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.