‘Emergentist theism’ as a panentheistic thread within traditional theism – seeking for a God-World unity

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz, 2012

29 Seiten


‘Emergentist theism’ as a panentheistic thread within traditional theism –

seeking for a God-World unity

By Klibengajtis, Thomas PhD

This paper was prepared for “Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge”, June 2-6, 2007, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute


Transdisciplinarity is possible only by developing a common meta-level for all disciplines involved. A meta-level containing “the knowledge of things divine and human” has been known for centuries as wisdom. Wisdom, however, in the latter meaning assumes a higher dimension in which our human world only participates. The aim of this paper is to depict a panentheistic conception of God and world which I would like to name ‘the emergentist theism’. The second part of the paper gives reasons for the emphasis of God’s transcendence within the Western theism, such as: (1) the transcendent view of God/gods present within the Old Testament and the Greek religious tradition; (2) the philosophical context of Platonism of the rising Jewish and Christian theism. The third part shows how Aristotle’s physics, especially his conception of the First Unmoved Mover, exerted influence on the theological conception of God’s transcendence being present both in Protestant and Catholic Tradition. Because of the Thomistic influence exerted first on the theology of the Counter Reformation, than on Modern Scholastic and finally on Neo-Scholasticism, this Aristotelian view remained, predominant within the Catholic Tradition up to the Second Vatican Council. The fourths part of the paper depicts how the rise of modern panentheism was influenced by Neo-Scholasticism, Darwinism and German idealism and why, therefore, some panentheists identified the traditional theism with the Neo-Scholastic, i.e. ‘the Aristotelian’ conception of God. The fifths part gives an introduction into the philosophical and theological monism. By the first I mean the conception of deriving of the many from one principle, by the letter the view of the emergence of creatures from God through Logos. In this conception, which I call ‘the emergentist theism’, God is not ‘outside’ but within the creation which expresses and reveals Himself even to Himself. The sixth and last part of the paper shows, in a very short sketch, that some traces of this conception of God’s immanence can be found in the writings of: Justin the Martyr, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianz, Basil of Cesarea, Pseudo-Denys, Maximus Confessor and Gregory Palamas.

Transdisciplinarity as wisdom?

The notion of transdisciplinarity contains both diversity and unification. It implies the diversity of different scientific disciplines. On the other hand, it postulates the existence of a certain meta-level which makes possible the connection of different outcomes resulting from different disciplines. In knowing the different scientific methodologies we can indeed enter into dialogue with representatives of different fields. But in order to create something really interdisciplinary, i.e. new, we must leave behind some areas of our own academic language and approach, and thus attempt to develop a meta-level. Otherwise there would be no possibility for e.g. molecular-biology, medicine, zoology and theology to find a common approach towards the question: what is life and why is it worth protecting it? Perhaps the quest for a common language or meta-level would be easier for us if we considered it as the quest for wisdom. One of the oldest definitions of wisdom derives from the Stoics, who described it as “the knowledge of things divine and human”.[1] Nowadays, we might add to “things divine and human” also “natural things”, which makes us discover wisdom in the entire spectrum of being, i.e. from the microscopic up to the cosmological level. Since wisdom is rather a personal category, a methodological purist might ask whether speaking of it in the context of quarks and galaxies makes sense. But because wisdom is an essential trait of our mind we cannot but discover wisdom in the world. According to the German idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), the perceptibility of wisdom in our mind results from the existence of wisdom outside the mind, i.e. in the universe. In Schelling’s terms:

„Demands a human being for this knowledge which is wisdom, so must s/he assume that wisdom is within the object of the knowledge. […] There is no wisdom for human beings unless there is wisdom in the objective world. The first premise of philosophy, understood as the pursuit of wisdom, is the existence of wisdom in the object, in the being, in the world.”[2]

Schelling’s approach results not only from the old epistemological postulate that the cognized object must be cognizable for the person cognizing it, but also from a concept which can be also found in St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Since the human mind cannot think of nothing or desire nothing, the object of its thought or desire must be in some way existent. Therefore our quest for wisdom can be explained in terms of the receptivity of Wisdom existing in an objective way outside our minds. It can be also explained as our subjective desire for something outside ourselves which will satisfy this desire. Since we agree that the personal category of wisdom can be found in the material world, we have to at least assume a kind of personal presence within the latter. This personal presence in the world is known by all religions as the Divine or God.

