Panentheism and Plankton
Theology in a Teaspooon of Seawater
Plankton are a multitude of organisms adrift in the currents of oceans, rivers, and lakes. They are the earliest and most enduring forms of life on earth. Some are animals, some plants, some bacteria. Biologists do not consider them as a species or a genus, but rather as a group of living beings who have a common lifestyle. They are free spirits: drifters who refuse to be situated in one place and who, were they human, would be suspicious of labels.
As a group they are also survivors. It is probable that, long after humans have disappeared from the planet, the plankton will inherit the earth. Seventy five percent of the planet is covered by water. The plankton will inherit the earth.
Many are Called, Few are Chosen
As individual organisms, though, their lives are not easy. Consider some of the narration in one of the videos: "The Secret Life of Plankton."
"A teaspoon of seawater can contain more than a million living creatures. It can be a pretty tough existence, though. Trillions are born here, but only a few make it to adulthood."
"He may be no larger than a pinhead, but this crab larva is an arrow worm's worst nightmare. Epic battles like these are just one way to get food."
"With two sets of eyes, this female prowls the deeper water. Prey in hand, she performs one of the strangest behaviors in the entire animal kingdom. With body parts from her victims, she delicately assembles a barrel-like home, feeding her young until they can drift off and survive on their own."
"Cannibals, like this sea butterfly mollusk that eats its next of kin...Some of these snare their prey with sticky tentacles, while others just take a bit out of their cousins."
"Here among the plankton, the food web is so complex; even scientists do not know who eats whom."
There's a clear conclusion to draw from this. Life is beautiful and strange, poignant and powerful, and life is also robbery.
The phrase comes from Whitehead in a chapter called The Order of Nature in Process and Reality.
"Another characteristic of a living society is that it requires food. The
living society may or may not be a higher type of organism than the food which it disintegrates. But whether or not it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that life with morals becomes acute. The robber requires justification."
We are robbers, too. We may not eat our next of kin but we do indeed eat other living beings -- plants or animals -- who are motivated by a will to survive. And every time we wash our hands, or fight a disease, we are killing other living beings who want to survive.
Many of the religously-minded among us must inevitably ask: Where is God in all of robbery? Why so much violence?
One option some people take is to imagine God as a clockmaker who creates the world and then watches it unfold from a distance, perhaps intervening from time to time in special circumstances. This is called deism.
It offers the image of a God who is powerful, intelligent, and arbitrary. There's a clinical distance in this God, but not much tenderness.
The Multiplicity of Differences
Another option is to avoid images of a personal God altogether and simply say that God is in life but God does not love life.
I have a good friend who leans in this direction; I will call her Julia. Julia resists the phrase God loves the world because she does not think that God is a separate being with consciousness and purposes who "loves" things.
If Julia uses the word "God" at all, she uses it to name a sense of the beauty she finds in life on earth: its complexities, its poignancies, its varieties, its creativity. Her sense of beauty is enriched by a sense of cosmic awe: a recognition that life on earth is a small part of a universe with trillions upon trillions of galaxies.
Some people might say that Julia does not believe in transcendence, but I disagree. She believes in horizontal transcendence not vertical transcendence.
For her the pelagia and the ctenophores transcend us in their differences from us and in their novelty. The stars and planets transcend us, too.
And we transcend each other in our individual uniqueness. To awaken to this transcendence is to enter into a kind of sacramental consciousness, God or no God. It is to delight in the multiplicity of differences.
I borrow this way of speaking about transcendence from Whitehead. In Process and Reality he writes:
The notion of God is that of an actual entity immanent in the actual world, but transcending any finite cosmic epoch - a being at once actual, eternal, immanent and transcendent. The transcendence of God is not peculiar to him. Every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe, including God. (94)
Julia does not follow Whitehead in believing in a personal God. But she does follow him in her appreciation that individual living beings are unique and creative even as they are deeply connected.
She and Whitehead believe in the mutual immanence and mutual transcendence of all finite beings. In this sense they are both quite close to Buddhism and William Blake. The universe is contained in each grain of sand, heaven is in each wildflower.
For Whitehead this holds true of God and the Universe, too. They are immanent within each other and they transcend each other. Imagine a living cell filled with organelles. The organelles have power of their own not reducible to the agency of the living cell as a whole. And the living cell as a whole also has power not reducible to the organelles. There are two forms of influence at work: whole-to-part and part-to-whole. God is the living whole of the universe.
Let's make it more personal. Imagine a Mother in whose womb the universe unfolds. Perhaps she is like Durga, the divine feminine in Hinduism. Or Holy Wisdom, the divine feminine in Judaism.
Insofar as she is the Mother, every living being on our planet or any planet, no matter how small or large, is a living cell in her womb. Nothing happens that does not affect her.
The Mother does not have full control over the cells, because they have agency and power of their own. Things can happen in the cells that even She cannot prevent.
And yet always She is working to bring them to life. Always she is providing them with amniotic fluid of a spiritual kind. This fluid takes the form of fresh possibilities, goals and aims, which they feel within their own lives as lures to live with satisfation relative to the situation at hand.
This is how process theologians think of God. The view is called panentheism, which literally means that everything is inside God while God is also more than everything. Humans are among the living cells in God's ongoing life. And so are the Salps and the Velella and the Sea Urchins.
Each life has its calling; its vocation. Our human calling is to survive and then to live with wisdom and compassion. It is to love and be loved.
Versus Destructive Violence
Which takes us back to violence. Does it come from the Mother or from the cells in her body? Is violence responsive to her luring presence within the whole of creation? Or is it the outcome of creativity in the universe itself.
We know that some of what we call violence in life is constructive chaos. Perhaps predator-prey relations in the natural world are like this. They make way for new forms of life which enrich the very life of God. Most process theologians believe this. They see something tragic, but necesssary, about life being robbery.
And they see the Mother as responsible, but not indictable, for the fact that life is robbery. She called life into existence as a counter-entropic lure within the depths of earthly life.
Neverthess, process theologians also know that some forms of violence are so terrible, and so unnecessary, that they no amount of instrumental good can compensate for their intrinsic evil. At least in human life, and perhaps also in the lives of other living beings as well, there are epic battles, indeed holocausts, in which too many die, in horrible ways.
These instances of violence are not constructive destruction, they are unjustified violence. They are not lured into existence by the Mother. They are the outcome of the creativity of the universe itself, and the Mother must live with this fact.
Still there is the question: As the butterfly mollusk eats its next of kin, whose side is the Mother on? It is tempting to say that God is always and only on the side of the victim. But process theologians do not say this. They propose that the Mother is on the side of each life and person, and thus that there is tragedy, even in the life of the Mother. There is suffering in God.
There may also be wrath. Images of divine wrath need not be taken literally. But as the great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel explains, they are symbolic ways of depicting divine pain. There's a lot of pain in God.
There is a Kabbalistic Jewish tradition which says that, when the Mother began luring the universe into existence, she emptied herself of light in order to make space for the many beings in the universe, and that the light was fragmented into shards of light now contained within creation. We heal the world when, as human beings, we help release the shards of light and help them become part of the Mother again. From a process perspective all living beings can be engaged in restoring wholeness to the Mother.
We do so when we feel a sense of awe and wonder at creation, when we share in the sufferings of other living beings, when we are honest about the violence in life, especially our own, and when we take constructive steps to heal a broken world.
In these moments the multiplicity of the world itself becomes part of the divine Soul in a constructive way. We help eliminate divine pain. We add light to the world and perhaps, so we learn from Kabbalistic Judaism, to something much deeper than we can imagine.
Is this something so far away? It certainly transcends our limited perspectives. But panentheists believe that it is also closer to us than even our own breathing. And closer to the plankton, too. There's a light in the darkness. A divine luminescence. A shining, like the bioluminescence of a plankter in the depths of the ocean. Or the shining of a mother's love.