Pantheism (from Greek: pan = all, and theos = God) refers to the religious and philosophical view that everything in existence is of an all-encompassing immanent God, or that the universe, or nature, and God are equivalent (i.e., that "all is God"). There are two types of pantheism: "classical" and "naturalistic" pantheism. In equating the universe with God, classical pantheism does not strongly redefine or minimize either term, still believing in a personal God, while naturalistic pantheism redefines them, treating God as rather impersonal, as in the philosophy of Spinoza. In any case, what is stressed is the idea that all existence in the universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) is of the same essence as the divine. Pantheists, then, typically deny God's transcendence. The problem of evil, which is a problem for theism, is not a problem for pantheism in the same way, since pantheism rejects the theistic notion of God as omnipotent and perfectly good.
The term "pantheism" is a relatively recent one, first used by Irish writer John Toland in his 1705 work, Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist. Although concepts similar to pantheism have been discussed as long ago as the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers, they have only recently been categorized as such retrospectively by modern academics. Despite its lack of mainstream support, many followers of pantheism believe that their ideas concerning God are needed as a corrective in the way humans think about God and themselves.
Religious and philosophical scholarship typically distinguishes between two kinds of pantheism: 1) "classical pantheism," which equates the world with God without strongly redefining or minimizing either term, as in many religious and philosophical traditions such as Hinduism, Platonism, and Judaism; and 2) "naturalistic pantheism," which equates the world and God by redefining them in a non-traditional, impersonal way, as in the relatively recent views of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and John Toland (1670-1722) as well as contemporary scientific theorists. So, classical pantheists generally accept the premise that there is a spiritual basis to all reality, while naturalistic pantheists generally do not. The vast majority of persons who can be identified as "pantheistic" are of the classical type, while most persons who do not belong to a religion but identify themselves as "pantheist" are typically of the naturalistic type.
The division between the two types of pantheism remains a source of some controversy in pantheist circles. The nature of pantheism has been a topic of much contention in religious and philosophical discourse, spurring many debates over the implications of its doctrines. However, most pantheists agree on the following two principles: 1) that the universe is an all-encompassing unity; and 2) that natural laws are found throughout the universe. Some pantheists also posit a common purpose for nature and humanity, while others reject the idea of teleology and view the universe as existing for its own sake.
An oft-cited feature of classical pantheism is that each individual human, as a part of the universe or nature, is a part of God. This raises the question of whether or not humans possess free will. In response to this question, variations of the following analogy are sometimes given by classical pantheists: "You are to God, as an individual blood cell in your vein is to you." The analogy maintains that while a cell may be aware of its own environs and may even have some choices (free will) between right and wrong (such as killing a bacterium, becoming cancerous, or perhaps just doing nothing among countless others), it likely has little awareness of the fact that it is also determined by the greater being of which it is a part. Another way to understand this relationship is the Hindu concept of Jiva, wherein the human soul is an aspect of God not yet having reached enlightenment (moksha), after which it becomes Atman. However, it should be noted that not all pantheists accept the idea of free will, with determinism being particularly widespread among naturalistic pantheists.
A common criticism of pantheism is that it, especially of the naturalistic type, can be reduced to atheism. Rudolf Otto, a famed Christian theologian, claimed that pantheism denies the personality of the deity, and therefore represents disbelief in the traditional concept of God. Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer commented that by referring to the natural world as "God," pantheists are merely creating a synonym for the world, and therefore denying the essence of God and rendering their belief atheistic. However, pantheists reply to these arguments by claiming that such criticisms are rooted in a mindset holding that God must be anthropomorphic. Pantheists such as Michael Levine see this kind of presupposition as "stipulative" and illustrative of an attitude that "unduly restricts the extent to which alternative theories of deity can be formulated." Even among the pantheists themselves are similar questions about the nature of God. Classical pantheism believes in a personal and conscious God who unites all being. Naturalistic pantheism, in contrast, does not believe so.
Pantheism should not be confused with some other closely related concepts in religious classification. Most notably, the relationship between pantheism and panentheism, (which is considered to have two different types), needs to be clarified. There is definitely a pantheistic element in the panentheism of the type which holds that the universe is contained within God as a part of God. Obviously, both pantheism and the panentheism of this type consider the universe to be of the same ontological essence as God. The difference is that pantheism equates the universe with the whole God, while the panentheism of the type in question considers it to be only a part of God. The former conceives God to be synonymous with nature, while the latter conceives God to be greater than nature alone. The latter, then, is partially pantheistic. Thus, many of the major faiths described as panentheistic (such as Hinduism) could also be described as pantheistic. Although some find this distinction unhelpful, others see it as a significant point of division. Needless to say, not pantheistic at all is the panentheism of another type, which clearly sees the ontological distinction, and no ontological overlapping, between the universe and God, when it argues for their mutual immanence in each other.
