The Universe as God's Body
by Jay McDaniel
Panentheism is the idea that everything in the universe is part of God but that God is more than everything added together. This way of thinking can be especially important to people with ecological sensibilities, because they can combine faith in God with a love of people, animals, and the earth. They can say that living with respect and care for the community of life is one way of contributing to God's own life and also that God is in some way in the community of life itself: on the earth, in the soil, in plants and other animals, and in us. Here God is not so far away, as if on a throne in the sky.
Two forms of panentheism
There are many forms of panentheism across the world's traditions. In the West one can be found in the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). He sees the universe as a direct emanation of God's activity, such that everything that happens around us and within us is the outcome of a single divine activity. The hills and rivers, the trees and stars, our innermost feelings and decisions, are all God godding. We can call this emanationist panentheism.
The other can be found in the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He sees the universe and God as within each other and thus parts of each other, but also more than each other. The hills and rivers, trees and stars, and our feelings and decisions have their independence and integrity, even as God is also present in us and we in God. We can call this relational panentheism. Whereas emanationist panentheism has one creative power, relational panentheism has multiple creative powers.
A Multi-Religious Option
Both forms of panentheism have their wisdom. Both can help people live with respect and care for the community of life, finding wholeness within themselves and helping to build communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, with no one left behind. And both can be internalized and enriched by insights and practices from the many world religions. You can be a Jewish panentheist, a Christian panentheist, a Muslim panentheism, a Hindu panentheist, and so on. Panentheism is a multi-religious option.
In what follows, then, I want to say a word about Whitehead's relational panentheism, often called "process philosophy" or "process theology." It has been developed by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist thinkers in rich ways, some of whom are featured on this website. See, for example, Rabbi Bradley Artson's God Almighty? No Way!, or Bruce Epperly's Where is God in Alzheimer's Disease?, or John Cobb's Where is God in Earthquakes?, or Monica Coleman's Making a Way of No Way, or Patricia Adams Farmer's The Quaking and Breaking of Everything Many people find Whitehead's perspective particularly plausible because it is influenced by insights from science (early quantum theory, in particular) even as it is shaped by ethics, art, and religion, and because it helps us deal honestly with the question of how belief in God can be reconciled with the realities of tragedy and suffering.
Co-creativity without an absolute beginning
In explicating relational panentheism, I would say that we should start at the beginning, but from a process perspective there is no beginning. Process theologians believe that the universe unfolds in a beginningless and endless series of cosmic epochs, each lasting billions of years; and they see God as the encompassing life in whom the universe unfolds. Everything affects God all the time, and God is continuously present in the universe as an active influence; and yet the influence is that of compassion not coercion, of love not one-sided power. Process theologians speak of God as creator, but by that they mean that God creates the universe through love, and they recognize that the universe creates itself, too, as it responds and does not respond to God. Thus process theologians affirm the co-creativity of God and the universe.
The universe is the body of God
One way to further understand panentheism in process theology is to say the universe is the body of God. For process theologians the universe is not the body of God in the sense that everything that happens in the universe is a result of divine agency, but rather in the sense that God feels the happenings of the universe much like we feel the happenings in our own bodies: that is, as inside us yet more than us.
How can this be understood? We can compare the universe to an embryo within a womb of a mother, with God as the mother and the universe as the developing embryo. With this in mind the analogy of embryo within a womb is apt in three ways.
God does not and cannot exercise one-sided power
First, the embryo has its own life, which means that things can happen in its unfolding that cannot be controlled by the mother. Similarly, say process theologians, things can and do happen in the universe, by virtue of the creativity of the universe itself, which cannot be controlled by God. This is how process theologians explain the tragedies of our world, both natural and humanly made. Cancer and murder, tsunamis and rapes, are not the product of divine agency, but the result of the power and creativity of the world itself. This creativity, already introduced in the core of this essay, is neither good nor evil in itself, but can unfold in many different ways, some tragic and some beautiful. God is an instance of this creativity, but not the only instance. All creatures in the world – including cancer cells and murderers – embody it, too.
God is the deep listening of the universe
Nevertheless, and second, what happens in the embryo is felt by the mother and is part of her. Similarly, say process theologians what happens to each entity in the universe – to every human being – is felt by God and affects God. This is how process theology begins to talk about prayers in which a person addresses God as a Thou and not an It. When humans address God, they often sense that their prayers are being received into a deeper listening as the prayer occurs, and that the listener who listens is affected by the prayer. Process theologians agree. God is the deep listening of the universe.
For many people, of course, the question is how God answers prayers. For process theologians God does not and cannot answer prayers by manipulating situations in a unilateral way; but the very act of praying can alter the situation of the one praying and also the ones prayed for, such that God is better able to act in their lives. It is important to emphasize, though, that petitionary prayer is but one kind of prayer, and also that prayer as understood in this way is one instance of the more general idea that all the experiences of all living beings – whether happy or sad, constructive or destructive – affect God and become part of God as they occur. No one suffers alone.
God is the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world
Third, the analogy of the universe within the womb of a Mother rightly suggests that God is active in the world in a non-coercive but perpetually influential way. In the case of a mother in pregnancy, this activity takes the form of amniotic fluid which nourishes the developing embryo and perhaps also the attitude of the mother. In the case of God, this activity takes the form of creative and energizing possibilities, which represent the way in which God is immanent in the universe, even as the universe is also immanent within God.
