About my belief that "God" is part of all of us, and we are part of "God."
|Author Mark Link tells the story of a little girl who was standing next to a well with her grandfather. As they lowered a bucket down into the well for a drink of water, the little girl asked her grandfather where God lived.
In answer to her question, her grandfather picked her up and held her so that she could see down into the well. He told her to look in the water and tell him what she saw. She told him, as she saw her reflection, that she could see herself. And her grandfather told her that that was where God lived, inside of her.
What a wonderful image ~ God isn't just out there somewhere, up in the clouds, impersonal and beyond us, out of our reach. Rather, God is here with us, all around us, part of us ~ God dwells in us and we dwell in God. I think Paul said it best when he observed that in God "we live and move and have our being!"
I wish someone had shared that kind of image of God with me as a child, and told me that in my own reflection resided an image and dwelling place of God. Growing up I heard very little about the God who is an all-encompassing Spirit, part of everything. Instead, I was taught about a supernatural "God out there" who was separate and apart from me, distant and only available if I was "righteous" enough.
What that grandfather was teaching his granddaughter was, in it's simplest form, "Panentheism," a term devised by Karl C. F. Krause over 150 years ago referring to the concept of God as being present in everything, and everything being present in God.
Panentheism is like thinking of God as an ocean, and of everything else as fish. We are swimming in the ocean of God, which suggests that what is in God is also part of God, while at the same time affirming that God is also more than the created order. Thus, the universe might be likened to God's body, God's own self-expression as it were, even while God's awareness, personality, mind, and spirit are greater than the sum of all the parts of the universe.
It is important to distinguish between Panentheism and the more familiar concept of Pantheism. The two are quite different, and it is the middle syllable "en" in the former that suggests the vital distinction.
Pantheism refers to the belief that God IS everything and everything IS God. It is a concept that equates God with the forces and matter of the universe, and asserts that God and the sum total of the universe are identical.
Alternatively, Panentheism does not maintain that God and the universe are the same, but that God and creation are intimately related and present with one another. Panentheism asserts that God isn't merely a supernatural being who is separate from the universe. Rather God is a Spirit who is all around us and within us.
In that respect, it is also different in an important way from "Supernatural Theism," which views God as being completely distinct and removed from creation.
The concept of Panentheism is beautifully expressed in Psalm 139: "Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there: if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall your hand lead me, and your right hand shall hold me."
It is also expressed in a scene from the movie "Patch Adams," which tells the true-life story of a doctor who is both passionate and unconventional in his approach to medicine and caring for patients. While in medical school, Patch befriended and fell in love with another student, who slowly warmed up to him, and together, with a third student, they formed a free clinic in the mountains of Virginia.
As their relationship grew over the years, so did her trust in him. She eventually confided in Patch that she had been sexually abused as a young girl. She shared that as a girl she would look out the window at butterflies in their cocoons and wish she could become one, metamorphizing into a new creature to fly away from her pain.
Shortly after she shared that with Patch she died, and Patch was devastated by the experience of losing her. In his grief, he considered quitting medical school. And in the scene that affected me so much, he was standing over a beautiful cliff in the mountains raging at God about what had happened, considering a jump into the abyss beneath him.
His final words to the God "out there" included remarking that if he did in fact jump, "God" as Patch conceived "him" wouldn't even care. With this conclusion, he changed his mind about suicide, and turned away from the cliff with a dismissal of his supernatural theistic conception of God, by saying in disgust, "Forget it! You aren't worth it."
He then turned around - and there, on his medical bag sitting on a nearby stump, perched a butterfly. As he approached it, it flew around him and landed first on his chest, then his finger, and he laughed at the pure joy of it before it slowly flew away.
What a powerful illustration of converting one's view of God from a supernatural theistic conceptualization to one which experiences God as present and intimate. As Patch surmised when he turned away from the cliff, the God "out there," really wasn't worth it, wasn't worth his faith or belief. But in that moment with the butterfly, he experienced relationship with the Spirit of God, who was right there with him, and had been all along, as part of his experience.
It has become increasingly difficult for me to believe in and have a relationship with a supernatural theistic, singularly transcendent God perceived only as being "out there" and separate from me. For me, a living, breathing, growing faith experience rejects the notion of God as "another being," somehow separate and apart from me.
Thus I have, over the course of time, traded a traditional belief in the God "out there" for a relationship with the Spirit of God who dwells in us and among us and all around us; the God "in whom we live and move and have our being."
Rather than merely believing in God, I now seek relationship with God, in whose image I am lovingly created, and in whom I dwell.