Working Toward a Panentheistic
New Thought

By C. Alan Anderson

Delivered at the Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion session
July 18, 1997
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

The program says that my presentation is called "Working Toward a Panentheistic New Thought." Well, what I'm really here to talk about is love, and I think that you'll quickly see that love has everything in the world to do with panentheism.

Since panENtheism is not exactly a household word yet (though Deb and I are working on it), I'll begin by defining it. PanENtheism is the notion that all is in God and God is in all; in other words, that the universe is God's body. The word has been around since 1828, when Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832) coined it for his own philosophy. Krause was trying to mediate between the extremes of conventional theism, which emphasized a personal God who had created the world but did not include it within his own being; and pantheism, which rendered God and the world indistinguishable. We have a good illustration of the panENtheistic worldview in the words of David Ray Griffin, "if God is the soul of the universe, that all-inclusive creative unification which makes the many finite things into a unity, then neither God nor the world can be understood apart from the other."1 So panENtheism says that God and we are a one made up of many.

What has this to do with love? Love, whether human or divine, is an experience that requires "two to tango." In other words, there are a lover and a beloved, in relation to the other. Moreover, there must be freedom to accept or reject love. Some forms of pantheism, applying the term broadly, as Huston Smith accepts,2 require that there be only one entity, God or Godhead or emptiness or void.3

It doesn't take much thinking to realize that if God loved even one other entity, or if one human being loved another human being, that theory would fall apart. On the other hand, to be distinct from God means to have a perspective other than God's. If it were true that God is all, God would have to be, in exactly the same way at the same time, both God's unique perspective and all the other unique perspectives (divine schizophrenia!) Some people say that God is not divided but somehow is individualized or individuated as myself, but this apparently is a meaningless claim, since no one can explain how it could be. Other forms of pantheism say that all the parts of the world together make God, if you even want to bother to call it God, and some would prefer to call it nontheism. Some advocates of such positions are not even willing to reason philosophically and logically, and so it is impossible to hold a discussion; we must agree to disagree. David Griffin and Huston Smith attempted such a discussion, and though they did come together on a number of issues, they fell apart over the issue of logic.4 But I am not here primarily to talk about pantheism; I am here to show how panENtheism is a logical and powerful central position for New Thought to take in assuming its leadership role for spirituality in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is the only position that even attempts to synergize both theistic and pantheistic approaches, to create a metaphysical middle way.

PanENtheism generally is associated with two other P-words: process and personalism. Process thought is derived in part from quantum physics. It holds that reality is activity, energy, experience. An experience is not a thing in the sense of a continuing self-same something; it is, rather, an occurrence, a happening, an event, and--getting ahead of myself for a moment--a mind. We are used to thinking of the terms process and outcome as opposites. In this instance, however, the opposite of process is substance, the old, static view of the universe. Process is dynamic, is constant change. In a process view, the actions are basic, and things are just collections of actions.

Personalism, the other p-word, is a philosophy that "considers personality the supreme value and the key to the meaning of reality."5 In other words, person is the ultimate category in terms of which everything is to be understood. Personal does not mean in philosophy what it means in common parlance: something for one's private use, such as a monogram, or a diary. Nor does it correspond to traditional religious use, such as the expression "my personal Savior." Nor does it mean a lesser appearance of one's underlying self.

Philosophically understood, a person is a self, an experience, that is self-conscious, rational, and purposive. Human beings are persons, dolphins and other highly developed animals may be persons, angels presumably are persons, and God is the supreme person, not simply personal as we apprehend God, but personal in Godself. Divine personality has nothing of the pettiness, unreliability, capriciousness, and other imperfections of human personality, often associated with anthropomorphic views of God as a giant human being. God is morally perfect, utterly reliable, and completely loving. To experience God as unconditional love is to experience God as a person. Things cannot love.

To say that God is the ultimate person is to say that God has such qualities of self-consciousness, rationality, and purposiveness as are required to keep track of every part of the universe and to offer each part the most helpful guidance. A so-called intelligent computer terminal can be impersonal, but not an intelligent God. Whatever we think about God, we assume some sort of cosmic order; now we realize that that order makes sense only if there is a high-order, benevolent, self-conscious, lovingly giving intelligence coordinating it. That is what we mean by divine personality, by saying that God is the divine person, whose body is the universe. A body is simply the collection of subordinate minds (experiences) that cluster around a supervising mind (like groupies around a rock star, whom they gladly would serve).

