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Evolutionary Panentheism for the Planetary Era

A Gallery of Images

Sean Kelly

1. Introduction: Some Philosophical Considerations

Though it began some five centuries ago with the so-called discovery of the New World and the first circumnavigation of the globe, the reality of the Planetary Era has, in our own times, finally entered the sphere of collective consciousness as a result of the growing threat of climate change, ecological devastation, and the mass extinction of species.1 If the world’s religious or spiritual traditions are to serve in the transition toward a life-sustaining society, they will need, as they come into greater dialogue with one another, to seek out those elements that affirm the sacredness of the earth and cosmos and point to the indissoluble, if still complex, unity of the cosmos, the human and the divine. They will also need to show their coherence with, or friendliness to, the profound insights of contemporary science. The philosophical worldview of evolutionary panentheism can help guide the spirit of this dialogue in the direction of the desired transition.

Each of the elements in the term panentheism contains or implies the others. This is most obviously the case with pan, the Greek word for “all” or “the all.” As we see in the early controversies surrounding the term pantheism, “all” refers in the first place to the world or cosmos, including the human, as distinct from the creative divine, usually referred to as “God,” though in pantheism the two sides of the equation are identified with one another (deus sive natura, “God or Nature,” as Spinoza famously put it). The notion of panentheism seeks to maintain the distinction between the two, though it sees the world or cosmos as subsisting “within” (en) the creative divine. Instead of simply saying that everything (pan) is divine (theos), panentheism says that the divine is in (en), and ultimately includes, everything, which therefore is also in It. As Whitehead says, “It is as true to say that the world is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the world” (1978, 348). In the Western theological and philosophical tradition, one finds notable variations of this idea in Plotinus (the “One”), Anselm (who defined God as that “than which nothing greater can be conceived”), and Hegel (with his understanding of the Absolute). Analogues from the East include the ideas of Brahman, the Tao or taiji, and the Buddha Mind. All of these terms, however—and perhaps especially “God” and “Absolute”—can be, and often are, (mis)read in a manner that seems to contradict panentheism’s affirmation of immanence.


To say that both pan and theos are evolutionary introduces a whole new level of complexity to the three terms and their interrelations. Hegel, for instance—though arguably the most formidable and influential of evolutionary thinkers—rejected the idea of a literal evolution of nature. Increasing complexity in the sequence of natural forms, according to Hegel, manifests the developmental logic of the Absolute Idea, or of the Absolute as Spirit, not of nature per se. Schelling, by contrast, did argue for a dynamical evolution of nature, though not in the sense of Darwin (or Gould, in our own times), both of whom do not recognize the overarching telos granted by Hegel and Schelling and later characterized by Teilhard as Omega, the movement or evolution toward which is governed by the law of “complexity-consciousness.”

From a philosophical, and specifically metaphysical, point of view, many questions arise. What is the relation between the personal and the impersonal in how we conceive of, and relate to, the All? In what particular ways do we conceptualize the relation of the One to the Many, of the Eternal to Time (and history), of Spirit to Nature? What is the status of the human in the scheme of things? Hegel, Aurobindo, Whitehead, Teilhard, Wilber and other grand theoreticians each have something unique to contribute here, not only to the metaphysical options, but to the question of epistemology or method in the consideration of these options. For instance, the writings of both Aurobindo and Teilhard include engagement with the personal Divine (as Ishwara or the Mother, or as Jesus, respectively) in a manner absent in the writings of Hegel or Whitehead, for whose understanding of God or the Absolute the notion of personality is nevertheless by no means irrelevant. All four also have distinct, and in some respects contradictory or conflictual, views of the nature and limits of knowledge (and the relations between its scientific, metaphysical, gnostic and revelatory sources) and of history. The cyclic dimension of Aurobindo’s view of history, for instance, is not supported by the other three. It is not clear, moreover, in what way Whitehead’s process metaphysics can account for the arrow of evolution, or the specific trajectory both it, and the course of history, have taken.