Origins of the Western conceptions of transcendence

God, however, who was considered in the beginnings of the Western civilization as present within the world, became more and more transcendent and even alien to it. In the Judaist, Christian and Islamic theistic traditions, besides the transcendent view of God the immanent view was also present, but in the course of time the latter was increasingly disregarded whereas the former was stressed. The reason for such a development can be found in the theological and philosophical context of rising theism, by which I mean the time between Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 50 C.E) and Origen († 253). During this period, first the Jews and subsequently the Christians started to use the philosophical argumentation of the pagans not only in order to proselytize them, but also to justify their own belief in a rational manner.

The theological context of the early theist view of God’s transcendence or immanence was formed by the Old Testament and Greek religion. In order to avoid any similarities between the cosmotheistic gods of the Middle East[3] and the Yahweh God, the Old Testament depicts the latter as the transcendent Creator and the separated from the world Holiness.[4] A stronger emphasis on God’s immanence would probably have annihilated any difference between Abrahamic i.e. monotheistic and non-Abrahamic i.e. polytheistic kinds of religion, since the Bible shows us that Israel had significant problems in accepting God’s invisibility and noncorporality.[5] But not every polytheistic religion held an immanent view of the gods. The genuine Greek polytheism of the Pre-Hellenistic era, unlike the later Hellenistic religion of the Empire, considered the gods mainly as transcendent. The official cult of the Greek religion did not offer ordinary believers an intimate contact with the gods. Only exceptional individuals such as poets, visionaries and prophets, known as the theologoi, sensed the divine presence.[6] Believers weren’t even allowed to enter the interior of a temple, where only priests performed the divine cult. It was only in mysterious religions, which started to develop in the 6th century B.C., that the ancients could discover divine immanence and presence within polytheism.

The philosophical context of rising theism exerted an even stronger influence on the conception of God’s transcendence/immanence than the religious context. It was mainly Platonism combined with some Aristotelian conceptions which philosophically focused on God’s transcendence. By dividing reality into cosmos noetōs and cosmos aisthetōs[7], Plato widened the gap between here and there, God and the world, immanence and transcendence. The cosmos noetōs as the immutable and therefore real existing world was the realm of ideas, notions and God’s presence. However transcendent, it could be attained by love[8] and intellectual effort,[9] since the divine-human affinity of nature made such access possible.[10] On the other hand, the cosmos aisthetōs was the mutable world of sensual things. It did not exist by itself, but only by participation in the noetic world. The aisthetic world served only as a mirror of ideas and divine presence.[11] We can say that the natural attitude in the times of rising theism was a transcendental one. People were searching for meaning and divinity more ‘there’ than ‘here’ and the physics of the period dealt more with ontological hierarchies than with physical entities.

Transcendence growing physically: Aristotle’s merit and fault

Aristotle – the second reason for the emphasis of transcendence in the Western theism – albeit known to the first theistic writers was little used by them with regard to the immanence/transcendence issue. Discovered by the West in the 12th century, he gave his account of the First Mover The(le)ology which not only continued the Platonic transcendent approach in metaphysics, but also introduced a new physical and cosmological dimension. Whereas Plato’s God – by thinking up ideas which included the existence of entities – was to some extent present in the world, Aristotle’s God – as the First Unmoved Mover – was external to it. Since, according to Aristotle, motion[12] and world are eternal,[13] the First Unmoved Mover of the world must be considered as its logical and ontological beginning. The relation of an eternal God to an eternal world was not an intricate issue for the Greeks, but since then Christians adopting Aristotle had affirmed the creatio ex nihilo God as the First Mover who appeared at the beginning of space and time. The further adoption of the Aristotelian view of causality gave origin to the concept of God as the first link in long chain of causes. This approach can be found in almost all medieval proofs of God’s existence resulting from Aristotle. Albert the Great (†1280) was presumably the first medieval Western scholar who applied the Aristotelian ex motu arguments in his proofs of God’s existence.[14] Also, three of five “ways to God” of Thomas Aquinas, who employed a large part of Aristotelian cosmology in his own opus,[15] are more or less connected with the ex motu argument.[16] Even the Scotist view of God as primum effectivum, primum finitivum and primum eminens cannot deny its Aristotelian roots.[17] Even if Platonic and Neo-Platonic conceptions of God’s effects on the world were present during the Middle Ages, the charm of the Aristotelian approach consisted in its scientific and systematic impact, which promised scholars what they like most: the theory of everything.