Process philosophy is also called panexperientialism, meaning that all is experience. The most famous process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), accepted the finding of physics that nature is made up of momentary bursts of energy. He concluded that interpreting these bursts or events not as lifeless, but as living, enabled him to understand them much better. However, Whitehead still was unable to explain how an event was able to depart from the pattern found in earlier events. So he introduced into his system of thought the personal God to select from the vast field of possibilities those that were appropriate for each event in question. If there ever had been only a field of possibilities or potentialities, there never would have been anything else. A divine actuality within whom the potentialities reside has to select them and offer them to the momentarily-developing experiences.

Process thought often is referred to as process-relational. This emphasizes that nothing exists in isolation. The most important relationship of all is the relationship between God and the world that is God's body, and "God so loved the world that he gave . . ." So with process thought as with panENtheism, we are talking about love.

Why should New Thought adapt panENtheism rather than pantheism or traditional theism?6 I suggest that the pantheistic or nontheistic affirmation of the allness of God is (first) an impediment to New Thought's spreading among millions of theistic Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and (second) an understandable, yet unnecessary, unfortunate, and incoherent attempt to deal adequately with some important problems. It is essentially an overreaction to the great inadequacies of traditional theism, which has offered enormously inadequate portrayals of God as a petty, capricious tyrant. I thoroughly sympathize with our founders who rebelled against such views. They were unaware of more adequate understandings of divine personality, some of which were barely known in their days, yet demand our attention now. I can easily understand why they affirmed an impersonal God, regardless of whether they merely meant impartial or intended to follow Eastern and Western mystical experience.

There appears to be widespread belief that mystical experience can directly supply knowledge. However, some eminent thinkers maintain that mystical experience requires rational reflection on it in order to produce knowledge (even if the reflection takes place so shortly following the experience as to be confused with it). I believe that those thinkers are correct.

On the other hand, the experiences both of love and of ethics demand an "other," a second party. This does not mean that the "other" is separated from God. The great insight of panENtheism is that the "other" is within God, yet never separated from God, never identical with God. God's influence is in each experience. It is just playing with words to say that the other is God somehow appearing or manifesting or individuating as the other. It nullifies free will. An other is a different, unique perspective. If there are two or more perspectives, there are two or more entities, two or more experiences. Anything identical with something is that something; anything not identical with something is not that something, no matter whether we call it God, void, or Mickey Mouse. Stephen Covey7 puts it rather well when he says, "If two of us see things exactly the same way, one of us is unnecessary." Covey is talking about valuing diversity, and it is our diverse perspectives that make up God's body. God still has a mind of his own, as we would say colloquially, better expressed in terms of realistic idealism as God is a mind of God's own. I have a body, but I am not my body. Similarly, God has a body, but God is not God's body.

Mystics often claim that the ineffable ultimate and we are indistinguishable. Many people who do not think of themselves as mystics have had an experience of universal oneness, the highest order of perception. I do not mean to question the genuineness of these experiences, only the interpretations of them. It is easy to say that God is all, but it is impossible to explain it in any rationally adequate way. It requires God's both being the unique perspective that is mine and also being the unique perspective that is God's. One may draw an analogy with a bay as part of an ocean, but the bay has no free will and no life as a totality, whereas I do. It makes great sense to say that I am in God, but it makes no sense to say that I literally am God.

I have summed up the process panENtheistic approach in a formula: past + divinely-given possibilities + free choice = new creation.8 This is the way that reality always has worked and always will work in every dimension. This audacious claim is what metaphysics is all about: to say what universally could not be otherwise. While the formula itself is my work, what it says is the result of the thinking of some of the greatest minds ever to exist.

With this understanding, we can state other important ideas in process or experiential terms. The Christ is the divinely-offered initial aim or first perfectly-oriented beginning of a response to the past. Notions such as the subconscious, the Law, and Karma, refer to the parts of the past that are most relevant for us to choose either to continue or to depart from. To the extent that we adopt positive expectations, we make the past our ally as we modify it by our momentary choices, working in conjunction with God's influence rather than against it. Healing, whether of mind, body, pocketbook, or relationships, is the moment-by-moment building up of such a positive past that it is only a small step to full acceptance of the transformation constantly offered by God.

