What I Believe: Panentheism

I’ve always felt that our personal narratives shape how we come to know and understand the Divine, and that our theologies cannot be examined apart from the stories and experiences that lead us there. I’ve recently explored Carol Christ’s work on embodied theology, and have found a model therein for weaving personal narrative with theology. I’m by no means an expert at this model.

Although I’ve blogged about spirituality for years and am comfortable talking about my beliefs and practices even from a stage, the only people I really talk about my beliefs with one-on-one are people I already know think similarly to me, and they’re usually people who already know the basic outlines of my story. Recently, someone reached out in friendship and dialogue, and I realized a few things about myself. First, I can’t begin to explain my beliefs apart from the experiences that gave them life – a heart crudely removed from the body to explore it closer stops beating, stops giving. Secondly, speaking of beliefs with someone new – someone for whom the story, the me, is reasonably new as well – is a radical act of willing vulnerability. It gets me out of my comfort zone and zaps me at my core with both the fear of rejection and promise of potential. And finally, I don’t even know where to begin. Usually the story and its accompanying beliefs sneak through organically in blips over the course of friendship; when I found myself trying to express what I believe – something, anything – it all ran together in a jumble of thoughts and ideas. This post is an attempt to begin to clarify and put words to what I’ve come to believe, in an orderly fashion. It is not a complete work or a perfect expression of my ideals, and I can assure you that over the coming years it will continue to evolve, shift, and change. This is a snapshot of this particular moment in my spiritual development, and a partial and somewhat blurry snapshot at that.

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I grew up in a mostly non-religious family. While my grandparents scrambled to sign me up for Vacation Bible School and took me to church with them during visits (Presbyterian with my mom’s parents, Southern Baptist at my dad’s), my mom and stepdad weren’t religious, didn’t attend church, and regularly expressed private scorn for anyone who was passionate about their beliefs. They mocked “holy rollers” and “Bible thumpers” for their backwardness and “New Agers” for their blissful ignorance of reality. I didn’t live with my dad, but when I’d visit with him he’d take me to his church – which usually meant a charismatic, evangelical, conservative Christian church with a rock band for music and people passing out in the Spirit.

Neither of these approaches fit for me, even when I tried to make them my own.

From the time I was little, I struggled in my dream life with sorting out issues of meaning and spiritual direction. As a small child, I was awakened when I fell out of bed during a dream in which Jesus and other holy men were meeting to discuss whether or not I was ready to be one of them. “Not yet” seemed to be the consensus; I was more hung up on the “at all,” having never thought of myself as either religious or a leader. Throughout my childhood, teenage, and young adult years, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was on a tour bus through time travelling through Memphis in 1968. In the dream, I see Martin Luther King, Jr. get assassinated, and watch in horror as nobody is able to save him. I know I can jump out of the bus and possibly help, but that then I’d never be able to get back to my own time, my own place. I would always wake up at the point where the decision must be made, sweaty and trembling with questions of courage and calling.

This tension – between the holy drive toward service and the fearful insecurity that paralyzes and disrupts – played a significant role in my spiritual formation. Moments of absolute bliss and connection were offset by fears of inadequacy beaten into me by dysfunction and abuse. I read John Bradshaw and learned mindfulness and relaxation techniques at the suggestion of a compassionate high school teacher, and dabbled in Paganism when I wasn’t hanging out with the evangelical Christian youth group on visits to see my dad.

Seeking progressive religious community when I was 19, I discovered the Episcopal Church, and a few months later I struggled free of the immediate grip of depression and anxiety with the support of the Order of St. Helena, who became my chosen family and spiritual home. Their approach to God was full of compassion, with room for the masculine divine, the feminine divine, and the gender-fluid beauty of mystical union. Their God was clearly transcendent – above all and beyond all – but very much present in quiet moments of heartfelt confession and gentle prayer. It was there that meditation, walks through nature, ritual and routine, and allowing the space for mystical dissolution of self all became part of my practice.

In the late 1990s, as the Episcopal church headed toward crisis over the ordination of women and gays and more churches began to call themselves “Anglican” in protest, my home church brought in a theologically and socially conservative priest whose teachings directly countered all I’d come to expect from and love about Christianity. It was during that time that I discovered the Unity church, whose “practical Christianity” offered direct tools for mindfulness, mental health, exploring the power of optimism and language, new understandings of “highest good,” and the very presence of God within and around me at all times. Throughout this time, as I explored Unity in depth, I sensed the Divine as both transcendent and immanent, but had no philosophical framework within which to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory views. It was a knowing brought about through personal experience, but not a particularly well-articulated one.

