John Macquarrie and panentheism, part 1

A former dean of Nashotah House, Robert Munday, has written a blog post that, in the course of stating his pehttp://akensidepress.com/blog/wp-admin/post.php?post=1130&action=edit&message=1rspective and feelings about the recent announcement that the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schiori, has been invited to preach at The House (where I am studying in a distance MTS program), mentions in passing the theology of John Macquarrie.

John Macquarrie by Deborah YetterBecause Akenside Press strongly and unapologetically affirms Macquarrie’s theology as a cornerstone for Anglican renewal and Catholic imagination — for starters, see here, here, here, and here — this post and the next two will respond to this portion of Munday’s post and try to examine the points Munday tries to make about Macquarrie. He actually packs quite a bit of stuff into just a few sentences, and given Munday’s stature in the eyes of many Anglicans, it is worth taking a look at what he wrote to see if there is any merit to his criticism. So in no particular order, that is what I’ll do starting with this post. (Note, I will not spend any time on this blog dealing with the larger controversy between those who support and do not support the invitation to the Presiding Bishop.)

Munday writes that “the fact is that Macquarrie’s understanding of God is best understood as panentheism” (emphasis his). As support, Munday first cites Wikipedia (I suppose to define the term “panentheism”; I know, I know, but we all do it sometimes) and then a passage taken from John Macquarrie: a Master of Theology, which is a work of commentary by Owen F Cummings published in 2002 with a foreword by Macquarrie himself.

The first question is simple: is Munday correct? Is “panentheism” the best way to characterize Macquarrie’s understanding of God? That is the first open question I will deal with.

My own sense, as a student of Macquarrie’s work, would be to say, “No, that is not the best way to characterize Macquarrie’s articulation of the doctrine of God.” It might be “a” way, or “part of a way”, but there are other ways, and Macquarrie doesn’t spend much time with the term, except to mention it, note it, and move on. When I teach Macquarrie’s theology of God, I talk about “Being” and “Holy Being”. Those two terms, which really are one for Macquarrie, provide a surplus of pastoral challenge within an adult catechesis environment. It also matches with Macquarrie’s own approach to the doctrine of God, a focus on “Being”. But that is just my view from the perspective of catechesis, not technical academic theology.

It should be pointed out Macquarrie meant for his systematic theology to be used. That is, he meant for it to be used to teach ordinary Christians the fullness of the Christian faith. He meant it to be supportive of prayerful exploration of orthodox and catholic doctrine — discursively, meditatively, and contemplatively. He wrote his theology always with an eye toward its use for catechesis of actual pew-sitting folk; this is a tremendous gift of his approach and a characteristic that should always been kept in mind when evaluating his theology — that there is a strongly pastoral and ascetical character to Macquarrie’s dogmatics.

John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian TheologyNow, Macquarrie does mention the term “panentheism”. In Principles of Christian Theology (revised, 1977), which is 525 pages of text, there is only one mention of the term. I excerpt below the passage in which its single mention is embedded. In the next post, I’ll generously excerpt from the other book of his books to mention the term (he wrote almost 30 books), which is called In Search of Deity (1984). There, “panentheism” shows up a number of times in discussion. I will try to do an exhaustive search of his other books to see if the term pops up elsewhere. I suspect it does not, but I will see.

Let me also add that Principles ought always be the baseline text to look at first when considering Macquarrie’s theology on any theological doctrine or topic. Depending on the particular Christian doctrine or topic, Principles may or may not constitute Macquarrie’s final word. In the case, for example, of christology, it most definitely does not constitute his final word, as he wrote at least two significant christological works subsequently, those being Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), and Christology Revisited (1998). But in all cases, no matter the doctrine or topic, always first look to Macquarrie’s articulation in Principles as the point of departure. (This is also true for Macquarrie’s sacramental theology; too often people look at his excellent A Guide to the Sacraments without first giving thorough and patient study to Principles, which provides a fuller account of the underlying philosophical framework.)

The following excerpt comes from the end of chapter 5 of Principles of Christian Theology, a chapter called “Being and God”. I’ve added paragraph numbers for reference. The question to consider as one read this is how much emphasis in Principles, his primary dogmatic text, does Macquarrie in his own words give to “panentheism”? To see it in action, skip to paragraph 15.

13. But let us return to our main theme. The assertion “God exists” is not to be taken as meaning that there is to be found a being possessing such and such characteristics. “God exists” is a way of asserting what would perhaps be more exactly expressed as the holiness of being. But it is precisely the assertion of the holiness of being which is denied by atheism, so that our manner of interpreting the expression “God exists” in terms of God as being, makes not the slightest concession to atheism. It does, however, rule out obsolete and untenable mythological and metaphysical ways of thinking of God.

