Pantheism

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Pantheism (Greek: πάν ( 'pan' ) = all and θεός ( 'theos' ) = God) literally means "God is All" and "All is God". It is a religious and philosophical doctrine that everything is of an all-encompassing immanent abstract God; or that the universe, or nature, and God are equivalent. More detailed definitions tend to emphasize the idea that natural law, existence, and the universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) is represented or personified in the theological principle of an abstract 'god'.

Critics argue that the most abstract forms of pantheism are little more than a redefinition of the word "God" to mean "existence", "life" or "reality". Pope Pius IX, for example, declared as heretical the pantheistic teachings that "[t]here is no supreme, all-wise and all-provident Divine Being distinct from the universe; God is one with nature and therefore subject to change; He becomes God in man and the world; all things are God and have His substance; God is identical with the world, spirit with matter, necessity with freedom, truth with falsity, good with evil, justice with injustice." Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins similarly declared in his most direct attack on religion, The God Delusion, that "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism."

Origins

The concept that God was equal to the world, or that the world originates from the substance of God, arose early in the philosophy of India. It is generally asserted that Hindu religious texts were the oldest known literature to contained these ideas.[1]. In Hindu theology, Brahman is the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all things in this universe, and is also the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. This pantheistic doctrine is traceable from some of the more ancient Upanishads to later Advaita philosophy.

All Mahāvākyas (Great Sayings) of the Upanishads, in one way or another, seem to indicate the unity of the world with the Brahman. Chāndogya Upanishad says "All this universe indeed is Brahma; from him does it proceed; into him it is dissolved; in him it breathes, so let every one adore him calmly". It further says:

This whole is Brahma, from Brahma to a clod of earth. Brahma is both the efficient and the material cause of the world. He is the potter by whom the vase is formed; he is the clay from which it is fabricated. Everything proceeds from him, without waste or diminution of the source, as light radiates from sun. Everything merges into him again, as bubbles bursting mingle with air-as rivers fall into the ocean. Everything proceeds from and returns to him, as the web of the spider is emitted from and retracted into itself."[2]

In the hymns of the Rigveda, a pantheistic strain of thought may be discernible in the tenth book (10-121).

In the Western world, pantheistic thought is commonly attributed to various philosophers of Ancient Greece such as the by Thales, Parmenides and Heraclitus, his followers among the Eleatics and the Stoics, and Xenophanes of Colophon. These thinkers flourished in the Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.E., but although they put forward a wide variety of ideas about the divine nature of matter, none proposed an explicitly pantheist system. The particular contribution of Heraclitus was to reject the stability of matter and insist that all things were physical manifestations of the logos, a principle that guides the divine fire of the universe. The Stoics transferred this sense of a physical manifestation of the divine from the logos to the pnuema the physical substance of the world itself.

The Eleatics (with whom Xenophanes is sometimes counted) explained all existence in terms of primary matter, and echoed Heraclitus in declaring that all existence may be summed up as perpetual change. The Eleatics maintained that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being. According to their doctrine, the senses cannot cognize this unity, because their reports are inconsistent; it is by thought alone that we can pass beyond the false appearances of sense and arrive at the knowledge of being, at the fundamental truth that the All is One. Furthermore, there can be no creation, for being cannot come from non-being, a thing cannot arise from that which is different from it.

Xenophanes himself was noted for developing the concept of a "one god greatest among gods and men" that is abstract, universal, unchanging, immobile and always present. However, despite his attacks on the polytheism of the age, and despite various allusions to the divine connectedness of things in the universe, Xenophanes did not lay out a clear vision of his own conception of this one God.

Despite the efforts of these philosophers, the development of Western thought remained invested in polytheism, eventually transitioning to a monotheism which explicitly defined God as a creator who preceded the universe, and who remained transcendent, governing over it and imposing his will from without. Jewish backgrounds for pantheism are sometimes characterized as reaching back to the Torah itself in its account of creation in Genesis and its earlier prophetic material in which clearly "acts of nature" [such as floods, storms, volcanoes, etc.] are all identified as "God's hand" through personification idioms, thus explaining the open references to the concept in both New Testament and Kabalistic literature. However, this position is at least debatable, and may be argued with equal force that the Hebrews had merely adopted as their own the leading god from the pantheon of one of their polytheistic neighbors.