Needless to say, this image of God as mother and the universe as a womb can be controversial to at least two sets of people: very traditional Christians for whom male imagery of God is the only relevant imagery and feminist Christians who want to avoid stereotyping women as finding their fulfillment in, and only in, pregnancy. The good news among process-oriented Christians is that there are many feminist Christians who help critique these stereotypes and who offer alternative images.
Needless to say this image of God as mother and the universe as a womb can be controversial to at least two sets of people:people for whom male imagery of God is the only relevant imagery and those who want to avoid stereotyping women as finding their fulfillment in, and only in, pregnancy. The good news among process-oriented theologians is that there are many feminists who help critique these stereotypes and who offer alternative images. But the image of God as mother is indeed challenging to more traditional Christians, and this challenge, on the part of process theologians, is in some ways very intentional.
God is not a policeman in the sky
Process theologians employ such images in order to provide a constructive alternative to an image of God which too often dominates the monotheistic imagination. We might call it the externalist perspective, because it imagines God as completely external to the world; or the unilateralist perspective, because it sees God’s power as one-sided or unilateral and thus capable of molding the world according to divine will; or simply the patriarchal perspective, because it imagines God on the analogy of a powerful male ruler who wields power but is not empathic. On this view the relation of God to the world is analogous to that of a Potter and pot that he is molding. The Potter is external to the pot and the pot’s destiny is largely determined by the will and power of the Potter.
Process theologians in the Christian tradition reject this image of God the Potter. They think God is more loving and that the ministry of Jesus is one place where this love can be seen. For many Christians the image of a parent and child is much more relevant than that of a potter and pot. This is the beauty of envisioning God as Father or Mother. Process theologians understand and appreciate this preference for parental imagery but then add that, in an authentic Christian life, there is no need for Christians to always understand themselves as children in God’s presence. It is all right to be an adult in God’s presence, too, and thus to add one’s own voice to the ongoing life of God. This is the wisdom of the Psalms, where so often the Psalmist laments or protests, sometimes against God. For process theologians there is something right about this approach to God. It allows human beings to share with God the whole of their lives and to own their own feelings.
God is love
Still, it remains the case that, for process theologians, the ultimate nature of God is love. From a process perspective love has two sides: (1) an empathic side which listens to others and is affected and changed by what is heard and felt and (2) an active side which responds to what is listened to by providing possibilities for well-being. Jesus showed these two sides of love in countless ways: by listening to others and sharing in their suffering; by taking delight in the faith of others and the innocence of children; by comforting the afflicted, especially those who were despised by others; and by afflicting the comfortable, especially those who thought they were better than others. At the end of his life he also revealed a non-violent side of love by dying on a cross rather than responding to violence with violence. In these various activities he showed that a life of love is flexible and improvisational. It does not follow a perfectly scripted blueprint, because it realizes that each new situation requires a slightly different response. In seeking to walk in love, Jesus seems to have realized that each moment has its calling.
God acts through fresh possibilities
In process theology the callings of the moment are called the “initial aims.” These initial aims are the callings of the moment to which Jesus was responsive in his way. They differ from moment to moment, but always they are for the well-being of life relative to the situation at hand. The phrase “initial aims” is not especially melodious, but it does use a word that is very important to process theologians. The word “initial” is meant to suggest that God’s callings are present in the beginning of each moment of experience at an unconscious but powerful level. They consist of possibilities which people can actualize and they also contain within them the felt hope that they will be actualized.
For process theologians this felt hope belongs both to God and to the person. Thus the aims of God within human life are God’s hopes for the person but also the person’s hope for himself or herself. These aims are for the well-being of life, but the nature of well-being can change from one moment to the next. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to work and a time to play, a time to be awake and a time to sleep. In our waking moments, though, these aims are always for wisdom, compassion, harmony, and creativity. If we seek a single word to describe values such as these, some process theologians use the word “beauty.” Thus we can say that God’s lure within human life is a lure toward richness of experience, toward beauty.
The multiplicity and diversity of the universe enriches God's life
Even as God is at work in human life luring each person toward richness of experience, God is also present in the rest of the universe doing the same. On our small planet, the presence of God is found in plants and animals as they seek to survive with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. To say that they seek to survive with "satisfaction" is to suggest that there is something like experience, and like an aim to be satisfied, in non-human life as in human life.
Process theologians believe this. Whitehead believed that there is something like "feeling" or "experience" all the way down into the depths of matter, and that other forms of life seek their own well-being, their own enjoyment. The lure toward richness of experience is in them as in us, and we rightly live honoring that lure, doing our best to live lightly on the planet and gently with other animals, for their sake and for God's sake. This very way of living adds beauty to the ongoing life of God, who likewise seeks richness of experience.
God's own experience is depleted by a diminution of diversity on our planet, as is our own. And God's experience is enriched by its enhancement. To struggle against global climate change, to protect animals from abuse, to safeguard wilderness areas, to develop green cities and strong rural communities -- all of this is oriented, not only toward the well-being of life on earth, but also the well-being of the Life in whom the world unfolds. Diversity and multiplicity, love and justice, are God's glory. This glory does not belong to a vain ruler who resides on a throne in the sky. It belongs to the whole of it, the universe itself, as unfolding within One in whom the world "lives and moves and has its being." (Acts 17:28). A One who is also a Many.