Secularising God: Beyond Panentheism

As I understand it, panentheism is that concept meaning “all in God,” serving as some sort of metaphysical mid-way point between pantheism and theism. As a concept it helps to cultivate a more responsible theos-logos where all is in God and God is in all, with neither (well, God) being quite reducible to the other. Thank the Lord for it–if confessional-esque theology is to be done let it be this; the help it gives us for moving beyond the brain-deadening theist-atheist binary is beyond compare.

Panentheism helps to imagine a coincidence of God and world, the divine and matter–coincidences missing in truly meaningful ways from the imaginary generated under the auspices of theism, and the atheistic opposite that emerges from it.

Yet, not so long ago, at about 5am I found that I had to write this:

A responsible and reasonable panentheism would at some point say, “God-talk really doesn’t matter anymore.”

And this effectively gets at where I am now. Yes, I like panentheism, but I feel done with it.

To sound out the contours of this feeling I would like to make mention of John Cobb’s A Christian Natural Theology, and the process-relational panentheism he works out there. In it, he notes, regarding the concepts of God and the Whiteheadian ‘Creativity’–and with them, panentheism–that for a philosopher like Paul Tillich, “God is not a being,” being instead, for Tillich, equated with Being Itself (or, Creativity). While, Cobb writes, for a philosopher like Heidegger, “Being Itself is not God,” and so, God is a less than necessary concept–what matters for Martin is Creativity/Being Itself alone. (117-118)

Cobb ends this discussion following the Heideggerian distinction between God and Creativity/Being Itself, such that he can “reintroduce God as an actuality” in the name of working with “a more biblical God than the Thomist one;” which Cobb feels Tillich fails to deliver.

I find Cobb’s ends a little tiresome, and can find little enthusiasm in the idea of rehabilitating a “biblical God” along Whiteheadian lines. My question, in rejecting this avenue, comes to something as simple as, “Why bother?” What is getting done, and why is it getting done to rehabilitate a parochial Christian discourse? I can’t help but feel that it is little. Does it not, in many ways, amount to using a modern schema to legitimise a language game historical criticism contextualises under a full-bodied materialism?

In this precise sense, here is my problem, how is that such ontological import is being given to a community’s theologising? This isn’t to say it can’t or shouldn’t be done, of course it can. I object because Cobb rules out alternative and, in my mind, more fruitful avenues of Whiteheadian thought. Whitehead himself writes hoping to realise, what he calls, “the secularization of God’s function in the world.” Further he says,

The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the converse is not true: the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the universe. (Whitehead, P&R, 207)

It is here the fullness of my statement’s, “really doesn’t matter anymore” comes out. When God’s function is fully materialised and secularised, we are disabusing religious discourse of serious ontological import. God is useful insofar as we may put the idea to use and imagine its function otherwise, under the conditions of post-Enlightenment thought–which is exactly what Whitehead sought to do. Yes, panentheism helps rehabilitate much religious discourse, but shifting beyond its metaphysics through a naturalistic critique that disavows its metaphysics and claims this theologising in the name of a materialistic radicalisation-cum-secularisation of it is, to me, compelling. In this sense, panentheism, I find, provides a useful imaginative discourse insofar as we can imagine God as the name of a function, not because, like Cobb, we can work a speculative philosophy that rescues the ontological significance of the religious discourse itself.

It is beyond this functional sense that I find confusing theologising that desires a substantialist metaphysics that wishes to underscore God in some traditionally religious sense. Even a level-headed apophaticism leads to the admission that you’re talking bullshit, so why not just cut the crap and radicalise the critique–it’s not just that you can’t truly speak of God, but that the ontological status of the divine matters little? I can’t help but feel this is a more than reasonable and responsible move, as the contingent and contextual nature of all positions are spoken of materialistically.

Here I am drawn so much to a clear-eyed non-reductive materialism, or Whiteheadian naturalism that has fully secularised God, and all that is accomplished there.