Although some early strains of Christianity, particularly Gnosticism expressed pantheistic ideas, the dominant position in Christianity was to reject pantheism in favor of theism. Early in the Fifth Century, Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine) critically examined pantheism in City of God:

Ought not men of intelligence, and indeed men of every kind, to be stirred up to examine the nature of this opinion? For there is no need of excellent capacity for this task, that putting away the desire of contention, they may observe that if God is the soul of the world, and the world is as a body to Him, who is the soul, He must be one living being consisting of soul and body, and that this same God is a kind of womb of nature containing all things in Himself, so that the lives and souls of all living things are taken, according to the manner of each one’s birth, out of His soul which vivifies that whole mass, and therefore nothing at all remains which is not a part of God.[3]

Augustine thoroughly rejected the concept, with this rejection being grounded in part with the problem of God being subjected to indignities that occur in the material world.

And if this is so, who cannot see what impious and irreligious consequences follow, such as that whatever one may trample, he must trample a part of God, and in slaying any living creature, a part of God must be slaughtered? But I am unwilling to utter all that may occur to those who think of it, yet cannot be spoken without irreverence.[4]

Another objection raised by Augustine is that no condemnation of immorality is possible under a pantheistic God, as such immorality would also then be part of God:

Concerning the rational animal himself,—that is, man,—what more unhappy belief can be entertained than that a part of God is whipped when a boy is whipped? And who, unless he is quite mad, could bear the thought that parts of God can become lascivious, iniquitous, impious, and altogether damnable? In brief, why is God angry at those who do not worship Him, since these offenders are parts of Himself?[5]

Once Christianity became ascendant, and severe sanctions were imposed for deviating from it, attempts to discuss pantheism in Europe over the following centuries were effectively ended. A notable exception may be found in the Ninth Century work of John Scottus Erigena, who attempted to propose a pantheistic Christian God. However, Erigena's work was not well circulated, and when it eventually reached the attention of the Church of Rome (long after Erigina's death) it was banned as heresy.

Resurgence in the Sixteenth Century

In the Sixteenth Century, several thinkers articulated a pantheist vision and were harshly oppressed by the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions. For example, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic, his tongue first being nailed to the roof of his mouth to prevent him from speaking heresy during his execution; Jakob Böhme was exiled from his country; and Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from his Jewish community. However, the Protestant Reformation had created some opportunities for the presentation of novel theological ideas. Alfred Schopenhauer wrote:

On the whole, one might be surprised that even in the seventeenth century pantheism did not gain a complete victory over theism; for the most original, finest, and most thorough European expositions of it (none of them, of course, will bear comparison with the Upanishads of the Vedas) all came to light at that period, namely through Bruno, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Scotus Erigena. After Scotus Erigena had been lost and forgotten for many centuries, he was again discovered at Oxford and in 1681, thus four years after Spinoza's death, his work first saw the light in print. This seems to prove that the insight of individuals cannot make itself felt so long as the spirit of the age is not ripe to receive it. Alfred Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real"

Although the concept had been presented in different forms by the 1700s, the word "pantheism" was applied only in that century. Irish writer John Toland is thought to be the first to have used the term "pantheist" in his 1705 work, Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist. As strictures on religious innovation became harder to maintain, pantheism came to enjoy a certain vogue in Europe. In 1785, a major controversy called Pantheismusstreit (the pantheism controversy) began between Friedrich Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn, which eventually involved many important people of the time. Jacobi claimed that Lessing's pantheism was materialistic in that it thought of all Nature and God as one extended substance. For Jacobi, this was the result of the Enlightenment's devotion to reason and it would lead to atheism. Mendelssohn disagreed by asserting that pantheism was the same as theism.

