A Personal or Impersonal God?

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?


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!


  1. Julian A. Davies

    You are very welcome Heather! I hope we can have some fun with it.

    Grace and peace……….Julian

  2. Rob R

    I don’t believe sacrifice is anything that is to be pursued because it is good in and of itself. I think it is related to the two greatest commandments, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and God with our whole being. In the garden of Eden, the reasoning in the decision to rebel was the result of gratification of the self at the expence of community with God and man. Sacrifice reverses this trend putting God and man before self.

    Sacrifice as scripture presents it is not absolute either. In Mark 10, Jesus says that no one who leaves family and belongings for him will fail to recieve a hundred fold in return in this life and the next.

    The sacrifice of Jesus was not presented as absolute self denial either. Jesus knew he would rise again and that the world would be redeamed as a result.

  3. Rob R

    I thought something important was left out of our discussion and that I was the importance of the issue. I think this is the most fundamental religious question and it is more important than the question of God’s existence. If you don’t know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?

  4. Julian A. Davies

    On the issue of “sacrifice” and the idea of pursuing realization as individuals (within a community), I guess for me this comes down to the question of whether it is possible for me to realize a meaningful, purposeful life in the face of suffering and poverty without being willing to give up that which might benefit me in order to, at least in part, alleviate the suffering and poverty around me. As I see it, a willingness to “share the suffering”, even if only in a modest way, somehow makes the community of which we speak into one where we are compassionate towards each other. Compassion (literally “to suffer with”) matters, I think, and the idea of sacrifice (such as so-called “sacrificial giving”) is (perhaps I should say “can be”)a demonstration of compassion to the members of the community.

  5. Julian A. Davies

    Rob – “If you don’t know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?” sounds like a great subject for a session! Excellent question, I think! Just as a first pass at this…..if we need to know something about God in order to discover God, then I think that means that God must display something about himself to everyone, including those who do not believe in God or who claim to know nothing of God, otherwise people could never discover God. John Wesley would be crying out “prevenient grace” at this point in the conversation, I suspect!

  6. Julian A. Davies

    [A friend, Roc, sent these thoughts for the blog]

    Marcus J. Borg gives what I believe to be a good presentation on “Panentheism” in chapter 2 in his book THE GOD WE NEVER KNEW. To quote a few he says ‘Panentheism as a way of thinking about God affirms both the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. For panentheism, God is not being ‘out there.’ The Greek roots of the word point to its meaning: ‘Pan” means ‘everything,’ ‘en’ means ‘in’ and ‘theos’ means ‘God.’ Panentheism thus means ‘everything is in God.’ God is more than everything (and thus transcendent), yet everything is in God (hence God is immanent). For panentheism, God is “right here”, even as God is more than “right here.”

    You may know that Witherington is reluctant to take Borg’s definition seriously—–thinks it is related to New Age thought.

Thanks for visiting!