … everything else is inferred.

This metempirical awareness may enter into the way I manage my life.  I may, for example, take the advice of medical science that warns me that smoking tobacco may cause emphysema and decide to quit, while someone else might declare that they “don’t believe it” because they do not directly experience smoking as painful or debilitating.  Metempirical knowledge may be both valid and logically compelling, but it still remains “beyond experience” and its compelling quality comes from logic, reason, inference — not from direct experience.

But metempirical does not mean it’s not there or even the totality of what is there; it only means the difference and distance is in our heads, not in reality.  Every facet and feature of everything that exists, is a function of material energy either in itself or as an effect of some immanent unknown material “source” (archē) that sustains that energy from within (from our point of view, they are both the “source of material energy” and any distinction between them is irrelevant).  Our experience, therefore, is always and only the experience of this material energy of which we are constructed; there is nothing else there.  And that “source,” archē, immanent in material energy, generates a “divine” relationship with us because we are stunningly aware that it makes us to be-here and to be us.

 3. “Prayer:” relationship to the archē

The word “prayer” is term whose traditional literal application of “asking God” for something is anthropomorphic and obsolete.  I am reluctant to use it at all because it suggests expectations that do not exist.  But since its grosser uses have been transcended even among many traditionalists, I now use it, cautiously, to mean only our affective relationship to our source.

Now, I claim that the conatus of any given living thing is the concentrated display of its existential energies, the expression of its very coherence as an integrated organism made of parts.  We can see and attend to the form those energies take in living things by observing their behavior and we can draw certain limited conclusions about the character of their source from what we see … always keeping in mind, of course, that their source is not separate but is immanent in their substructure.  Since we have identified the source of these energies as a “divine principle,” it follows that what we are experiencing when we observe the conatus of organisms other than ourselves is the effect of this divine principle as it functions in the real world.

But we also know the archē more intimately because we can attend to the conatus within ourselves.  I claim that the simple act of turning attention to one’s own emerging existence in time with all its associated needs and desires, brings us into indirect, mediated (i.e., mirrored in ourselves) contact with the “divine principle.”  It is, in all essential respects, what has been classically called “mystical experience” or the experience of “God,” notwithstanding its simple and undramatic nature.  Gregory of Nyssa called it the “sense of presence.”  I believe it is fundamentally the same as the Buddhist practice of “attending to the present moment,” what they call “mindfulness.”

Such a perspective follows logically, given the premises outlined above.  My personal conatus is the “gathering,” the synergy resulting from the coalescence of the existential energies (the more primitive conatus, if you will) of the various sub-structural elements that under other circumstances may subsist independently as themselves, but now cohere and are integrated as “me.”  Their combined existential energies collaborate across the entire structural spectrum — organic, molecular, chemical, atomic and sub-atomic (themselves all more primitively structured) — in a seamless unified experience of self-identity.  There is only one “experience,” one conatus, one entity — and it is myself.

But the “present moment” includes the existential energy on display in everything around me.  Any given “present moment” is witnessing material existence creatively occupying new ground that a moment earlier had been “non-being.”

Pan-entheism and “prayer”  — “treat everything as if divine”

Pan-entheism says the “divine principle,” the archē, is inseparably immanent in things.  It doesn’t “dwell” there as if it were a second entity.  There is no second entity.  As esse it is indistinguishable from the existential energy of living organisms and all their constitutive substructures.  I want to emphasize: It is not only phenomenologically indistinguishable, it is physically/metaphysically identical for there is nothing else there but “divine energy” in the form of material existence integrated into an “entity” as this particular organic concrescence.

Not only does every type of micro substructure collaborate in the phenomenon of conatus-driven organic life, but the macro features of the “superstructure” — the fully integrated organic individual — are themselves the end-products of evolution that have been shaped by material energy for material survival through eons of geologic time.  The human “body” is the evolved result of the sequential synergies of more primitive ancestral material organisms driven by their archē-energized conatus to survive.

So we see that both structurally and genetically the conatus I experience as myself is the gathering of the existential energies of evolving matter.  My experience of my living striving self is the experience of the “divine principle” — LIFE, archē — as it gives shape and life to all things.  I claim this is what is palpable in “mystical experience.”  Christian mystics through the millennia who have claimed to have “experienced God” were in fact experiencing themselves as the expressions of the archē … and the “growth” that they claimed was occurring in this “relationship” with the “Other” was in fact the growth in their own personal awareness that everything, including themselves, is “divine.”  The personal theist “God” is a metaphor — a poetic personification — of the self-appreciation and personal trajectory of the conatus, increasingly aware of and increasingly determined to act in congruence with, its source.