Eventually, I took on full-time work in religious leadership and enrolled in a small, private New Thought seminary. While in seminary, I had the incredible good fortune to study under and learn from Deb Whitehouse and Alan Anderson. Deb taught me the fundamentals of counseling with choice theory, a way of relating to others that, while imperfect, still informs my interpersonal communication. Together, they introduced me to process theology and panentheism, although at the time I did not dig deeply into their theology, as I was so enamored of the monistic idealism of the traditional Unity teachings – that mind is the fundamental and only ground of being, with the physical world remaining subservient to the will of the mind.

When circumstances forced a break from the Unity church a few credits shy of completion of seminary and ordination, we moved into a small town in which “alternative spirituality” meant you left your Baptist family to attend a Pentecostal church. During that time, we church-hopped, never fully committing to one church – attending nondenominational, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, each offering something needed and ideal submerged in a mix of otherwise problematic teachings and beliefs.

In 2009, after we moved to a small, progressive enclave in my natal North Carolina, I abandoned organized religion in favor of embracing a private, solitary, nature-based practice that drew upon some of the Pagan influences that had remained a thread in the weave of my spiritual self-understanding since my teenage years. In this practice, I have come to believe that the Divine is present in the material world – not as a spark or impetus, but bodily and in manifestation. When I encounter the Divine in nature, it isn’t a feeling I’m experiencing (although it can certainly be affective in impact) – it’s a presence, a fullness of wisdom so expansive and powerful that it flows through my very bones and flesh, which also carry and embody the Divine.

When I think of what is me, what is self, I’m aware that I have a body, and that it is me. The flesh, the skin, the cells and eyes and brain – these are all undeniably part of the manifest me. But there’s more. There’s also an animated energy and spirit and mind of me – a nonphysical, conscious self that could never be explained away by the mere firing of neurons, complex though they may be. Correlation does not equal causation, and the firing of neurons that accompanies the activity of memory and emotion might more rightly be relegated to the realm of the mechanism of manifestation rather than its source.

When I think of what is God, a similar model emerges. The cosmos, stars, and nebulae; our atmosphere, waters, and land; rich earth and dry sand, river-flow and ocean tide, cloud and wind and breath – these are all Spirit manifest into the material, but of the same substance. God manifest into the physical through nature is of the same basic substance as God yet unmanifest into the physical. God manifest into the physical through our bodies, our hands, and our lips is of the same basic substance as the God who exists non-physically in reality through our spirits, our love, and our ideas.

This changes how I view traditional mind-body dualisms, as neither of these is privileged over the other in my understanding – our minds don’t universally control all aspects of our realities, and events in our everyday realities don’t universally and uniformly control all aspects of our mental, emotional, and spiritual responses from person to person and culture to culture. They’re the same substance in different form, working in partnership, and my goal isn’t to strengthen one so it can dominate the other – a metaphysical model which emerged out of patriarchal histories in which the mind was said to have dominance over the body just as men dominate women.

My goal is to explore the points at which the nonphysical enters the physical and where the firm boundaries of the physical dissolve, even temporarily, so that I might have greater understanding of the relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest, and to allow myself to connect with the all that is me, contained within and expressing the all that is God. In my model, spirit is sacred and so is the manifest universe in all its parts, and the liminal spaces where the boundaries between physical and nonmaterial blur and blend are holy spaces, providing opportunities for greater understanding of ourselves and of God.

iStock_000002083840SmallWhat this means practically is that my God is immanent and transcendent. My God physically enfolds me when I dive into the river and gently holds me when I lie weary and seeking on a soft bed of leaves under a canopy woven of trees and stars. My God comforts me through the voice of a friend when my heart is breaking, and celebrates with me in dance and play when I’m bursting at the seams with new joy and vibrance. My God is present with me in my journey and speaks to me through birdsong and laughter, but also has an aspect that is fully removed from the short-sighted realities that come from limited human understanding and the boundaries of physics. This, for me, is the beauty of panentheism: in God’s immanence I find ever-present friendship, solace, comfort, and joy; in God’s transcendence I find reassurance, wisdom, and the optimism that pours forth from potentiality.

This view of Divinity has direct impacts on my ritual life and prayer practices, but more importantly, it shapes how I move through and exist in the world. With a worldview that sees all of manifest reality as an expression of the Divine, curiosity becomes a spiritual practice and education an act of ritual devotion. Seeing God in nature leads to the kind of ecological mindset that refuses to separate the human from her context, and makes holy the acts of growing, gardening, hiking, and tending. Seeing God in myself leads to greater self-acceptance, the ability to love quirks and “flaws,” and a dedication to self-care (by which I mean mindfulness, health, and forgiveness) as an act of sacred reverence.

