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The gospel roots of Christian pantheism
This page represents the views of the author, not of the World Pantheist Movement as a whole.
For in him we live, and move, and have our being.
St Jerome at Prayer, Hieronymus Bosch, Ghent, Musee des Beaux Arts.
Most versions of Christianity are panentheistic. They believe in a God who is present and active in this world, a God who can dwell in each person if they accept the grace of the Holy Spirit. Yet he is also a God who transcends the world, who passes far beyond the material universe and far beyond our comprehension.
It is very doubtful whether Jesus himself had any pantheistic leanings. In all probability he accepted the prevalent Jewish millenarianism of his day. God lived in heaven apart from the world, though he could act in the world whenever he chose. One day He would destroy the present earth and replace it with a transformed earth in which the Jewish nation would be resurrected and restored.
Christian pantheism derives from two gospel roots.
The first is St Paul.
Paul's famous statement to the Athenians:
For in him we live, and move, and have our being
is strongly pantheistic, though it appears to be not a statement of his own, but a quotation from a Greek poet, Aratus, probably influenced by the Stoic Cleanthes, who was a pantheist. In his own words Paul implies something similar when he says of Christ-God: "For by him all things were created … He is before all things and in him all things hold together. [Colossians 1.16-17]
Paul's position might be called selective panentheism. God is active in the world, sustains the world, and in the case of those who follow Christ he enters into their mind and body and in some sense becomes one with them. Paul uses the expression "in Christ" no less than 165 times in his letters (if we include "in the Lord" and "in him.") Sometimes "in Christ" refers to people who belong to the Christian community of believers, or who died as Christians. Sometimes it refers to the afterlife in which they will be with Christ, or surrounded by Christ. But almost always it means that Christ is in some way inside Paul or the believer; or they are inside Christ; or both. At times Paul implies that there is almost a bodily incorporation of Christians into Christ.
The second root of Christian pantheism lies in the idea of the Holy Spirit. In Acts (ii.1-3), this fills the apostles and gives them the power to speak in tongues. The Gospel of John and the Epistle of John both extend the idea of the Holy Spirit, so that it will fill all Christian believers and guide them. Later theology identified the Holy Spirit as an integral part of the Trinity, and therefore part of God. If the Holy Spirit entered each believer, this meant that God entered. Like Paul's position this too was a form of selective panentheism.
In these cases we are not talking about an expansive, world-affirming kind of pantheism - quite the opposite. Both Paul and the Johannine material regard this earth and the physical body as inferior dross. When Paul speaks of the body as God's temple, he does not mean that the body should be worshipped and indulged - but rather that its "base" instincts and desires like sex and gluttony should be suppressed so as not to defile the temple.
Paul explicitly places the flesh in direct conflict with the spirit. He seeks to mortify the flesh - perhaps out of guilt for the physical suffering he caused while persecuting the Christians. Indeed it may be Paul's desire to mortify his own flesh that explains his attraction to the crucified Jesus.
Though he be not far from every one of us.
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is he worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitations; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us; For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said. For we are also his offspring. [Acts 17:23-28.]
Ye are the temple of God
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth within you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. [1 Corinthians 3.16-17]
Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? . . So glorify God in your body. [1 Corinthians 6.19]
Christo-pantheism: Christ in us, us in Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. [Galatians 2.20.]
Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? [2 Corinthians, 13.5]
For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have one function, so we, though many, are one in Christ, and individually members of one another. [Romans 12.5.]
While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… those who are in the flesh cannot please God. [Romans 8:6-8]
If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. [Romans 8:13]
While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. [2 Corinthians 5.6]
Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other. [Galatians 5.16-17]
And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. [Galatians 5.24]
The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord. 1 Corinthians 6:13
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [Romans 13.14]
The Holy Spirit.
But you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the spirit of God dwell in you. [Romans 8.9]
And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. [John 14.15-16]
If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. [John 14.23]
All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us. [1 John 3.24]
Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: p...@pantheism.net.
© Paul Harrison 1996.
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