Pantheism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Posted: February 16, 2015 at 3:50 am

There are several different ways to think about pantheism. (1) Many of the world's religious traditions and spiritual writings are marked by pantheistic ideas and feelings. This is particularly so for example, in Hinduism of the Advaita Vedanta school, in some varieties of Kabbalistic Judaism, in Celtic spirituality, and in Sufi mysticism. (2) Another vital source of pantheistic ideas is to be found in literature, for example, in such writers as Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers. Although it should be added that, far from being limited to high culture, pantheistic themes are familiar, too, in popular media, for example in such films as Star Wars, Avatar, and The Lion King. (3) Thirdly, as it is in this article, pantheism may be considered philosophically; that is, a critical examination may be made of its central ideas with respect to their meaning, their coherence, and the case to be made for or against their acceptance.

A good way to understand any view is to appreciate the kind of drives that may push someone towards it. What arguments may be given for pantheism? Although there are a great many different individual lines of reasoning that might be offered, generally they may be placed under two heads; arguments from below, which start from a posteriori religious experience, and arguments from above, which start from a priori philosophical abstraction.

Following the first type of argument, pantheistic belief arises when the things of this world excite a particular sort of religious reaction in us. We feel, perhaps, a deep reverence for and sense of identity with the world in which we find ourselves. Epistemically it seems to us that God is not distant but can be encountered directly in what we experience around us. We see God in everything. The initial focus of attention here may be either our physical environment (the land on which we live, our natural environment) or else our social environment (our community, our tribe, our nation or, generally, the people we meet with) but further reflection may lead to its more universal expansion.

In the second kind of argument, reasoning starts from a relatively abstract concept whose application is taken as assured, but further reflection leads to the conclusion that its scope must be extended to include the whole of reality. Most typically, the concept in question is that of God, or perfect being, in which case pantheism appears as the logical terminus or completion of theism. The following paragraphs illustrate four examples of such reasoning.

(1) Traditional theism asserts the omnipresence of God and, while it strongly wishes to maintain that this is not equivalent to pantheism, the difference between saying that God is present everywhere in everything and saying that God is everything is far from easy to explain. If omnipresence means, not simply that God is cognisant of or active in all places, but literally that he exists everywhere, then it is hard to see how any finite being can be said to have existence external to God. Indeed, for Isaac Newton and Samuel Clarke divine omnipresence was one and the same thing as space, which they understood as the sensorium of God. (Oakes 2006)

(2) The traditional theistic position that God's creation of the universe is continuous can easily be developed in pantheistic directions. The view that the world could not existeven for a secondwithout God, makes it wholly dependent on God and, hence, not really an autonomous entity. (Oakes 1983) Moreover, to further develop this argument, if God creates every temporal stage of every object in the universe, this undermines the causal power of individual things and leads to occasionalism, which in turn encourages pantheism; for in so far as independent agency is a clear mark of independent being, the occasionalist doctrine that all genuine agency is divinethat it all comes from a single placetends to undermine the distinction of things from God. Both Malebranche and Jonathan Edwards have found themselves charged with pantheism on these grounds, and it was for this reason that Leibniz, in attempting to refute the pantheistic monism of Spinoza, felt it most important to assert the autonomous agency of finite beings.

(3) Alternatively it might be argued that God's omniscience is indistinguishable from reality itself. For if there obtains a complete mapping between God's knowledge and the world that God knows, what basis can be found for distinguishing between them, there being not even the possibility of a mismatch? Moreover, were we to separate the two, since knowledge tracks reality we know something because it is the case and not vice versa then God would become problematically dependent upon the world. (Mander 2000)

(4) Arguments of this general type may also proceed from starting points more philosophical than theological. For example, Spinoza, the most famous of all modern pantheists starts from the necessary existence of something he calls substance. By this he means that which exists wholly in its own right, that whose existence does not depend upon anything else. The notion of the Absolute, or wholly unconditioned reality, as it figures in the philosophies of Schelling, Hegel, and the British Idealists may be considered a related development of the same philosophical starting point. In both cases the reasoning runs that this necessary being must be all-inclusive and, hence, divine.

The pantheist asserts an identity between God and nature, but it needs to be asked in just what sense we are to understand the term identity? To begin with it is necessary to raise two ambiguities in the logic of identity.

(1) Dialectical identity. It is important to note that many pantheists will not accept the classical logic of identity in which pairs are straightforwardly either identical or different. They may adopt rather the logic of relative identity, or identity-in-difference, by which it is possible to maintain that God and the cosmos are simultaneously both identical and different, or to put the matter in more theological language, that God is simultaneously both transcendent and immanent. For example, Eriugena holds that the universe may be subdivided into four categories: things which create but are not created, things which create and are created, things which are created but do not create, and things which neither create nor are created. He argues that all four reduce to God, and hence that God is in all things, i.e. that he subsists as their essence. For He alone by Himself truly has being, and He alone is everything which is truly said to be in things endowed with being (Periphyseon, 97). But nonetheless, for Eriugena, the uncreated retains its distinct status separate from the created, not least in that the former may be understood while the later transcends all understanding. In consequence, he insists that God is not the genus of which creatures are the species. Similarly, the Sufi philosopher, ibn Arabi identifies God and the universe, suggesting in a striking metaphor that the universe is the food of God and God the food of the universe; as deity swallows up the cosmos so the cosmos swallows up deity. (Bezels of Wisdom, 237; Husaini 1970, 180) But Ibn Arabi in no sense regards such claims as preventing him from insisting also on the fundamental gulf between the unknowable essence of God and his manifest being. We must distinguish between the nature of God and the nature of things, between that which exists by itself (God) and that which exist by another (the universe), but since the nature of God just is Being itself, no parallel distinction may be drawn between the being of God and the being of things. Nothing real exists besides God who discloses himself in and through the universe. (Chittick 1989, ch.5) Again, Nicholas of Cusa's celebrated doctrine of the coincidence of oppositeswhich he memorably illustrated by pointing to way in which, upon infinite expansion, a circle must coincide with a straight lineallows him to say both that God and the creation are the same thing and that there exists a fundamental distinction between the realm of absolute being and the realm of limited or contracted being. (Moran 1990) Even Spinoza goes to great lengths to show that the two attributes of thought and extension by which we pick out the one substance as God or nature are nonetheless at the same time irreducibly different. They may be co-referring but they are not synonymous; indeed, they are utterly incommensurable. Such a dialectical conception of unity, in which there can be no identity without difference, is a strong element in Hegel's thought, and also one aspect of what Hartshorne meant by dipolar theism; the opposites of immanence and transcendence are included among those which he thinks God brings together in his being.

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Pantheism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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