A God of Nature

One of the first things you learn about in any theology course is what “pantheism” is—and that Christians don’t believe in it.

Pantheism, if you haven’t been fortunate enough to take one of these theology courses, is the belief that all reality is God. In this belief system, God is not a personal or anthropomorphic being—God is nothing like your or I. Rather, the divine is synonymous with “all things.” Nature and the physical world, even metaphysical concepts and thoughts are all part of what makes up God in pantheism.

Many folk traditions and eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, has described something similar to pantheism when talking about the divine. Christians, however, have historically rejected the concept. For many Christians, one of the fundamental doctrines of God is his personhood. God has a center of consciousness, just like you or I. And it’s hard to argue with that, particularly from a biblical perspective—the Christian God is a personal God.

But what if God could be both? There is already a theology similarly named, panentheism, that gets us part of the way there; unlike pantheism that holds that God is identical with the universe, the Enlightenment concept of panentheism claims that the universe is only a part of God and that God transcends it. In other words, God is both immanent and transcendent, penetrating all things and standing above them.

Still, I think there’s more that could be said. What if God is both abstract—like pantheism teaches about the divine—and personal? God is God; surely he can be both?

You may be wondering, why bother? Why does it matter if the universe is a part of the divine? For starters, it helps us make a lot more sense of the Old Testament. If you start looking around the pages of the Hebrew Bible, it won’t take long to find the Jews assuming a similar theology. To be sure, YHWH was a personal god, a god who walked with his people and lamented their errs, but it also seems that for them YHWH was an abstract divinity, penetrating and animating all things. That’s how it was so easy for them to associate God with seemingly disastrous things, because for the Jews, all reality was reflective of God. In a plentiful harvest, God was there, and in famine, God was there—not because he sat on a mountaintop choosing the seasons for rain, but because he was in the rain and in the harvest.

But even more importantly, I think a god that is immanent in the physical world, a god whose very essence is reality, holds profound implications for how we view the material today. We’ve talked before about God’s redemptive plan for the physical cosmos, but there is something more pressing at stake—more revenant to the now. When we stop imagining an invisible man standing next to us when we say “God is everywhere,” and begin to realize God is in all things, how we treat the material world will change. Environmental consciousness becomes less of a nicety and more of an imperative. Tilling the earth is a responsibility and no longer a chore. When we understand God as in all things—in the trees, the soil, and the sky—the groans of nature take on new meaning, and we understand that God is groaning too.

Even if we reject panentheism, there is undeniably something intimate between God and nature. There is something sacred in that bond, and something to be cherished. We know that our God is not the God of heaven but the God of heaven and earth.

3 Comments

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  1. Good stuff here. When it comes to this aspect of God, the early Christians recognized it When it came to God’s omnipresence, timelessness, and invisibility. These are aspects of God’s nature that the post-Enlightenment has a hard time understanding. Great post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Christians from the earliest centuries have confessed that God is in all things as you’ve eloquently stated st the end here and yet (and this is important I think) distinct from all things. There are all kinds of wacky problems you get into if the universe as a whole or any part of it is God or part of God. Like God having parts for one thing. Like the legitimacy of worshiping every raindrop and cow patty for another.

    The miracle of the incarnation is that God, in that one instance, was fully United to the material world. The flesh of Christ is the flesh of God. We don’t need to extend the doctrine of the incarnation to every mosquito in order to revel and celebrate in the glory of God’s infinite presence, nor do we need God to have the universe as part of his Being in order to care for creation. I love where you end up, but I worry that you’re taking on unnecessary baggage.

    David Bentley Hart has good stuff on this kind of thing and says what I think you’re getting at really well in The Beauty of the Infinite. And of course, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are great on this stuff too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback. Part of the aim of the article is to explore if that “unnecessary baggage” is worth it, but I imagine I ultimately agree with what you said.

      I hope any future comments are under the same alias.

      Like

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