When I assert that panENtheism is the single best solution, I do not mean to imply any intolerance for people espousing other outlooks. But reality is as it is, and only one explanation of the foundations of everything can be the most fully adequate one. At the same time, I freely grant that no human formulation can do full justice to all reality, that our understandings are approximations of truth. Nevertheless, we should strive for ever-closer approximations of truth in all our understandings.

In closing, we have seen love as a relationship, illustrative of all relationships, all experiences, to understand which is to grasp the creative pattern of everything. We also have seen love as the essence of God's giving the initial aims, the Christ mind needed in order for any actuality to exist. We have seen the synergy of the thought of many fine minds creating a system of metaphysics that takes into account the current developments in science as well as longstanding religious traditions. Process thought and personalism meet in panENtheism to form a middle way where we can all come together and move forward together under the guidance of the God whose name is love.

NOTES

1. David Ray Griffin and Huston Smith, Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 198.

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2. Ibid., p. 201.

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3. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refer adequately to an alleged ultimate that defies all description and all logical principles. See the next note. Some have used the term neutral monism, most commonly associated with Spinoza and Bertrand Russell (strange terminological bedfellows) for the ultimate whatever, which is said to be neither mind or matter, nor anything else. However, this scarcely seems to be an adequate answer. For one thing, the term monism by itself is ambiguous; it needs to be identified as qualitative (saying what sort of reality is ultimate) or quantitative (saying how many units of that whatever there are). For another, it seems impossible to conceive of anything that is neither experiencing nor nonexperiencing; if experiencing, it is mental (spiritual); if not, it is in the nature of what most simply is called matter. Similarly with living or lifeless (essentially the same as the last pair); how can anything be neither of these? Carrying the neither-this-nor-that affirmations to the extreme, the ultimate would be neither capable of being pointed to nor incapable of being pointed to, neither capable of giving rise to an observable world nor incapable of giving rise to an observable world, neither capable nor incapable of anything whatever, including being talked about and not being talked about, as well as being believed in and not being believed in. Obviously, no such claims make sense. Presumably, the answer that would be given is that it is neither sensible nor non-sensible, neither logical nor non-logical. There is no winning (nor losing) a game that purports to transcend logic. In relation to claims of neutral monism, for perhaps no very profound reason, or perhaps by divine inspiration, I am reminded of an old song (I think from a movie about a mouse that tries to fly) that proclaims, "To be a bat's a bum thing, a silly and a dumb thing; at least a bat is some thing; you're not a thing at all." Presumably the answer is that the ultimate is no thing, but is the ground of all things, which puts us right back into the how-de-do that we've just been considering.
Charles Hartshorne dismisses neutral monism as untenable. He also concludes, The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy, (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1997, edited with an introduction by Mohammad Valady), p. 150:

the alternative to psychic idealism is not materialism or dualism [or neutral monism], but agnosticism or positivism. The alternative is epistemological or methodological, not ontological. Ontology, I conclude, is idealistic (in the psychic or realistic form [panpsychist or, as Hartshorne likes to call it, psychicalist, in which the knowing subject is dependent on the known object, but the known object is not dependent on the knowing subject]) or nothing.

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4. Griffin and Smith, passim, especially p. 201: Griffin emphasizes "hard-core common sense" in accordance with which "we inevitably live as if time, freedom, and evil were real." Smith agrees as to daily living on our level, but rejects the "features of experience that we inevitably presuppose in practice as clues to the ultimate nature of reality, and maintains that "these things are not ultimately real." At p. 202: Smith would relativize "human rationality's law of noncontradiction": events are evil yet unevil, our actions are free yet wholly determined by God, time is real yet unreal. Coherence is sacrificed to paradox; logics are multiple. Griffin quotes Smith quoting W. T. Stace at p. 167, that mysticism "is utterly irreconcilable with all the ordinary rules of human thinking, that it blatantly breaches the laws of logic at every turn." Smith replies: "I like coherence, but do not require that the whole of reality conform to our capacity for it." Charles Hartshorne, in Lewis Edwin Hahn (ed.) The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991), p. 628, says:

Arguments that seem (combined with meditative experiences) conclusive to orthodox Advaita Vedantists have left Buddhists unconvinced for many centuries; and, for a shorter but still considerable lapse of time, the case for Advaita Vedantism has seemed weak to most Westerners. One way to look at this is to say that metaphysical issues are not resolvable by reason. In a way Vedantists and Buddhists both say this; but then they, not wholly consistently I think, continue to argue as though reason had application. My view is that in metaphysics it is more difficult to think rationally than in science, but not impossible, and that, concerning intercultural dialogue, it is pertinent to emphasize the fact that the differences between geographically or linguistically separated cultures are to a considerable extent duplicated within each such culture.
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5. R. T. Flewelling in Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, revised and enlarged edition (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanhead, 1984).

