Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Panentheism, the Itch, and Truth

A Presbyterian colleague of mine, Bob Campbell, and I have been having a dialogue about theology. It is Conversations with Bob! Check to the right of this blog for previous posts! Here is the latest from Bob!


Having never caught panentheism I can’t say if it itches or not. But is it communicable?

Seriously, one of your respondents quoted a definition of panentheism as:

the doctrine that God includes the world as a part though not the whole of his being

Nice call, Viola. Did you get that from an online Webster’s or from a book?

Viola’s quote points to my concern with panentheism. I do believe that God is both transcendent and immanent. I don’t believe that the universe is part of God. I do believe that God created the universe. I think there are both theological and ethical problems with the idea that the universe is part of God. And correct me if I’m wrong, I do think that mine is the Biblical position. Maybe this is something we need to explore in depth: just how much should we take from the Bible as truth about God, God’s relationship with humans, what God wants humans to believe and what God wants humans to do. You said a bit about it and I’ll respond in a later post.

Sin. What is it? On a day to day basis we sin when we do something that is wrong. Sometimes we know it is wrong and sometimes we don’t. Gossiping is wrong and is probably the most ignored sin in the Church. Sin is also a spiritual disease. We could compare it with a genetic disorder that gets passed down from generation to generation. Does that mean I believe in original sin? Yes, I do. I won’t say that it happened exactly the way it’s described in Genesis 3. After all, I do believe that the intent of the story is not to give an exact history of how sin came into the world but rather to describe the break of the relationship between God and humans. What concerns me most about sin is the exponential way it grows in Genesis. The man and the woman start out by disobeying God but disobeying God drives a wedge between the man and the woman. Then the man blames both God and the woman for his own sin. Then Cain kills Abel. And things just keep getting worse.

Does sin have a lack of knowledge problem? I mean does sin somehow limit human awareness of God and what God wants of us? Yes. Is sin limited to lack of awareness and can the problem of sin be fixed by simply having awareness heightened? I don’t think so. After all, Paul points out that he knows what he is supposed to do and what he isn’t supposed to do but he finds himself doing the wrong anyway! Humans need to be released from sin in a way that we are unable to do by ourselves.

And yes, I think Jesus does that for us. I’m traditional trying to be radically Biblical. I believe that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus release us from our sin. I’m not going to talk about how that happens right now. Maybe if we agree that Jesus’ actions release us from our sin then we could talk about how that happens.

You’re right John. We have some large agreements about social ethics and war. I am sure we disagree about some ethical issues too. But my question is: how are we to know what is right and what is wrong. For me, the Bible either tells us directly or points us in the right direction to finding what is ethical and what is not. I suspect we may disagree about this.

Who is going to heaven? First let me say that I think the Bible talks more about entrance into the Kingdom of God than about entrance into heaven. This big emphasis on heaven is a misunderstanding of the Biblical text. As I read the Bible heaven is a temporary place for the righteous dead until Jesus returns and brings the Kingdom in completeness with him. As to who will enter the Kingdom of God, I have to first say that this is God’s business, not mine. Do I believe that the Bible says that faith in Christ is the main criteria for entrance into the Kingdom? Yes I do. But I think there is also Biblical material that suggests that those who have not heard the Gospel will be judged by a standard of obedience, and yes that confuses me.

Who are the elect? You seem to agree with Karl Barth’s conclusion, that all are elect in Christ, although Barth would argue that all are elect in Christ through Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection alone. I suspect you might disagree with Barth.

I think part of our problem with the doctrine of election is the way Reformed types have misused it over the years. I see a clear theme in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, that God chooses some. Certainly God’s election of Israel suggests at least a temporary division of the human race into the elect and the non elect. My concern with scholastic Reformed thought is with the idea of double predestination and limited atonement. The Bible clearly says God elects, chooses people to be God’s people. But, except in some very limited cases, the Bible does not say, it seems to me, that God chooses people for damnation. The problem with the Scholastics is that they took one statement from the Bible, that God elects some, and drew a conclusion from the logical corollary, that if God elects some, God also damns others, both without any action by the elect or the damned. The problem with this logic is that it is Greek logic and not Hebrew logic. Greek logic looks at the question and says the one idea, election to salvation means that the opposite, election to damnation must also be true. I don’t find such logic in the Bible. Hebrew thought seems to be more comfortable with some logical contradictions than Greek thought or at the very least a throwing up of one’s hands and saying, “Who knows?”

What I can say about the doctrine of election is that it’s only purpose is for the comfort and humility of the saints. On our worst days the purpose of the doctrine of election is to tell us that no matter how bad we messed up and how sure we are that God must hate us, that God chose us before we were born. Of course election is also election to service to God too. The humility part is something we Christians have ignored way too often. That is none of us know who is elect and who is not. So we can’t make judgments about other people or misuse or mistreat them.

