Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Panentheism

In his seminal work of theology, For the Life of the World, the Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann made a bold claim. He asserted that contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not actually a religion at all. “Religion,” he says, “is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between God and man. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.”

But isn’t Christianity one of the world’s ‘great religions,’ alongside Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism? Can’t Christianity be described as a ‘faith system,’ with tenets, rules and rituals, just like every other religion?

Yes and no. It is certainly true that Christianity resembles a religion. It has scriptures and spiritual writings, patterns of communal worship, methods of prayer and meditation. Some of us have formal sacramental rituals, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. Our beliefs can be described in creeds and catecheses. In short, Christianity appears very religious upon first inspection.

A closer look, however, reveals that while Christianity is superficially religious, its inward reality is very distinct from traditional notions of religion, which tend to fall into two distinct categories. First are what may be called pantheistic religions, which equate the cosmos with the divine principle. All natural things may thus be worshipped as gods, since all of them (the sun, the moon, the earth, the trees and rivers, and any animal) are simply frequencies of the same divine radiance.

Although pantheism says that one may encounter specific and concrete aspects of God, the divinity itself—sometimes described as the sum total of all that ever was, is, and ever shall be—remains abstract and unattainable. In that sense, pantheistic faiths are religions: systems of beliefs and ritualistic mechanisms that mediate between humanity and an unknowable divinity.

The second category of religion might be called theism. In contrast to pantheism, theism asserts the idea of a transcendent Divinity who exists above and beyond the cosmos. But while God is wholly other from the world that He created, most theistic faiths teach that God has established laws, moral codes, scriptures, and even rituals as points of mediation between God and His creation.

While many Christians might call themselves theists, I would suggest that theism itself is not a full and authentic expression of Christianity. While we can know about God through a text (such as the Bible or the Koran) or a sacrament (such as the Eucharist or the Seder), we can’t actually encounter the Person of God Himself. Like a restricted form of pantheism, the theist God is still mediated by things, and as such the religious ‘wall of separation’ remains standing.

Radically, Christianity offers a third alternative to religion in its pantheist and theist varieties. The classic teaching of Christianity begins theistically: there is one, all-powerful, transcendent God who says of Himself, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) According to Christianity, however, this transcendent God, who is above all things, mystically united Himself to His creation in and through the flesh of His Son Jesus Christ.

And the most profound mystery of all is that in becoming a man, God did not get lost in His creation. Just as Christ’s human and divine natures were never confused and mingled, so too God remains distinct from His creation, still the one God, YHWH, who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Christianity is neither pantheist (equating God with the cosmos), nor theist (separating God from the cosmos). Rather, God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ lifted up the cosmos, binding it forever to His divine nature, so that the universe itself becomes the full revelation of the one Godhead that always transcends the universe.

This is what might be called the ‘panentheist’ vision of Christianity. Panentheism, which means literally ‘all in God’ neither seeks to worship the things of this world (pantheism), nor seeking revelation and illumination in specific religious activities (theism). Rather, for the panentheist, the transcendent Presence of God lies at the heart of the ordinary activities of our lives—work and play and family—like a great bonfire waiting to purify and transform us with its flame. The things of this world are not fragmentary sources of the divine, but channels for the divine fountainhead which flows ‘from above’ and is not of this world. (John 8:23) Divine grace is not mediated only in specific texts or sacramental rituals; rather, life itself is a sacrament. Simply by living our lives as genuine human beings, we can actually meet God and know Him, not just intellectually, but intimately, actually, and completely.

So if Christianity is the end of all religion, why do we need its formal religious aspects at all? Why go to Church, read the Bible, pray, get baptized, or partake in the Eucharist? A little analogy to conclude. As a parent, I am always teaching my children how to say “thank you” with the intention of instilling in them a spirit of gratitude for the gift of life. Without this attitude, the words “thank you” are mere politeness at best, and cynicism and superficiality at worst. But having the attitude without the form is equally meaningless. After all, abstract gratitude without an expression of gratitude has just as little force as an insincere “thank you.”

So it is with Christianity. Unless we live as panentheists, immersing our whole life in God, our Christianity is nothing more than dead, nominal religion. But equally necessary are Christianity’s texts, spiritual traditions and sacramental rituals, by which we fulfill our ‘all in God’ way of life by naming the Source of that way in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is proclaimed and handed down from the beginning, who made His divine life human to make our human life divine.

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