December 22, 2009

panentheist watch

Over at Crunchy Con, we have a sighting of pop-panentheism.

Dreher is right when he discusses the appeal pantheism has in our culture, but it was not popular as de Tocqueville had suggested; rather for the "spiritually" inclined mild intellectual sort in our culture, pantheism is a tempting sort of compromise religion. We can have God, but God has the same lack of positive meaning as metaphysical materialism, it is just that it gives us some warm feelings.

What baffles me is that Dreher could post this material and then rehash lazy claims that panentheism is some sort of Orthodox doctrine, and not a distinction without difference dreamed up in the 19th century German academy. And I mean, "without difference" because for the mass of persons, there is no difference, and even the distinguished definition does not hold well for the idea that the idea can somehow be saved for Orthodox usage. Journalistic skepticism should have suggested that the popularity of "panentheism" as a term describing Orthodox view on creation (often by non-Orthodox authors doing us no favors) is due to a need among mild intellectuals in our culture to envision "Eastern" Orthodoxy as being this sort of mysterious religion–those strange, chanting, hirsute folk–who have a religion that is just like they are.

To use some broad strokes, the distinction between pantheism and panentheism (when one is actually intended, and the latter is not simply used as a supposedly acceptable epithet for the former) is one between metaphysical monism and dualism. In the first case, there is one spiritual (or, rarely, material) substance, god. For the latter, there are two substances, god's mind/soul/etc. and his "body", i.e. everything with extension.

A professor of mine once called panentheism the lazy out for Christian philosophers of science. This sort of identification of the universe as just a body God is getting used to in some ways was a way to smooth over the philosophical road of reconciliation, despite its vacuousness. To be fair, these writers are almost all Protestants and Catholics, and the only Orthodox working in that neck of the woods I can think of who uses the term–Alexei V. Nesteruk–does try to bracket away many bad implications of the term, but the necessity of that makes you suspect either A) the utility of the term at all or B) the honesty of the writer in giving these caveats. (I do not claim to have enough of a grasp on Nesteruk to make a guess as to whether he is doing B. I've only read one work of his, Light from the East, and it wasn't particularly memorable and gets lost in my mind amongst the other reading I was doing at that time. I did go back to the underlines and notes I made on his use of panentheism, however.)

That said, I think that Nesteruk's sort of "yes, but" case for the term is probably the best that can be made for Orthodox use of it, but that brings up questions of what makes the use of terminology alien to the Church, valid.

I mentioned before wanting to write a more thorough post on the topic. I have come to admit my own current short-comings, and this will have to hold in its place for now.


  1. To be fair, I don't think Nesteruk is making a case for the utility of panentheism. He treats it in passing, and does a good job in demonstrating its problematic nature.

    As to alien terminology, didn't the Fathers make good use of some?

  2. Nesteruk has expanded his case elsewhere, notably in this collection. Actually, it was a person who was defending his approach in that book that first got me thinking about this issue again a month or so ago. Furthermore, the mentions are few, but it is evident that it is harmonious with the rest of his speculation on the relation of theology and science, which I have further issues with that are outside the realm of this discussion.

    As to your point on alien terminology: Right, and in each case such terminology had a lot of use before it was finally accepted. It seems to have taken some combination of 1) centuries of use, 2) use by one or more saints and 3) ultimate approval of a Church council.

    The problem is that I do not think that those using the term panentheism are displaying enough care & reflection in their approach to terminology. I do not see a way of using the term that "saves" it.

  3. I have only read his "Light from the East" so I can't comment on the other piece. Is he making a case for it?

    I agree with you that often not enough care is shown, which is simply not acceptable. Not as Orthodox it isn't.