Integral theorist Ken Wilber, perhaps the most prominent contemporary representative of a speculative evolutionary panentheism, has opened up fruitful possibilities for encounter among, and integration of, key insights from Hegel, Aurobindo, Whitehead and Teilhard, among others, drawing also from across the full spectrum of religious or spiritual, philosophical and scientific traditions. Many, however, have criticized Wilber’s admittedly still evolving model, and method, both from the perspectives of the individual traditions Wilber claims to integrate, as well as from alternative (though arguably equally integral) meta-points of view (see Ferrer; Kelly 2009; Rothberg and Kelly).

Also relevant to an integral approach to evolutionary panentheism, though again in varying degrees of tension with Wilber, are the visionary figures of Steiner and Gebser, the radical empiricist tradition running from James and Myers through to Michael Murphy and Ralph Metzner, the continuing tradition of process thought, and the archetypal astrological worldview of Richard Tarnas. Given the limits of this article, I can only mention them here.

2. Mythos

Evolutionary panentheism would have a very limited allure were its manifestations confined to the kind of abstract conceptual discourse exemplified by the preceding paragraphs. By contrast, the primary mode of religious or spiritual expression—theistic or not—is symbolic and mythic. Even Hegel, for whom the Absolute is fully grasped as such only as Concept or Idea, recognized that art, religion and philosophy all share the same substance, that in fact it is only as reflection on (or refraction through) the myths and symbols of religion in particular that “absolute knowing” can arise in the first place. Most forms of theism, however—despite the common theological predicates beginning with “omni-” (as in omnipresent or omniscient)—tend to portray the divine as transcending the cosmos without necessarily including it, most typically through the god(s) residing in “heaven” (whether pictured as literally in the sky, or on the top of a mountain: Zeus, the original Yahweh; or as residing in some more subtle but equally distant realm). An early exception is the lokapurusha or cosmic anthropos of Jainism, depicted in the figure of a man (sometimes a woman) whose body includes the three great realms already familiar to shamanism: the upper or celestial, the middle, and the underworld.2 This figure is echoed in the later Adam Kadmon of Lurianic Kabbalism, whose skeleton is formed by the sephiroth (or divine emanations) of the archetypal Tree of Life, and whose body also comprises a threefold division into upper, middle and lower realms (there is also a vertical pattern of three “pillars”).3 The Adam Kadmon, however, is generally conceived in Neoplatonic fashion as the archetypal cosmos in divine-human form that pre-exists the physical cosmos (this complicates, through its idealism, the panentheistic notion that it also includes the cosmos in its full actuality).

Adam Kadmon with SefiraAdam Kadmon, Hildegarde of Bingen
Adam Kadmon with Sefira, and "Adam Kadmon" by Hildegarde of Bingen

The archetypal character of Adam Kadmon or the primordial Human is echoed in the Kongoukai (Vajradhatu in Sanskrit) or Diamond World Mandala of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, with the figure of Dainichi Nyorai or the Cosmic Buddha at its top and center. In this tradition, however, the transcendental reality of the Diamond Mandala is always paired with its counterpart, the Taizoukai (Garbhadhatu in Sanskrit) or Womb Mandala of phenomenal reality, with the same Cosmic Buddha at its center.4 The non-dual, panentheistic, union of these two realms is symbolized by the portrayal of Dainichi Buddha holding the “Mudra of Six Elements,” where the five fingers of the right hand (corresponding to the five elements of the phenomenal world) clasp the extended index finger of the left hand (symbolizing the sixth element of universal Mind).5

Kongokai MandalaTaizokai Mandala
Kongokai and Taizokai Mandalas, photos copyright Mark Schumacher

As an illustration of how, in the Western Christian tradition, the panentheistic intuition or idea has succeeded in finding a compelling expression, consider the vièrges ouvrantes (“opening Virgins”) of the high Middle Ages.

