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What is Pantheism?

Is the Universe or Nature God?

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The term pantheism is built upon the Greek roots pan, which means all, and theos, which mens god; thus, pantheism is either the belief that the universe is God and worthy of worship, or that God is the sum total of all there is and that the combined substances, forces, and natural laws which we see around us are but manifestations of God.

There are several named categories of pantheism that can be found in academic literature:

Panpsychism: Nature as a whole is imbued with a consciousness.

Theomonistic Pantheism: Only God exists and the independent existence of nature is denied - also referred to as acosmism (a-cos-mism, or "no-world")

Physiomonistic Pantheism: Only nature or the universe exist, but they are referred to with the term "God" - thus, God is denied having independent existence.

Immanent-Transcendant Pantheism: God works through and is revealed through nature (also sometimes called Idealism).

Transcendental or Mystical Pantheism: Most common form of panentheism, explained below.

It should be clear that there is a great deal of variety within the pantheistic tradition - far too much variety to allow us to make many generalizations about pantheists overall or pantheism as a whole. Many common beliefs which are often associated with pantheism - like reincarnation or an afterlife - are actually only features of culturally specific manifestations of certain forms of pantheism.

One generalization which might be made, however, is that in truly pantheistic belief systems, only God exists and all that exists is God. Although there are a number of differences among the different forms of pantheism, most argue that the totality of reality - you, the computer, everything - is a part of God. Slightly modified versions might argue that the universe itself or perhaps the laws of nature are God while objects such as us and the computer are manifestations of those laws and principles.

Sometimes there can be confusion between pantheism and polytheism because some pantheists use polytheism as a metaphoric way of approaching the cosmic divinity they believe in. Some simply feel the need for symbols and personages to mediate their relationship with nature and the cosmos. Pantheists can, however, also relate directly to the universe and to nature, without the need for any intermediary symbols or deities.

Early Pantheism
Pantheism can be thought of as a natural development of animism, arguing that everything is part of a universal spirit rather than that everything has spirits. On the other hand, pantheism has also tended to resist the personal and anthropomorphic depictions which typify the spirits in animism - and not all pantheists have regarded the "god" of the universe to be spiritual in nature.

Anaximander of Miletos, for example, was very much a materialistic pantheist. On the other hand Xenophanes, one of the founders of the Eleatic school of philosophy, argued for pantheism from observations of the unity of nature; while he did not ascribe a personality to nature itself, he did ascribe to it a spiritual quality which was more "real" than the material world we see around us. This anti-materialistic form of pantheism would become the dominant form until the modern era.

Pantheism is also associated with the Egyptian religion when Ra, Isis, and Osiris were identified with all existence. The pantheism of Hinduism, however, is much more widely known and recognized. Here, the impersonal source of all existence is Brahman. The separation of everything into different objects and persons is but a mere illusion - the true reality is the spiritual, incorporeal, and impersonal reality of Brahman, a reality that we can really know nothing about.

Indeed, some of the earliest evidence of pantheism can be found in the Vedas of Brahmanism, perhaps the oldest existing religion, dating back to 1000 BCE. There are also forms of modern Christianity which describe God as the "ground of all being," a very impersonal and non-anthropomorphic characterization.

Pantheism & Christianity
Although it may not be immediately obvious, pantheistic considerations and principles have had an important impact on the development of Christian theology. This is because pantheism played a significant role in Greek philosophy, and much of that in turn would be incorporated into Christianity during the early and medieval periods.

The specific means by which this occurred was through the Neoplatonism. This was a school of Greek philosophy which began under the leadership of Plotinus in the 3rd century CE and which furthered development many of the ideas originally ascribed to Plato. According to Plotinus, true reality originated in an indescribable One from which the rest of the universe emanated as a sequence of lesser beings. Christian adherents of Neoplatonism identified the One as God. One of the most important of the Christian neoplatonists was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, whose work was very influential in the Middle Ages. Many other early Christian theologians, including Augustine, were also deeply influenced by arguments and ideas of Neoplatonism.

Although pantheism has played an important role in the development of the Christian doctrine of God as creator of the universe and immanent in the universe, explicit pantheism has been rejected by orthodox Christian theologians for three reasons. First, even though some forms of pantheism have been personal and anthropocentric in nature, most tend towards a very impersonal concept of God which is at odds with the Christian belief that God is a person with personal attributes.

