Heart of Christianity 4 – God

In chapter 4, “God: The Heart of Reality,” Borg continues his now tried-and-true approach of contrasting aspects of the earlier paradigm and the emerging paradigm. Here he discusses the nature and character of God.

Borg calls the earlier paradigm’s concept of God supernatural theism. This concept identifies God as a transcendent, personal being who created the universe and may occassionally intervene within it to engineer certain outcomes.

By contrast, the emergent paradigm embraces panentheism, a notion that has received a fair bit of attention in contemporary theology, from such diverse quarters as Jurgen Moltmann, thinkers associated with the science-and-religion dialogue, and process theology. In supposed contrast to supernatural theism, panentheism emphasizes the “closeness” of God to the created world (pan + en + theos = “all things in God”).

According to Borg, supernatural theism sees God as “out there,” as fundamentally separate from the world, which largely operates according to its own laws and nature. For God to have any influence on the world, God must “intervene” by “breaking” those laws. It also, he says, has contributed to an ecologically desctructive view of the natural world by minimizing the presence of God in the world.

Panentheism, on the other hand, emphasizes the immanence of God. God is the “encompassing Spirit… the one in whom ‘we live and move and have our being'” (p. 70). God is thus not absent from creation, but includes it, even while transcending it. Borrowing a phrase from Lutheran theology, God is “in, with, and under” creation, or a “presence beneath and within our everyday lives” (p. 67). Borg says that instead of using the language of “intervention,” panentheism uses terms like “divine intentionality” or “divine interactivity” to describe God’s relation with the world (see p. 67).

A critic of Borg might well say that his description of supernatural theism is a straw man. For instance, what proponent of traditional theism has actually denied the immanence (or omnipresence) of God? Relatedly, it’s not clear to me that panentheism solves all the alleged problems of classical theism, at least not without a great deal more fleshing out than Borg gives it here–and it may introduce new ones of its own. Nevertheless, with the popularity of the slot-machine God of “prosperity” preaching and the all-determining deity of neo-Calvinism, fresh thinking about God and God’s relationship to creation is definitely needed.


5 thoughts on “Heart of Christianity 4 – God

  1. I think that’s right – how has the traditional teaching been received and lived (or not) is a key question. Borg even says that the view he’s offering is in some ways “more biblical and orthodox” than what he’s calling supernatural theism, so it may be a matter of recovering neglected pieces of the tradition as well as thinking in new ways.

    p.s. I’m going to try and start looking at your ms. this weekend!

  2. Billy

    Borg’s critique of “classical theism” is becoming a familiar trope. In many ways it is difficult to disagree with it entirely. But its main weakness, besides the problems inherent in its own positive, ‘panentheistic’ vision,’ is that what it attacks is not in fact classical theism. In terms of Christian history, nothing that is distinctively modern should be called ‘classical,’ but the view of God as a super-person ‘out there’ who happened to create the universe and sometimes messes around with it to get it to do what he wants is pretty much a distinctively modern conception of God, much more akin to a literalistic interpretation of the more personalist strands of the Hebrew scriptures than to anything developed by Christian theologians from the Cappadocians to Augustine to Aquinas to, even, dare I say it, Calvin. The conception of God developed in that tradition (and not only in its Western form) deserves to be called classical, and it is hard to see how we could possibly assimilate a tradition which routinely says things like “we cannot know what God is” with the modern, anthropomorphic theism that treats God as, in effect, a disembodied mind without any of the limitations associated with our own minds.

    So, while I’m sympathetic to the process/panentheistic critique, it isn’t really a very good critique of classical theism. It’s my judgment, too, that at least *theologically*, the classical tradition fares better than the newer attempts at pantheism. The newer approach has a difficult time maintaining God’s transcendence, and is frequently torn between identifying God and the world, on the one hand, or treating God as one finite part of the world in order to avoid identifying God and the world.

    The most accessible accounts of what classical theism really looks like are, to my knowledge, to be found in Brian Davies’ work (whether his Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Thinking about God, or The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil) and in those of his teacher, Herbert McCabe (pretty much anything, but esp. God Matters and God Still Matters). Or, of course, pretty much anything written by well-informed Orthodox theologians.

  3. Billy, I agree with most of what you say. Borg does specify that what he calls “supernatural theism” is a modern innovation; what he doesn’t do, at least not here, is mine the tradition for the kinds of insights you’re talking about. I think his thought would benefit from that.

    (Though, I also have to say that I don’t think that genuinely “classical” theism as you describe it is problem-free either.)

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