40 days in the wilderness: panentheism

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40 days and nights committed to exploring the scary places in my mind, life, and faith in order to meditate on the question: What does it mean to trust in God?


The scary place: fear that I don’t understand God well enough to have a relationship with Them.

In The Heart of Christianity, theologian Marcus Borg compares two ways of looking at the relationship between God and the world: divine intervention and panentheism.

In divine intervention, God is separate from the world: a God in heaven, a God that looks down on us and occasionally intervenes. Borg considers this view problematic. “If God sometimes intervenes,” he writes, “how does one account for the noninterventions? Given all of the horrible things that happen, does the notion that God ever intervenes make any sense?”

The other perspective is a God that is not separate from the world, but rather an intricate part of the world. This is the view of Christian panentheism, meaning “everything is in God.” It’s a way of seeing God not as the cause for things that happen, but instead a force or a presence that is a part of everything that happens. You could even go further and say that God is everything:  everything that happens, everything that is. In other words, GOD IS. Or, as Borg quotes Paul Tillich’s beautiful language, God is the “ultimate isness.”

It’s a rather mystical idea:

And so panentheism rejects the language of “divine intervention.” From its point of view, interventionism not only has insurmountable difficulties, but claims to know too much; namely, it claims to know that “intervention” is the explanatory mechanism for God’s relation to the world. Except in the very general sense of “divine intentionality” and “divine interactivity,” panentheism does not claim to have an explanation of the God-world relation. It is content not to know.

I find this mystical, mysterious concept very beautiful. I envision a Great Spirit-like aura, surrounding and moving through all things. And in some ways, it’s comforting to me. A God that is always present. Borg’s panentheism feels like permission to trust in the mystery.

But how is this Great Spirit also Jesus’s Abba? It doesn’t offer guidance about how to relate to God, how to pray or even why to pray, or what to expect from God on a personal level. Does this Ultimate Isness answer prayers or is that only a God of divine intervention? About this, Borg quotes theologian Frederick Buechner:

Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. . . . It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.

Borg interprets this to mean that we shouldn’t look for specific easy-to-point out instances of intervention: we pray, and God gives us a clear response. Instead, I think Borg is saying that we can trust that God does speak to us, but not in a straightforward, always coloring within the lines sort of way. He goes on to say:

So, is God personal? At the ontological level, I don’t know, even as I am convinced that God is not a personlike being. Some theologians speak of God as transpersonal. Such language is useful, for we often think that the only alternative to “personal” is “impersonal.” But transpersonal is another option: it means “more than personal,” not “less than personal.” I like the language, although I don’t know if “transpersonal” is still “personal” in some reasonably normal sense of the word. But I do think that personal language for God is appropriate. Indeed, I think it is more appropriate than impersonal language, for I am persuaded that God is not less than personal.

God is a divine presence that speaks without a voice, that moves without a body, that is more than any label or definition we can imagine.

Let’s make this personal.

In January, my contract for my primary freelancing project unexpectedly ended, a roommate moved out without paying rent, and my school told me I had maxed out my student loans. I was fucked. I had to finish my grad school thesis while also frantically searching for work.

Before all of this happened, I’d accepted a six-week position at a community college teaching two creative writing classes in Bloomington, Indiana, the city I’d moved from to start school. The six-week teaching gig won’t even cover one car payment, but it’s invaluable teaching experience, and I felt I needed to follow through with my commitment. (I’m halfway through the classes now).

I could not search for a regular job in Chicago because of this commitment. Instead, I applied for a dozen or more online jobs and spoke to local organizations about copywriting for businesses. Nothing worked out.

I’ve only managed this spring with the financial help of my parents, my brother, a financial gift from a friend, and another friend offering me freelance work. I feel loved, and I feel like a burden.

To compensate for being a burden, I’VE WORKED MY ASS OFF. In February and March, I isolated myself, most days working from the moment I got up till I went to sleep, in order to try to make money. I did not make enough to pay rent or my car payment.

I prayed and prayed and prayed, and got used to telling God I didn’t think They were fulfilling Their end of our relationship because I could not accept being a burden to my family. I felt helpless and, worse, irresponsible and incompetent. Grad school has been very tough financially, and it’s been three years of feeling like a burden. This has been a very long Elijah in the desert seasons, and I’m not really sure when it’s going to be over.

I think I’ve been looking for divine intervention — a job, a grant, something. And I was willing to work for it.

This week, I’m able to start working part time for a company I’ve worked with before. It might not be enough to pay all my bills, but it’s a start.

I think that believing in divine intervention means expecting God to give clear-cut guidance, whereas believing in panentheism doesn’t necessarily mean God never responds, but that we should not expect a particular response. And I believe panentheism means not basing one’s relationship with God on a response.

In his Lent devotional book, Rohr writes, “The secret in biblical prayer is always to expect God to be true to God’s own name, identity, and patterns of goodness in the past, and not just begging God to conform to my immediate ego needs. Prayer, more than anything, seeks, creates, and preserves relationship— which is always both giving and receiving.”

I know in my relationships with people, just because I ask a question, doesn’t mean they’ll be ready to respond. Sometimes it’s more loving to give people space and let them answer on their own terms in their own time. Maybe the same is true for God.

So what can I expect in this relationship with the Ultimate Isness? I think that’s what I want to keep exploring.

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2 thoughts on “40 days in the wilderness: panentheism

  1. I am so wowed by your spirituality and your ability to reconcile your sexuality with the “conventional” idea of what it means to be a Christian. I’ve always questioned the things that so many people take for granted, like the idea that the bible should be taken literally, that monogamous is the only way to be, that God would give us a gay, or non-monogamous, or kinky nature then expect us to repress that nature in order to conform with what most people consider “normal”. Thank you for being the beautiful person you are and sharing that beautiful nature online where I could find it. I literally have searched 5 pages of results on google of how to come out as poly, before I found this. Sooo glad I did. Even if i still haven’t found step-by-step instructions on how to come out (I met a guy online I really like and want to be straight-up with) I have so much more confidence in Providence because of the story you’ve shared. Thanks again. Happy Easter.

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting. It means a lot, and I’m also really surprised you haven’t found a guide to come out! Keep in touch. I think you might’ve inspired a friend and I to write one.

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