Second, pantheism requires a rejection of the doctrine that God is transcendent to and creator of all existence. Christian theology has long had difficulty dealing with the dual doctrines of transcendence and immanence because taken to the logical extremes, each excludes the possibility of the other even though traditional Christian doctrine requires both be true. Although a resolution to this tension by eliminating one or the other might be appealing to some, Christianity has consistently rejected such a choice as heretical.

Thirdly, pantheism tends to exclude the possibilities of both human and divine freedom. The association of God with nature and with natural laws would suggest that God has no freedom to do other than what those laws predict - God cannot, for example, suddenly cause gravity to work backwards without ceasing to be Nature. At the same time, if all humans are incorporated within God and are part of God, then it is difficult to understand where and how we might have moral responsibility for our actions. Indeed, does it even make sense to abhor the presence of evil when that, too, is a part of God?

Modern Pantheism
The term pantheist itself seems to have been coined in 1705 by John Toland in his book "Socinianism Truly Stated" to describe someone who believes that everything is God. On this basis in 1732, the Christian apologist Daniel Waterland used the noun "pantheism" for the first time, condemning the belief as "scandalously bad... scarce differing from... Atheism."

Nevertheless, many philosophers through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries adopted pantheism in some form, including Spinoza, Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling. It was Spinoza, however, who developed one of the most systematic explanations and arguments for pantheism, writing that God and Nature were but two words for the exact same thing and that nothing could possibly exist outside of that single, unlimited substance.

The sentiment of pantheism has had a powerful influenced the thoughts and works of poets, philosophers, mystics, and extremely spiritual people. Notable among pantheistic poets are Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Emerson. Many modern poets consider pantheism as part of their worldview. However, this poetic form of pantheism never developed into a formal doctrine.

Scientific Pantheism
Those pantheists today who argue that the universe is their god tend to be naturalistic or scientific pantheists. When scientific pantheists say they revere the universe, they are not talking about a supernatural being whom they worship. Instead, they are referring to the way human senses and our emotions force us to respond to the overwhelming mystery and power that surrounds us.

When the attribute of worship is removed, however, the validity of labeling the natural universe as "god" is often called into question. There seems to be some grounds for the challenge because this "god" is very unlike the gods normally worshipped in the West, and its only purpose appears to be to express some emotional connection or reaction to the universe at large.

On the other hand, our experiences with anthropomorphic and personal gods in the West should not blind us to the fact that there are many different ways to define the term. Impersonal and non-anthropomorphic gods can be found in many traditions. In Islam, anthropomorphism is considered blasphemous and Allah is described as totally unlike anything else in existence.

Problems in Pantheism
Pantheism has obviously exerted a strong attraction for many people throughout human history. There are many reasons for this - for example, it allows one to get past many of the difficult problems associated with anthropocentric gods whose personalities and even personhood seem to conflict with reality as we experience it.

Pantheism can suffer from certain problems, however. The acceptance of the presence of God everywhere and in everything comes at the tremendous cost of making God the sole and only actor. Nothing and no one else exists. If we love God, it is really only God loving God - in other words, an instance of narcissism.

On the other hand, if absolutely everything is believed to be a part of God, then there is the possible contradiction that God can simultaneously be aware of something and not be aware of something (i.e., when children do not know something but their parents do). The only way to resolve that would be to deny that the children "really" lack knowledge or that they "really" exist at all, neither of which are very satisfying answers.

Another problem stems from the question of why exactly we would need to apply the label "god" to the universe itself. We already have a perfectly good term: "universe." What new information does "god" supply? At most it might describe a person's emotional reaction to the universe, but that seems to cause unnecessary confusion with more common uses of the word "god."

A final problem comes from the issue of good and evil. If the pantheistic god is the sum of its parts, then it is certainly responsible for all the good which is done and is much more good than any one person. However, it is also responsible for all the evil committed and is much more wicked than any one person. All of the good in this god cannot acquit it of the incredible evil which has occurred. What does it say about the nature and quality of this "god" if we see this god in the horrible suffering and pain which creatures on this planet experience?


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