Don’t get me wrong.  You do experience “God,” but what pan-entheism tells us is that the experience is of ourselves as the expression of the “divine principle” not of some separate “person.”  The “presence” that energizes existence is mediated through its concrescences.  “God” is the immanent energy of existence not a separate “entity.”  The scholastics called it esse.

“Well, isn’t ‘God’ transcendent as well as immanent”?

Even allowing  the use of that word which comes from essentialist metaphysics, “transcendent” never meant that “God” was an entity; quite the opposite, essentialists employed it to mean that “God” could not be delimited to any finite reality, and an “entity” of whatever kind, by definition, is not other entities and therefore to that degree is not infinite.  Also “transcendent” does not imply that “God” is rationally interactive.  That was an imaginary projection of theism and it is belied by experience.  “God” is not another “person;”  we may talk to “God,” but “God” does not talk to us.  The personal humanoid “God” is a fantasy that has stood as a metaphor for my self as the locus, mediator and mirror expression of the archē.

Metaphor and religion

Don’t misunderstand.  There is nothing necessarily misleading or illusory about religious metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  They are not lies (except if they are taken literally); metaphors are poetic symbols that help us relate to what we cannot see or say and can barely understand; They are necessary to sustain our relationship to our immanent metempirical source.  They lose their validity only when we forget that they are metaphors — relational poetry — not literal “facts.”

The existence of the archē, source of existential energy, responsible for our dependent relationship, is a “fact;” it is the only “fact” that religion validly knows.  Exactly what the “source” is, however, is not known.  Religious metaphors that “personalize” and “humanize” the archē are poetry.  They achieve an affective intensification that is altogether fitting, given the intimate nature of the relationship that is created by the source which is providing me with me.  Nothing could be more personal, more constitutive and therefore more emotionally important to me than what gives me myself.  It would seem incomprehensible not to turn to poetry to extol it, and the ecstatic language generated by the various traditions in the effort to do so reflect an appropriate passionate enthusiasmWe are dealing here with the extreme emotional reverberations of a relationship that is constitutive of human personal existence and identity.  This is not frigid science.  It is the expression of a generative love-relation­ship, a carnal event of unparalleled intimacy with which the interpersonal conjunctions of orgasmic sexual experience pale in comparison.

This perspective is borne out by the great mystics of our tradition for whom the “experience of God” is not something separate from or independent of their personal existence.  It is identified with their own individual moral and emotional development that flowers in compassion, generosity and service to others.  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the earliest mystical theologians said that “God” is “known in the mirror of the soul.”[3]  Using the sun as a symbol for “God,” Gregory says while we cannot look at it directly, we can “look upon the sun within ourselves as in a mirror.”[4]  He also says he experiences “God” not as an entity with a nature, or a recognizable “person” with a face, but rather “as an indefinable presence.”[5]

Gregory’s philosophical perspective on “God” was different from ours.  He believed that “God” was a “person.”  But, even so, he was quite clear that in spite of it, as far as his own experience was concerned, what mediated the presence of “God” was himself.

But of course this “mirroring” works in both directions.  Negatively, if the attitudes and behavior I have forged as my “personality” are egocentric, dissolute, unfocused, self-preoccupied, at the whim of every passing desire and insecurity, my “relationship to ‘God’” will reflect it: scattered, unsure, demanding, adolescent, if present at all.  Or another example: if, like Augustine, I decide to build my life around the condemnation of the spontaneous emanations of my body, it should be no wonder that a relationship to “God” based on such a distortion will turn out to be unsustainable.  How can I despise myself and still love my source.  Relationship to “God” will quickly be declared impossible without the “miraculous intervention” of divine grace and a limitless “forgiveness” coming from another world.  One may assume that a “God” who doesn’t perform such a “miracle of grace” in my case does not consider me worth saving.  What are my options then?  Suicide?  Perhaps I can wing it … repress myself … do whatever it takes to tell myself (and convince others) that I am not a reject … if I can’t “be,” perhaps I can “seem” … and at least stay alive.

The depths of self-loathing, repression, and self-deception in such a scenario are bottomless.  And many are quite familiar with it.  The correlation between a healthy balanced human development — which integrates these bodies evolved by LIFE and the society in which they are formed and sustained — with “relationship to ‘God’” is absolute.

What we have made of ourselves determines what we think about “reality” and the “God” who is the source of that reality.  Is this purely arbitrary?  What we think we are is certainly our choice, and comes to be embedded in the social structures that evolve as our culture.  (And the culture, in turn, shapes the personalities of the young ones who follow us.)  It can be a wise choice.  A personal/communal integration focused on shaping one’s personal desires around “wanting for others what one wants for oneself” mirrors the universal availability of the divine principle, and it integrates social justice and personal morality.  Freud said emotional maturity means that our personalities pass from being selfishly “oral” and “anal” to finally becoming “genital” because they become “generative” — generous and life-giving.  The individual is intrinsically communal.  The experience of ourselves receiving and sharing LIFE in a “divine milieu,” is the experience of “God.”

