Where Is God?

augustine1.jpg“Do heaven and earth, then, contain the whole of you, since you fill them? Or, when once you have filled them, is some part of you left over because they are too small to hold you? If this is so, when you have filled heaven and earth, does that part of you which remains flow over into some other place? Or is it that you have no need to be contained in anything, because you contain all things in yourself and fill them by reason of the very fact that you contain them? For the things which you fill by containing them do not sustain and support you as a water-vessel supports the liquid which fills it. Even if they were broken to pieces, you would not flow out of them and away. And when you pour yourself out over us, you are not drawn down to us but draw us up to yourself: you are not scattered away, but you gather us together.

“You fill all things, but do you fill them with your whole self? Or is it that the whole of creation is too small to hold you and therefore holds only a part of you? And is this same part of you present in all things at once, or do different things contain different parts of you, greater or smaller according to their size? Does this mean that one part of you is greater and another smaller? Or are you present entirely everywhere at once, and no single thing contains the whole of you?”

-St. Augustine, Confessions 1.3, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961).


8 comments so far

  1. Greg on

    I’ve heard the term “panentheism” pop up here and there in my many wanderings. God is in everything, but everything is not God. It sounds like Augustine was a bit of a panentheist. Is that concept still around in today’s theology?

  2. jeffreimer on

    Yes, the concept is often thrown around, but usually as a criticism of another theologian. Usually they’re using it to say that somebody identifies God too closely with the created order (e.g., panentheism as the “spark of the divine” in everyone). There’s a distinction between panentheism and omnipresence in Augustine. God upholds and sustains creation but doesn’t actually constitute it: “the things which you fill by containing them do not sustain and support you as a water-vessel supports the liquid which fills it.” In other words, the world for Augustine is a sign of God’s presence, but God is ontologically separate from it.

  3. Greg on

    Hmm. “Spark of the Divine.” I like that. It jibes with the way nuance and complexity arise from the simple, supposedly inchoate laws of the physical universe. Why do theologians belabor the distinction between omnipresence and panentheism, do you think?

  4. nonnusjon on

    My guts responded to this post more than my brains. There is great resonance in your title “Where Is God?”–and comparatively little immediate impact Augustine’s meandering prose.

    Your title asks a question that I feel deeply. Where the hell is God?

    Please don’t label this a strictly existentialist question. I mean, Where is actual sacred power today? Why are our actual lives–where our bodies and senses and desires and drives and emotions move about–so spiritually vacuous that we spend most of our time looking for new distractions and petty entertainments?

    Does Augustine speak to this?

  5. Matt Smith on

    God must participate ontologically in what he has created. If he doesn’t, the created order has no meaning. It may be twisted by sin (“fallen”), but it’s not meaningless.

    The oversimple distinction between panentheism and omnipresence ignores exactly what Jon’s asking about. Who cares if God’s there, if he’s not knowable? The other familiar anti-academic theological phrase that applies is “As above, so below” (attributed to Hermes).

    Creation is MORE than a sign, it’s also a symbol—an important distinction I would expect academic theologians to be tone-deaf to.

    Isn’t all of creation sacramental? Christians traditionally restored order, however momentarily, through participation in the sacraments and rejection of sin (the symbol/sacrament of Chrismation includes spitting on the devil).

  6. nonnusmatt on

    Okay, “all of creation is sacramental” is just lazy. This is what I mean: The world is not God, but God is infinite so everything that is must be included in God. Things are images of God, a kind of extension of him, but are not to be confused, of course, with anything like his essence. They’re just images, but images that can help us know him. I’ve heard the famous aphorism of Athanasius (God became man, so that man might become God) paraphrased “Reality has entered into nothingness, so that nothingness might become real.”

    What this amounts to, perhaps, is what Seyyed Nasr has said about Augustine: he is concerned with a knowledge that is more volitive than contemplative. I’m just very clumsily trying to provide a sort of contemplative counterpoint.

  7. jeffreimer on


    I wouldn’t say that Augustine is “belaboring” the distinction between omnipresence and panentheism. Augustine in this quote is speculating as a way of preparing to address God and to invite him to correctly guide his writing. I am belaboring the distinction as a way of trying to put this isolated quote into the larger context of Augustine’s thought. Augustine had been a Neoplatonist, according to which the world is a series of divine emanations. This is textbook panentheism. After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine slowly corrected his view to see the supernatural order as completely distinct from the natural, created order. When he says “you draw us up to yourself,” there’s still an element of Neoplatonism there, but God draws us into participation with his being, he doesn’t draw out the divine that we already have within ourselves. This isn’t to say that any kind of restlessness for the divine (nuance and complexity arising from the simple, supposedly inchoate laws of the physical universe) is alien to Augustine – it’s essential to the Confessions – but there’s a rift that needs to be overcome instead of tapping into something intrinsic to our nature.

    Modern theologians continue to distinguish it because a bunch of Germans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (to crassly and grossly oversimplify) started talking about theology as a way of describing human experience. Whether God exists may even be irrelevant, because when we talk about “God” we are really only talking about human constructions. I don’t deny that religion or Christianity is a human construction, but there’s more to it than simply talking about ourselves. This, I think, is a kind of perverted panentheism, a secularized panentheism in which the “spark of the divine” is a way of talking about the mystery of human consciousness.


    I think the rest of the Confessions speaks to what you’re saying. The first book comprises many of these meandering, speculative paragraphs as a way of setting up Augustine’s narrative in books 2-10. His whole idea of anamnesis, though, is bound up in remembering rightly. So he spends some time “invoking the muse” as it were (actually, it’s an extended modification of exactly that convention of classical literature). In other words, if he’s going to remember rightly, he asks who this God is that he is invoking for help. As well as what he is and where he is. The rest of the Confessions could actually be read as an answer to exactly your question. He wants to know why his desires were so skewed. Why he was piddling around with sex and pagan philosophy when his real desire was participation in the being of the triune God. The climax of the book is a mystical encounter in which he and his mother are caught up in an ecstatic vision of the sublime and ineffable reality of God. How’s that for volitive?


    I think we’re saying the same thing. When I talk about the sacramental participation of creation in the supernatural, you say “panentheism.” Maybe omnipresence isn’t the right concept to oppose it to, but what I’m ephasizing is the ontological divide between God and creation. As you say, created things “are not to be confused, of course, with anything like his essence.” Athanasius’s maxim does not mean that man becomes the triune God – it means that man becomes divine in the sense that he takes part mystically in God’s being. Even if a person were perfected, which Orthodox doctrine teaches we can, that person would still not be God in the sense of overcoming his or her finite personhood. Reality entering into nothingness is culminated in Christ’s incarnation. His perfection of human nature is what makes participation in the divine nature possible. Humans become real by, in evangelical language, becoming like Christ.

    I can’t comment directly on Seyyed Nasr’s evaluation, but what is the Confessions if not a contemplative mystical treatise? Or at least the synthesis of volition and contemplation?

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