14. If it is allowed that the equation of God with being is not to be identified with atheism (for, rightly understood, it is the very opposite), what are we to say to the charge the our view is a kind of pantheism? Such a suggestion is equally wide of the mark, and rest on a gross misunderstanding. It has already been made clear that Being not only is not a being, but is not the sum of beings or the totality of beings or an all-inclusive being. Being “is” the transcendens, and this term indicates not only God’s distinction from the world but his “wholly other” character as over against whatever is within the world. Yet at the same time, the acknowledgement that there “is” no being apart from beings, and that being “is” present-and-manifest in every being, guards against an exaggerated transcendence of God, such as has been common in recent theology, and seeks to do justice to his immanence.

15. Would then our identification of God with being constitute a variety of panentheism, understood as the doctrine which on the one hand opposes pantheism by holding that God’s being is more and other than the universe, but which on the other differs from traditional theism in stressing the intimacy of God’s relation to the world? Perhaps the view I have been putting forward can be described as panentheistic, but the word is not important, for panentheism is itself really a variety of theism, one which takes care to stress God’s immanence equally with his transcendence.

16. At this point we must try to clarify the notions of transcendence and immanence as applied to God’s relation to the world. In calling God “transcendent” we mean that he is other than the world, indeed, that there belongs to him a different order of being; and further that God’s being is prior to the being of the world. It seems to me that both of these points are adequately recognized in the understanding of God as being. Being is of a different order from the beings, and the dynamic letting-be of being is prior to the derivative existence of the beings, whether persons or things. The concept of transcendence implies therefore that there is an element of asymmetry in God’s relation to the world, and clearly this is essential to any truly theistic view, as opposed to a pantheistic one. But it does seem to me that in much traditional theism transcendence was stressed to the point at which any conception of immanence was almost lost. The traditional view worked with what might be called a “monarchical” model of God, that is to say, God was conceived as an exalted being bearing absolute rule of another being, the world — though admittedly this other being was of a different order. Still, both were beings, and the relation between the two was conceived as entirely asymmetrical: God affects the world, but the world does not affect God; God is entirely self-sufficient, so that the world adds nothing to him; the world is a product of the divine will, quite external to God and with the suggestion that God might have created or refrained from creating and it would have made no difference. It is at this point that the dialectic of theology demands that we take up the question of God’s immanence. If we understand God as being, then his immanence in the world is just as fully recognized as his transcendence; the relation is that of being to the beings rather than that of one being to another, and we have seen that being is present and manifest in the beings. The traditional monarchical model is then qualified by what may be called an “organic” model of the God-world relation. This alternative model allows for some elements of symmetry and reciprocity in the relation of God and the world: God cannot be conceived apart from the world, for it is his very essence (letting-be) to create; God is affected by the world as well as affecting it, for creation entails risk and vulnerability; God is in time and history, as well as above them.

17. All of these matters will receive fuller discussion later, but they are already implicit in the thought of God as being. This is not a confusion of God and the world, but it is a recognition of their intimate relatedness, and this accords in turn with a fully dialectical understanding of the transcendence and immanence of God.

18. The term “God” then is adequately indicated on the frame of reference by the expression “holy being.” It follows that “God” has a twofold meaning: an ontological meaning, in so far as the word denotes being, and an existential meaning, in so far as it expresses an attitude of commitment to, or faith in, being. These two meanings belong together in the word “God” and are inseparable. The word is the key word of religion because it already expresses the basic religious conviction — that fact and value belong together, that being which gives being is also gracious being. The assertion “God exists” may be expressed in another way as meaning that being “is” no alien or neutral over against us, but that it both demands and sustains, so that through faith in being, we can ourselves advance into fullness of being and fulfill the potentialities of selfhood.

19. From now on, I shall use an initial capital for “Being” when the word is used as an alternative for “God”. This will conform to traditional usage and will also distinguish this particular meaning from others. But we must be careful not to let this word “Being” betray us into a static notion of God. We have seen that Being always includes becoming, and that the essence of Being is the dynamic act of letting-be. So our thought of God is parallel to our way of thinking of the self or soul, expounded in an earlier chapter. In both cases, we have abandoned the traditional “substantial” (reified) conceptuality in favor of one that takes time and becoming seriously.

(Principles of Christian Theology, 1977, V.21.13-19)

I hope that is enough to give a sense of both Macquarrie’s own relationship to the term “panentheism” (paragraph 15) — Macquarrie seeks to “stress God’s immanence equally with his transcendence” — as well as a significant taste of his theology of the doctrine of God, with respect to the relationship between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence.

Obviously there is more to say about God theologically, and Macquarrie does so. In chapter 9, Macquarrie moves to the explicit doctrine of the Trinity; in chapter 12, the Person of Jesus Christ; and in chapter 14, the Holy Spirit. And God shows up in some way or another in each and every paragraph of the whole book, and so the whole book does have to be taken into account before one says “Macquarrie’s doctrine of ___________ is ___________.” This is true of any great theological thinker.

In the next post, I’ll excerpt from In Search of Deity. And after that I’ll begin to evaluate Munday’s criticism given Macquarrie’s own words.