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Philosophy Questions: God Is in Everything?

Is God in everything? There is a sense in which, as the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas put it, “God operates in all things. . . . Therefore God exists in all things.” To make this point, Aquinas quotes Isaiah 26:12b, which says, “All that we have accomplished you have done for us” (NIV). So far, that sounds like basic Christian teaching. Yet there is also a theological view according to which God unfolds into everything that exists. Accordingly, God is in everything in that God unfolds into creation. God is in all that exists, in the same way that all that exists is in God (a view known as panentheism), with both existing in a kind of mutual interdependence.

To better understand and examine the philosophical foundations of panentheism in Western thought, it will be helpful to journey back in time to the era of the German philosophers Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

What Kant Left Behind

Not everyone who followed Immanuel Kant saw his ideas as permission to “finish the job” and stamp out what remained of metaphysical realities. Some fancied metaphysics and took Kant’s conclusions as premises to construct their own explanations of how we come to know all—including metaphysical—reality.

But just as not all that glitters is gold, not all that dabbles in spirituality is orthodox.

To understand these bold epistemological systems, we will need to return to one of the puzzles Kant left behind. Recall that Kant was concerned with how we come to know about the world. Kant concluded that, in order to know about the world, 1) there must be the world, and then 2) there must be the way our minds structure the data we receive from the world (i.e. space, time, and the 12 categories). Now, Kant called the world as it really exists the “thing-in-itself,” or the “noumena,” and he called the data after it has been structured by our minds the “phenomena” (the thing as it appears to us).[1]

Here is the puzzle: Kant left his successors asking whether he had intended the noumena to be a completely unknowable realm, or whether the noumena was something that could be known—but only known through the mind’s structures (i.e., known phenomenally). There’s a difference. Put another way, is the phenomena a realm distinct from the noumena, so that we can only know the one realm and are forever barred off from the other? Or is it that there is only one realm altogether, with “noumena” being merely the term we give to that one realm before our minds categorize it, and “phenomena” is the name for the realm after our minds categorize it?[2]


“Kant left his successors asking whether he had intended the noumena to be a completely unknowable realm, or whether the noumena was something that could be known—but only known through the mind’s structures.”


If Kant intended us to think in terms of just one realm, and the two terms are merely different ways of describing the same realm, then there’s no problem at all. Kant was merely saying that you can’t know the real world except through the ways that you know the real world. Makes perfect sense, kind of like saying, “I can’t speak except by speaking.”

But if the thing-in-itself is actually totally unknowable—as in, there is nothing you can ever know about it whatsoever—well, then, there we’ve got a problem. Let’s grant that we can’t know anything about the noumena. Then how do we know 1) that it exists, and 2) that it gives rise to the phenomena? After all, the noumena must exist because, according to Kant, the noumena is what causes our minds to categorize all that phenomenal reality. Yet how can I know that the noumena exists and gives rise to the phenomena if I cannot know anything about it? Makes no sense whatsoever, kind of like saying (out-loud), “I can’t speak at all whatsoever.”

Kant left behind enough ambiguity that the notion of a thing-in-itself (noumena) became a problem. If it turns out that the thing-in-itself is forever sealed off from us and we “kant” know anything about it, then the notion of a thing-in-itself is pretty useless. And, because of this useless notion, we’re still stuck in skepticism about the world, no matter the epistemological marvels Kant claimed to have accomplished.


“Kant left behind enough ambiguity that the notion of a thing-in-itself (noumena) became a problem.”


The German Idealists

That’s why some German thinkers, who liked metaphysics and disliked skepticism, decided it was time to do something with this pesky thing-in-itself. These thinkers wanted to know, and here was this whole realm sealed off. Clearly, that wouldn’t do. They decided to remove the useless notion of the thing-in-itself because it wasn’t doing anything anyway. They still had the mind and its categories left. Plus, the content hadn’t disappeared, of course. There were still sights and smells and sounds, etc. There certainly were things all around. But they no longer resided in the useless and inaccessible thing-in-itself.

Where could all these things find their new residence? The only two options were 1) the mind, which definitely exists, and 2) there is that unknowable realm they didn’t believe in anymore. Since they had gotten rid of the unknowable realm, they were left with only one option: things must exist in the mind. In other words, the world around us exists as ideas in the mind. And that is why these German thinkers are called the “German Idealists.”

So, according to the German Idealists, the things exist in the mind. But if my mind creates all the stuff of the world, then how do I escape the notion that I alone am the sole mind in the universe? Wouldn’t it be that everything—even other people’s minds—is just an extravagant production put on by my own mind (which is called “solipsism”)?[3] But solipsism means skepticism about the existence of everything outside myself, and these Idealists were not about to exchange one skepticism for another. They were driven, after all, by “a superb confidence in the power of the human reason and in the scope of philosophy.”[4] Thus, we would witness something far more ambitious, if not presumptuous, than even Kant had attempted.


