What is Pantheism?

Introduction

Pantheism is the theoretical position that God is everywhere and everything; that God not only is present in every aspect of human life, but truly inhabits all that is known. This is to say that not only is God present in our decision-making processes, but that we ourselves, as human beings, are already part of God. Most Pantheists hold that God and Nature are one and the same thing, albeit the meaning of nature is not always equal between them.

There is considerable dispute on the subject of free will between pantheists. Some pantheists accept the notion of free will, pointing out that being part of God does not take away the choices that are made by the subjects. More precisely, they would argue that just because they are part of God does absolve them of moral behaviour – acting morally is independent of God of which they have very little conception in the first place. On the determinist side, the argument is that being part of God already determines His purpose and will of which we are unaware. Any choices are subsequent to the already determined grand scheme of things. Having said that, the notion of purpose is also a disputed one among pantheists, where some side with the notion that human being have a purpose and others deny that there any other purpose than simply existing for the sake of existing (an early precursor to Existentialism).

A notable critique of pantheism was that of Schopenhauer, where he claimed that pantheism lacks ethics. To start with, Schopenhauer considered pantheism to be nothing more than a form of atheism: “Pantheism is only a euphemism for atheism”. After all, if pantheists equate Nature with God, they have done nothing more than use the two synonymously, but they have failed to explain what that means or how the two are to be equated other than linguistically. For further detail, see Schopenhauer’s Parega and Parlipomena. Furthermore, for Schopenhauer, ethical judgement can only be called genuine if it comes from altruistic and compassionate motivation. Because only pleasure and pain can be said to motivate the human will, genuinely ethical judgement and moral action would be lacking in pantheism (and elsewhere, for that matter). Pantheist argue that, on the contrary, precisely through equation of God and Nature, it is possible to act with other human being in mind as genuine compassion for oneself would be equated with compassion with others.

As a term, pantheism is a derivative from the Greek words πᾶν – all or everything – and θεός – god or divine. It was first used by the Irish political philosopher John Toland in his 1705 publication of Socinianism Truly Stated (the actual title is much longer). While the term is relatively new, forms of pantheism have existed in many different cultures in history. Some notable Ancient Greek philosophers could be said to have been pantheists, such as Thales, Parmenides and Heraclitus. Even earlier than that, the Upanishads of Vedic Hinduism and Kabalistic Judaism both, yet independently, set out a kind a form of pantheism. Pantheism became particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, likely through the works of Spinoza. This also led to a renewed interest in approaching The Bible through a pantheistic lens, such as rendering God’s action with acts of nature, or even to some extent equating God with Nature in the the New Testament. Certain Christian movements are largely pantheistic, such as Quakers and Unitarians.

Types of Pantheism

  • Classical Pantheism – just like other forms of pantheism, the classical form equates Nature and God. It does so, however, without really defining either of the terms and focuses instead on unity of all existence. God is understood simply as a kind of consciousness that is personal and yet ubiquitous. Classical Pantheism closely resembles substance Monism because it sees all ‘matter’ – physical and non-physical – as just another aspect or representation of an omniscient God. A key feature of Classical Pantheism is the belief in unity of religions – it is very inclusive of most faiths and finds each of them compatible with the other. Not surprisingly, Classical Pantheism has been present in some form in all major religions, including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • Biblical Pantheism – the biblical form of pantheism looks closely at the Bible to express its writings through a pantheist lens. It equates God’s actions with those of Nature and sees the definition of God change from the Old Testament to the New Testament. It should go without saying that Biblical Pantheism has been and largely continues to be heavily criticised and attacked as heresy by most traditional Christian denominations.
  • Naturalistic Pantheism – while the naturalistic form still equates Nature and God, it does not view the former in some sentient form. Nature remains an unconscious entity, unable to feel or perceive. Nevertheless, Naturalistic Pantheists still maintain that, while in contradiction to Classical Pantheism God becomes impersonal, an equation of Nature and God remains meaningful as a kind of mystical fulfilment. Naturalistic Pantheism is mostly associated with Spinoza‘s God or Nature (Deus sive Natura) and later with John Toland’s Socinianism Truly Stated. Some commentators also believe Spinoza initially to have been influenced by Biblical Pantheism. Contemporary interpreters understand Naturalistic Pantheism as an early form of (and even attempt) towards Atheism, or at any rate a kind spirituality that is in line with nature rather than deity.
  • Cosmotheism – this form of pantheism started in the late 18th century. Rather than equating Nature with God, Cosmotheism views God as a creation of mankind. In other words, they do not see God as an independent entity from mankind and instead view God as an ‘evolutionary’ process. Cosmtheists generally hold the view that, with advances in technology – such as eugenics and genetic engineering – human evolution could be understood as a form of creation through which our oneness with God would become obvious. The best known advocate for Cosmotheism was H.G. Wells.
  • Pandeism – the pandeist form of pantheism closely resembles Naturalist Pantheism and holds the view that Nature in general is unconscious and non-sentient. However, and unlike the Naturalist form, Pandeism also holds that God used to be conscious and sentient at the moment of creation, and indeed that it was God that created the universe and all things in it. Through this process of creation God became one with the universe which is now unconscious and non-sentient. Pandeism attempts to unify Pantheism and Deism.
  • Panentheism – strictly speaking, Panentheism is not a form of Pantheism, because the equation of Nature and God does not fully apply. Instead, Panentheism holds the view that while Nature is part of God, God is infinitely more than Nature alone. In other words, the universe and all things in it are understood to be only one aspects of God.

Further Reading

Schopenhauer, A. (2016). Parega and Parlipomena. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spinoza, B. (2002). Spinoza: The Complete Works. Edited, with introduction and Notes by Michael L. Morgan, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Toland, J. (2010). Socinianism Truly Stated. Gale ECCO.

Wells, H.G. (2017). The Time Machine. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

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