An Appeal for Pantheism

Current models of recovery emphasize a holistic approach to treatment in an effort to address all aspects of the disease of addiction which include the physical; the mental/emotional; and the spiritual components.  Treatment methods geared at promoting abstinence through cognitive/behavioral therapies are widely accepted as necessary and effective in recovery.  On the other hand, treatment approaches which also incorporate spiritual growth and development give rise to much controversy and confusion.

In recovery meetings, spirituality and religion are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

Most recovery programs which incorporate a spiritual component, such as the 12 Steps, are explicitly all-inclusive with regard to the religious beliefs of its members.  In the recovery meetings, members often profess (sometimes to the point of audacity) that each person may choose his own conception of God.  The freedom to choose one’s own God-concept theoretically distinguishes the 12 Steps as a spiritual rather than religious solution.  However, the distinction between spirituality and religion is at times difficult, if not impossible, to discern.  The group meetings and some of the primary recovery literature are often dominated by western monotheistic religious expression under the topical guise of spirituality. Furthermore, as a practical matter, those with long-term recovery whom newcomers are encouraged to seek out and consult for spiritual guidance have little, if any, exposure to anything other than western religion (and particularly, Christianity).  The religious bias is not intentionally offensive — it is merely a product of the society and culture in which we live.  Of course, these observations are only problematic for those who find it impossible to adopt (or revert to) traditional theistic doctrine.

But for many who seek recovery from addiction, “the God of their childhood” does not provide a solid foundation from which to develop spiritually.  For various reasons, it is a God-concept that cannot be believed much less trusted.  Notwithstanding these criticisms, the ultimate merit of the spiritual approach to addiction recovery is not at issue here. Spirituality is a broad, roomy concept.  Many addicts with long-term recovery attest that spiritual growth and development is indispensable to recovery.

However, when the line between truly inclusive spirituality and dogmatic religious doctrine is blurred, recovery is sometimes inhibited.  Even for those who are so inclined to accept a spiritual remedy as a component of treatment, a rational alternative to mainstream religion is often not readily accessible.  The unfortunate result is that some are left isolated and at greater risk of relapse.

What follows is a description of pantheism — a legitimate alternative to traditional theism and a possible foundation upon which some may begin to build a spiritual structure.  May those who have languished in the uncertainty of agnosticism or in the defiance of atheism find solace in the God of his or her own understanding.

Dispensing with a “Personal God”
If theism were broadly defined as merely the “belief in God”, then pantheism could be said to be a particular form of theism.  However, since the period of the Enlightenment, in response to deistic theories of an impersonal and wholly transcendent God, the term theism (and variations thereof) came to denote a particular belief in a personal God.  In Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity, Professor Michael Levine describes the concept of a personal God as “[c]entral to theism . . . [it] is the belief that there exists a God who, though supra-human, is in crucial respects a ‘person.’  God is understood to be a conscious being, sentient in some accounts, though not in others, capable of at least some intentional states such as believing, knowing and willing, though incapable of others such as wishing, and also incapable of some emotions and feelings as well (e.g. embarrassment).”

God portrayed as a person.

In some religions, belief in a personal God reaches the extremes of anthropomorphism, though doctrine sometimes limits the extent of the anthropic characteristics which may be permissibly assigned to the deity.  Notwithstanding such limitations, pervasive in Western culture is the idea that God is a person, King of Heaven, Creator of the Universe, who not only possesses personal characteristics, but who is also corporeal.

Even though the concept of a personal God may serve a useful purpose in some contexts, the pantheist vehemently rejects as implausible the concept of “a three-storied Universe, constructed by an artificer God, who suddenly awoke from an eternity of idleness to make Heaven, Earth, and Hell; a conception involving a King of kings, enthroned like an eastern monarch, and sending forth His ministering spirits, or appointing His angel deputies to direct and govern at His beck” (J. Allanson Picton, Pantheism: Its Story and Significance). Therefore, given that the definition of theism appears to be inextricably linked to belief in a personal God, and given the rejection of such a belief in pantheism, it cannot ultimately be said that pantheism entails theism.  The two systems do share some similarities, but the rejection of the concept of a personal God sets pantheism substantially apart from traditional theism so that it is rightfully characterized as an alternative to, rather than a species of, theism.

