“It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands And I ordained all their host.” Isaiah 45:12 (All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard unless otherwise indicated)
[Note: This is not a book review. This is only a commentary on two issues of concern I have with the book. I am not saying that Voskamp deliberately holds the ideas I critique, but she presents them, inadvertently or not, and I am free to exercise my right as a reader and writer to assess them as presented.]
There are many good things about One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. The story of how she learned to be grateful to the Lord in all things (Phil. 4:6; Col. 3:17; 1 Thess. 5:18) and how this forged a closer walk with the Lord for her is inspirational, and she has a heartfelt way of expressing her experiences and insights. I am sure this message encouraged many readers to more earnestly seek how to cultivate daily gratitude to the Lord in their lives, which is a good practice.
Were it not for two problematic issues, there would be no need to write about this book. However, these two areas are of sufficient concern and should be addressed. I am not including any literary criticism or disagreements with more minor issues due to time limitations.
God’s Omnipresence and Immanence
Biblical Theism understands God to be both transcendent — beyond the created world — and present in the world, or immanent. God is omnipresent (present everywhere) because He cannot be contained in any one locality: “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?” (Is. 66:1; see also 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron. 2:6; Ps. 139:7-10; Jer. 23: 23-24; Acts 17:24).
Those who reject this view in favor of pantheism (all is God) or panentheism (all is in God) misunderstand God’s distinction from creation to mean he is not interactive with creation except in supernatural interventions, such as miracles. God is thus mistakenly viewed as mostly absent and remote. However, God reveals in his word that he is present; God cannot be restricted to a locality or impeded from any place (Prov. 15:3; Ps. 139:7-10; Is. 57:15; Jer. 23:24).
The meaning of the terms “immanence,” “pantheism,” and “panentheism” and their implications are not always agreed upon by theologians or scholars. One quickly finds that definitions and understanding of these terms vary. It is particularly difficult to find information on panentheism from a Christian point of view, except for the type found in Process Theology (a Neo-Orthodox view positing a God who is both beyond the universe and contained within and connected to it).
Furthermore, there are those who adopt pantheist or panentheist ideas and mix them together, even in contradiction to other beliefs they claim to hold. Therefore, overlap and mixture are not uncommon.
Panentheism and Other Views
The first area to address is panentheism. Panentheism is not well understood nor easily recognized, since it is less obvious than pantheism. Pantheism, which Voskamp disavows several times in the book, is the belief that all is God, and therefore, there is no distinction between God’s nature and creation. In pantheism, the rocks, rivers, trees, clouds, sun, moon, humanity, etc. are all part of God and imbued with the nature of God. This view is found in some areas of the New Age, modern Witchcraft (though God might be the goddess), some forms of Neopaganism, and in aspects of certain world religions. The idea that the earth is sacred is usually tied to pantheism. Still, even with these distinctions, pantheism and panentheism can blur together, so it is not always easy to discern between them.
Panentheism is often defined as the belief that all is contained in God (versus all is God in pantheism). There are many forms of panentheism but that is beyond the scope of this article. Theopedia defines it this way (“ontologically” means the nature of):
“Panentheism, literally ‘all-in-God-ism’, “affirms that although God and the world are ontologically distinct [i.e., not the same] and God transcends the world, the world is ‘in’ God ontologically.” This is not to be confused with pantheism, which understands God to be the world. For most panentheists, God is intimately connected to the world and yet remains greater than the world. In this view, events and changes in the universe affect and change God, and he is therefore a temporal being. As the universe grows, God learns as he increases in knowledge and being. Panentheism has been associated with process theology and aspects of open theism, including theologians such as Paul Tillich, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, Robert Jesnson, and possibly Karl Rahner.”
Wikipedia states a common view found in panentheism, “the divine interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it.” Also:
“God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the manifest part of God. In some forms of panentheism, the cosmos exists within God, who in turn ‘pervades’ or is ‘in’ the cosmos.”
In discussing panentheistic aspects of theologian Karl Rahner’s philosophy, authors Stanley Genz and Roger Olsen state that Rahner’s view implies that “the source of the difference between God and the world lies in God himself, and therefore the difference is not absolute” (20th Century Theology, InterVarsity Press, 1992, p. 249). Any stance which renders God’s interaction with the world a part of his nature or an interaction of necessity falls into the panentheistic category.
