[This was originally for a course where Richard Grigg’s book had been assigned. “Pantheism,” like almost any other word associated with theism, comes in a variety of forms that can shade into other types of God-talk.]

According to Richard Grigg, pantheism “equates God directly with the whole of reality” [Beyond the God Delusion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 68].

In its own way, so does process theism—God is equated with the whole of reality understood as all-inclusively newly interacting. (Note, however: in process thought “the whole” cannot mean a complete totality; it means an ongoing, “holofying” happening.)

With that understanding, you could say that, in a way, nature is God. Even Protestant Reformer John Calvin grudgingly recognized this, though not on process terms—“I admit, indeed that the expression ‘Nature is God’, may be piously used” (Institutes 1.5.5). Or you could say that, in another way, God is more than nature (that’s what Calvin recommended).

It all depends on how inclusively, or not, we use “nature.” In any case, process theists don’t equate the whole of reality with the physically measurable universe (as Grigg does), and they don’t like to be called pantheists. They prefer to be called neoclassical theists, dipolar theists or panentheists, insisting that, as ways of newly interacting, the whole (God) and the parts are creatively both in and beyond one another.

Maybe that’s quibbling. Charles Hartshorne did at first call his process theism “The New Pantheism,” before deciding the term was misleading (Christian Register 115 [1936]:119-120). The reason he changed his mind is that too many people equate pantheism with Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism. For Spinoza the whole of reality, the one and only infinite substance, is totally active, while its parts are totally passive, so nothing is actually interacting, newly or not—when parts of reality appear to interact with one another, they are actually passively expressing the one and only activity of the whole of reality.

Process thought and process theism reject this—both the parts of reality (all of them) and the whole of reality newly interact, and nothing is totally active or totally passive. The whole of reality influences the parts but does not control them, and the parts of reality influence but do not control the whole. This means that we, as “parts,” can have an intimate, dialogical, interpersonal-like relationship with the whole of reality, something Spinoza could never entertain with his commitment to monism and total determinism. Process theists would tend to agree, fairly or not, with Richard Dawkins (p. 40) in calling Spinoza’s (and Einstein’s) pantheism “sexed-up atheism.” (Of course, if you want to be an atheist, wouldn’t you rather be a sexed-up one?)

So we can distinguish process panentheism from most forms of pantheism, though again, these distinctions can get fuzzy.

Let me say more about Grigg’s own version of pantheism. (The only reason I am bothering to discuss his book any further is because it was once assigned in a course where I was lecturing. Otherwise, I consider the book so confused as to be utterly negligible. Not surprisingly, it’s now out of print.)

It’s one thing to equate God with “the whole of reality.” This can be interpreted pantheistically or panentheistically, as we’ve seen. But Grigg further assumes that we’re not taking science seriously enough unless we equate the whole of reality with a “closed system of purely physical cause and effect” (p. 55). This is the assumption that lurks behind almost every one of his critiques of so-called “traditional theists” (most of the ones he mentions are actually panentheists): they just don’t take the closed-system laws of thermodynamics seriously enough, so that their complicated efforts to describe how God might nevertheless interact with with this “closed system” ultimately violate these laws (pp. 9-26). Even Sallie McFague, whom he otherwise appreciates as an example of “radical theology,” gets criticized for failing to recognize this consistently (p. 55).

But what Grigg doesn’t seem to realize is that a “closed system” is at best a somewhat artificial abstraction, like a “frictionless plane,” that never concretely occurs. As physicist Lee Smolin points out, treating any a part of reality as a totally closed or isolated system is the result of doing “physics in a box,” where “we artificially mark off and isolate a phenomenon from the continual whirl of the universe” (Time Reborn [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013], p. 38). This is of course a crucial procedure in physics, but it’s still somewhat artificial. Outside “the box,” the laws of thermodynamics apply only approximately at best. As John Dupre argues, “Few, if any, situations have a complete causal truth to be told about them.” And to attempt to apply these laws to “reality as a whole” is to commit what Smolin calls the “cosmological fallacy”: “taking a law that applies locally and applying it to the whole universe” (p. 97). After all, as Stephen Toulmin queried decades ago, “what are we to make of the question, whether or no the universe-as-a-whole is shielded thermally from its surroundings [i.e., ‘closed’]? … It makes no more sense to talk of the surroundings of the universe as empty than it does to talk of them as full, for in this context the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has no use … It has long been notorious for questions which can be asked with perfect propriety of particular things, or parts of the world, or stretches of time, tend to go wrong on us if we ask them about ‘everything-there-is’, or about ‘the universe-as-a-whole’, or about ‘time itself’” (The Return to Cosmology [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982], pp. 42-43).

I am not saying that Grigg and other cosmologists are totally wrong to view the whole of reality as a closed system. And if they want to call it “purely physical,” let them (though they’re ignoring Hempel’s Dilemma). I am convinced that there is much to discover when we work with that model. But it is nevertheless a figurative model, not a literal description. With Sallie McFague and Ian Barbour, and others, I agree that a model can point to something real, but it can’t exclude other models that also point to something real. The problem is, Grigg seems to think he’s speaking literally here. He’s not.

And it’s just as well, for the sake of Grigg’s own spirituality, that his closed-system worldview can’t be taken as literally true, because if it were, there would be no room for the “self-transcendence” to which he still passionately clings (pp. 66, 77). Frankly, how he can introduce such a loaded, “spooky” word as “self-transcendence,” after chiding McFague for supposedly smuggling in a defunct, spooky “vitalistic force” (p. 55), is beyond me. I am of course a big fan of self-transcendence. I just don’t see how Grigg can even permit the term to be used. There is no room for self-transcendence in a closed system of purely physical cause and effect. If there is self-transcendence, then the system cannot be totally closed.

Fr. Charles