Panentheism: The Spirituality of Compassion and Equalitarianism

“All are but parts of one stupendous whole

Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.”

-Edgar Allan Poe, Essays on Man

The origins of my own spirituality and ethics and awakening of feral vision are seeded in a childhood that was, thanks to my parents, linked closely with animals and Nature. A sense of wonder and awe, as well as respect and compassion, was imbued at an early age. I also had several experiences that laid the foundation for an attitude of kinship and an awareness of the sacred unity, interdependence and mutuality of origin of all life. This foundation was tested, and to some degree enriched, by graduate training in veterinary medicine and postgraduate research in animal psychology, ethology and ecology. And it was later challenged when I left academia to confront the institutionalized (and socially and religiously sanctioned and unquestioned) exploitation of animals, especially by the biomedical research establishment, agribusiness, and the commercial hunting, trapping and pet industries. Yet ironically, when I joined The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) in 1976, there were complaints by some members that The HSUS had “sold out” by hiring a scientist and veterinarian, and therefore a person who is on the side of those who exploit animals!

I am not such an idealist as to believe that we should not exploit life in order to sustain our own. That we must do, and if that be the tragedy of reality, then so be it. But I cannot accept the wholesale and unquestioned exploitation of animals purely for reasons of profit, knowledge, emotional or gustatory gratification, especially when there is no reciprocal benefit to them. I find no religious basis for the chauvinistic belief that animals were created for our own use. There is no scientific basis for the contention that they lack any of those qualities associated with sentience and sapience that our own species possesses to varying degrees. Nor is there any rational basis for the belief that only humans possess immortal souls and that we are the only species on Earth created in God’s image.

It is a matter of historical record that the saints, sages and avatars of the world’s major religions have always emphasized our kinship with animals and with the whole of Creation: and that an attitude of humility, compassion and respect and reverence for all life is the key to a just, humane and sustainable society. This attitude does not preclude us form exploiting non-human life in order to sustain our own. Rather, it sets limits and raises questions because non-human life is as much a part of our moral and spiritual community of concern and responsibility as it is an integral part of the ecological community of planet Earth.

My own convictions and perceptions lead me to embrace the Creation-centered spirituality and ethics of panentheism, as distinct from primitive, superstitious pantheism and anthropocentric (and andromorphic) monotheism. I see in panentheism the antidotes to the harmful consequences that arise when materialism and industrialism are embedded either in a monotheistic, patriarchal and anthropocentric worldview, or in a purely atheistic, humanistic one.

I do not see panentheism as a cultish product of New Age thinking. In actuality, it is the seed-concept within the monotheistic heart of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian mysticism, as well as in the polytheistic spirit of Hinduism. When there is feral vision, there is such clarity of perception that the Christian sees the mystical “Christ-in-all,” and the Tibetan Buddhist sees that “everything is Buddha.”

Panentheism originated, I believe, thousands of years before the advent of contemporary, anthropocentric, monotheistic religious traditions, when the human species was part of Nature as a gatherer and hunter. Anthropologists remind us that over ninety percent of our time on Earth as Homo sapiens we lived as gatherer-hunters. Agriculture-based civilization is only 6,000 - 8,000 years old, and industrial society a mere fraction of that.

And so, in spite of the rapid change in how we now live and relate to the natural world, a panentheistic worldview lies deep in the marrow of our psyches, in our collective memory, psychohistory, and in our instinctive longing of and for that time when we danced with wolves and sang to the stars. Panentheism was the primal key, not back to Eden or to Paradise, but to living in communion. Though panentheistic sensibility, our ancestors conceived a Covenant between Creator and Creation that humankind is enjoined, spiritually and ethically, to uphold.

The Christian hermetic desert fathers tried to preserve this Covenant of consciousness and conscience. They, like St. Francis of Assisi, saw the emerging age of commerce and industrialism as defiling and consuming the natural world. They did not accept the new world order of the Church of Rome that placed God above all (for God is also in all); and that placed humans above animals and Nature, and men above women.

Panentheism is the essence of what I call the Old Religion of pre-industrial gatherer and hunter and sustainable agrarian societies. The Hopi Indians and Australian aboriginals share the panentheistic view that God is in all. They still embrace the Old Religion, that once universal spirituality that was assimilated into Christianity, Judaism and Islam. (It is ironic and telling that these religious factions are still in conflict in the Middle East, that was once Eden, the mythic, verdant Paradise of ancestral memory, but is now a ravaged desert wasteland.)

Panentheism is as old as what is left of our humanity. The panentheistic dimension of Christianity, exemplified by the statement of St. Paul: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” is the Parousia of panentheistic empathy (panempathy) and self-realization. The perception of an omnipresent and co-inherent, as well as transcendent, Creator, gives rise to a worldview that is both God and Creation-centered. This feral, panentheistic perception is clearly described in Colossians (1:16-18): “In Him all things were created…all things were created through Him…and in Him all things hold together.” Many traditional peoples still practice various rituals of initiation that enable young adults to experience states of panentheistic perception and panempathic feeling as described by participants in vision quests and sweat-lodge ceremonies. They enter and have communion in what I call the empathosphere. It is regrettable that the main initiations into adulthood for young adult members of contemporary consumer society are credit cards, shopping malls, car keys and a driver’s license; and in rural areas, guns for pubescent boys to kill wild creatures.

If we are not here to serve Creation, “to dress and to keep” the garden of Eden, then what are we here for? Surely not simply to procreate and desecrate. Human life has depth of purpose and significance when it is directed to this end: to serve the greater good and follow the Golden Rule. But when our lives are not so directed, at least in part, then we continue to suffer in body and spirit as a consequence. We all have the opportunity to serve, to give to life more than we take, and to heal more than we harm.

Perfection (of either person or planet) is not the goal of compassion. Compassion is a verb, a call to action, and as history informs, it is one of the most sublime of all our callings. Benevolence to all sentient life necessitates an attitude of humility and thanksgiving toward Creation, and was a virtue embraced and promoted by the Old Religion. But in contemporary industrial society, regardless of its theisms and morality, such virtue is as rare as the scent of wild sage across an atomic desert, and as remote and abstract as renunciation and reverence.

For further discussion and references see my book The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures & Creation. Quest Books, Wheaton Illinois, 1996,