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6. Many New Thoughters may find it practically impossible to conceive of New Thought without the pantheistic belief that God literally is everything, that there is nothing but God. However, Horatio W. Dresser, whose parents were among the very first New Thoughters and who was one of the first historians of the movement, did characterize New Thought in non-pantheistic terms, and neatly expressed it as follows:

The New Thought is a practical philosophy of the inner life in relation to health, happiness, social welfare, and success. Man as a spiritual being is living an essentially spiritual life, for the sake of the soul. His life proceeds from within outward, and makes for harmony, health, freedom, efficiency, service. He needs to realize the spiritual truth of his being, that he may rise above all ills and all obstacles into fullness of power. Every resource he could ask for is at hand, in the omnipresent [as loving guide, not as the totality of oneself] divine wisdom. Every individual can learn to draw upon divine resources. The special methods of New Thought grow out of this central spiritual principle. Much stress is put upon inner or spiritual concentration and inner control, because each of us needs to become still to learn how to be affirmative, optimistic. Suggestion or affirmation is employed to banish ills and errors and establish spiritual truth in their place. Silent or mental treatment is employed to overcome disease and secure freedom and success. The New Thought then is not a substitute for Christianity, but an inspired return to the original teaching and practice of the gospels. It is not hostile to science but wishes to spiritualize all facts and laws. It encourages each man to begin wherever he is, however conditioned, whatever he may find to occupy his hands; and to learn the great spiritual lessons taught by this present experience.
Quoted in James H. Snowden, The Truth About Christian Science (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1920). pp. 282-83.

Oneness often is identified with the idea that we are one with God in the sense that there is nothing of us that is not God. However, Dresser affirmed the oneness in a different sense, without embracing pantheism:

The essence of the New Thought, as I understand it, is the oneness of life; the great truth, namely, that all things work together toward a high ideal in the kingdom of the Spirit. Otherwise stated, it is the truth that God lives with us, in every moment of existence, in every experience, every sorrow and every struggle.
Horatio W. Dresser (ed.), The Spirit of the New Thought (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1917), p. 6. This is reminiscent of one of Alfred North Whitehead's characterizations of God: "the great companion--the fellow-sufferer who understands" Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929), p. 532.

Dresser attacked the belief that "man is 'divine,'" that God is "the sole Reality 'in' the self." He affirmed that

Man then is not "one with God," but . . . may be led into unison or conjunction with the Lord . . . . by the operation of the Divine love and wisdom through [not as] us . . .
Horatio W. Dresser, "The New Thought and the New Church." The Helper 71 (Feb. 21, 1923): 3-17, 12.

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7. Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic, (New York: Simon & Schuster Fireside Book, 1989).

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8. C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehead, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1995), p. 109, in Ch. 6.

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LINKS

For additional information especially related to the above, see:

The Practice the Presence of God for Practical Purposes: Balance", by Deb Whitehouse, presented at the same session as the above talk.

Process New Thought

Summary of "The New Thought Movement: A Link Between East and West"

The March of Metaphysics

Anderson and Whitehouse, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, especially Chapter 6, which includes a table of comparisons of traditional Judeo-Christian thought, conventional Substance New Thought, and Process New Thought; part of that chapter can be found at Healing in a Process New Thought Perspective.

More on personalism, apart from New Thought, can be found at Association for the Study of Persons

More on process metaphysics, apart from New Thought, can be found at:

Center for Process Studies

Japan Internet Center for Process Studies, including, with many quotations, the valuable Contextual Index of Process and Reality

The Australasian Association for Process Thought

the periodical Process Studies

Richard Lubbock's Alfred North Whitehead for dummies

Brief Excerpts from Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne's Psychicalism.

For information on various types of metaphysics, see Metaphysics: Multiple Meanings

New Thought Movement Home Page

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Created July 31, 1997, by Alan Anderson, Contact Info.

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