In addition to what is listed in Theopedia, panentheism is also found in the New Age, forms of Christian-New Age syncretism (such as the beliefs expressed by Episcopal priest Matthew Fox), New Thought, mysticism, Theosophy, Neoplatonism, and popular works such as William P. Young’s The Shack. Panentheism is not uncommonly found in the ideas of some of the Emergent Christian spokespersons (for example, Rob Bell’s Love Wins). It is not surprising that some Emergents would lean panentheistic since many of them have admitted an influence from and admiration for Matthew Fox and for New Age Buddhist Ken Wilber.
Biblical Texts Used to Support Panentheism
What of texts such as Colossians 1:17: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (ESV)? Does this mean that the world is in or part of Christ? No, it means that Christ sustains the order of the universe. Gill comments on this passage regarding Christ:
“[H]e upholds all things by the word of his power; the heavens have their stability and continuance from him; the pillars of the earth are bore up by him, otherwise that and the inhabitants of it would be dissolved; the angels in heaven are confirmed in their estate by him, and have their standing and security in him; the elector God are in his hands, and are his peculiar care and charge, and therefore shall never perish; yea, all mankind live and move, and have their being in him; the whole frame of nature would burst asunder and break in pieces, was it not held together by him; every created being has its support from him, and its consistence in him; and all the affairs of Providence relating to all creatures are governed, directed, and managed by him, in conjunction with the Father and the blessed Spirit.”
Similarly, Ephesians 4:10 is often misused for panentheism: “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (ESV). In this case, “fill” also means “fulfill” and “to complete.” Gill comments:
“…that he might fill all things, or “fulfil all things”; that were types of him, or predicted concerning him; that as he had fulfilled many things already by his incarnation doctrine, miracles, obedience, sufferings, death, and resurrection from the dead”
“that he might fill all persons, all his elect, both Jews and Gentiles . . . . particularly that he might fill each and every one of his people with his grace and righteousness, with his Spirit, and the fruits of it, with spiritual knowledge and understanding. . .”
At its basic level, panentheism is expressed by seeing God in nature or aspects of creation. This differs from seeing nature as the work of a Creator God as Romans informs us: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
The created universe points to a Maker who brought it into existence, a Maker immeasurable beyond the vastness of space, and more formidable than anything seen in nature. Man can come to the knowledge that there is a Creator through the evidence of the creation. God the Creator interacts with his creation as a distinct Being but exists apart from his creation and existed prior to it. God does not interact with creation out of necessity; and no part of God”s nature interpenetrates, mixes with, manifests as, or pervades the creation.
Panentheism in One Thousand Gifts
Although creation points to a Creator, it is not a container for the Creator nor do we literally see God in creation. Voskamp writes about seeing God in space and time as she is doing dishes. She talks about light in the soap bubbles and then says, “This is where God is” (69). She describes a bubble trembling, then states the space is holy, “The God in it” (ibid). God is “framed in the moment,” and “time is the essence of God, I AM” (70).
She continues in this vein about the present and how God enters time “hallowing it.” One can certainly sense God’s presence anywhere, and it is a special moment, but God is not in time nor is he a part of time, and time is not part of God — these views are classic panentheism.
In a long passage (beginning on p.104), Voskamp writes about going outside one night to see the harvest moon, which becomes a transformative experience for her. The entire vista impacts her to say, “Sky, land and sea, heavy and saturated with God” (106), and God’s glory “punctures earth’s lid and heaven falls through the hole” (107). I realize this could be mere poetry, but further statements indicate she takes it in a more literal fashion.
She talks about yearning “to see God” (108, though she does not define this) and that she’s been “hungry for Beauty” (109). She seems to equate the beauty of nature with God’s nature or with God himself (109 ff.). She states, “True Beauty worship, worship of Creator Beauty Himself,” and explains that this is not pantheism. However, this statement by itself is consistent with panentheism (it could also be pantheism though it is clear Voskamp is not a pantheist).
