Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity

perichoresisAs usual, my blog readers are brilliant. My last ‘spirituality’ post, on Panentheism, Interspirituality, and Jesus invited a ton of insightful comments – and, as is about to be made abundantly clear, a new post. So here it is, response-style:

Nathaniel, you’re calling me a Calvinist! I don’t know whether to feel honored or slapped in the face.🙂 Taking it from your vantage point, I’ll consider it an honor. I get what you’re saying about the ‘slipperiness’ of the term ‘panentheist;’ though I didn’t qualify it with hypens, I think the strong subtext of my post was that I’m not for a squishy, one-size-fits-all pluralism. Specifically, I said “I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” With that said, true disclaimer: in the intervening years since writing the piece, I am more inclined to nod in Dena‘s direction, that when Einstein or Hawking are sensing the permeating divine, they’re sensing and touching something real – more Way Three than Way Two (in my previous post).

Bert, I hear you! Theodicy (‘the problem of evil’) is with us almost no matter what we believe, and panentheism does not come out unscathed – indeed, it’s even more vulnerable, I think, because (unlike Deism or a highly ‘Sovereign’ removed God concept), panentheism seems to implicate God rather intimately in life’s hurts as well as joys. It’s one thing to say God is in the sunset, dancing in the rays of light; its quite another to say that God is holding the molecules together in the rapist’s knife blade. I want to avoid what I see as the weakest link of Hindu & Buddhist cosmology, that is, “Evil is just illusory,” but I am open to CS Lewis’s idea (developed in The Great Divorce) that evil is perspectival; that all truly will be made well once we have a new way of seeing. The jury’s out for me in how evil fits into panentheism – and yet, I can’t get away from the ‘All in all’ language in Scripture. I think that process theology will have a lot to teach us on this in the coming years.

Hi Bram – I know I probably focused on immanence here, but a robust, biblically-informed panentheism certainly includes God’s transcendence. God is ‘the Beyond in our midst,’ a Mystery even in self-disclosure. Jesus of Nazareth obscures as much as he reveals, I think.

Dena, I love your thoughts here. I think you hit on something key when you said “Christ is the focus for me … and *yet*, I notice that the goal of Christ is to bring us to the Father — to show us the Father.” This is freakily foreshadowing my interaction with Sweet & Viola’s ‘A Jesus Manifesto.’ I think I’d stop short, though, at saying “Ultimately, it’s all about the Father.” I think I’d say “Ultimately, it’s all about perichoresis, a five-dollar word for the relationship within the Godhead, expanding to embrace humanity & the cosmos. That is to say, when Jesus speaks, he’s always speaking of the Father. But when the Father speaks, he’s always speaking of the Son. And the Father sends the Spirit to reveal the Son, so that we might connect to the Father; the Spirit is our Comforter and our True Self, inviting us into the divine fellowship. At least, that’s my read. And it needn’t be so technical – to me, it’s all about the Triune relatedness of God as depicted in The Shack.

Ross, absolutely! Starting in the 1960s, when the West began discovering Eastern cultures & meditation practices – that’s when Christians (and possibly Jews too, though I can’t be certain) began rediscovering their own contemplative traditions – don’t let anybody call ’em ‘New Age,’ either; they’ve been around in one form or another for at least 1700 years – and arguably, embedded in the culture of those engaged in penning Holy Writ itself. I think that one of the greatest losses of our time is that of ‘contemplative mind,’ the ability to both focus and enjoy the spaciousness of God’s unfolding present moment.

David, are you saying that Jesus’ divinity is too much or too little involved in the panentheism discussion? I think that Jesus’ divinity is one of those pesky spiritual themes that panentheism handles exceptionally well, better than contemporary so-called orthodoxy or anemic liberalism.

Lemme explain. Contemporary self-confessed (Western, propositional, truncated, radio) orthodoxy sees God – and by extension God’s self-disclosure in Jesus – as someone (?) to be admired, and trusted in for God’s benefits, sure – but pretty much kept at a remote pedestal. Jesus is the ‘only’ Son of God, who did certain things on our behalf (namely, changing the Father’s mind about us, supposedly) and we worship him in response. This produces a lot of gratitude but very little life-change in my experience. And eventually, the gratitude (read: ‘worship’) turns to boredom.

‘Progressives,’ on the other hand, in attempting to correct the problems with the above view, fall into the opposite ditch – they pit ‘the Jesus of history’ against ‘the Christ of faith,’ place the Synoptics against John’s Gospel, and emphasize (their interpretation of) ‘The son of man’ against ‘The Son of God’ and certainly against ‘God in the flesh.’ Now don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for most of the scholarship that’s come out of historical Jesus studies – in particular, related to the socio-political culture of Jesus’ day (both Roman and Jewish), which sheds amazing light on both Jesus’ message and the unique set of circumstances that led to his death. I love me some ‘The Human Being by Walter Wink (for instance). But at the end of the day, a confused, solely-human Jesus who’s vaguely ‘connected’ to ‘Spirit’ only to die ignominiously and benefit from a dubious ‘spiritual’ resurrection isn’t too exciting to me. While it might be easier to follow such a Jesus, one isn’t quite sure why or where to follow him!

A third way, it seems, has been with us from the beginning. If Rita Brock and Rebbecca Parker are to be believed (and I think their work speaks for itself), the earliest Christians had “a high Christology and a high anthropology,” summed up in Athanasius’ maxim “God became man so that man might become God.” (He meant you too, ladies) Panentheism says that Jesus is the ‘uniquely’ begotten son of God, not the ‘only,’ echoing Scripture’s affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn among many ‘sons’ of God.  Jesus is glorious, divine, and there are certain unique and unrepeatable things Jesus does on our behalf, but overall, the earliest Christian spiritual thrust was one of participatory divinity. We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus.

This might sound like ‘New Age’ quackery to the modern ear – but in ancient Christian faith, this was known as theosis or divinization – participation in God via the activity of God in perichoresis – that is, the intent of the Father, the work of the Son, and empowerment of the Spirit. Through theosis, we are partakers of the divine nature – we become incorporated into the very life of ever-flowing Godhead, a dance that goes on from eternity to eternity. If the terminology makes you uncomfortable, think what we might mean by ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ – only giving much more glory to God and to a full-awakened humanity. If this all sounds rather airy-fairy pie-in-the-sky to you, consider that, historically speaking, the vast majority of temporal transformation happens when people are inspired by, and anchored in, a sense of the transcendant. The recovery of a this-worldy, suffering-servant son of man who nonviolently confronts the Powers is a desperately needed image and motivator – this is the gift of liberation theology. But a revelation of the Son of God, vindicated by the Father in peaceful, powerful resurrection, and inviting us on the same path of death and resurrection, this is the gift of the Eastern church and the mystics. Perhaps the call we’ve so often framed as ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ can be helpfully re-adjusted as a lifeLet us embrace both of these gifts fully – they are our inheritence.

18 Responses to “Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity”


  1. 1 Dena Brehm June 30, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Woo-HOO! Singing my heart out and oing the happy dance, like Snoopy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRwsTyUPIYE)!

    Most-excellent, Mike, a most excellent response (and a most-excellent adventure)!

    You wrote: “I think I’d stop short, though, at saying ‘Ultimately, it’s all about the Father.’ I think I’d say “Ultimately, it’s all about perichoresis, a five-dollar word for the relationship within the Godhead, expanding to embrace humanity & the cosmos.”

    Yes, I see and embrace that — thanks for expanding my under-developed thought. I agree, and I also agree that it was beautifully and touchably demonstrated in “The Shack”.

    Then, you wrote: “Panentheism says that Jesus is the ‘uniquely’ begotten son of God, not the ‘only,’ echoing Scripture’s affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn among many ’sons’ of God. Jesus is glorious, divine, and there are certain unique and unrepeatable things Jesus does on our behalf, but overall, the earliest Christian spiritual thrust was one of participatory divinity. We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus.”

    YES!!! (envision that word in 36 font!)

    Not the “only”, but the “uniquely-begotted Son”! Who then invites and draws (drags!) us into the awareness of who we really are, in Him … from Him, through Him, and TO Him are ALL things!

    Sing it! Share it! Live it!

    (can’t wait to see what I freakishly foreshadowed in your response to Frank and Leonard!)

    Shalom, Dena

  2. 2 Dena Brehm June 30, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Just posting again so as to get notified of more comments (& I linked this to Mark – we’ve been discussing this very issue for weeks now — you summed up both of our thoughts, in one seamless flow … so you’re good for marriage, too..!)