The enormous influence of Aristotle on the conception of God’s transcendence becomes obvious when we examine the connections between his physics, cosmology and theology, along with the history of its impact. Aristotelian physics is about entities which exist separately and are movable.[18] Therefore his physics for the most part deals with motion which is described as entelecheia, i.e. the actualization of a potentiality.[19] Motion, however, falls into the higher category of change[20] which is the main attribute of the sublunar world. Since “every change is from something to something”[21] also motion, being a sort of change, must be caused by something else. Here we come to the Aristotelian sentence: “everything which moves is moved by something else”[22] which gained fame and gave direction to physics for many centuries to come. Since the causal chain cannot be reduced ad infinitum, there must be a First Mover who is unmoved. He is the final cause which moves all things in the way the object of desire or thought moves thoughts or desires.[23] Since everything in the sublunar and supralunar world is moved by something else, God is the efficient cause of every motion. Aristotle’s cosmology shows us that God’s effect on the world, firstly on the supralunar and secondly on the sublunar world, proceeds in an indirect and distant way. God himself moves directly only the first celestial sphere of the supralunar world. The further 55 spheres of it are moved by other divine substances.[24] Hence the human world is moved not by the First Mover himself, but by a subsequent divine substance. Aristotle’s God – being a transcendent, immutable, self-sufficient, immaterial, universal intellect – has no need to care for the eternal species of humans who inhabit an eternal world driven by the eternal motion.[25] The adoption of Aristotelism by the medieval Christian scholars not only caused the well-known philosophical and theological problems (immortality of the soul, eternity of the world, theory of double truth), but also made God more distant to the world – even compared with the also transcendent Platonic system. In Aristotelism God resides outside the world not only in the metaphysical but also in the spatial meaning. A ‘place’ is, according to Aristotle, “the boundary of the containing body at which it is in contact with the contained body.”[26] Thus something can be said to be ‘in a place’ only if there is anything else which contains the latter. But God moving the first celestial sphere is outside the ‘first heaven’. In regard to heaven however, Aristotle states: “we cannot go on and say that heaven is in anything else.”[27] Therefore heaven, the sphere of God’s dwelling, is in nothing, since Aristotle denied the existence of the void.[28] However, saying that God dwells in nothing may be a pre-stage of saying that God is nothing, as shown by the further development of philosophy and physics.

Among the theses condemned in the year 1277 was thesis 49 which seemed to have particularly influenced the further development of physics. It reads as follows: “Anyone who says that God could not move the heavens [that is, the sky and therefore the world] with rectilinear motion; and the reason is that a vacuum would remain let him be accursed.”[29] As a consequence of such an explicit condemnation, the medieval scholars tried to prove that (1) God can move the heavens; (2) He can do it in rectilinear motion, against Aristotle who sustained that he can do only so in circular motion[30] ; (3) There is at least the possibility of vacuum. In his theory of impetus, Jean Buridan (†1358) conjectured that in absence of corrupting resistances a wheel could be revolved perpetually by the impetus it received when initially put into motion. Further he suggested that at the world’s creation God impressed a fixed amount of impetus into each celestial orb. Since the celestial region was thought devoid of all resistance to motion, the original impetus impressed in each planetary orb should remain constant and produce indefinite circular motion.[31] Therefore at the beginning of the world Buridan’s God seems to stand a sort of cosmic driven wheel giving once for all the impetus to the universe. It is not the physical naïveté, however, which strikes us as being odd in this picture, but the temporal and spatial distance attributed to God’s action. The reprobation of thesis 49 encouraged some scholars to think about the possibility of the void beyond the supralunar world, which, in their deference to Aristotle, they called “imaginary”. This supralunar void, being very distant from the world, was regarded by some authors as the appropriate space for God’s presence. Thomas Bradwardine (†1349) argued for instance in his theological treatise De causa Dei contra Pelagium that God’s perfection would be more complete if He existed in many places simultaneously than in a unique place only. Bradwardine demonstrated that God necessarily exists in every part of the world and also everywhere beyond the real world in an imaginary infinite void. Since God is omnipresent in an infinite void beyond the world, it follows that although a void can exist without body, it cannot exist without God’s presence. Theological considerations seem to have impelled Bradwardine to associate these empty places with God.[32] This resolution is certainly laudable in the light of Bradwardine’s apologetic attempt, but quite disquieting in the light of the further “God of the gaps” conception. The attempt to situate God in an extracosmic sphere was also present in the commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens completed in 1377 by Nicole Oresme (†1382). For Oresme it seemed intuitively unsatisfying to believe that a finite world actually occupied all the space in existence. Extracosmic space is described by him as an infinite and indivisible void being not only the proper space for God’s immensity, but being God Himself. By its identification with God, the extracosmic void was apparently conceived as an existent thing. Oresme even envisioned it as an infinite spatial container in which an absolute motion was at least conceivable if God chose to move our finite spherical cosmos in a straight line.[33] Barring some interesting physical insights present in Oresme’s conception, the God described by him seems to withdraw more and more from the world by occupying not even the extramundane sphere but the extracosmic void. Identification of God’s immensity and infinite extension with an infinite void beyond the world raised some puzzling questions which received scant attention during the Middle Ages.