From the outside,6 ones sees Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap (in the older position of Isis as throne of Horus). The statue opens, however, in one example (though implied by all) revealing in a striking triptych the truth that not only the whole world (and not just the night sky, as with the Egyptian goddess Nut), but the Trinity itself and the central mystery of the death and resurrection of the Savior are contained within her all-encompassing womb.7


Vierge Ouvrante, Closed Vierge Ouvrante, Open
Vierge Ouvrante, Open and Closed

These statues (which were condemned by the Church in the 15th C) manage to communicate the two related senses of panentheism—that the divine is as much in the world as the world is in the divine, and this regardless of where one might sit with respect to theological caveats around her status as theotokos (“God-bearer”) or “Queen of Heaven.” Though the statues might be condemned, the great cathedrals remained, so many of which are named after the Virgin, and which perhaps inspired the original creators of the statues. The West façade of Notre Dame of Paris, for instance, as perhaps the most realized of them all, presents the same kind of triptych, with Christ in the central door below the famous rose window.8

Notre Dame CathedralNotre Dame Cathedral's Rose Window
Notre Dame Cathedral, images from Wikimedia Commons and IceNineJon and used under the Creative Commons license.

Compare now the vièrge ouvrante with another famous triptych, the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. Most people are not as familiar with the image of the closed outer panels,9 which, in the comparison I am inviting, would correspond to the vièrge fermée or the closed Virgin seen from the outside. Judging from the inscriptions at the top of the panels, the image would seem to depict the cosmos on the third day of creation.

Garden of Earthly Delights, ClosedElemental Chemiae
"Garden of Earthly Delights," Hieronymous Bosch, Closed, and page from ELEMENTA CHEMIAE by Johann Konrad Barchusen

The image is that of a womb-like sphere, and reminds one of an alchemical retort in the early phases of the work.10 In the upper left corner stands a diminutive image of God the Father, the cosmic “spermatozoic Logos” in the act of creation. Though nominally the source of the cosmic sphere, he is in fact dwarfed by it. Given the symbolic correspondence between the realm of matter and the goddess Mary-Sophia as cosmic Great Mother (mater), we can take Bosch’s inner triptych as an analogue of, and in this case also a counterpoint to, that of the vierge ouverte (“open Virgin”).

The archetypal core of the vierge ouverte is expressed in the mytheme of birth-death-rebirth through the presence in the divine womb of the central symbols of the cross and the triune Godhead.

Bosch’s three panels11 are too complex to allow for a single reading, but for our purposes, this much can be said: in terms of developmental symbolism, the garden scene of the left panel corresponds to the phase of gestation, birth and early infancy (to both pre-labor perinatal and post-partum symbiosis with the maternal divine). The central panel, whose earthly delights have come to represent the whole work, corresponds to life, but in the sense of a death-in-life, since the identification with the world of the senses is seen, in the final panel, to lead to a kind of hell realm, whether this be understood in terms of apocalyptic suffering, the leftward path following the last judgment, or to a more existential assessment of the secret but inevitable pain (as in the Buddhist notion of dukkha) accompanying every earthly delight.

Garden of Earthly Delights, Open
"Garden of Earthly Delights," Hieronymous Bosch, Open

Clearly, Bosch’s work evokes a more conflicted relation to the cosmic “all” than does the vierge ouvrante. Despite the shared deep structure, Bosch’s work might be seen as negating, or perhaps as playing on the moment of negation within, the incarnational spirit of the Virgin.

