Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Loss of Faith, Pantheist or Panentheist?

Royalty Free Stock Photo: © Dreammasterphotographer |
Royalty Free Stock Photo:
© Dreammasterphotographer |

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: In response to recent events in the world, particularly the bigotry and hate that have infected American politics, I have found myself quoting Scripture, rereading the parables of Jesus in the context of problems we face as a nation. I feel a bit hypocritical as I have been outspoken in the past when I see others who use the words of the Bible to justify the oppression and marginalization of others.

I was content with the Sunday School version of Jesus until my daughter died, at which point I simply could not believe any more. Since then, I have been more certain of what God is not, and frankly, indifferent to the anthropomorphic version that has held me hostage for most of my life. I no longer profess the Apostle’s Creed, as I believe it to be full of questionable assertions.

But I really miss Jesus of Nazareth. I feel Him evolving in me, in the air I breathe, the blood running through my veins and the beat of my heart as I ponder a broken world. I believe in his words, as I can understand them, to be vital to living fully in the world, without any inkling of what’s to come in the next one. Does this make sense? Is there a name for it?

Yes, this makes sense. I want to hug you and say, “It’s OK. Treasure your spiritual growth.

The death of your daughter spurred you to question the basics of the faith, learned as a teen.  I’ve seen this dynamic multiple times. I experienced it myself. The clean answers appropriate for a younger, more innocent, stage of our lives do not suffice when the tsunamis of death, disease, and other uncontrollable events threaten to take us under.

Often the original foundations of our faith crumbles. We must decide where and how to rebuild.

Your rebuild is probably best known by the term, “panenthiesm.”

Do not confuse this with “pantheism.” Pantheism makes no separation between God and the physical universe. So everything is God and everything can therefore be worshiped.

Panentheism, on the other hand, does separate God from the physical universe, but also posits that the presence of God permeates the whole of the universe–and that would include the beats of your heart and the blood in your veins.

You were probably taught a belief system that separates God from nature. God rules over the natural world, directs its affairs, saves some to spend eternity into God’s presence and consigns others to some separate not-God place.

In panentheism, there is no not-God place because God is everywhere. The “pan” in the word “panentheism” means “all.” Theism means “God.” So pantheism contends ”all is God.” Panentheism contends”God is in all.”

It’s a subtle but profound difference.

In 1981, theologian James Fowler published a book,  Stages of Faith, that explored how faith changes and develops as we age.

Fowler outlined steps in faith development. We start from the undifferentiated faith of small children, often quite spiritual in their understanding of the universe. During elementary school and teen years we move to the mythic-literal stage. At this point, symbolical and metaphorical language is often taken literally. That which is meant to point to another, greater reality instead becomes the reality itself.

Ludovico Mazzolino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ludovico Mazzolino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There we create the anthropomorphic deity you mentioned. Anthropomorphic means “human-like.” So God, manlike, grows a beard, and has hands and feet and sits on a giant throne. As teens develop, and peer pressure does its job, faith tends to conform to authoritative pronouncements with black and white boundaries. Paradox and discrepancies create unwelcome tension. What doesn’t fit into the authoritative system gets thrown out.

Many people contentedly stay there. However, many others, and you are one of them, begin to embrace complexity and paradox. Conflicts with the teen beliefs surface.

The church, unfortunately, has often failed to address this normal process, instead chanting, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me.”

But emerging adults may ask, “How do you KNOW this is what the Bible says?” Or, “The Bible is written by humans living a long time ago. It has flaws and says things not useful for our present condition. ” Often they find themselves ostracized, silenced and expelled by their persistence in asking unpopular questions.

They leave the church but also leave behind the support of the church community. It is good to own our faith journeys. It is problematic in that most do better in these explorations when connected with a larger group who know us and can help reveal our blind spots and the holes in our thinking processes.

There are church groups where these kinds of questions about faith are welcome and celebrated. I’d suggest you consider connecting with one as an aid to your own development and for you to be part of the development of others.


[Note: this article is slated to appear in the religion section of the Denton Record-Chronicle on April 8, 2016.]

All questions are welcome. You can email your questions to, “like” her Facebook Page, use this form to send them or message her on Twitter. You can also send a question through conventional mail to the following address: Thoughtful Pastor, 314 E. Hickory St., Denton, TX, 76202.

12 thoughts on “Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Loss of Faith, Pantheist or Panentheist?

  1. I think it’s totally okay to grab onto Jesus’ teachings as a starting point to redefine your beliefs – that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I do my best to love my neighbor (using the story of the Good Samaritan as the definition how: to have mercy and compassion), I treat others as I would want them to treat me, I remember that Jesus taught that my goal should be to serve others and not to make others serve me – so a Jesus-centric belief system can work as you rebuild your beliefs and re-think what you were taught.


  2. Thank you for your answer Christy. These are more questions we are not supposed to talk about at church. Love that you are able to do this.
    I occasionally set in for our pastor at the mid week bible story, which is usually a thoughtful rehash of Sunday’s message. One time I in the pastor’s absences I brought in the chart Roger Woolsey pointed to in his comment.
    Wow, what a great discussion. Giving people permission to re-think their childhood faith was amazing for everyone. It goes a long way towards coming to grips with the faith injuries many received along the way. What many kept secret as a private heresy was validated as spiritual growth.
    Thanks for your honesty.


  3. A wonderful and sympathetic reply. Leaving the “God said it, I believe it” stage of faith behind is very scary – it’s like being lost in a howling blizzard, with only the Cross of Christ to cling to – but when you get past that stage…..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christy, Thank you for this blog. I would like to suggest an article called, The Eco-Religious Case for Naturalistic Pantheism by Dr. Charles Milligan reprinted from Religious Experience and Ecological Responsibility edited by Donald Crosby and Charley Hardwick. Vol. 3 in the series American Liberal Religious Thought. Dr. Milligan’s view was that pantheism is often dismissed by the claim that it is religiously deficient either for purposes of worship or that it is not sufficiently gratifying. He suggests that those ideas are wide the mark. Pantheism has changed over time. Pantheism is the view that the whole of reality is God. There are divergent pantheistic conceptions of God since people hold diverse views as to what reality is or is like. His view was that neo-pantheism, in shorthand definition would “the worship of nature.” “Though we speak much, we cannot reach the end, and the sum of our words is, ‘God is the all.'” I think you were too quick to dismiss pantheism as a position which can be religiously practical and can inspire worship. Just my two cents. Keep up the good work. I do hope you can find the article if not, I would be glad to send you a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent insights and observations. Panentheism, process theology are what enliven my approach to progressive Christianity.

    Some related resources:
    * Stages of Faith Development – Stages of Faith:
    * How to Find a Progressive Christian Church
    * 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible
    * Why I’m Spiritual and Religious

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roger, I don’t know if you’d ever had the chance to read Dr. Milligan’s article “The Eco-Religious Case for Naturalistic Pantheism,” but it converted me away from my Process oriented Panentheism towards a Pantheistic position. Rev. Patti Vick was also in a sense converted by this short but very important article.


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