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The God Debate: Monotheism vs Panentheism in Postmodern Society

By Victoria LePage

The way a culture looks at the world, how it relates to nature, what its values and ideals are, how it defines societal structure and norms—all are closely bound up with its concept of God. Western civilization has been dominated from its beginning, or at least from the rise of Christianity, by the monotheistic idea of one Creator God whose sovereignty is universal and absolute. Central to the three Semitic-based religions, this supremely governing idea has shaped our Western culture, imposing its strengths—and its limitations—on us more profoundly than we may realize. But even this most entrenched of Christian doctrines is under scrutiny in the present postmodernist climate.

Monotheism is about 2,500 years old. It was a Judaic reform instituted after the return of the Jewish priesthood from the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century bce, and replaced an older, more complex concept of God that had degenerated into polytheism. From then on, orthodox Judaism cultivated, and bequeathed to Christianity, an image of the omniscient and omnipotent Almighty projected by the Old Testament God Jehovah, Creator and lone Ruler of the universe, who commanded, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me” (Exod. 20.3).

For a further fifteen centuries the monotheistic paradigm remained unquestioned. But it has been faring badly ever since the Dutch philosopher and theologian Benedict Spinoza, influenced by the post-Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno, asserted that since God was a perfect and unchanging necessity implicit in all things, we must reject the possibility of His divine love and freedom of action, attributes that were the very ground of Christian teachings. In the religious sphere, Spinoza marked the beginning of the history of modern skepticism.

Today this skeptical trend is gaining ground. In theological and philosophical circles the monotheistic model of deity that has prevailed for so long in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is being questioned and increasingly discarded as inherently flawed. As a number of eminent authorities have pointed out, the Levitical priests who introduced this great reform did so by stitching together in their revised and heavily edited Yahwist scriptures a composite picture of the Hebrew God, the One God who became known as Yahweh-Elohim (Campbell 96, Schuré 188).

These were names of two divinities with entirely dissimilar and incompatible natures. El or El-Elohim was the ancient High God of the Canaanites and of the northern Israelite tribes of Samaria. Yahweh (Jehovah) was the warrior God or “God of Hosts,” that is, of armies, the God of Judah to the south (Hyatt; Miller and Miller 154).

El-Elohim was also known as Elohe Yisrael, the God of Israel, and as El-Elyon, Abraham’s God and the God of Israel’s fathers. According to some authorities, El’s son El-Shaddai, a god of mountains, also claimed the worship of the Hebrew people, and at some later point Yahweh, a tribal God of the Negev desert, gained the homage of the Judaean tribes and gradually took over the Jerusalem cult from El-Elyon (Miller and Miller 154). Although open to a great deal of disputation among today’s scholars, the amalgamation of these different deities into one Yahwist formula is generally thought to have been the work of the post-Exilic scribes and elders. Whatever the truth of it, to most educated modern eyes the result has been, metaphysically speaking, an infelicitous and unconvincing confusion.

One problem is that El-Elohim, meaning “God of Gods,” belongs to a pluralistic cosmogony, while Yahweh does not. Elohim is the intensive plural of El and designated the High God’s first emanation, a trio of demiurgic principles who together executed the divine Will in the universe. The Elohim could be thought of as either singular or plural, in the sense of a group acting as one or as a plurality, and were generally personified and worshipped as a Divine Family. From this first “family” grew the Canaanite pantheon. The replacement of El by Yahweh to form the name Yahweh-Elohim, still used in orthodox Judaism, therefore contained an inherent contradiction, since Yahweh claimed to be the one and only deity in the Hebrew heavens.

Another problem is that, besides appropriating El’s name, Yahweh had at some point acquired El’s Canaanite consort, the goddess Asherah, whose image shared the Jerusalem sanctuary with Yahweh for many centuries (2 Kings 23.6). She was worshipped there by kings and populace alike until the religious purges of the seventh and sixth centuries bce. So it can be argued that from the beginning an element of doctrinal ambiguity, not to say fiction, entered into the monotheistic reformation.

Amid protests from conservative theologians, some extremely frank voices are now being raised on the issue. Joseph Bracken, S.J., Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, believes that the inadequate monotheistic model of God enshrined in Judaism—that of a transcendent First Principle, infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient, existing outside and apart from the world as its changeless and unconditioned cause and purpose—has actually encouraged atheism and needs to be fundamentally rethought. And Nancy Frankenberry, the feminist Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, states trenchantly that such a static concept of deity is unintelligible and is now “in profound disrepute”:

"The incoherence of the classical conception of God has been so amply documented in the modern period that its persistence in an age of science seems as much a matter for psychoanalytic study as for philosophical comment." [31]

Frankenberry points out that classical theism, under the influence of the Christian church fathers, has exalted a divinity fashioned in the image of the imperial rulers of Rome. This is not surprising, of course, since he was originally a tribal god of somewhat poor character. Even today, after many sublimations, he is not a God of love but of power, an absolute potentate who only by various sophistical evasions and artifices could be said to love his creation. Such a God dwells in despotic majesty beyond space and time, absolutely aloof from the world and its creatures, which he has fashioned as a craftsman fashions an artifact, to conserve or destroy at whim. But the inconsistencies are legion. By what possible logic, Frankenberry asks, can such a self-sufficient and immutable divinity enter into the sufferings and joys of his creatures? Or indeed assume a male gender or human motives? How can an infinite God be meaningfully related to the contingencies of a finite cosmos? If he is omnipotent, why does suffering exist? If we are made in his perfect image, why is evolution necessary? It is this picture, she says, of a transcendent God who “requires for his existence no relations to anything beyond himself” that can no longer be sustained.