“The world around us exists as ideas in the mind.”


Recall that Kant’s goal was to account for how we know what we know. Kant’s way of arguing is known as “transcendental”: it starts with something we know to be the case and then reasons backwards to what must be in place to explain what we know. Kant started out with our knowledge about the world around us a given; then he asked what needed to be the case to make that knowledge possible, and deduced the categories of the mind.[5] To understand the German Idealists, we must understand 1) that they were motivated by the same goal of asking how we know what we know, and 2) that they employed the same type of backwards-looking transcendental reasoning.

Hegel’s Panentheism

The most famous of these German Idealists was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In asking how we know what we know, Hegel granted the obvious: Being exists. (Or put more simply but less impressively, “What exists exists.”) But “being” is so generic and unspecified. You can’t ask, “What does “being” look like?” or “What does “being” do?” because, as of yet, being is just a blob without any internal distinctions. Being is so vague that it’s really no different from nonbeing. So, granted that being does exist (remember, this is a transcendental argument), how do we know being from nonbeing? Hegel explains that we have to add a third category to being and nonbeing, and it is called “becoming.”[6]

Hegel seems to be saying that, in order for us to know that being exists, being has to become something. This is why, for Hegel, pure being (also known to Hegel as God) has to give way to, or become, the material creation. Spirit unfolds into matter.[7] It’s not quite a pantheism (i.e., God = everything), because God and the universe aren’t strictly identical to each other. Rather, it’s a relationship of dependence, but, as we shall see, one of mutual dependence. Winfried Corduan calls the relationship “one large circle of interdependence.” For this reason, it is best to call Hegel’s system “transcendental panentheism” (panentheism means that God and God’s creation are mutually contained within each other).[8]


God exists in everything? “It is best to call Hegel’s system ‘transcendental panentheism.'”


A Web of Consciousness

So, in keeping with our transcendental reasoning, how can it be known that this world has, in fact, become? In order for such knowledge to be obtained, there must be creatures able to know. Such creatures must somehow intersect with matter (because they observe it), but they also must be in some sense spiritual (because they have this transcendent ability to know). These material and spiritual creatures are, of course, humans.[9]

Just how do humans come to know this “becoming” of the world? According to Hegel, our basic knowledge about the material world starts with what he calls “sense certainty”: I look at a tree and know that I am looking at a tree. But this kind of knowledge isn’t good enough on its own; it needs a foundation. For when I look away, I am no longer looking at a tree; so how do I know there is a tree? What makes this “sense certainty” possible is what Hegel called “perception”: our minds can understand the idea of “tree” so that even when I am not directly looking at it, I can still describe the tree to you, because I know the idea. But “perception” also needs a foundation. What makes it possible? This Hegel called “understanding.” We have understanding of the tree when we understand the laws of science which explain how the tree works. Ah, but these laws also need a foundation; how do we know the laws of science? How do we have this “understanding”? Well, ultimately, laws of science are merely descriptions scientists have given to what we (and we’re back at the beginning) “perceive.” We arrive back at perception where we started.[10]


“We arrive back at perception where we started.”


In other words, how do we know what we know about the world? We know A, which is dependent on B, which is dependent on C, which is dependent on A. Knowledge of the objects brings us back full circle to knowledge of ourselves. Consciousness is, in the end, self-consciousness. The subject doing the knowing becomes the object of knowledge.

Corduan explains it this way:

“How is it possible for our minds to discern what is true? There appears to be a curtain between us and reality. Let us move the curtain a little to the side and take a look at what’s behind it. And what do we see behind the curtain? We see ourselves.”[11]

Thus, as Corduan puts it, “The subject/object distinction has been overcome.”[12] And when we recognize that our consciousness (which is, again, ultimately self-consciousness) also includes innumerable other self-consciousness (e.g., you thinking about me, which is ultimately thinking about you), we start to see a web of consciousness, of spirit. There is a sense in which we are all connected as one community of objective spirit. How do we explain this web of consciousness? There must be an Absolute Spirit that grounds this web of subject-subject knowledge.[13]


God is in everything? “There must be an Absolute Spirit that grounds this web of subject-subject knowledge.”


Integrating Christianity into Panentheism

And do you see what just happened? We’re back at the beginning again. For in order for us to know this objective web of spirit, there must be an Absolute Spirit, and this Absolute Spirit is pure being. And pure being, in order for us to know it, has to give way to and become the world. And so on. Again, this is panentheism: God and God’s creation are mutually contained within each other. With no irritating, tricky thing-in-itself snagging the flow, the process gets caught on nothing and can cycle smoothly like a greased wheel.