What is Pantheism?
While it is necessary to differentiate pantheism and theism from the outset on the key issue of belief (or non-belief) in a personal God, it is also necessary to positively define pantheism without resorting to a statement of what it is not.  Though it is useful to compare and contrast for the sake of explication, pantheism ably stands alone upon its own system of beliefs.

The word pantheism is believed to have first been used in 1705 by Irish writer John Toland (Paul Harrison, A History of Pantheism: Movements, Thinkers, and Readings).  It is derived from the Greek words pan which means all, and theos which means God. According to Professor Levine, “[p]antheism is metaphysical and religious position. Broadly defined, it is the view that (1) ‘God is everything and everything is God . . . the world is either identical with God, or a self-expression of his nature’ (citing H.P. Owen).  Similarly, it is the view that (2) everything that exists constitutes a ‘unity’ and this all-inclusive unity is in some sense ‘divine’ (citing A. MacIntyre).  A slightly more specific definition is given by Owen who says (3) ‘ ‘Pantheism’ ‘ . . . signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it'”.

Before elaborating on the key elements found in these definitions of pantheism, it is first helpful to briefly review the rich history and tradition of pantheistic thought.

Classical Pantheism
Elements of pantheism pervade the histories of both religion and philosophy.  While pantheism is not itself a religion to the extent that use of the word implies hierarchical structure and organization, pantheistic principles have nevertheless greatly influenced the doctrinal evolution of all major world religions.

The earliest indications of pantheistic thought are found in approximately 1200 B.C. during the Vedic Period in India.  A sacred collection of ancient Vedic Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda contain, “a pantheistic strain of thought [which] is discernible from the beginning.”  (James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics).  This strain of thought culminated in the thoroughly pantheistic Vedanta Hindu philosophy derived from the Upanishads written in approximately 600 B.C.  The pervasive theme of these writings “is the search for an underlying unity linking everything we see and think . . . [t]hat unity is called Brahman.  In most texts that unity is identical with atman, the world soul, which is also identical with each individual atman.  In this sense, every individual is united with the cosmos, and only needs to realize this fact to reach fulfillment”  (Harrison, supra).

Anaximander (c. 610 BC – c. 546 BC)

In the seventh century B.C. extending into the sixth century B.C., the early Greek philosophers taught that there existed a universal substance which was the source of all existence.  For Thales, the substance was water; for Anaximenes it was air; and for Heraclitus it was fire (Harrison, supra).  For Anaximander, unity was represented by the apeiron which is “boundless, uncreated, and indestructible . . . [i]t is indeterminate, and yet everything specific; every quality lies embedded in it, and is differentiated from it only to be merged again in its infinite source” (Hastings, supra). Similarly, the Greek Stoics, who were led in the early third century B.C. by Zeno of Citium, asserted  that God and nature are one.  Indeed, “Stoicism, which was itself a synthesis of many Greek systems, exercised a great influence upon all the schools of philosophy that continued in the Graeco-Roman world after the golden age of thought” (Hastings, supra).

Turning away momentarily from the Mediterranean and moving to the Far East, as the Greek materialists were developing their philosophy of substance, the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, likewise embraced pantheism in his philosophical masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching.  Believed to have been written in the sixth century B.C., the Tao Te Ching is revered by many pantheists as a sacred text.  In the first chapter, Lao Tzu describes the Tao as the unnameable source which existed before heaven and earth, without substance, though that which sustains all things.  According to Professor Levine, philosophical Taoism (as opposed to the polytheistic religious counterparts which sprung from it) is most definitively pantheistic.

From Philo’s attempt in the early first century A.D. to synthesize “pagan philosophy and orthodox Judaism” arose Neo-Platonism.  Plotinus emerged as the chief figure in Neo-Platonism in the third century A.D. (Hastings, supra).  He “conceived God as the absolute unity, of which nothing can be predicated:  He is higher than being, thought, goodness, beauty and activity.  And yet, in spite of the exalted nature of his absolute, Plotinus derives the world of plurality and change from Him . . . out of the fullness of His being flows the world . . . proceeding by . . . emanations” (Hastings, supra).