She explains, “Pantheism, seeing the natural world as divine, is a very different thing than seeing divine God present in all things” (110). The problem is that the latter is panentheism. She then asks rhetorically if theology is the study of books about God, then is not the study of nature also “the deep study of the Spirit of God?” (110). Well, no, it isn’t. It is the contemplation of the handiwork of God. In Romans 11, we read, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (vv 33-34)
Voskamp has apparently concluded that because she does not view nature as God, it is okay to see God literally in creation. This is very different from seeing that nature points to God, or allowing the beauty of nature to initiate thoughts of God, or understanding that beauty on earth reflects the majesty of God. I never gaze at a beautiful sunset, or a scattering of stars, or a tranquil lake and think, “I am looking at God.” That would never enter my head because I know I am not looking at God or seeing God when I look at these things. Frankly, it would seem idolatrous for me to say or even think this. It is alien to me as a Christian. God the Father is invisible, for one thing (John 4:24; Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27); his glory is too much for us to bear (Ex. 33:20); and Jesus stated that seeing him was seeing God the Father (John 14:9; also, John 12:45; Col 1:15).
Voskamp also sees God in “all faces.” She asks, “Isn’t He the face of all faces?” (111) and continues on that the “face” of the moon, the does, even “the derelict” are “His countenance that seeps up through the world” (111-112). She questions, “Do I have eyes to see His face in all things?” (112). Here again, this is equating nature and the faces of people with the face of God. Faith, she asserts, is “a seeking for God in everything” (114).
God’s word, however, tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, emphasis added; see also 2 Cor. 4:18, 5:7). Yet Voskamp writes that Jesus said people “need to see and then believe — that looking and believing are the same thing” (114). She gives no scriptural reference for this; she could be referring to Jesus’ acts which demonstrated his fulfillment of Messianic prophecies through miracles of healing, casting out demons, and power over nature. In that case, when Jesus was on earth, those who witnessed these miracles and denied Jesus as Messiah were reprimanded or condemned. At that time, they were to look and believe. This is the not the case today because Jesus in not presently on earth as he was then. We cannot look at Jesus this way today, nor is there any command to Christians after the ascension that one is to “look and believe.”
Voskamp tries to connect this idea of viewing and belief with seeing God in nature and somehow eliciting faith. Going back to Romans chapter 1, it is true that nature provides evidence for a Creator God, so man is without excuse if he denies God, but that is not the point Voskamp seems to be making. Salvific faith comes only by special revelation through the Holy Spirit and God’s word, not through general revelation (the creation).
There are too many passages suggesting or expressing panentheism to mention, but some of them are equating the moon with God’s eye (“All Eye,” 115), and the moon with God’s face (132); God manifesting in the world (116); equating God with us (“God stretching us open to receive more of Himself,” 117); the activities of nature being God’s “experience” (ibid); touching God through nature (118); “God seeping up through all things” (ibid); longing to “pound on the chest of God” (119); wanting to “Enter into God” (ibid, italics in original); God in all faces (134, 137), and “all faces become the face of God” (138).
The second troubling area is an eroticization of God’s love for us and our love for God. This seems to be, in fact, an extension or result of panentheism. If God is present in creation itself, if we can see or feel God in nature, he is reduced, philosophically speaking (not that God can be actually reduced), to the vulnerability of material and/or carnal concepts and interpretations. The last chapter in the book displays this in blatant erotic language (with some foreshadowing earlier, such as on 119).
The final chapter opens with the statement, “I fly to Paris and discover how to make love to God” (201). Even if we know Voskamp does not mean this literally, the term “make love” has almost exclusively a sexual implication throughout our culture. If this were the only lapse, one could perhaps forgive Voskamp for her attempt to express her love for God in a new way. However, this is just the beginning of a full immersion into theological erotica (if I may coin a phrase).
She ties this love to being God’s bride and God as Lover (119, 146, 204, 213, 218). But individually, we are not brides of God or Christ. The church is the bride of Christ and “bride” is spoken of in the singular, not the plural (Rev. 19:7, 21:9, 22:17; see also Eph. 5:23).
She pursues this topic by talking about union, but mostly using carnal, erotic language (she equates communion with consummation and union). She refers to the scriptural symbol of the union of man and wife as Christ and the church becoming one but then takes it into romantic and carnal territory.
