Monday, October 26, 2009

Everywhere At Once: The Problem of Omnipresence

"God is the soul of the world--and the world is therefore His body...."

One of the traditional attributes of God is His omnipresence: God is “everywhere.” But this idea is immediately problematic. The world is filled with physical bodies separated by small, large, and vast gaps of empty space; if God is neither a physical body (as traditional theism says He is not) nor empty space, then where exactly is He? And if God is “simple” in the sense of not being composed of any parts (as traditional theism also says He is), then how could He be present both here and there, for such divided presence would seem precisely to divide Him into parts? Indeed what could it mean to say that God is present even in any one location, much less in every?

The American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) borrows some ancient wisdom to make some sense of divine omnipresence.

The first point to recognize is that anything we say about God must rely on analogies and metaphors. Theists tend to invoke interpersonal relations: God’s relationship to his creatures is like that of a parent to a child, a ruler to subjects, or a teacher to students. But the great ancient philosopher Plato invoked a quite different, intrapersonal analogy: God’s relationship to the world is like that which a mind or soul bears to its own physical body.

Think about our relationship to our bodies. We conscious souls are a single “simple” indivisible reality while our body is a diverse society of realities, composed of smaller bodies composed of still smaller bodies. In a sense we “rule over” our organs and cells; our thoughts and decisions move large numbers of them, for example when we choose to eat dinner and our entire body heads towards the kitchen. In so doing we preside over the coming to be of our cells, over their constitution and organization. We are quasi-deities in our own bodily system.

Yet at the same time we are also constituted by our bodies, our cells, our molecules.

And that is how we should think about God: not as entirely removed from the world but as embedded or embodied within it. Not as some remote eternal being ruling from afar but as one governing from within, just as we govern our own bodies.

Now how can this illuminate the idea of omnipresence?

Consider: some things we know vividly and directly, such as our own thoughts and significant changes occurring in our bodies. Other things, such as what is going on elsewhere or with others, are known only indirectly, by inference. Similarly, some things we have direct power over (such as our own volitions and bodily movements) while other things we can control only indirectly, through intermediaries. Since direct knowledge and power are superior to indirect knowledge and power, God must have direct knowledge of, and direct power over, the world as a whole.

And that is what His omnipresence is: God is “present” in or to the world precisely insofar as His direct knowledge and power extend to every location in the world, just as we ourselves have direct knowledge of and power over our own bodies. In that sense we too are present in and to our own bodies, even to the “gaps” within and between our cells and molecules--which answers the first problem above. So too the “simple,” undivided being which we are may now be said to be wholly present everywhere our body is present--which answers the second problem.

What makes this particular region of matter and not some other region our body, in fact, is just this knowledge and power we have concerning them.

Which makes the world, therefore, God’s body.

(1) Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
(2) Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).


  1. Process Theology seems to me to clearly lead to pantheism, why then are so many process theologians against pantheism? What exactly is the objection to pantheism from more traditional theists? They need to have transcendence as well, but why exactly do they need that? Love your blog, heard you on Against the Grain...

  2. I believe this explanation is flawed, as it tries to describe God in the context of the known universe. The properties of God can be much better understood - or rather accepted - by referring to the Cosmological argument, as illuminated by the Big Bang theory and General relativity.

    The cosmological argument goes something like this:
    1) Everything that has a beginning, has a cause
    2) The universe had a beginning.
    3) Therefore, the universe had a cause.

    The second point was always a heated discussion among philosophers, until science surpassed their reasoning with the Big Bang theory. It is now a generally accepted fact: the universe had a beginning, and therefore, needs a cause. Since the universe had a cause, it is clear that the knowable universe exists within a much larger, unknowable reality, in which this cause occured.

    However, thanks to general relativity, we can also deduct some of the properties of this cause. General relativity states that time, space and matter all exist dependently of each other. If you take one away, you take all three away. Therefore the Big Bang is also the beginning of time and space.

    Now, the cause that created space cannot itself be confined to space. Likewise, the cause that created time can not itself be bound to time. Therefore, it follows that the cause that created the universe, MUST have the following properties:

    1) omnipresent
    2) eternal
    3) extremely powerful

    I believe, in time, Intelligent Design will be accepted as science. The arguments for design is based in science, particularly Information Theory. No natural process can produce information. The reason why it is rejected is the same reason why it took 50 years for the Big Bang to be accepted: many scientists, who prefer a naturalist paradigm, is opposed to the metaphysical implications of ID. Once ID is accepted, it can count as another attribute for the cause of the universe:

    4) It is a conscious being.

    When you put it all together, you inevitably end up - not with a monist god where the creation is the body of God, but the Monotheist God, where God exists separately from His creation.

    This explanation for the omnipresence of God, is much more satisfying, as it liberate God from our need for Him to be explainable with references to the observable universe.

  3. Hello,
    I have a question, can an omni-potent being ,such as God, create a stone that noone can lift?

  4. Hello,
    I have a question, can an omni-potent being ,such as God, create a stone that noone can lift?