Considering himself to be a Lutheran, Hegel imported some Christian elements into his panentheism, explaining that, like the incarnation of Christ, God becomes man, there is a death of sorts, and then the cycle begins anew with a resurrected (Absolute) Spirit. If you look long enough, you can even make out the Persons of the Trinity: The Father empties into human Son who dies and is resurrected as Spirit, and the cycle keeps recurring.[14]

Unsurprisingly, just as Hegel had picked up Kant’s conclusions as premises, so Hegel’s successors picked up Hegel’s conclusions (or, in some cases, what they carelessly took to be conclusions) and began constructing their own systems. A German Hegelian named David Strauss began to reread the Gospels according to Hegel’s system. The Gospels, he theorized, contained clues of the Absolute; Gospel stories are not to be taken as history but as myths to help us transcend finitude and be caught up in the upward unfolding back to the Absolute. [15] It was Strauss’s desupernaturalized Life of Jesus in 1835 which launched the original “quest for the historical Jesus.”[16]


God is in everything? “According to Strauss, Gospel stories are not to be taken as history but as myths to help us transcend finitude and be caught up in the upward unfolding back to the Absolute.”


Atheistic Hegelians

Another German Hegelian, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, spotted what he believed to be a contradiction in Hegel: though Hegel affirmed spiritual realities, Hegel’s divinity was totally immanent in creation. Thus, Feuerbach reasoned, Hegel’s system was nothing but a deification of matter, a sort of “theological atheism.” Theology, in the final analysis, was nothing but anthropology, a study of ourselves which we falsely ascribe to be God.[17] Feuerbach writes, “Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge. By his God thou knowest the man, and by the man his God; the two are identical.”[18] To Feuerbach, therefore, religion was the problem; get rid of religion and progress to maturity.

Not quite, suggested another German Hegelian. Religion isn’t the problem; religion merely masks the problem. Religion, he contended, is no better than an opium. This Hegelian’s name was Karl Marx, and he tweaked Feuerbach: It is not so simple that, if we get rid of religion, man will eventually be free. Rather, we must spend our efforts down here, building heaven on earth, and religion will eventually die.[19]


“Religion, Marx contended, is no better than an opium.”


Marx co-opted Hegel’s notion of an inevitably unfolding absolute but, like Feuerbach, opted for a materialist, rather than idealist, absolute. According to Marx, what drives everything is economics.[20] Marx envisioned the frustration from free-market competition erupting in revolution, wherein the blue-collar “Proletariat” would seize the powers of production and set up a temporary dictatorship.[21] If the Russian and Chinese experiments which dominated the twentieth century are any indicator, however, it would prove difficult to keep the dictatorship of the Proletariat only a temporary transition. Historically, none of these dictatorships ever unfolded into the glorious “classless society,” though some mercifully crumbled. Whatever the case, they cost far more in freedom and in lives than Marx envisioned.

The Danger of Forgetting the Real God

It was forgetfulness, concludes one of Marxist Russia’s victims. After criticizing Stalin in private correspondence to a friend, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a detention camp.[22] He later became a renowned author and literary Nobel Prize recipient. Here are his reflections in a speech:

“If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”[23]

Forgetting God is naïve. The Humanist Manifesto I was upbeat: “Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”[24] Two paragraphs before, part of this realization is specified: “A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible.”[25] But that was in 1933. From there, socialist kept dirtying its reputation by popping up in names such as “National Socialist German Workers (or Nazi) Party” and Stalin’s “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” By the time the next Humanist Manifesto came out in 1973, the drafters had to begin by apologizing for their predecessors’ naiveté:

“It is forty years since Humanist Manifesto I appeared. Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty.”[26]


“Forgetting God is naïve.”


Yet the Humanist Manifesto II is more naïve than the first one: The drafters believe we can kill unborn baby humans (p. 18), and yet humanity will keep its preciousness and dignity (p. 18). They believe we can teach that whatever two consenting adults do is fine (p. 18), and then society will be morally educated (p. 19). They believe that we can teach that humans progress through survival of the fittest (p. 17), and yet they will be able to lead the way so that the most helpless humans whether disabled or elderly will be treated with the utmost compassion (p. 20). They acknowledge “the depths of brutality” (p. 13) and yet declare that “war is obsolete” (p. 21).

What all the aforementioned thinkers have in common is “a superb confidence in the power of the human reason.”[27] And, thanks to our powers of reason, what we end up with is Jesus the Hegelian (Strauss), a divine humanity (Feuerbach), and a paradise built atop tens of millions of corpses (Marx).