Seeing God in every person I meet leads to explorations of intimacy as sacred art and radical compassion as mystic devotion. It also leads logically to the practice of authenticity as a rule of life, and to acts of social service, activism, and advocacy as heartfelt ministry. Seeing God in bliss becomes ecstatic communion; invoking God in the crushing darkness of depression, trauma, and fear provides the unseen light – transcendent and otherworldly – that lights our way until we once again set foot on the solid ground of brilliance, love, and hope. In the manifest, there is One who is lover and friend and playmate and teacher and water and food and life; beyond the manifest, that One supports and sustains and heals and cleanses me when my personal physical experience reeks of brokenness and shame in spite of whatever material balms I’ve used to bathe my wounds.

I read all that I’ve written above, and feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps in future posts I’ll continue to unpack my beliefs, practices, and things I’ve learned in the humble hope that it might speak to someone in perfect timing and perfect trust, that they might be inspired to seek out the God of their own being in a way that is authentic for them.

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Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient, fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life-giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

– Hafiz, “In a Tree House,” translated/interpreted by D. Ladinsky

Knowing the Live Oaks: Finding the Balance Between Historicity and Inspiration in Neopaganism and Goddess Spirituality

… Less important in the greater scheme of injustice but still pinching my heart was the realization that my trees – my breathtaking, “natural,” inspiring live oaks – weren’t part of the ancient beauty of this stunning landscape, but rather were substitutes for that ancient beauty, stand-ins chosen for their aesthetic splendor after the complete destruction of what had been. As someone whose path is largely Pagan, this provided a parallel for some of my own experiences within the Pagan and Goddess spirituality movements…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

 

Conversion experiences, long-term love, and spiritual community

Although I’d been a student of metaphysics and the mind-body connection off and on since the early nineties, I didn’t discover New Thought as an organizational or historical movement until 1998. In that year, I returned to university studies two and a half years after my first attempt at college found me booted from the Honors College, losing all my scholarship funding, deep in the grips of major depression, reeling from attempts to self-medicate, and ultimately, pregnant by a much-older man who benefited greatly from my lack of self-esteem and boundaries. Those 28 months since dropping out of college had been some of the most transformative of my life — I gave up the guy, gave up the drugs and heavy drinking, read self-help and positive thinking manuals, and got counseling and treatment for my depression (and other issues stemming from a consistently traumatic childhood). I got involved in a progressive Episcopal church, feeling too uncomfortable with the idea of getting formally involved with non-Christian spiritual groups given my father’s conservative Christianity. Over time, though, I found my feminist mysticism (and sense of self-worth) deepening through my close connections with the Order of Saint Helena. I moved two states away with my infant son in 1997 to help start a non-profit organization, and just over a year later felt ready to give college another chance.

At the time, I was working in behavioral programs for children with autism, and planned to finish a degree in psychology. I was nervous about getting back into school, though, and chose two classes for my first semester that I knew would be interesting. I dropped out of one after the first meeting proved painfully boring. The other class — a religious studies class — was amazing, and the teacher was one of the most vibrant, brilliant, funny, and kind people I’d ever encountered. Within a year, I’d changed my major to religious studies, and continued to take classes from that instructor as often as possible. He was clearly ON FIRE, and I wanted to know more about what gave him that fire. He never talked about his personal beliefs in class, so I searched for him online, and found his name associated peripherally with the Unity movement and with an academic society that studied New Thought and other metaphysical movements. I read up on Unity, and had an “aha moment,” seeing in it a system of spiritual thought that embodied many of the beliefs I already held. To say that I had a “conversion experience” might even be understatement; I was now ON FIRE, read everything I could get my hands on, and attended every meeting, service, and healing circle that was offered, all the while ignoring the cognitive dissonance I was seeing and experiencing. After all, I was still bubbling forth with the energy of the conversion experience, and the benefits were far outweighing my need for logical consistency.

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Kind of like being in love.

Because that’s ultimately what conversion experiences are, when you get down to it. It’s like falling for a new partner, when life just feels different, and you can’t imagine what it was like before them, and you don’t want it to end, and you see their flaws as quirks, and life is just completely wrapped up in them, day and night. And truthfully, there’s a chance you may have found The One — the tradition in which you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, even after the buzz wears off and you see it with realistic eyes. There’s also a chance, depending on how comfortable you feel stepping outside your familial and cultural norms, that you’ll stay “married” to your tradition long after the buzz wears off, continuing to practice “for the children” (or your parents) even when you know you don’t believe much of what is being taught. And then there are others who give it a fair shot even after the rose-colored glasses begin to fade, looking to see if making it work is really going to be mutually beneficial but ultimately deciding it’s time to move on. All of these are valid responses to complex realities, and people don’t need to regret or feel shame about their choices of where, how, and with whom to practice your spirituality.