Pantheism should not be confounded with monism, either. Monism refers to the metaphysical and theological view that the totality of existence is derived from a single, uniform essence, principle, substance or energy; so, it is often seen as synonymous with pantheism. However, pantheism can be differentiated from monism since, for the pantheist, the essence which underlies the universe is distinctly identified as divine. Whereas a monistic explanation could reduce all things to a non-spiritual principle (such as in materialist theories which reduce all phenomena to physical processes), pantheist beliefs always conceive reality as singularly infused with the divine.
The ancient Greeks were among the first to lay out pantheistic doctrines, at least in philosophical form. Among the physicists and philosophers of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., monistic uniformity became a popular concept. These thinkers commonly noted the idea that all things must spring from some common source. Such a primordial substance was sometimes vaguely described as alive or animate in nature. Anaximenes believed it to be air; Thales thought the substance was water. Later on, Aetius interpreted Thales to mean that the god in all things was the divine energy of the water and hence, such an idea could be interpreted as an inchoate form of pantheism. In the works of Anaximander, this concept became more obvious, as the author proposed the existence of an uncreated and indestructible being which was indeterminate, yet had all things embedded within it. This being embraced all things and ruled them all; thus, it could be classified as divine and therefore pantheistic. Diogenes of Appolloni furthered these pantheistic tendencies by claiming that reason must dwell in the air, since the air travels everywhere and is present in all things.
For Pythagoreans, all things were ruled by mathematics and geometry; so, they saw numbers to constitute the essence of all things, responsible for the harmony in the world. Xenophanes believed God to be changeless, undestroyable and unified in all things. This unity was endowed with infinite intelligence, and Xenophanes called this unity "God." The world of plurality, he contended, was merely a manifestation of this great changeless entity. Heraclitus also stressed the process of transformation as the essence of reality, claiming that all things are merely forms of a great primordial substance, which he reduced to "fire." The change upon which all things' existence is dependent, Heraclitus claimed, was simply the act of divine wisdom taking action in the material world. Heraclitus claimed that humans could never truly know of this great force, although it was in them at all times. Plato often referred to the world as a "blessed god," conceiving of God as the supreme, ideal form embracing all other forms within itself. That is, it represented a unity comprehending in itself all the true essences of things. Each idea as well, Plato conceived to be a unity that comprehends the many manifestations of matter within itself. All ideas are comprehended in the supreme idea of the Good, of which the entire world is a manifestation. However, Plato's ideas cannot be called true pantheism as there is an implicit dualism proposed between good and evil, precluding the possibility that these moral categories originate from a common same source.
It was among the school of Stoicism that the truest form of Greek pantheism developed. The Stoics proclaimed that God and nature are one and the same, and that the universe is the evolution of a "germ of reason" in all things. This "germ" was considered to be "fire" or "breath," the intelligent, purposeful material which represented spirit and matter in absolute union. All elements in the world, even those that were inanimate and lifeless, were simply transformations of this original fire. From the fire, everything arose and proceeded to evolve; further, the Stoics held that everything would return to this state. The fire contains the germ of reason that acts in all things, and this germ proceeds to determine everything. Thus, the Stoic pantheism seems markedly deterministic, as everything is subject to its own predestined fate. However, the Stoics were reluctant to deny humanity free will, claiming that humans could fall away from their fate if they acted in discord with the logic of the pantheistic germ of reason.
The Neo-Platonists also followed a philosophy which could be described as a form of pantheism. While they did not identify God with the world as blatantly as did the Stoics, they did place the world of sensations on the lowest scale in a series of emanations from God. That is, on a gradient of godly perfection, human sensations are of the lowest degree, and God's, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are the most perfect. The Neo-Platonists insisted, however, that humans could potentially attain this level of godly perfection, becoming absorbed in it through subjective sensations of ecstasy. Thus, the neo-Platonists fall into a category academics have labeled emanationistic pantheism, where the multiple phenomena perceived by humans are held to actually be emanations or immediacies of the power of the greater God.