[1] Cf. Chrysippus, Fragmenta logica in Stoicorum veterum fragmenta (ed.) J. von Arnim, Vol. 2 (Leipzig: Teubner, [1903] 1968), nr. 35,2; 36,2; 1017,10.

[2] F. W. J. Schelling, Philosophie der Offenbarung in Schelling-Werke (=SW) Vol. 3, (ed.) K. F. A. Schelling (Stuttgart: Cotta 1858), p. 742.

[3] Cf. Jan Assmann, Moses der Ägypter: Entzifferung einer Gedächtnisspur (München: Hanser, 1998), pp. 20, 28, 71-81.

[4] Cf. Is 33:5; Ps 89; Ps 93:4-5.

[5] Cf. Ex 32:1-8.

[6] Abraham P. Bos, „Immanenz und Transzendenz“, in Realenzyklopädie für Antike und Christentum 17 (1996) pp. 1042-1092, here 1042.

[7] Plato, Phaedo 79 a.

[8] Id., Symposion 211 c.

[9] Id., Phaidros 247 c-d.

[10] Id., Phaedo 79 d-e.

[11] Id., Res publica 516 a-c.

[12] Aristotle, Physica 250 b –267 b.

[13] Id., De mundo 281 a – 283 b; Meteorologica 352 b, 353 a.

[14] Albert the Great, De causis et proc. universitatis, Lib. 1, 1,7.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, In duodecim libros metaphysicorum Aristotelis expositio (= Sententia Metaphysicae) , lib. 12, lectio 5 and 6; In De caelo, lib. 1, lec. 3 -4; In Physic., lib. 4, lec. 7 n-15.

[16] Esp. arguments ex parte motus, ex ratione causae efficientis, ex gubernatione mundi see: Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia q. 2 a. 3.

[17] Duns Scotus, De primo principio, 3, 9-14.

[18] Aristotle, Metaph. 1025 b 28.

[19] Id., Physica 201 a 10-11; Metaph. 1065 b 33.

[20] Id., Phys. 224 a 26-38.

[21] Id., Phys. 225 a 1.

[22] Id., Phys. 251 a 11-16.

[23] Id., Metaph. 1072 a 26; 1072 b 1- 30.

[24] Id., Metaph. 1073 a 22- 1074 b 14.

[25] Id., Metaph. 1074a 36; 1072b 25-28.

[26] Id., Phys., 212 a 20-21.

[27] Id., Phys. 212 b 21.

[28] Id., Phys. 213 a 13- 217 b 34.

[29] Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge 1977), p. 29.

[30] Aristotle, Metaph. 1072 a 34-36.

[31] E. Grant, Physical Science, p. 52.

[32] Ibd., p. 77.

[33] Ibd., p. 78.

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‘Emergentist theism’ as a panentheistic thread within traditional theism – seeking for a God-World unity
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Philosophy of religion, Panentheism, Classical theism, God's transcendence, God's immanence, Protestant tradition, Catholic tradition, Church Fathers, Neoplatonism, Emergence theory
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Dr. phil. Mag. theol. Thomas Klibengajtis (Autor:in), 2012, ‘Emergentist theism’ as a panentheistic thread within traditional theism – seeking for a God-World unity, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/191439


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