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.

19 thoughts on “Exotheism

  1. I first learned of panentheism in discussions I found and participated in at BeliefNet in 2000. I was ready for that step after running into the same walls again and again, lacking a way of integrating my experiences with God as a devotee of a strict religious practice and my experiences with God that seemed much wilder and more primal. The verse in the New Testament about the wind bloweth where it listeth was the only way I could connect my formal religious training with my experience of the divine in the canyonlands of western Colorado and eastern Utah, with the heart and spirit connections yoga introduced into my life, with the monism I perceived behind the dualism.

    Apocalypse (‘lifting of the veil’) indeed.

  2. Trev, thanks for adding your thoughts and the reference.

    Greenfrog, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the song. And that wonderful reminder of what apocalypse REALLY means!

  3. Hmm. My relationship with God has matured not by discarding the faith that He meets my needs, but by developing a clearer view of what my needs are. (They often aren’t what I think they are.) God gives me what I need to grow, which sometimes means suffering.

    Saying that exotheism is “entry-level” religion seems a bit harsh to me. Many of the big-name Christian mystics and saints of the past advocated the need to set aside all created things in order to find God in Himself. Also, the Sufis have always emphasized personal relationship with God–demanding and seemingly fickle though (S)He may be. I don’t think that such mystics are necessarily less mature in their spirituality than those who emphasize monism. (But then, I’m biased.)

    Dualism is a painful path, yes. That doesn’t means it’s bad.

  4. Welcome, Tril. You make some good points, and I need to make some clarification.

    I would venture, that as you are realize that your needs aren’t what you thought they are, you are giving up the self-centered attitude I was talking about. Certainly the great Western mystics were. Making Relationship work by yielding breaks down the “exo” of what I’m calling “exotheism.”

    Also, by “exotheism,” I don’t mean merely the idea that God is a separate, but Supreme, being, which is pretty much the definition of monotheism, but a monotheism with the emphasis on separation. As lovers become united, needs regress and separation melts. Conceptually, there still may be duality, but experientially, there can be union.

    Thanks again for adding your voice.

  5. Thanks Jon! Great thoughts.

    I’m about half way through “The Coming of The Cosmic Christ”. Just starting the section on The Second Coming. It seems to be leading up to what I’ve come to in other ways.

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only person thinking as such.

  6. This is an excerpt from a letter to a very dear friend, that explains better than will my fumbling with words today:

    Did God really betray you? Or who? made promises on His behalf,
    for the wind that blows where it will,
    that is everywhere at once, and nowhere, and where,
    where is our perception?
    Heaven is now.

  7. This is indeed a fantastic post. I’m still holding on to the label “panentheist,” although I can recognize its limitations. I can also appreciate the glimmers of truth in each of the other “isms” you’ve listed here. Many, many thanks, for a very thought-provoking post.

    I?ve nominated you for the ?Open Mind Blogger Award.? See my post about the award at my Blog of the Grateful Bear, then visit http://politicsandreligion.wordpress.com/open-mind-award/ to claim your award!

    ~ Grateful Bear

  8. Oh well. I think I somehow lost my comment to you. I wanted to thank you for such a wonderful post, bringing together all these theological perspectives through panentheism! I’ve often felt this way… and even toyed with the idea that I’m in some ways an atheist because I’m not THAT kind of theist… but you expressed so much I haven’t been able to articulate myself. Also, I think sometimes I may think exotheistically without realising it, and maybe that’s when spirituality feels most stagnant. I’ll have to pay attention and see if that’s true. Anyway, congratulations on your nomination by Darrell and I hope to read more from you.

  9. I once received some advice when it comes to such actualization of realization, or to put it another way, of being genuinely open to reality-as-it-is, which I hope may be of some use here: “Never think that you’ve ‘got it’, and never doubt that you do.”

  10. Hi there — I got a link to your blog from Hamza Darrell Grizzle’s blog. I do read your blog on and off, even though I don’t comment here.

    I was a conventional Muslim theist who also found panentheism as the most inclusive and most mature picture of the Divine. I’ll be referencing this great entry from my blog if that’s all right with you.

    One thing I’d like to mention is that panentheism doesn’t necessarily mean the Divine is purely impersonal. I used to have a hard time seeing God as personal, but the Indian philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo helped me see that the Divine transcends the concepts of both impersonal and personal. I would say God is both universal *and* in touch with the particularities of each individual.

  11. I’m a latecomer to this post but I had to come back to it to say how much I appreciate it. This statement is profound: “…dropping the demands of our neediness is essential to experience the divine later on in the journey as the soul matures.”

  12. Your abandonment of personhood in the Godhead in the may be misplaced. There is, in fact, a point of view in the mix of the “-isms” that you have not considered in defaulting to panentheism : “panpenetheism” — which is strongly developed in both traditional Chinese Neo-Confucian thought and with strong parallels to that of Alfred North Whitehead’ process thought. I won’t elaborate but rather point your here: http://www.inbetweenness.com/Suncrates'%20Publications/CHINESE%20PHILOSOPHY%20AS%20WORLD%20PHILOSOPHY.pdf

    This line of approach is most attentive to the radical Creativity of God — God as Creativity itself — echoed in the Book of Changes and explicitly in Tolkiens’ observations (of whom you seem markedly fond) on what he termed “subcreation” as the unique faculty and fundamental calling of the incarnate human soul — to participate WITH God in his creation rather than trying to compete to substitute ours for His — which in this conception (pun intended) is the straightforward definition of sin and the measure of the Fall.

  13. A wonderful post indeed.
    For anyone new to (or just interested in) the idea of panentheism, I would like to recommend a book that convincingly makes the case for this way of conceptualizing the Divine: “The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith” by Marcus Borg. Borg’s claim is that panentheism not only seems the least offensive to our postmodern minds, but also – and far more importantly – that this way of imaging God most faithfully reflects deep mystical experience. I also very much like the fact that the author tells the story of his own evolving Godview, from “supernatural theism” (God out there, remote and authoritarian) to panentheism.

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