She writes that Christ and the church will become “one flesh — the mystery of that romance” (213), but this idea is not in scripture. “One flesh” is used for the union of husband and wife (Matt. 19:5, 6; Eph. 5:31). We see from 1 Cor. 6:16, in reference to a man joining with a prostitute, that it has definite sexual meaning. While “one flesh” in marriage may imply more than a physical union, it certainly includes a physical, sexual union. Also, the way “romance” is being used denotes a sexual element. Not all love is romance and I certainly do not want to think of God in those terms.
She continues with phrases like “the long embrace,” “the entering in,” “God as Husband in sacred wedlock, bound together, body and soul, fed by His body,” and “mystical love union” (213). I do not want these images in my head. This is not how scripture leads me to think of the Lord or of what it means to be “one in Christ,” which biblically is without carnal or erotic implications.
The reader may hope for a respite from this imagery, but none is given. In fact, it is only building up. A few pages later, describing her experience seeing the painting “Pentecost” by Jean Restout, she is moved to write, in reference to herself and God, “It’s our making love” (216). “God makes love with grace upon grace” (ibid) and she asks, “couldn’t I make love to God . . . to know Him the way Adam knew Eve” (217). However — and this is a crucial point — the way Adam “knew” Eve was sexually, and this is what is meant by the word for “knew” in that passage. One cannot simply equate the spiritual oneness and connection with God through Christ with a sexual union. They are not the same.
Yet, the erotic language continues to flow, even after that. Voskamp states that Jesus is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (217), using language from Genesis 2:23 where Adam describes his partner, Eve. “I want to be in God and God to be in me, to exchange love and blessings and caresses” (217), she writes, moving on to words like “interchange,” “intercourse (twice),” “disrobed,” and declaring how this intercourse is “the climax of joy” (217-218). Voskamp longs to “burn,” “flush of embarrassment up the face” and tells the reader that we are to “cohabit” with God (218).
Even after the above, further terms with lovemaking overtones follow, “love-drunk,” many “union” words,” “ardent,” and “one holy kiss” (220, 221). However purely Voskamp experienced, thought, or intended these experiences and expressions is irrelevant when such overt sexual language and imagery is used, especially in connection with God and Jesus Christ. Though Christians are to know God’s love and love God, it is not romantic or erotic love.
Moreover, eroticizing God’s love belittles it. God’s love in sending his son to atone for sins (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6, 8), and Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life and take the penalty for sins (John 10:17; Gal. 2:20) is almost too incomprehensible a love for us to grasp. First Corinthians chapter 13, verses four to seven, describe the kind of love that is from God and that we can know through Christ, and it is not as Voskamp expresses it.
Many have defended Voskamp’s erotic language about God by pointing to the Song of Solomon. However, there are three important differences. First, the Song of Solomon, as is true for all Scripture, was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, the Song depicts two human lovers, whereas Ann Voskamp places herself as a lover with God (or vice-versa). And thirdly, I would not be embarrassed to read any passage in the Song aloud to others, but I cannot say the same for Voskamp’s book. This final reason is the acid test.
No matter what some men may have written (Voskamp has offered this to support her sexual language), evaluation of any book about God should be consistent with biblical principles, not based on man’s standards, which are ever changing — no matter who those men may be.
If panentheism were not making a re-invigorated entrance into the culture and church, an analysis of this book might not be necessary. However, the panentheism in the book offers an opportunity to discuss it and therefore inform.
One may argue that Voskamp is using metaphor. Although metaphor has its place, when it is conveys a wrong view of God and nature, especially in a recurring fashion, it should be avoided. The sheer repetition of panentheistic imagery in this book is too much to ignore. The popularity of a book or author is irrelevant when it comes to the right to assess such writings. Are Christians supposed to put the Bible aside and not use it to evaluate books or writings about God and Jesus?
Panentheism actually undermines God’s glory and majesty because it depicts creation as an extension or necessary corollary of God, or imbues creation with some of God’s attributes. Whenever panentheism appears in a popular work, deliberately or not, especially one written by a Christian, it becomes necessary to respond. It can only be beneficial to be able to recognize panenthism and to respond biblically.
Sources used and recommended
On God’s Immanence:
On Panetnheism (more comprehensive than Theopedia)
On Seeing God
“The Invisibility of God,” by Bob Deffinbaugh
“Has Anyone Seen God?”
Recommended Reference Book for the serious student of theology:
Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology