Panentheism & Trying to make sense of things.

By David Fisher

Over the course of the debate about what has become known as "the Moderator's comments" I have heard several people criticize Bill Phipps for being a deist. It is certainly clear that his statements have led many of us to believe that he is definitely not a Trinitarian in the traditional sense, if at all.

Before going to the General Council this summer, I wrote down a few thoughts on "Mending the World", which eventually became a paper. It will be published in the March issue of the Theological Digest and Review. Richard Fairchild has also kindly published them on the net at:

In the article I was critical of "Mending the World" for advocating panentheism. Please note this is not pantheism which holds that God is all things. Rather, panentheism holds that God is IN all things. One description of panentheism is to to say "that as the soul is to the body, so God is to the world".

Bill Phipps has said that "God was in Jesus reconciling the world to God's self; that as much of God that was possible was revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and therefore we can say with confidence that Jesus was the Son of God, that Jesus is the Word made flesh, that Jesus is God incarnate ... ". At the same time he holds that Jesus is not God.

From a panentheistic perspective this is logical. God is said to be in Jesus, and revealed by Jesus. Jesus is God's Son because he reveals the nature of God. Jesus is held to be God incarnate because God's presence was enfleshed in the human being, we have known as the historical Jesus.

Panentheism fails however to categorically differentiate between who Jesus was in relation to the Father, and who human beings are in relation to the Father. Hence there may have been more of God in Jesus than there has been in anyone else, but that is not to say that Jesus occupies a role that is categorically different, (ie. the Son, very God of very God), than you are I in relation to God the Father. Therefore there is resistance to "worshipping Jesus" or making the declaration that he was/is God.

Rev. Phipps has also questioned the bodily resurrection, but has affirmed that "the human spirit continues after death; for example that my parents are in the everlasting arms of God. They are safe in God's care." For a man who doubts the existence of heaven this too is not inconsistent with panentheism.

The "Reconciling & Making New" document, in one small section, acknowledges that "some theologians are experimenting with new images, including that of the world as "God's body. As a metaphor it is not to be understood literally. It invites us to see all things in God, and God in all things." (p.33).

My intention is not to specifically call attention to our Moderator once again so much as to try to understand the theological framework that he and others like him are working out of. Since panentheism has undergirded a portion of Mending the World, and is acknowledged by the "Reconciling & Making New" document on Jesus, it seems to me that it might hold a key in understanding what otherwise seems like rather confusing and inconsistent statements about Jesus, heaven & hell, the resurrection and so forth.

Modern theologians such as Sallie McFague, and Matthew Fox are calling for a "paradigm" shift moving toward this type of theology. My contention is that it is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I've outlined what I see as a few of the problems with panentheism in the paper on Mending the World.

Finally let me say that these are only speculations on my part, but they do help me make sense of the statements that I've been hearing. Thanks for reading.


David Fisher