Pantheism continued to flourish, such that in 1851 Schopenhauer was able to say that pantheism "has become the dominant mode of thought of scholars and even of educated people." Schopenhauer asserted that this had occurred "because Kant had preceded it with his overthrow of theistic dogmatism and had cleared the way for it, whereby the spirit of the age was ready for it, just as a ploughed field is ready for the seed."[6]

Varieties of pantheism

In the modern period, three divergent groups of pantheists are recognized:

The vast majority of persons who can be identified as "pantheistic" are of the classical variety (such as Hindus, Jews, Sufis, Unitarians, Etc.), while most persons who self-identify as "pantheist" alone (rather than as members of another religion) are of the naturalistic variety. The division between the three "flavours" of pantheism are not entirely clear in all situations, and remains a source of some controversy in pantheist circles. Classical pantheists generally accept the religious doctrine that there is a spiritual basis to all reality, while naturalistic pantheists generally do not and thus see the world in somewhat atheistic terms. Confusion between the concepts of pantheism and atheism may be an ancient problem in linguistics. Rome referred to early Christians as Atheists, and the explanations of this semantic phenomenon vary, one of which references the confusion between these two concepts.

Methods of explanation

An oft-cited feature of pantheism is that each individual human, being part of the universe or nature, is part of God. One issue discussed by pantheists is how, if this is so, humans can have free will. In answer, the following analogy is sometimes given (particularly by classical pantheists): "you are to God as an individual blood cell in your vein is to you." The analogy further maintains that while a cell may be aware of its own environs, and even has some choices (free will) between right and wrong (killing a bacterium, becoming malignant, or perhaps just doing nothing, among countless others), it likely has little conception of the greater being of which it is a part. Another way to understand this relationship is through the Hindu phrase, tat tvam asi - "that thou art," wherein the human soul/self or Atman is understood to be the same as God or Brahman - only people do not realize it. In this Hindu context, they believe that one must be liberated through enlightenment (moksha) in order to experience and fully understand this relationship - the part becomes no longer dissimilar from the whole.

Not all pantheists accept the idea of free will, with determinism being particularly widespread among naturalistic pantheists. Although individual interpretations of pantheism may suggest certain implications for the nature and existence of free will and/or determinism, pantheism itself does not include any requirement of belief either way. However, the issue is widely discussed, as it is in many other religions and philosophies.

Debate

Perhaps the most significant debate within the pantheistic community is about the nature of God. Classical pantheism believes in a personal, conscious, and omniscient God, and sees this God as uniting all true religions. Naturalistic pantheism believes in an unconscious, non-sentient universe, which, while being holy and beautiful, is seen as being a God in a non-traditional and impersonal sense.

Cosmotheism, a small but controversial racialist group which considers itself a form of pantheism, has an evolutionary interpretation of God, seeing God to be impersonal, but not taking a clear stance as to its sentience. "Cosmotheism", like the terms "pantheism", "monotheism", and "polytheism", was not used in antiquity. The term seems to have been coined by Lamoignon de Malesherbes in 1782 with regard to Pliny the Elder; various scholars have used it since then, but to refer to different sorts of religious belief.

The viewpoints encompassed within the pantheistic community are necessarily diverse, but the central idea of the universe being an all-encompassing unity and the sanctity of both nature and its natural laws are found throughout. Some pantheists also posit a common purpose for nature and man, while others reject the idea of purpose and view existence as existing "for its own sake."

Pantheistic concepts in religion

Hinduism

The Hindu concept of God continues to present one unity, with the individual personal Gods being aspects of the One; thus, different deities are seen by different adherents as particularly well suited to their worship. As the sun has rays of light which emanate from the same source, the same holds true for the multifaceted aspects of God emanating from Brahman, like many colors of the same prism. Vedanta, specifically, Advaita, is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Most Vedantic adherents are monists or "non-dualists" (i.e. Advaita Vedanta), seeing multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being, a view which is often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheistic.

Pantheism is a key component of Advaita philosophy. Other subdivisions of Vedanta do not strictly hold this tenet. For example, Dvaita school of Madhva holds Brahman to be external personal God Vishnu, whereas the theistic school of Ramanuja espouses panentheism.

