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  • Panentheism and the Classical God-World Relationship:A Systems-Oriented Approach
  • Joseph A. Bracken S.J. (bio)

Panentheism has become a familiar term in contemporary Christian systematic theology and philosophy, for it is widely believed to be an appropriate way to overcome the alleged dualism found in the classical God-world relationship. But what is meant by the term panentheism, and how does it work so as to avoid becoming still another form of pantheism or cosmic monism? In 2004 Philip Clayton and the late Arthur Peacocke published a set of papers on the topic of panentheism that came from a conference in England on that topic in 2001.1 Yet, while there were certain broad affinities in approach and content among many of the papers, none of them used precisely the same conceptual model for analysis of the concept. As one of the participants Niels Henrik Gregersen commented, “The concept of panentheism is not stable in itself. The little word ‘in’ is the hinge of it all. There may be as many panentheisms as there are ways of qualifying the world’s being ‘in God.’”2

In this article, I attempt an explanation of the term on the basis of what I call systems theory. As I explain in the next section of this article, I have in mind with the term system a somewhat modified understanding of what Alfred North Whitehead meant by the category of society in his master work Process and Reality.3 That is, a system is a corporate or socially organized reality whose ultimate constituents are momentary self-constituting subjects of experience (actual entities).4 But, perhaps more strongly than Whitehead himself, I claim that societies/systems are more than simply the sum of their interrelated actual entities from moment to moment. They are specifically social or corporate realities, enduring ontological totalities greater than the sum of their parts or members.5 System rather than Aristotelian substance is for me the first category [End Page 207] of Being or more precisely Becoming. Applied to the understanding of the term panentheism, this means that the God-world relationship is a hierarchically ordered set of systems, with the divine life-system at the top and immediately below it the cosmic process as itself a hierarchically ordered set of subsystems from subatomic “particles” to galaxies of galaxies.

My argument supporting this systems-oriented approach to the God-world relationship is laid out in the four sections of this article. In the first section, I give a more detailed description of what I mean by the term system, indicating that while it originates as a product of human imagination, it seems to correspond to the way physical reality is structured. Then in the second part of the article, I review the work of Colin Gunton in his book The One, the Three and the Many, in which he seems to offer from the perspective of classical Trinitarian theology a process-oriented approach to the God-world relationship. That is, Gunton makes use of what he calls “Trinitarian transcendentals,” interrelated principles of Becoming, to explain the workings both of the immanent Trinity and of the God-world relationship as a whole.6 In the third part of the article, I propose my own explicitly systems-oriented understanding of the emergence of higher-order systems out of lower-order systems within physical reality. My authorities in this part of the article will be the natural scientist Terrence W. Deacon in his recent book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter,7 and the philosopher of science Alfred North Whitehead with his theory of hierarchically ordered societies in Process and Reality.8 Finally, in the fourth section of the paper, I apply the way in which systems theory seems to work in the natural sciences to my systems-oriented understanding of panentheism. In particular, I focus on the way that both Deacon and Whitehead clearly emphasize bottom-up rather than top-down causality in analyzing the relations between hierarchically ordered systems and yet both use a new understanding of formal causality so as to retain top-down causation in a modified form in the relations between those same systems. [End Page...


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