We can see how pan-entheism integrates our religious relationships, our growth in personal liberation/integration and social/political justice.  They are all facets of the same “relationship to ourselves” that is our participation in LIFE.

Make no mistake.  LIFE, archē, is really there, and we know it because we are really here.  But it is not a separate entity.  It has emerged and is on display as us — the living elements of an evolving superorganism.  Our bodies — our communal selves — are where it manifests itself.  We sense its presence mirrored in our selves, and we relate to it with poetic metaphor.   It is in LIFE itself that like sponges in the sea, we “live and move and have our being” and it is in us and our material universe that the archē is incarnate.

[1] The word archē is an ancient Stoic term used by Philo and the epistle of John.  It is often mistranslated as “the beginning.”

[2] “Concrescence” is a term coined by A.N. Whitehead to refer to a “thing” that acquires a complete complex unity — a sustainable coherence — within the primitive substrate which we have been calling “material energy” and Whitehead calls the “primordial nature of God.”

[3] Jean Danielou, From Glory to Glory, texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical writings, St Vladimir’s Pr, NY 1979, p. 25

[4] Ibid., p. 26

[5] Ibid.


2 comments on “Pan-entheism and “prayer”

  1. Michael Daly (Mick) says:

    Hey, Tony..

    This is a superb piece. Scholarly research referenced, classical and scholastic philosophy cited, evolving inferences from 20th century and contemporary scientific discoveries similarly included, concisely and clearly. Christian (Catholic mostly) theological, biblical, theological historical narrative as sub context along with Catholic ecclesiastical history well aligned. And consecutively presented in your writings and books to date. As you know, I’m into it happily and thankfully.

    And, I think it provides an insight into why so little similar has emerged from the enormous body of former Catholic priests. The very large number of thinkers and scholars who delved into Eastern spiritual reflection, the deepening and broadening influence of Chardin, some of the open ended questions of Vatican II experts and commentators, the increasing willingness to critically analyze and question statements and directions of designated diocesan authorities, Vatican subsets, and above, all justified expectancy then of what radically different might happen soon. And yet very little new visionary thinking appeared. Those of similar thinking who “stayed” spoke and wrote less and less. While, for the most part, scholars and theologians and analysts who “left”, when they did comment and write, at best lacked specificity in speculative depth, let alone direction, when looking to the future because most criticism and analysis centered on issues related to the history or nature of an institutional entity.

    Simply put, I suspect the reason for the absence of the kind of thinking I describe is that nobody knew how wrong variously so much of what had been earlier offered was. Not least the utter inadequacy of language for sharing and communicating the deeper realms of philosophy and the now over a century long failure to come to grips with increasingly deeper scientific discovery and research. And much of what had been presented with exaggerated statements of certitude had the added threat of legal censure. Very few, if any, provided deep, comprehensive critique of the most fundamental principles and notions. The few that have are notable by the breadth of their increasing separation beyond the Institution at all levels, now more in reflection about subjects subsumed by the earlier term, doctrine that that subsumed by the term, morals.

    All that said, I hope your blog readers get into this. Your basis for the term, pan-entheism you’ve cited earlier, now with more clarification. Its challenge to shared philosophical basis of your readers (me too) is profound and evolvingly well demonstrated. The way you’ve included appropriate historical citing of earlier theological thinkers and philosophers to demonstrate the radically deep roots of the principles you offer demands serious analysis and study.

    I’ve offered the foregoing to give as early support of this venture as I can. As you know, I’m now into your presentation of the term, being, and its relationship to the possible meanings and citations relevant to giving real meaning to term, spiritual, and I’ll have some comment to include about such soon. Meanwhile, I hope the foregoing is helpful supporting the value and significance of what you’re doing.. ….Mick

    • tonyequale says:


      Thank you for your kind remarks. I find it reconfirming that others throughout our history have made the same discoveries and wrote about them. We are not the first generation of human beings to attend to the wonders — inside and outside of ourselves — of the universe where we live and move and have our being. We are part of an ongoing tradition; there is no intention of re-inventing the wheel. But it’s often lost in the welter of efforts to harness its energies to further power projections and the exercise of control. Turning “awareness” into a well organized club with conditions for membership and subordination to “teaching” authority is probably the most deceptive. It seems natural; it never occurs to us to question it. It’s like Israel wanting to be like other nations and have a king.


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