I will add to this that I agree with you about humans being created in the image of God. We must see the image of God in everyone, including in the person we hate the most. Thus all must be treated with love and respect. That doesn’t mean that I think serial murders and serial child molesters shouldn’t be in jail to protect society. But even, or maybe I should say more particularly prisoners must be treated with respect. And I believe that the American way of prison does just the opposite. The American way of prison denies that the image of God exists in prisoners and therefore is sinful.

One quick comment about religious choice and election. I think we experience religion as choice or what we inherited from being born where we were, although I do believe that Christians must choose to be Christians. You don’t really inherit Christianity. Having said that, while we experience religion as choice, from God’s perspective, people are elected, God chooses before we are able to choose.

I agree with you that God’s election means we don’t have to worry about an afterlife. I disagree with you about whether it matters if there is an afterlife. I’m less concerned with the human desire for an afterlife than I am about the clear message, at least in the New Testament and a slowly growing message in the Old Testament, that God intends life after death for humans.

Another quick comment here. Someone asked about hell. I think the best description is simply separation from God. The Biblical images of fire and worms and sulfur and outer darkness are images for what if feels like to be separated from God. Personally, I hope that C. S. Lewis is right, that there will be a regular tour bus from hell to the Kingdom of God where those who are separated from God can take a look and choose whether they want to be with God or not.

You mentioned organized religion and truth claims. I’m not all that comfortable with organized religion. In fact, after years of experience at presbytery and session meetings I think as organized as we Presbyterians claim to be we really have disorganized religion! I think what we seem to have forgotten is that the whole purpose of the Church is to express the love of God. Charles Wiley wrote a very interesting article on the task of discipline in the Church. Our experience of discipline is that it is punitive. But that was not how Calvin started it. The original purpose of the consistory in Geneva was to help people to find reconciliation with their family members and neighbors. People would go to the consistory knowing that God wanted there to be peace between them and their neighbors and relatives but were unable to find that peace by themselves. The consistory helped them to find that peace. This Wiley called ordinary discipline and suggests that the PCUSA has a problem when we do extraordinary discipline, (what some have suggested you need!), because we don’t do the hard work or ordinary discipline. See Wiley’s article at:


As to the question of organized religion and truth, I think we have things backwards. We don’t have the truth. The Truth has us. If Jesus is the Truth, then we don’t possess the truth. We are possessed by the truth. We are called to do the hard work of evangelism to point to the truth that we do not possess.

On the other hand, from a human perspective, do people of faith make truth claims? Sure we do. People of some faiths claim that the universe exists in fact. People of some other faiths claim that the universe does not actually exist but is in some sense a dream. Personally I am a philosophical realist. I believe the universe actually exists, and I suspect we agree about this. Our faith claims sometimes say one thing is true and some other thing is not true. Others disagree. I personally have a problem with your statements that seem to say that all religious truth claims can be true, including the ones that are clear opposites of each other. For example: Christians claim that Jesus died on the cross. Muslims claim he did not. I find this particular disagreement to be a historical disagreement as well as a theological one. I think that saying that we can smooth over our differences is to dishonor those who disagree. Now that doesn’t mean that we should hate those who disagree with us, in fact the Christian faith demands that we love them. It means that we should get together and talk openly about our agreements and our disagreements both with people who share the same faith and those who are of different faiths. I think we need to do something like what we are doing here, John, although I think it probably works better face to face.

I wonder if I might propose an image to talk about how we disagree about the truth claims of Christianity. Some, maybe like you, see the truth of Christianity like a circle. The center of the of the circle holds the main truth and one can range out from the center finding other truths as well that complement the truth at the center. I see the truth of Christianity like the margins on a page. I got this image from Jack Rogers. Way back when we used DOS programs to write documents we had to set the margins for each document or your sentence would not loop around to the next line. It would just run off into infinity making it impossible to read. When I try to use a really old sermon from the 1980’s I have to go to WordPad and copy the long sentences and paste them in Word so I can read them. I think Christian truth acts like those margins. There are all kinds of things we can discuss and debate within the margins. But outside the margins is non Christianity.

So, when I listen to a statement of faith at a presbytery meeting I’m looking for some certain things like statements on the trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection and others. I’m not concerned that people say it with exact words. In fact I prefer if people say these things in their own language. But if someone says that they don’t believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human I’m going to have a real problem voting to receive that person into the presbytery because I believe they have stepped outside the margins of Christianity. I suspect we disagree about this. I don’t know if the first image describes you or not. Let me know.

Grace and Peace


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