Theism And Panentheism

A couple of days ago, I went to my book shelf to see what I might like to read next. I grabbed The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as well as an unassuming book entitled The English Mystical Tradition by David Knowles, a Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, and historian until his death in 1974.

I remember picking this book up at the Ojai Public Library’s semi-annual book sale back when my wife and I lived in Ojai, California. It would have been a sunny day, and the books, on tables and in boxes outside, would have been well picked through by the time we arrived. Still, few, then as now, would have been intrigued by The English Mystical Tradition, and the book itself, though aged and dusty, has a newish feel.

Right at the beginning, Knowles shows his cards; doing so makes plain the immense difference between traditional theism and the nondual teaching. For he writes,

How then, have the theologians interpreted the message of the Scriptures? They have taken their stand upon two basic Christian doctrines: the transcendent immanence of God and the divine sonship given us by Christ.

God is at once transcendent and immanent in His creatures. H is transcendent, and therefore cannot be attained or comprehended or experienced as He is in Himself by any created faculty; yet He is immanent in creation by His power, His presence, and His essence, for without this power and presence no creature could exist. This is true of all creation, but it is eminently true of the spiritual world of soul. God is Spirit, and the soul is made in His likeness, with the faculties of knowledge and love and (within limits) of self-determination. (pp. 6-7)

Theism and nonduality agree that God is transcendent. It could be said that God’s transcendence refers to His going beyond all worlds, all minds, and all bodies–in short, beyond all form and manner of limitation. Transcendence is thus boundlessness.

Both equally agree that God is immanent for God is surely in all beings. God breathes life into all that exists, and truly all that exists depends, ontologically so, upon God.

The first clue to a significant difference in perspective comes with the particular kind of “transcendent immanence of God.” For Knowles, immanence is exhausted in the claim that God is is in all of “His creatures,” whereas nonduality wishes to go one, radical step further, stating that, yes, God is in all manifestation (i.e., all things “participate in” God), also through all creation (cf. the Holy Spirit), and also is all creation (identity).

To taste the difference, consider this short passage from Swami Ramdas, a nineteenth century Indian mystic:

Forget not the central truth that God is seated in your own heart. Don’t be disheartened by failures at initial stages.

Cultivate the spirit of surrender to the workings of his will, inside you and outside you, until you have completely surrendered up your ego-sense and have known that he is in all, and he is all, and you and he are one.

“You and he are one”: yes, it may be said, due to divine grace but not temporarily and not, finally, with even a hair’s breath of separateness. Tat tvam asi: you, essentially, are That.

The Heart Sutra says it all and with perfect Zen concision: “Form is formlessness, formlessness form.”