Wessling on ‘Idealistic Panentheism’
March 18, 2017 — 14:59

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The third essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Panentheism: Reflections on Jonathan Edwards’s Account of the God-World Relation” by Jordan Wessling. The essay is avowedly not interpretive, but rather aims at an evaluation of a certain view in philosophical theology, dubbed ‘idealistic panentheism,’ which has been attributed to Edwards. This view takes the whole created world—including human minds—to be ideas in the mind of God. It is idealistic insofar as it takes reality to be fundamentally mental. It is panentheistic in a literal and straightforward sense: the created world exists in God’s mind. However, it is not pantheistic since those ideas that make up the created world are not all there is to God. This makes creation, as Wessling puts it in one place, “a proper part of God” (57).

Wessling says this view recommends itself as highly parsimonious and as providing compelling accounts of some of the divine attributes, especially omnipresence. He the considers three objections: (1) that the view runs counter to tradition; (2) that the view implies theological determinism and so undermines responses to the problem of evil; and (3) that the view literally locates evil in God, making God morally imperfect. I will only discuss the first of these here.

Wessling essentially dismisses this worry with the remark that panentheism is an avowedly revisionary conception of God, and yet has many adherents today. In light of the fact that his essay is not intended to be historical or interpretive, this seems to me a legitimate response: although some philosophers and theologians may be inclined to reject the view because it is revisionary, the view will still be of interest to many, since panentheism is already taken seriously in theology.

Nevertheless, this response left me with questions (perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of contemporary theology, or perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of Edwards). How exactly is this Edwardsian idealistic panentheism different from Spinoza? Presumably Edwards wanted it to be, and in fact I’d be surprised if he didn’t address this explicitly. Spinoza likewise takes our minds to be God’s ideas. Further, Wessling interprets Edwards as holding that “Human persons, for example, are what we might call ‘attenuated substances.’ … We might say that, for Edwards, humans (as well as other created minds) are only proximate bearers of properties, but God alone is the ultimate bearer of these properties” (56-57). Again, this sounds very similar to Spinoza. In addition to the fact that the historical Edwards presumably wouldn’t have liked this, it raises the question of whether this sort of panentheism can ultimately be distinguished from pantheism. The fact that there is more to God than these ideas is supposed to do the work of distinguishing it from pantheism. But this is not spelled out. If God somehow had a choice as to which of God’s ideas were ‘real’ created objects, and other ideas were mere possibilia, this would help. But exactly how this works, exactly what makes for that difference, is not explored here.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)