I recently got a call from an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in ages. He and I were part of the same radical Pentecostal campus fellowship a couple of decades ago, but I got a sense that his spiritual life is stagnant. I asked him about it, and he said he was having “diminished expectations” of God. Where he used to believe strongly that God intervened on his behalf, he’s not so sure now. I could feel his disappointment and confusion through the phone.
The shift to panentheism changed things radically for me. Since I no longer believe that God is a “person” (in the sense of that word meaning a separate, distinct über-entity), I can sense the truth behind so many apparently contrary theisms:
- monotheism, because the One is … well, all that is
- polytheism, because God is manifest in all things and revealed in many ways.
- pantheism, because God is in everything.
- agnosticism, because the thinking mind can’t grasp God.
- atheism, because the idea of an überbeing in the sky seems woefully insufficient. to account for this.
If I’m in touch—in various degrees—with all of these, what have I left behind? What is the opposite of panentheism, the idea that God is within and beyond all things? We might call it exotheism, the belief that God is outside of all things, and especially, outside of you.
The “entry-level” stage of Western religions generally teach exotheism, and exotheism is a significant part of my friend’s pain. In the exotheistic view, God and you can only meet in a relationship, and as everyone knows, relationships are tricky things, and this is especially true of a relationship with the Almighty.
It might be the fearful relationship of appeasing someone who is angry, unpredictable and all-powerful. It might be the heady relationship of knowing all that seems worth knowing as you read the texts that God has apparently commissioned. It might be the wonderful release of surrendering your ego to something greater than yourself. It might be the joy of feeling the presence of the Beloved in prayer or worship. It might start off feeling wonderful, and lead to feeling frustrated with “diminished expectations.”
But most relationships have a serious flaw… unspoken demands that the other meet one’s needs. My friend’s “diminished expectations” were really the feeling of frustration that God wasn’t living up to his part of the bargain, not meeting his needs.
That perception that God is there to do things for us is perhaps the strongest barrier to divine presence. It works for a while, but dropping the demands of our neediness is essential to experience the divine later on in the journey as the soul matures. Then matters of relationship, self, inside and outside become as irrelevant as whether or not my egoic “needs” are being met. I’m just here, and so is my appreciation and wonder.