Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion at San Francisco State University, has caused quite a stir by announcing his departure from orthodox Christianity and conversion to Gaudiya Vaishnavism (a form of Vaishnava Vedanta Hinduism). Having known Michael for over a decade, and having had many profitable philosophical discussions with him, I was extremely grieved to read this announcement, although it didn’t come completely out of the blue. Some mutual friends had informed me of his increasing interest in Eastern religion and his gradually distancing himself from biblical Christianity. We had an email exchange last year when I raised some concerns (my last email, it turns out, was sent several days before his “profoundly moving religious experience of Krishna”) but it quickly fizzled out because Michael wasn’t ready at that time to set out his views in detail.
I’m not going to comment on his conversion testimony or on the complex personal experiences and circumstances that led to it (only some of which are mentioned in that testimony). However, I do want to remark on one particular statement:
Consequently, I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.
There are many reasons why I reject panentheism, but in this post I want to mention just one. Panentheism comes from the Greek words for ‘all’, ‘in’, and ‘God’ — literally, “all-in-God-ism”. On this view, God is neither fully distinct from the universe (as in classical theism) nor identical with the universe (as in pantheism). Instead, the universe exists ‘in’ or ‘within’ God. The prepositions ‘in’ and ‘within’ are obviously not meant in a spatial sense (as in “Bob is in the kitchen”). Rather, they’re meant to capture the idea of ontological containment. God pervades and encompasses the universe in such an intimate fashion that there is an overlap or intersection between the being of God and the being of the universe. While God is more than the universe, there is no clear ontological distinction between God and the universe (which includes us, of course).
It’s not difficult to see the attractions of a panentheistic view of God. Who wouldn’t like to imagine that they’re within God — that their soul participates in the divine? Who wouldn’t like to think that — to put it somewhat crudely — they’re part of God? Such a view can do wonders for your self-esteem! (On the other hand, if you already have high self-esteem, panentheism nicely validates it.) Likewise, panentheism is convenient for legitimizing your lifestyle choices, whatever they happen to be. If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me — and since it’s good enough for me, it must be good enough for God!
Despite these practical benefits, however, it seems to me that panentheism has a fundamental metaphysical flaw. According to biblical theism, God created the universe out of nothing and is ontologically distinct from it. There is a clean Creator-creation distinction. Moreover, God is not merely good (as though God were being judged by some external standard of goodness) but is goodness itself. God is the Absolute Good, the ultimate standard by which any other good is judged to be good. God is the norm and the universe is the normed (i.e., that which is subject to and judged by the norm). To use the classical categories, God is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — originally, perfectly, and normatively. The universe is merely good (in part), true (in part), and beautiful (in part).
For the panentheist, however, matters must be very different indeed. Since the universe is in God, insofar as there is good in the universe there must be good in God. So far, so good — so to speak. But by the very same token, insofar as there is evil in the universe there must be evil in God. If the universe is a mixture of good and evil (which I take to be an obvious truth) then God must also be a mixture of good and evil, on the supposition that God contains the universe. Whatever pollutes the universe unavoidably pollutes God, on account of the ontological overlap between God and the universe.
It follows that God cannot be the Absolute Good. If the panentheist takes seriously the reality of evil, he ought to conclude that God is not pure goodness. But then God can’t be the ultimate standard of goodness. So who or what is? The answer must be: nothing. For that standard would have to be independent of God, yet the panentheist maintains that everything is in God (“all-in-God”). In short, the root problem with panentheism is that it conflates the norm and the normed. Consequently, the very distinction between good and evil is obliterated. When there is no Absolute Good, there is no good at all — and therefore no evil.
Some may consider this line of argument simplistic. I grant that it’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. The strongest philosophical arguments are often the simplest to state and to grasp. (Think of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum or Aristotle’s argument for the law of non-contradiction.) The basic logic of my argument is straightforward. Either the universe is ontologically distinct from God or it’s not. If it’s not, the problem raised above immediately arises.
This isn’t just a debate over abstract metaphysics; it has significant religious consequences. A radically different ontology inevitably leads to a radically different soteriology. According to the Bible, we have all fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). As a result, we rightly stand under God’s judgment and must seek atonement and forgiveness. On the panentheist view, however, God’s glory has fallen short. (Short of what? we might ask.) How then could God stand in judgment over us? If there’s a problem with me, there’s a problem with God. We’re all in this together! So let’s all work together to overcome evil — you, me, and God — even if it’s not entirely clear what target we’re all supposed to be shooting for. (Then again, perhaps it’s simpler to bite the bullet and deny the ultimate reality of good and evil. No good, no evil — no problem!)
A lot more could be said, of course, but this will do for now. To summarize: one reason I’m a biblical theist rather than a panentheist is because I believe that there is an Absolute Good, that there is a real distinction between good and evil, and that there is real evil in the world.