Judaism

In Biblical and rabbinic literature, God is typically understood as a personal God who creates and stands radically apart from nature. As Marvin Fox states, "...there are almost no instances of pure pantheism within the normative Jewish tradition, though pantheistic tendencies have appeared at times." (EJ 7:672) Indeed, pantheism has been treated as a form of heresy. "Authoritative Jewish theology, both mediaeval and modern," according to Gershom Scholem (p.38), "in representatives like Saadia, Maimonides and Hermann Cohen, has taken upon itself the task of formulating an antithesis to pantheism and mystical theology, i.e., to prove them wrong." As a result, traditional theistic language is often used even by those Jewish mystics and philosophers who lean toward a pantheistic approach. (EJ 7:673, Scholem)

In the Jewish mystical tradition Kabbalah, there are texts and practices that emphasize a radically immanent sense of the divine. (See Scholem, Major Trends in JEwish Mysticism)

Ironically, the Jewish thinker most closely associated with pantheism was excommunicated: Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza's formulation of pantheism owes as less to the Jewish tradition than to philosophical tradition. Arthur Schopenhauer asserted that Spinoza's pantheism was a result of his reading of Malebranche:

[Malebranche] teaches that we see all things in God himself. This is certainly equivalent to explaining something unknown by something even more unknown. Moreover, according to him, we see not only all things in God, but God is also the sole activity therein, so that physical causes are so only apparently; they are merely occasional causes. (Recherches de la vérité, Livre VI, seconde partie, chap. 3.) And so here we have essentially the pantheism of Spinoza who appears to have learned more from Malebranche than from Descartes. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real"

Additionally, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had a mystical sense of the divine that could be described as panentheism. {source}

Christianity

A number of minority traditions within and around historical Christianity trace the origins of their pantheistic beliefs to the New Testament and other related ecclesiastical traditions. The diversity of this view extends from early Quakers, to later Unitarians, to as far as within the traditional Catholic and Liberal Protestant main-line denominations themselves.

Other sources include Process theology, Creation Spirituality, the Brethren of the Free Spirit and some would claim its presence among the gnostics. The idea has had adherents within segments of Christianity for some time.

Christian pantheists, who appeal to its Biblical form, assert its origin is found throughout the scriptures, from the Old Testament to the New Testament and reconciles the difficulties which Roman theologians erroneously attempted to "solve" in the Roman councils concerning both the Trinity and the Nature of Christ as the Logos. As only pantheism provides both an expression of Christ as the "Logos" of God, and the unity of Monotheism. The Biblical equation of God to acts of nature, and the definition of God within the New Testament itself, all provide the basis of appeal to this belief system.

The Biblical passage Acts 17:28 is cited in favor of this position:

For in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring.

It is maintained by Christian pantheists, that the Catholic definition of God was heavily influenced by non-biblical sources and was dominated by Neo-platonism, rendering the definition of God as something which "exists" outside of "existence", thus rendering the definition of "God" as something which "does not exist". That is, a non-existent God. It is this basic definition of God into Neo-Platonic non-existence that Christian pantheists find unbiblical and objectionable.

Islam

Most Muslims condemn the concept of pantheism in Islam and state that it is an un-Islamic teaching. However, Sufism is believed by some non-Sufi Muslims to have pantheistic teachings.

Sufism can be divided into the following categories:

  • Indigenous Sufism - Syncretisitic: Merges doctrines and concepts from Islam with local religious beliefs and practices ranging from Eastern to Western to local "folk" micro-religions. Very diverse and found predominantly in non-Islamic countries, east and west.
  • Hadith Sufism - Traditional: Islam with an emphasis on orthodox forms of Islamic spirituality and mysticism. Essentially orthodox and found predominantly as a subculture within Islamic countries. Sunni or Shia.
  • Qur'anic Sufism - Qur'anic: Stresses Islamic practice as given in the Qur'an including prophetism and does not accept the later Hadiths from tradition as equally inspired. Considered non-orthodox or a form of neo-orthodox and found primarily in the west. Influenced by the western Protestant concept of reformation and restoration as applied to Islam. Neither Sunni nor Shi'a as both are forms of Hadith.

Pantheism may be randomly found in any of the above groups as Sufism, unlike majority orthodox Islam, is very diverse and emphasizes personal and individual spiritual experience and understanding. The sources of pantheistic interpretation would differ in each case according to the tradition it follows. Indigenous Sufism would be obviously influenced by eastern texts, Hadith Sufism would be influenced by Islamic scholars from Sulaiman period, and Qur'anic Sufis would see the Qur'an itself as the continuing revelation and interpret personification linguistics is the same manner as consistent with previous Biblical prophets.

Other religions

There are many elements of pantheism in philosophical Taoism, some forms of Buddhism and Quakerism, Neopaganism, and Theosophy along with many varying denominations and individuals within and without denominations.

Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves pantheists.

Paul Carus called himself "an atheist who loves God", and advocated "henism", which is often seen as monist or pantheist in nature.

Related developments

Several efforts have been made to combine pantheism with other philosophical traditions, in order to derive theories that might better explain the nature of God.

Panentheism

Panentheism was developed by German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1828, in an effort to reconcile pantheism with monotheism. It proposes that the universe is part of God, but that God is greater than nature alone. Some find this distinction unhelpful, while others see it as a significant point of division. Many of the major faiths described as pantheistic could also be described as panentheistic, whereas naturalistic pantheism cannot (not seeing God as more than nature alone). For example, elements of both panentheism and pantheism are found in Hinduism. Certain interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and Shri Rudram support this view. In the 1960s, this derivation was promoted by theologian Charles Hartshorne, a follower of Alfred North Whitehead.

Cosmotheism

While the term is rarely used, and is most often simply a synonym for pantheism, this unusual philosophy has been used rather differently, but in all cases, the feeling was that God was something created by man, perhaps even an end state of human evolution, through social planning, eugenics and other forms of genetic engineering.

H. G. Wells subscribed to a form of Cosmotheism, which he called the "world brain" (from a book of essays by the same name he printed in 1937, one of which details the creation of a Library-encyclopedia hybrid), and detailed even more in his book God the Invisible King (in which he proscribes mankind to set up a socialist system, structuring itself on social and genetic statistics, education, and eugenics, ideally someday equating itself and possibly even merging with and conquering the pantheist god itself. See: Omega Point) and there were also some sections of his work Outline of History, which reflected this belief and his finding it in the teachings of Jesus Christ and Siddhartha. His book Shape of Things to Come (and the 1936 film Things to Come) also reflects this, in which mankind, surviving a Nuclear war and an extended Feudal period, unites to form a collectivist Utopia.

In modern Israel, Cosmotheism was described by Mordekhay Nesiyahu, one of the foremost ideologists of the Israeli Labor Movement and a lecturer in its college Beit Berl. He felt that God was something which did not exist before man, and was a secular entity which the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem had an instrumental role in "invent[ing]".

In the 20th century United States, William Pierce, a White nationalist associated with the American Nazi Party and founder of the National Alliance also utilised the term "Cosmotheism". In his eyes (similar to H. G. Wells'), God would be the end result of eugenics and racial hygiene (See: Nazism, Francis Galton and Theosophy).

Vladimir Vernadsky's and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's "Noosphere" could be referenced as a description of the Cosmotheist deity, as does Emile Durkheim's Collective consciousness and Carl Jung's collective unconscious.

Arthur C. Clarke makes a possible reference to the Cosmotheist Noosphere in his 1953 book Childhood's End, referring to it as the "Overmind".

Pandeism

Pandeism, coined by German philosophers Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal in 1859, incorporates principles of deism with pantheism, holding that the universe is identical to God, but also that God preceded the universe, and designed and created it. God then became an unconscious or non-interfering God by becoming the universe. Other than this distinction (and the possibility that the Universe will one day return to the state of being God), pandeistic beliefs are identical to pantheism.

Ethics

Schopenhauer echoes one criticism leveled by Augustine in contending that pantheism has no ethics:

All pantheism must ultimately be shipwrecked on the inescapable demands of ethics, and then on the evil and suffering of the world. If the world is a theophany, then everything done by man, and even by animal, is equally divine and excellent; nothing can be more censurable and nothing more praiseworthy than anything else; hence there is no ethics. The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVII

However, some pantheists hold that the pantheist viewpoint is the most ethical viewpoint, pointing out that any harm done to another is doing harm to oneself because what harms one harms all. What is good and evil isn't the mandate of something outside of us, but as a result of the way we are all interconnected. Instead of good choices being based on fear of divine punishment, it comes from a mutual respect from all things.

Traditional forms and definitions of pantheism, would however, reference their classical bodies of sacred texts and teachers for definitions of ethics.

Notes

  1. General Sketch of the History of pantheism p. 29
  2. Chandogya Upanishad 3-14 Williams Translation
  3. City of God Book 4 Chapter 12
  4. City of God Book 4 Chapter 12
  5. City of God Book 4 Chapter 13,
  6. Alfred Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real"

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