To further amplify this structure, one could consider the Iroquois cosmology as expressed in the myth of the Woman who Fell from the Sky. She is the celestial-divine source (through her more or less parthenogenitically conceived daughter and granddaughter) of the two luminaries (sun and moon), the stars, and the twin male hero gods Sapling and Flint. As in the Egyptian cosmology, the earth in the Iroquois myth is identified with the divine masculine (Geb for the Egyptians, Turtle Island for the Iroquois).12 In resonance with the Bosch triptych, the movement here is from harmony (the time before the Woman’s Fall from Heaven) to discord (the warring twins, whose Biblical analogues are Abel and Cain). In the Iroquois myth, the evil brother Flint is overcome and harmony eventually restored through the establishment of the men’s rites of initiation.13 The corresponding victory over evil is not represented in the Bosch triptych, which ends (in the third panel) with the phase of discord. The possibility of victory is implied, however, through the original placement of the work as an altar-piece and through its liturgical and sacramental context (which, as in the later part of the Iroquois myth, is one of male-dominated or androcentric initiation).

As a final and more recent example of the same archetypal theme, I would mention Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, a twentieth century evolutionary panentheistic epic. A mythic summa of Aurobindo’s philosophy of integral nondualism, Savitri tells of the world-redeeming love of Savitri, an incarnation of the Great (Meta-) Cosmic Mother, for the mortal Satyavan. Through her yoga, death is simultaneously embraced and overcome and we are carried over the threshold to a new heaven and a new earth. As with the image of the vierge ouvrante, the drama of redemption is portrayed as happening within the (subtle) body of Savitri. This drama, which is a symbol of the evolving cosmos as a whole, culminates with the descent of the Supermind and the full opening of all her chakras. In contrast to the Bosch triptych, an infinite bliss is revealed behind every apparent pain. Of the symbols and myths mentioned so far, Aurobindo’s is the only one that is explicitly evolutionary. Despite the Vedic theme, however, it is clear that Aurobindo draws from, as he contributes creatively to, the notion of evolution as it emerged in the modern West. A significant aspect of this creative contribution is the manner in which he carries forward the (neo-) Hegelian vision of his early contemporaries, for whom (as for Teilhard, and in contrast to the still dominant paradigm), evolution is understood panentheistically.14

Cosmic Spheres
Copyright Adams and Primack, used with permission

3. Cosmos and Gaia

The role of providing an overarching account of the origin, nature and goal of the cosmos has largely been taken over by the natural sciences. Although the dominant modern scientific paradigm has militated against a panentheistic evolutionism, there is a growing counter-trend with certain proponents of the “new story” of the universe (Berry, Swimme, Primack and Abrams) and in the movement toward what could be called a more integral ecology (Wilber, Hargens and Zimmerman, Harding, Morin, and Kelly). Though grounded in contemporary evolutionary cosmology (including relativistic and quantum physics) and Gaian science, this new story is also indebted to the visions of Teilhard and Whitehead, without necessarily adopting all of their spiritual or metaphysical commitments. One could argue that the tendency here is toward a pantheisitic, rather than a panentheistic, evolutionism. The scientists, it is true, do not generally preoccupy themselves with this distinction. For someone like Swimme, the cosmos in any case is seen as numinous through and through and, with its paradoxical and singular origin (the primal flaring forth, as Swimme calls it), its omnicentrism, and its creative advance, manifests the potencies of the traditional (and especially esoterically inflected) creative divine.15

Universe Pyramid
Copyright Adams and Primack, used with permission

Joel Primack, whose work predicted the existence of dark matter, and his wife and collaborator, Nancy Abrams, have drawn parallels between the new story and Kabbalah (though not to the symbol of Adam Kadmon). In their view, our current understanding of cosmogenesis, from the Singularity to the expanding cosmos, corresponds to the movement from the first through to the third of the sephiroth.16 In their more recent and popular book, View from the Center of the Universe, Primack and Abrams propose four illustrative symbols.17 The first, cosmic spheres of time, depicts our vantage point in the here and now as the center of concentric spheres reaching out in space and backwards in time to the edge of the observable universe.

Cosmic Ouroboros
Copyright Adams and Primack, used with permission

One is to understand, however, that the center, as in Cusa’s definition of God or the Absolute, is everywhere, and the outer sphere or circumference, nowhere.