  3. 3 Ross June 30, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you Mike for the personal response I really appreciate it. I did a bit of a typo with the scripture I quoted but know you didn’t hold it against me. I just stumbled upon your page a couple of days ago and look forward to delving more into your views and contemplating on them. I think that the modern church can really benefit with digging into it’s past practices and theology. As you stated the idea of meditating/contemplating in a focused way on God and His truth is not a new one and a practice that would increase peoples intimacy with the Father and bear much fruit. Another idea that I seem to come up against in myself and others is this way of seeing the physical and spiritual as very different realms as opposed to interplaying and in fact what together makes up reality (Sorry went off on a tangent there) Keep the writing up

  4. 4 Andrew B. June 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    “Panentheism says that Jesus is the ‘uniquely’ begotten son of God, not the ‘only,’ echoing Scripture’s affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn among many ’sons’ of God. Jesus is glorious, divine, and there are certain unique and unrepeatable things Jesus does on our behalf, but overall, the earliest Christian spiritual thrust was one of participatory divinity. We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus.”

    Um… no. This does not do justice to the Divinity of Christ. Nor, in general, do you present an accurate account of the sort of theosis propounded by Athanasius and his contemporaries (as well, I might add, as the current Pope).

    The Scriptures do, indeed, speak of Christ as our eldest Brother, but they also speak of Him as the “only begotten Son of God,” (and that “only” really means “only”). These are two aspects of the same truth. Christ is the only, irrepeatable, fully Divine Person of the Trinity referred to as “the Son.” “Begotten” refers to a unique relationship which obtains only between the Father and the Son within the Godhead. No human being shall ever have this relationship with God or any of His Persons. No human being will ever be the Son of God except Christ.

    That said, the Incarnation of the Son is the method by which God adopts human beings as His sons. This sonship is different in kind from Christ’s Sonship — adoption rather than begetting. Christ becomes the Second Adam — the source of a covenant. We do not become sources of that covenant with Him but merely branches.

    Theosis, then, (as envisioned by Athanasius) is not accomplished through or because of our humanity but rather through and because of the unique person, Jesus of Nazareth. As Athanasius and his contemporaries liked to say, “Whatever is not assumed is not saved.” That is, had the Son of God become incompletely human, only those parts of a human being He assumed would be redeemed. It is the unique Incarnation of Christ that brings about theosis, and theosis is merely a shadow and ramification of the incarnation.

    As for panentheism generally, I prefer the Augustinian formulation of God’s omnipresence (or Julian of Norwich’s if you prefer hazelnuts). It is not that God is in all things like an animist ancestral spirit, but rather that all things are in Him.

  5. 5 Nathaniel Ruland June 30, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    It does sound like ‘New Age quackery’ but it is really Eastern orthodox divinization with a smattering of Schleiermacher. But hey, a perichoretic understanding of the Trinity is a good balance to the normal economic, egalitarian, or (gasp) complementarian views. Unfortunately, you may not be a Calvinist after all….sigh. The ‘in all, through all’ passages are few and far between as are the universal redemption ones. I believe there is merit in including such understandings in a Redemptive-Historical timeline, but I am personally restrained to boring old Theism. Cheers.

  6. 6 Micah Redding July 1, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    This is kind of funny for me, because I’ve considered panentheism to be the only biblically-sound theology for the majority of my 27-year life. There’s just no good way of getting around the specific biblical statements that all of reality is included in God. And any other theory ends up elevating creation to being nearly equal with God, but of a separate nature…thus leading to some hybrid mangled form of polytheism.

    No, monotheism has always said “God is ONE, there is no other”.

    The funny thing is, I never considered that to impinge on my ideas of salvation, hell, or divinity whatsoever. After all, it doesn’t have to. People can still be banished to an obscure horrendous part of God’s reality, people can still be cut off from meaningful interaction with the rest of God, and God can choose to ONLY embody his essence in one specific part of him.

    So my realization of panentheism did nothing to change the rest of my theology. And I never thought it needed to or should.

    But now…I’m thinking you guys are on the right biblical track. After all, the whole motivating force of a lot of early Christianity was taking new realizations about God to their absolute limit. Paul and Jesus both used “God is spirit” to do away with the need for a temple, rituals, or any division between races & genders. The thought was, a spirit doesn’t deal with those outward things, thus, God must not care.

    The same way with panentheism. After all, Paul said “in him we live and move and have our being”, not just to make an obscure theological point. He had a reason, and his reasons were centered in a new understanding of the relationship between God and mankind.

    SO…although I think it’s quite possible to be panentheist and still have a completely traditional theology in every other respect, I think Paul and the early Christians WERE using panentheism to hunt down a new way of viewing the God-man relationship. So I think you’re on the right path here.

  7. 7 Dena Brehm July 1, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Beauteous & powerfully-liberating, Micah…!

    The REALLY good news for ALL mankind, not just the very-good-for-a-select-few, and really-horrible-for-the-vast-majority news for mankind…!

    Amazing what we discover was *always there* under the veneer of the traditions of man … may the sacred cows continue to tip like a long line of dominoes!

    Enjoying being on this path with y’all!

  8. 8 graham July 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Mike,

    It’s great to see you discussing this fascinating topic. Like Micah, I’ve always found it strange that some people consider panentheism to be a problem. If anything, I’d say it doesn’t go far enough!

    Of course, there are different varieties of panentheism, but I find myself leaning more in the direction of pantheism. I’m just not sure that it’s enough to say that God is ‘in’ all things. To me that kinda implies – especially when used by Christians – that every living thing has a dose of God within it. Looking at some of Paul’s mystical language, don’t we have reason to go further? I’m tempted to say that God is the energy of life itself. (I guess I’m closer to Fox then Grubb.) The Genesis myth talks of God breathing in his ‘spirit’ to bring the human to life. Obviously, we know that life doesn’t quite work like that!

    John 1, in this sense, is not used enough in discussions on pan(en)theism.

    The problem with pantheism would be that it has no transcendence for God. He is just the stuff and nothing more. I think I’d want to say more than that, perhaps without going all the way to a personal God. Incidentally the question of personhood would seem extremely relevant to the issue of a biblically informed panentheism and I suspect that’s where many Christians panentheists would want to draw the line?

    Then there are the passages, like some of those you quoted above, which imply that there was some change with the coming of Christ. Does that mean that Jesus lead to the revelation of how things always were? (Hi, Dena!) Or, does God at that point ‘fill’ things in a way that he hasn’t before?

    Like I said, it’s a fascinating topic!

  9. 9 Micah Redding July 2, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    To me, there are two distinct flavors of panentheism/pantheism. They are basically two different ways of imagining “how it works”…how God can encompass everything.

    The first way, perhaps the most obvious way, is to imagine a body, composed of various organs and cells. God must be like this body, and we must be like the cells of the body. If we didn’t exist, the body (God) would still exist, but would be missing something. The essential thing to notice here, then, is that just as I don’t have a relationship with your skin cells (but with you as a whole), we shouldn’t worship rocks and trees and people (but God as a whole).

    The second way is to look at science and notice how the more we pursue scientific explanations, the more we see unity. So, energy and matter turn out to be the same thing (remember E=mc^2?), and time and space turn out to be the same thing as well (remember Relativity?), and electricity and magnetism turn out to really be Electro-magnetism, and so on. Ultimately, the entire universe in all its diversity is just one kind of energy. And if we pursue this deeper, energy appears to arise out of pure information. And following this to its logical conclusion, we must say that all of reality is ultimately and completely ONE.

    And that ultimate ONEness is God. And the Christian position is that the nature of that ultimate reality, of that ONEness, is love and thought.

    Obviously, I take option #2. It seems to be far less popular, but to me, is much more compelling.

  10. 10 Daniel July 13, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    “We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus.”

    Yeah……. no. There is a mountain of difference between participating in unhindered, intimate relationship with God, and BECOMING God…

    There is a difference between being adopted into the Family of God, (being made into sons and daughters), and “achieving divinity”…

    Perhaps at this stage that all seems like a pointless semantic difference to quibble over, I don’t know, but the scriptures are very, very clear, that seeking to achieve divinity ourselves is nothing less than idolatry. Yes, we will be resurrected, we will be adopted as Sons of God, we will receive an inheritance, and new bodies that are unlike these earthly ones… We will enjoy an intimacy with God in a way we have never before experienced, we will probably experience life and existence in a way that is quite beyond our imagining at this point, and in many aspects, it would probably seem rather “god-like” when compared to life here on earth… But, it will still not be anything close “achieving full divinity”… (which is what the Mormons teach incidently…)

    We will still be the creation, and He will always be the Creator… we will worship Him for eternity, we will not be worshipping our collective selves…

  11. 11 Micah Redding July 13, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Daniel,

    I think there are a few distinctions to be made. My understanding is that the Mormons believe people get to become individual different gods. Whereas any notion of participatory divinity modeled on Jesus is about becoming fully united with and revelatory of the ONE God who lives in us and through us and above us.