Hegel wasn’t to blame. A lot of nastiness has been attributed to Hegel through the years because of some out-of-context quotes and off-their-rocker Hegelians. Nonetheless, the common denominator runs the same throughout: a blurring of the distinction between humanity and God. Without this distinction in place, humans get caught up in the inevitable intermingling of godlike prerogative with human depravity. And whatever the details of the result, it will always be in retrospect the same diagnosis: naiveté.


God is in everything? “The common denominator runs the same throughout: a blurring of the distinction between humanity and God.”


Kierkegaard: An Individual Passionately Committed to God Almighty

A 19th century Danish critic of Hegel called him on his arrogance. Soren Kierkegaard recognized that a blurring of such an important distinction not only demeaned God, but it demoted humanity as well. When a person’s particularity is transcended, so that the person dissolves into the State or into Humanity or into Objective Spirit, the person ceases to be an individual. And it is as an individual before God that one’s importance is underscored and one’s purpose is clarified.[28]

Denmark’s state church may have claimed to be Christian,[29] just as Hegel had, but Kierkegaard pointed out to his nation that true faith is much more than mere mental assent to beliefs. If one’s relationship with God amounts to no more than reiterating doctrinal formulas, then 1) God’s majestic otherness has been lost, and 2) one’s individual existence has been made lifeless. How pitiable to yawn at God and find oneself to be “the man who drifts with the crowd, who merges himself in the anonymous One.”[30]

Authentic existence, contends Kierkegaard, involves passion. Where all mysteries are pre-solved, no choices are left, because one simply assents to what one believes. There’s no passion in that. But where there is uncertainty, one’s will must get involved. And where the will asserts itself in free, chosen commitment, there is inevitable intensity.[31] This, says Kierkegaard, is authentic existence, a “willed self-commitment of the whole man.”[32]


“If one’s relationship with God amounts to no more than reiterating doctrinal formulas, then 1) God’s majestic otherness has been lost, and 2) one’s individual existence has been made lifeless.”


Now, it is not necessary to swing so far on the pendulum away from reason as Kierkegaard did, so that he saw his Christian commitment as a completely blind leap of faith.[33] On the contrary, Christian faith can be shown to be extraordinarily reasonable, given what we know about the physical world around us, the moral law within us, and the events God has accomplished among us. Yet God left much room for mystery, and Christians must concede that God’s otherness will leave much of that mystery perpetually undiscovered.

And Kierkegaard teaches us that since God’s existence transcends ours, and since our existence is most authentic when lived before Him in passionate commitment, then it doesn’t matter what the dominant spirit of the age is. What trends dominate the academy at present: Humanism? Marxism? Skeptical biblical higher criticism? Panentheism? As Christians, we can defy whatever unfolds as dominant. For however scholarship indoctrinates or history enforces, our ultimate allegiance is to God.


[1] Stuart C. Hackett, The Resurrection of Theism: Prolegomena to Christian Apology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 45-46.

[2] Michael Rohlf, “Immanuel Kant,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=kant.

[3] Frederick Copleston, Fichte to Nietzsche, in A History of Philosophy, Book Three (New York: An Image Book, 1985), 4.

[4] Copleston, 1.

[5] Rohlf.

[6] Paul Redding, “George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel/.

[7] Winfried Corduan, “Part 12,” in Understanding Hegel http://win_corduan.tripod.com/hegel.html. Much of Corduan’s Ph.D. dissertation centered on Hegel.

[8] Corduan, “Part 15.”

[9] Corduan, “Part 12.”

[10] Corduan, “Part 10.”

[11] Corduan, “Part 10.”

[12] Corduan, “Part 11.”

[13] Corduan, “Part 12.”

[14] Corduan, “Part 17.”

[15] Hayden V. White, “Strauss, David Friedrich,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 25.

[16] Norman Geisler, “Strauss, David,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).

[17] Hayden V. White, “Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 190-191.

[18] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), 12.

[19] Allen Wood, “Marx, Karl,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 558.

[20] Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 785. 

[21] “Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2013 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/162253/dictatorship-of-the-proletariat.

[22] “Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – Biographical,” in Nobelprize.org, 2014 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-bio.html.

[23] Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “‘Men Have Forgotten God’: The Templeton Address,” trans. A. Klimoff, in Orthodox America http://www.roca.org/OA/36/36h.htm.

[24] “Humanist Manifesto I,” in Humanist Manifestos I and II, ed. Paul Kurtz (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1973), 10. 

[25] “Humanist Manifesto I,” 10.

[26] “Humanist Manifesto II,” in Humanist Manifestos I and II, ed. Paul Kurtz (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1973), 13.

[27] Copleston, 1.

[28] Copleston, 340-341.

[29] Copleston, 339.

[30] Coppleston, 347.

[31] Copleston, 346.

[32] Copleston, 341.

[33] Copleston, 344.

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