The second and third symbols they present are both pyramids, the first and smallest of visible matter and the second of cosmic density (shown above). The main point here is that the whole of the manifest universe is, as Bohm liked to say, a kind of froth on the sea of invisible (dark) matter and energy.

The last symbol is that of the cosmic ouroboros. The overlapping area where the snake bites its tail represents the approach toward a Grand Unified Theory of the microphysical (quantum mechanics, at 10-30 centimeters) with the large-scale structure of the universe (relativity, at 1030). Opposite the tail/mouth is the mid-range scale of the human, which, along with this particular moment in our evolutionary unfolding, constitutes the view from the center of the universe.

The scale of the human that defines the perspective of the universe as a whole is that of the middle or center. One is reminded of the middle realm of the Jain lokapurusha, inhabited by humans (and the only realm from which it is possible to achieve liberation), as well as or the Norse Midgard or Middle Earth, with the World Tree at its center (corresponding to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which, as we have seen, forms the spine of Adam Kadmon), encircled by the Midgard Serpent. 18

Yggdrasil painted by Oluf Olufsen BaggeSephira Tree with Snake
Yggdrasil painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, taken from Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons license, and Sephira Tree with Snake

Embracing a version of the anthropic cosmological principle that includes recognition not only of our critical placement in the cosmic ouroboros, but also the critical uniqueness of our evolutionary moment, Primack and Abrams assert that “we humans are significant and central to the universe in unexpected and important ways.”

We are discovering this fact at a moment in history when so much is at stake. It is our hope that this new picture of the universe will help convey the preciousness of the cosmic experiment on planet Earth. An understanding of our universe and our extraordinary place in it may reveal solutions to the problems that confront us personally and globally.

Primack and Abrams are right to point to the preciousness, and precariousness, of the Earth, which many have come to call by her ancient Greek name, Gaia. Lovelock, the creator of Gaia theory, only goes so far as to say that the Earth is like an organism. Its organization can, he maintains, be fully accounted for in the context of an essentially materialistic systems theory. His disciple, Stephan Harding, by contrast, is compelled to consider Gaia not only as animate and sentient, but in some sense divine (in that the life which Gaia has brought forth is intrinsically sacred and numinously charged, at least for those who have eyes to see). The direction that Harding and other “strong” Gaia theorists are taking is in line with the great tradition of Naturphilosophie initiated by Schelling, Hegel and Fechner, all of whom spoke explicitly of the Earth as organism and as permeated by the anima mundi. With respect to the notion of evolutionary panentheism, while the animate Earth may not be coextensive with the divine “all,” it is nevertheless the sacred Midgard (or “Middle Earth”) of Germanic myth within which our evolutionary drama is destined to unfold.

4. Conclusion

The emergence of Gaia theory has coincided with the planetary crisis we now face, notably with the now linked specters of global climate change and the mass extinction of species. There is, of course, the prospect of unparalleled human suffering as well, the severity of which will depend in large measure on how successful we are at dealing with the threat to the biosphere. We find ourselves, therefore, in a planetary life and death situation reminiscent of the archetypal import of the central panels of the triptychs considered previously. In terms of the evolutionary arc implied by their deep structure—the same structure adopted by Hegel, Aurobindo, Teilhard and Jung—the earth community as a whole is poised on the initiatory threshold between death and (possible) rebirth. If our future is not to realize the apocalyptic vision of Bosch’s third panel, we must heed the assessment of the world’s leading ecologists and environmental scientists. To do so, however, will require fundamental shifts in our material, economic, social, and political modes of being in the world. If we succeed, we will be ushering in the next evolutionary phase of the Planetary Era, one guided not by the myopic and destructive ways of industrial growth society, but by a nascent planetary wisdom culture.19 Going beyond the notion of mere sustainability, this culture will embody such ideals as global solidarity and, for the leading-edge at least, a re-enchanted vision of the cosmos that seeks to actualize our full evolutionary potential. The worldview of evolutionary panentheism, and a new planetary ethic that might flow from it, is a precious seed of this potential. With the right tending, and not a little luck, we just might see this seed sprout and blossom.