    One way leads to polytheism (everybody’s a god!), the other way leads to even stricter monotheism (the Lord is ONE, and there is NOTHING beside him).

    It is clear the bible presents us with two different approaches to being like God. Adam reached to become like God through his own effort, and failed. Jesus let go of any grasp on ANYTHING, and showed the true nature of God in his letting go.

    The bible is showing us that we become like God only in letting go, just like Jesus did.

  12. 12 Dena Brehm July 13, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Micah –

    Wowzers, this is both brilliant and beautiful (how you dudes *do* this with such conciseneness just eludes me – “she of oh-so-many-words”!).

    Simplexity in poetic form..!😉

    Pure divi-evo-devo-ness…!

    I must steal this and pass it on (with full credit, of course).

    Perhaps you could set this concept to music…?

    (For those who don’t yet know, this man of simplex wisdom is also an uber-talented singer/songwriter, and a member of my favorite rock band – see here: http://www.reddingbrothers.com/2/ )

    Just another rabid fan ~

    Shalom, Dena

  13. 13 Daniel July 13, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Micah –

    Yeah, the Mormonism connection was rather tenuous, as that is more an example of polytheism… the main connection I was trying to make there was in this idea of “achieving divinity” (as is expressed in that Mormon axiom, “What man is, God once was, what God is, man may become”…)

    Adam may have fallen by “trying to be like God”, when He and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (I’m assuming that’s what you were refering to…) but Jesus didn’t come to show the correct way to become God, He came to BE the way back to a restored relationship with God…

    Jesus did indeed show us that He was willing to “let go”… ( …being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness)

    But the aim of His “letting go” was not to pave the way for our own achievement of “divinity”, instead we see that:

    “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

    Jesus may have “let go” (And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross) but after letting go, the Father resurrected Him, and has exalted Him over everything… The saints will be resurrected and exalted too, but they will still bow to the King, they will not themselves become devine… So following Jesus, and being like him, is not some “path to enlightenment”, some formula for achieving God-hood ourselves, it is the Way to God. A personal Creator, who IS unrivaled by anything or anyone in His creation….

    In the end, there is a big difference between “being like God”, in the sense of having our hearts and wills conform to His, where our hearts become like His heart, and “achieving divinity”, which alludes to the attainment of all His divine characteristics… His power, His wisdom, etc. (something which is pursued by many false religions around the world), and is nothing other than idolatry…

  14. 14 graham July 14, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Daniel,

    If you’re interested in exploring the idea of ‘ “achieving divinity” ‘, you needn’t go to Mormonism. Just check out the early church.

    Pick Athanasius or even Augustine and get stuck in. It’s fascinating stuff, if we can get away from philosophical pedantry and more into the actual living of 2 Pet. 1:3-4.

  15. 15 Trin January 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Ahem…a bit late to the party, I see….

    I believe the rootedness for this idea is in the Trinity – in what God is as the triune God who IS love, the kenotic, perichoretic Emmanuel of never ending agape. It extends to Christ calling us to come and be IN him, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and we in him will be in them. BUT, I’m doubtful this means pantheism. Trinitarianism is enough, it seems to me.

    Theodicy was also mentioned briefly, and (FYI) I’d just like all here to know I am pursuing the intersection of Trinity and theodicy – and how when we start from who God IS (triune, and all that encompasses) we make progress regarding theodicy, whereas when we begin from the later more philosophical-theologically based “omni’s” we get stuck.

    Hope you’ll join the conversation.
    Trin

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  1. 1 I Don’t Want to be Part of Any Jesus Revolution Without a Perichoretic Dance – Why We Need Both Jesus Manifestoes « zoecarnate Trackback on June 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm
  2. 2 East Vs West: Is Western Christianity or Eastern Christianity best suited for evanglising those in Eastern Religion? « EMISSARY^7 (G²) Trackback on November 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm

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