Although early Vedic Hinduism appears to be polytheistic or henotheistic, there are some shades of early pantheistic ruminations similar to those of the early Greeks. For example, the concept of an underlying order to the cosmos is found in the Vedic idea of rta. Furthermore, the god of fire, Agni, appeared frequently in the early Vedas and was seen to be pervasive in all things, since heat was such an important aspect in maintaining health. Throughout the Vedas, many other names are associated with this one pantheistic force, such as hiranya-garbha (the "golden germ"), narayana (the primordial man) and the phrase tat tvam asi, which translates to "that thou art." This concept of "that" refers to the oneness in the universe that subsumes all persons and objects. Finally, nearing the end of the Vedas, the concept of Brahman is introduced, which would go on to become the supreme principle from which all things originated and were maintained.
This notion of Brahman was developed in many later works in the Hindu canon, including the Upanishads, a series of commentaries on the Vedas. In Hindu theology Brahman is both transcendent and immanent, the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever will be. 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. The so-called "individual" soul, or Atman, is essentially no different from Brahman. In the sphere of religious practices, each of the individual personal gods is considered to be an aspect of the Divine One; thus, the worship of many multifarious deities by adherents of Hinduism represents a conceivable means by which Hindus can connect to the larger, inconceivable pantheistic force of Brahman. This philosophy has permeated the worship practices of innumerable Hindus from antiquity until today.
The concept of the Dao is one of the best examples of a truly pantheistic belief. The Dao is the ultimate, ineffable principle, containing the entirety of the universe, yet also embodying nothingness as its nature. Further, it is a natural law and a system of self-regulating principles. Thus, the Dao, in its totality, represents the central unifying metaphysical and naturalistic principle pervading the entire universe. This allows belief in it to be classified as a form of naturalistic pantheism.
The Jewish philosopher Philo was deeply influenced by the Neo-Platonists and, as such, he softened the deeply developed Jewish notion of a transcendent God with some pantheistic ideas. He argued that without the continual action of God, the universe could not maintain itself as it does and could not continue to exist. Thus, he concluded that God must be all-pervasive throughout his creation. Philo saw God’s divine ideas, or else his divine word and wisdom, as the preserving force in the world. The world, then, is a copy of divine reason. However, these pantheistic assertions presenting God as the entity who maintains everything also imply that God is responsible for the evil in the world. This was an issue that Philo did not address, and his failure to do so prevented his thoughts from gaining significant measure of credence in the Jewish religious tradition.
It was Spinoza who developed the first system of pantheism in modern Western philosophy. His pantheism was of the naturalistic type. He adhered to the idea that there can only be one unlimited substance with infinite attributes throughout the entire universe. From this he concluded that the natural world and God are merely synonyms referring to identical reality, for if this were not the case, then the combination of God and the world would actually be greater than God alone. Thus, God is as necessary as the world; however, as a corollary, human free will is denied under Spinoza's assertions. Also, there is no room for evil in this divine world. Spinoza's pantheism was generally rejected by the orthodox Jewish communities, although it was highly respected among more secular thinkers such as Albert Einstein.
Spinoza's ideas were supposedly inspired by the decidedly immanent sense of the divine in the Jewish mystical Kabbalah tradition. The standard Kabbalah formulation of the nature of God and the universe contrasts the transcendent attributes of God described in the Torah with God's immanence. Jewish mystics have typically asserted that God is the dwelling-place of the cosmos, while the cosmos is not the dwelling-place of God. Possibly the designation of "place" for God, frequently found in Talmudic-Midrashic literature, is related to this, and even Philo, in commenting on Genesis 28:11, says, "God is called ha makom ("the place") because God encloses the universe, but is Himself not enclosed by anything" (De Somniis, i. 11). Kabbalists interpret this in pantheistic terms, although mainstream Judaism generally rejects such interpretations and instead accepts a more panentheistic view.
Generally, the Christian view of God followed in the Jewish tradition from which it derived, adhering to the belief that God lives apart from the world in heaven, while being able to act in the world whenever he chooses. However, elements of pantheism can be found within Christianity, originating in the gospels. Most notably, Paul refers to Jesus as follows: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). This statement "is strongly pantheistic, though it appears to be not a statement of his own, but rather a quotation from a Greek poet, Aratus, probably influenced by the Stoic Cleanthes, who was a pantheist." In Colossians 1:16-17, Paul states that "For by him all things were created …. And he is before all things and in him all things consist." This insinuates that God is fully embedded in the world, sustains the world, and in the case of those who follow Christ he enters into their mind and body and in some sense becomes one with them. Paul uses the expression "in Christ," "in the Lord," and "in him" repeatedly in his letters, usually referring to the idea that Christ is in some way inside Paul or the believer; or that they are inside Christ; or both. At times Paul implies that there is almost a bodily incorporation of Christians into Christ. Thus, God and the world seem to be closely connected; however, this represents anything but world-affirming kind of pantheism, as Paul regarded the earth and the physical body as inferior to God. For example, when he speaks of the body as God's temple, he does not mean that the body should be worshipped and indulged, but rather that its "base" instincts and desires should be kept in check for purposes of maintaining the sanctity of the temple.
Several less mainstream Christian groups and individuals throughout history have entertained pantheistic beliefs. Many Gnostics believed that the universe consisted of emanations from God by way of Pleroma, which refers to the totality of God's powers or fullness. Human wisdom, for example, was one of the weakest manifestations of this power. Much later, the "Brethren of the Free Spirit," a heretical movement, arose in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which preached that "all things are One, because whatever is, is God." This assertion lead to the rejection the Christian concepts of creation and redemption, on the grounds that since all is God, there can be no sin, and any action whatsoever was permitted as a function of God. The beliefs of the "Brethren of the Free Spirit" were heavily persecuted by the mainstream Roman Catholic Church.
Some modern Christian movements have also incorporated pantheistic elements. Modern Gnostic revivalists such as the "Gnostic Illuminists of the Thomasine Church" proclaim that they follow a more naturalistic pantheism or even a "scientific pantheism." They interpret the "Hymn of the Pearl" to be a 2,000-year-old allegory of M-theory, a contemporary theory of physics which extends superstring theory in order to describes the complex physical roots of reality. Similarly, Creation Spirituality, a set of beliefs about God and humanity promoted by the theologian and Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, emphasizes the pantheistic idea that humans experience the divine in all things and that all things are in the divine. Also, Unitarian Universalists maintain a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development, and accept all beliefs. Not surprisingly, numerous Unitarian Universalists consider themselves to be pantheists, among other things.
It seems that pantheism, by equating the world with God, attributes any evil in the world to God, making him an evil God. It seems to theists, therefore, that pantheism does not have an appropriate way of solving the problem of evil, and that the pantheistic attribution of evil to God is "the most absurd and monstrous hypothesis that can be envisaged," as Pierre Bayle, the French critic of Spinoza in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, put it.
The pantheist Michael Levine addresses this criticism, by saying that "the problem of evil is basically a theistic one that is not directly pertinent to pantheism." According to him, the problem of evil does not embarrass pantheists, nor can it do so "since pantheism rejects all of the aspects of theism that are essential to generating the problem." Most notably, pantheism rejects the theistic idea that God is omnipotent and perfectly good. For pantheists, then, the theistic question of why God would not prevent evil in the world, which is a question about logical inconsistency, is not a question. The existence of evil is not incompatible with the pantheistic all-inclusive divine Unity. Even if theism assumes that what is divine should always be good, pantheism doesn't.
This does not mean, however, that evil is not a problem at all for the pantheist. Although it is not the kind of problem that it is for the theist, nevertheless it still is a problem in a different way for the pantheist. Evil is no longer the problem of its logical contradiction with divine omnipotence and goodness, as in theism. It is rather a problem of illusion. The pantheist holds that no matter how virulently it may be experienced, what seems to be evil is in reality only a lack of adequate knowledge or awareness on our part, as Spinoza wrote: "The knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge." Evil consists in our inadequate ideas of the all-inclusive divine Unity whereby we mistake lesser goods for the supreme good, and it necessarily happens as an illusion in the all-inclusive Whole that necessarily contains as many different modes of existence as possible, i.e., as many different levels of awareness as possible.
Although pantheist thinkers are found in most religious traditions, orthodox members usually reject them. Due to this fact, pantheism has been frequently discussed in philosophical, scientific, and environmentalist circles rather than in established, mainstream religious traditions. This may serve as an insight into the nature of the belief. While monotheism, polytheism and other religious categorizations refer to conceptions of the divine which are relatively easy to comprehend, pantheism brings with it some difficult philosophical questions which have proved challenging even to some of the greatest human thinkers. Is a belief in a God that is the universe the same as no God at all? Does the conception of an entirely immanent God mitigate the powers of a God more transcendently conceived? How can evil be an illusion when it is necessitated in the pantheistic system? These are just a few of the challenging questions that pantheistic beliefs generate.
Despite its lack of mainstream support, many followers of pantheism believe that their ideas concerning God are needed as a corrective in the way humans think about God, and that these ideas can serve to create a potentially more insightful conception of both our own existence and that of God. Perhaps, pantheism is a pointer to the future eschatological state of unity between God and the created world where the values of creatures are realized and enjoyed, as a pantheist movement states as its first major aim: "To promote the values of environmental concern and human rights."
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