Sean Kelly is Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. He has published numerous articles on Jung, Hegel, transpersonal psychology, and the new science and is the author of Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path toward Wholeness (Paulist Press, 1993). Sean is an editor (with Donald Rothberg) of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers (Quest, 1998) and a translator (with Roger Lapointe) of the French thinker Edgar Morin's book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium (Hampton Press, 1999). Along with his academic work, Sean has trained intensively in the Chinese internal arts (taiji, bagua, and xingyi) and has been teaching taiji since 1990.

Read more about Sean Kelly


[1] For authoritative assessments of the state of the earth, see Paul Conkin’s State of the Earth and the most recent Living Planet Report. See also

[5] See ibid.

[13] For the most detailed account of this myth, see Campbell’s Historical Atlas of World Mythology. Vol. II: The Way of the Seeded Earth. Part Two: Mythologies of the Primitive Planters: The Northern Americas, pp. 143-151 .

[14] In his short work, The Mother (also known as the “Matri Upanishad”), Sri Aurobindo writes the following: “The Mother not only governs all from above but she descends into this lesser triple universe. Impersonally, all things here, even the movements of the Ignorance, are herself in veiled power and her creations in diminished substance, her Nature-body and Nature-force, and they exist because, moved by the mysterious fiat of the Supreme to work out something that was there in the possibilities of the Infinite, she has consented in the great sacrifice and has put on like a mask the soul and forms of the Ignorance. But personally too she has stooped to descend here into the Darkness that she may lead it to the Light, into the Falsehood and Error that she may convert it to the Truth, into this Death that she may turn it into godlike Life, into this world-pain and its obstinate sorrow and suffering that she may end it in the transforming ecstasy of her sublime Ananda. In her deep and great love for her children she has consented to put on herself the cloak of this obscurity, …borne to pass through the portals of the birth that is a death…. This is the great sacrifice called sometimes the sacrifice of the Purusha, but much more deeply the holocaust of Prakriti, the sacrifice of the Divine Mother” (34-35).

[15] See Brian Swimme’s Hidden Heart of the Cosmos.

[18] See ; and also this image, combining the Kabbalistic tree with the serpent: ).

[19] I develop the notion of global solidarity and a planetary wisdom culture in the latter part of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era.


Abrams, N., and J. Primack. (2006). The View from the Center of the Universe:           Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead Press.

Aurobindo. (1995). The Mother. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Light Publications.

Campbell, J. (1989). Historical Atlas of World Mythology. Vol. II: The Way of the Seeded   Earth. Part Two: Mythologies of the Primitive Planters: The Northern Americas.         New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Conkin, P. (2006). The State of the Earth: Environmental Challenges on the Road to        2100. University Press of Kentucky.

Ferrer, J. (2001). Revisioning Transpersonal Theory : A Participatory Vision of Human        Spirituality. SUNY Press.

Harding, S. (2006). Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia. V.T.: White River Junction.

Kelly, S. (1993). Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path Toward        Wholeness. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press.

          ---- (2009). “Participation, Complexity, and the Study of Religion,” in The           Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. J. Ferrer and J.          Sherman, Eds. SUNY Press.

          ---- (forthcoming). “Integral Ecology and the Paradigm of Complexity.” Futures        Journal.

          ---- (forthcoming). Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary     Era.

Living Planet Report:

Morin, E., with B. Kern. (1999). Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium.           Translated by Sean Kelly and Roger Lapointe. Kreskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.

Rothberg, D., and S. Kelly (eds.). Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading       Transpersonal Thinkers. Theosophical Publishing House.

Swimme, B. (1999). The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story.           Orbis Books.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929/1978). Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Edited by     David Ray Griffin and Donald W, Sherburne. New York: Free Press.

10 November 2009

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