This discussion is further muddied by the way we talk about religious participation. When someone asks, “What is your religion?” we frequently respond with “I am” statements. Not “I attend a Catholic church,” but “I’m Catholic.” Not “I attend the local Friends meeting,” but “I’m a Quaker.” Not “I attend the local Reclaiming group,” but “I’m Pagan” or “I’m a Witch.” This conflation of religious affiliation with identity, of belief systems with self, may not be a bad thing; it does, however, create a dynamic of religious identity in which movement between spiritual traditions may necessarily need to be accompanied by some degree of identity crisis. After all, when one tradition has served as our identity for so long, we can’t help but question if we’re the same person when we move from one tradition to the next. Am I disloyal for wanting a change? Will my change seem like a betrayal to those who have mentored, ministered to, and walked alongside me? Was I wrong or confused when I expressed my loyalty to this tradition or community, even though it felt so real at the time? 

These are the kinds of questions that can keep people hanging onto a spiritual community months, or even years, beyond its period of practical usefulness and positive influence in their lives.

On top of that, humans tend to like community. We like regular opportunities to meet and make friends, and to feel supported in our spiritual journeys by a circle of like-minded people. We like when our children come home from Sunday School and tell us how they’re learning to be kinder, more compassionate, and connected. We like potlucks and study groups, prayer circles and the sense of camaraderie that comes from shared intentions. We worry that leaving an organized spiritual tradition or community means we’ll miss out on that, but it doesn’t have to — not exactly! Even atheists are starting to organize their own opportunities for inspirational community gathering. You can find mindfulness-based stress reduction groups, social circles for intentional living, and organized activities for your kids to learn and grow. You can even take the DIY approach: from 2009-2011, I hosted a monthly circle in my home for a small group of like-minded friends. Among the regular attendees: an art therapist, a Reiki healer, a PhD student studying ancient Celtic religion, 2 yoga instructors (one who has since become a licensed mental health counselor, and one who is now a licensed social worker), and a life-coach-in-training who now has a successful practice as a coach and group facilitator. I hosted each week, providing space, decaf, hot tea, fresh-baked bread, and other treats. Each person brought a potluck snack, and we rotated through who planned and led the activities each week. We were, in essence, ministering to each other, without the need for an organized spiritual tradition or church-based community.

Spiritual community is present and available when we set out to find or create it, and can take many forms.

Only you can decide where you need to be at this moment in time, and at this point in your journey. If where you are is working for you, stay there without apology or regret, and know that you are walking the path that is right for you. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t feel obligated to stay where you feel stuck, ignored, dismissed, or simply like an outsider. Go where you can let your light shine fully, and where you will be fed spiritually, even if it means striking out on your own for a bit. Almost all spiritual traditions have many truths in them, but none hold the entire truth, and you don’t have to feel guilt for seeking out a new realm of truths. If you can, leave while things are still reasonably healthy and you can make a positive transition; often the universe senses our desire to leave long before we feel strong enough to act on it, and might provide catalysts for change that may or may not be peaceful.

A few years before meeting my now-spouse, I was engaged to an amazing man who had been my closest friend for years. We were madly in love with each other, and also loved each other very deeply. For reasons that were out of our control, it didn’t work out, and the breakup of our engagement was one of the worst heartbreaks I’d experienced. For a while, it hurt to see him even though I missed our friendship (which had preceded our dating by a good four years). I didn’t want to dwell on thoughts of him too much, and preferred to move on with my life. It took a few years, during which I met and married my husband, to feel like I could talk to my old friend again. There were a few awkward meetings at first, but in no time our old friendship had been reestablished. I’ve now been with my husband for almost 15 years, and I have no doubt that he’s the right partner for me. But I am still thankful for the presence of my old friend in my life, and for the way in which his friendship provides a healthy connection to many parts of my past that would otherwise be lost or dismissed.

I’m no longer involved in any formal way with the Unity movement, or with any other organized tradition within New Thought. I have, however, come to a place where they are like old friends — not my life partner, but still holding a tenderness of memory that is precious to me as well as a host of teachings that I still find powerful and transformative (even if it took me a few years to get to a place where I can be friends again)I tell this story to say, in closing, that if for some reason you end up stepping away from a spiritual tradition or community in way that is painful, uncomfortable, or triggering, perhaps because you stayed well beyond when you knew you were Done, give yourself the space you need to heal, lick your wounds, and grow:

Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method: Healing. To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding. I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless. That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness. – Elizabeth Cunningham

Don’t feel obligated to forgive before you are ready, or to jump back in and welcome old teachings (or people, or communities) with open arms when you’ve been hurt. Take your time, give yourself the space you need, and when the time is right and you are more fully healed, you may be surprised by your ability to be gracious to those who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt you, to find meaning in teachings from your past that are no longer your primary source of inspiration, and to forge a new path for yourself, using bits and pieces of what you’ve found meaningful to create a new beginning, and maybe even a new you.