Most of us, however, are so accustomed to the monotheistic paradigm as a fundamental pillar of our Western society that, however unsatisfactory, its dismantling is unimaginable—a moral catastrophe of incalculable consequence. Would we not be returning to polytheism or to animistic pantheism—to the primitive language of superstition? Not so, says Charles Hartshorne, an early leader in this radical debate. The abandonment of the classical theistic position paves the way not to a retreat into animism and superstition but to what he calls a “natural theology,” a theology in which God is the Whole and the world is in God: God is embodied by but not limited to the natural world. Therefore the world too is divine, and so is humanity. This is the panentheistic model.

Hartshorne’s most strongly argued work, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, builds on a seminal foundation provided by Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson, arguably the two most groundbreaking religious philosophers of the twentieth century. In his major work, Hartshorne ascribes to God a “dipolar” as opposed to a “monopolar” transcendence. He conceives of God as a modulation between two poles or fundamental aspects: an eternal pole of potentiality and a temporal pole of actuality or manifestation. These two poles are the primordial divine nature and the consequent divine nature. The latter actualizes in the world the divine possibilities of the former.

Thus God is not like a craftsman, supremely independent of his artifacts, but rather like the psyche of an organism such as the human body, intimately related to and caring of its own cellular organization in all its hierarchical complexity. The creation is God’s body: its material evolution necessarily implies a divine evolution and limits the divine potential for infinitude, omniscience, and omnipotence.

Panentheism should not be confused with pantheism. In pantheism the distinction between God and nature is collapsed: God is a divine creative force immanent in all phenomena whatsoever. This is a “monopolar” vision of divinity just as monotheism is, but one that renders all the changes and contingencies of nature illusory. For where everything is divine, nothing is genuinely other. Panentheism, on the other hand, is the concept of deity as both immanent in nature and existing beyond nature, both creative demiurge and all-surpassing Godhead—a “dipolar” unity.

Opponents of process theology, as Hartshorne’s system has been called, have demurred at his imagery, which they say suggests that God’s containment of the world is on the same physical model as a box containing marbles. But this is a misunderstanding of the main thrust of his theory. The panentheistic view is that everything existent is alive, there is no such thing as dead matter; the world lives in God and influences God in the same organic way that the cells of our body influence us. It is a true two-way relationship and should be viewed, says the philosopher Daniel Dombrowski in his critique of Hartshorne’s concept of God,

"on the analogy of our own ability to be influenced by our cells, even though we can also exert an influence over our bodily parts, in that we are “omnipresent” in each part of our bodies. . . . The divine soul [God] is not in the body of the world the way a bean is in a box any more than the human psyche is in the body in such a fashion. Rather, it is in psyche that a bodily cell lives and moves and has its being."

The heart of the panentheistic exposition lies in the twin concepts of divine holism and divine love, which imply a voluntary self-limiting on God’s part, a voluntary self-transformation. So does a mother interact with the child in her womb in such a way that both are undergoing a growth and an evolution together, in mutual love, while remaining distinct entities. On this interpretation, the best of the biblical tradition is the God of love—but this nurturing God is not to be found in the Lord Jehovah.

For proponents of panentheism, God is a meaningless abstraction unless he is the Whole, the one universal Life acting in all particularities yet transcending them, the One who is also Many, the Being who is also Becoming. Such a God is nameless, genderless, formless, a universal and all-merciful divinity beyond race or creed: not the Lord Jehovah, but the unknown and incomprehensible God of the Gnostics, the Ain Soph of the Kabbalists, the Brahma of the Vedantists.

Only the Semitic-based religions have adopted the monotheistic formula: all the other high religions have posited a supreme unknowable Godhead out of whose womb emanates a hierarchy of deific principles that form a bridge with the cosmos. In no other way can God as pure Spirit interact with the creation, except through the activity of a series of lower creative forces imbued with executive power, lower gods or governors who are nearer in nature to the material universe.

Have we then abandoned this great bridging concept of a multileveled cosmogony to our cost? In the ongoing postmodern debate about the decline of Western culture and Western society in general, “the death of God” is one of the most frequent phrases to be heard. But has God died, or has two thousand years of bridgeless monotheistic theology finally robbed us of all meaningful awareness of our Supreme Source—and thereby robbed us of cultural creativity? In short, in refusing contact with our mediating gods, may it not be our own death we are witnessing?

References

  • Bracken, Joseph. “The Issue of Panentheism in the Dialogue with the Unbeliever.” Studies in Religion 21 (1992): 207–18.

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. Vol. 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  • Dombrowski, Daniel. “Alston and Hartshorne on the Concept of God.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 36 (1994): 129–46.

  • Frankenberry, Nancy. “Classical Theism, Panentheism, and Pantheism.” Zygon 28.1 (March 1993): 29–45.

  • Hartshorne, Charles. “An Outline and Defense of the Argument for the Unity of Being in the Absolute or Divine Good.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1923.

  • Hyatt, Philip J. “Compiling Israel’s Story.” In The Interpreter’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. C. M. Laymon. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1984.

  • Miller, M. S., and J. Lane Miller, eds. Black’s Bible Dictionary. 8th ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1973.

  • Schuré, Edouard. The Great Initiates. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.


Victoria LePage, the author of Shambhala (Quest Books), has a lifelong interest in finding the roots of all our religions in an underlying sacred knowledge or primordial gnosis. Her next book will be a study of the origin of Christianity and its relation to Jewish Qabbalah. The author is an Australian living in the rural highlands of New South Wales with her husband.