When science began to develop and the world changed from one in which it was broadly assumed and accepted that God was the originator of everything (e.g. Descartes’ “first cause”) to one in which God became a hypothesis, the long accepted notion that God was “personal” came under scrutiny.
Folks like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin reconciled the idea of a deterministic universe with the notion of God by taking a position known as “deism”. Deism asserts, “there is a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it” [(Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1) Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.]. In the classic text, “Non Campus Mentis” (which claims to be a collection of excerpts from college students’ term papers, blue-book exams, etc.) it says, “Deism was the belief that God made the world and then stepped on it. In Deism God has no direct influence on daily life, but just watches like a movie, eating his candy and munching his popcorn.”
This position is quite different from that of theism. Theism asserts, “Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.” [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company]. Note the use of the term “a personal God” in this dictionary definition.
The issue of whether or not God is “personal” is a part of the broader question of divine action in the world. Does God act and if so, how? This strange question is important enough that theologian Gordon Kaufman wrote, [unless the problem is resolved] “we are condemned either to live in an intolerable tension between our religious language and life and the rest of experience … or to give up Christian faith and talk as outmoded and no longer relevant to the actual structures of our lives and the world”. Kaufman goes on to write, “There is no God who “walks with me and talks with me”…”
Well, is there a God who “walks with me and talks with me”? This would seem to require that God be immanent in the world (it might not exclude that God also be transcendent, but this might not be required).
There have been many ways of thinking about immanence. Included among them are ideas of pantheism and panentheism. Pantheism is, “any religious belief or philosophical doctrine that identifies God with the universe”. [Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1) Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.] Here, God’s immanence is extended to the point where God is identified with the universe (i.e. this is quite different from classical theism which asserts that there is a creator and there is creation, and they are distinct and different). Many pantheists, although believing that God is everywhere throughout the universe, would also deny that God is personal (if God is in a rock, it is hard to see us having a personal relationship with this God – pet rocks excluded, of course). For pantheists, the universe itself is divine.
Panentheism is slightly less well known as shown by my attempt to provide a dictionary definition through “dictionary.com” where a search returned this result, which speaks for itself:
No results found for panentheism.
Did you mean pantheism?
pantheism pain in the ass
No entries were found in the dictionary.
Panentheism (from the Greek meaning something like “all in God”) asserts that God is the universe, but more than the universe. In other words, God interpenetrates everything but yet extends beyond everything. Many panentheists would assert that God is “personal” in the sense of caring for the universe and hence they differ from many pantheists in this regard.
The biological model of cells and the human person might illuminate the idea of panentheism. Just as you are made up of cells, which have a semi-autonomous existence of their own, but are more than just a collection of cells floating around pointlessly, so God is a collection of the components that make up the universe and yet is more than that. (This is just an illustrative model and can easily be stretched too far!).
In our conversations about a “personal God”, we touched on the incredibly personal and sensitive topic of how belief in a “personal God” might or might not affect what we do with our money (or other resources). This subject is the tip of an iceberg: if our lives are indifferent to whether or not God is personal, then why even ask the question? There were a variety of responses to the “money question” and, at least to me, it remains unclear whether each of us has thought through how “behavior” (e.g. what we do with our money) and the question of whether or not God is “personal” are related.
I doubt that we are done with this topic, as there seem to be a lot more questions floating out there that we have yet to embrace!