Modern Pantheism
With the emergence of orthodox Christianity, and the tyrannies which ensued, expression of pantheistic thought faded.  Though all of the monotheistic religions (eg. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) retained elements of pantheism where it was convenient as a matter of doctrine to do so, “for most of them ‘God’s word written’ seemed to confirm God’s word in heaven and earth as known to them, proclaiming that there had been a beginning and there must be an end.  Therefore, whatever might be the immanence of the Creator in His works, God could not, in their minds, be identified with ‘the fashion of this world’ which ‘passeth away'” (Picton, supra).

The period of the Renaissance brought with it a renewed interest in nature and, therefore, pantheism.  Giordano Bruno, who was at one time a Dominican monk, was at the forefront of the pantheistic revival.  Bruno asserted that “the universe was God, and God was the universe.  Divinity revealed itself through individual things, and all things were infused with divinity” (Harrison, supra).  However, Bruno’s revelation was not met kindly by the Roman Catholic Church — “[f]or his intellectual courage, he was condemned by the Inquisition and burned at the stake in Rome on February 17, 1600” (Harrison, supra).

Baruch Spinoza is often cited as the first “modern pantheist” though this distinction most likely belongs to the aforementioned Giordano Bruno.  Nevertheless, Spinoza’s contribution to the reemergence of pantheistic thought cannot be understated — he is often lauded as the pantheistic equivalent of a saint.  And like Bruno before him, his embracing and espousing pantheistic ideas were met with a vengeance — “on July 27, 1656, Spinoza was issued the harshest writ of cherem, or excommunication, ever pronounced by the [Jewish] Sephardic community of Amsterdam; it was never rescinded” (Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life).

Spinoza’s pantheism was the natural result of his theory of substance monism and is set forth in great detail in his philosophical masterpiece entitled Ethics which was published after his death in 1677.  Therein, Spinoza asserts that “God is the infinite, necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe.  There is only one substance in the universe; it is God; and everything else that is, is in God” (Nadler, supra). Spinoza leaves no doubt as to the implications of his theory relative to popular conceptions of an anthropomorphic, personal God.  He writes “those who feign God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions . . . how far they wander from the true knowledge of God” (Nadler citing Baruch Spinoza, supra).  According to Spinoza, God is possessed of infinite attributes, the two “of which we have cognizance are extension and thought . . . [t]he modes or expressions of extension are physical bodies; the modes of thought are ideas . . .[t]hought and extension are just two different ways of ‘comprehending’ one and the same Nature” (Nadler, supra).

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)

In contrast to Spinoza’s static “substance” which he equates to God, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel espoused “a grandiose idealistic pantheism in which all existence and all history are part of God’s cosmic self-development” (Harrison, supra).  Hegel, who served as chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin from 1818 to his death in 1831, is known for his highly complex philosophical system “comprising logic, psychology, religion, aesthetics, history [and] law” (Harrison, supra).  For Hegel, “God is absolute spirit [or Geist] . . . it is part of his essence to become real, in particular material things, in individual persons and in the process of change and history” (Harrison, supra).  Thus for Hegel, the Absolute Spirit is not static, but dynamic and evolving.

Perhaps the best known modern pantheist is Albert Einstein.  Foremost in Einstein’s religious views was his rejection of the idea of a personal God; and having thus rejected such a notion of deity, Einstein embraced the central tenet of pantheism.  Einstein stated that the anthropomorphic, personal conception of God was not essential to religion; that it was the creation of primitive superstition; and that the concept contradicted not only itself, but the principles of science as well.  (Paul Tillich, The Idea of a Personal God). Furthermore, Einstein expressly endorsed at least a variety of pantheism based upon substance monism when he stated, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings” (Harrison citing Hoffman and Dukas, supra).  Various other statements made by Einstein on the subject of religion strongly indicate that his beliefs were essentially pantheistic.

The Fundamental Elements of Pantheism
Having thus considered pantheism in a historical context and thereby discovering that its genesis and evolution is a credit to some of history’s most brilliant minds, a review of the fundamental elements of pantheism — that is, the foundational doctrines upon which pantheism is based — is now in order.  For this purpose, Professor Levine’s seminal treatise on the subject of pantheism provides a wealth of insight and information.

At the outset, it should be noted that as there are many different systems of belief under the broad umbrella of theism, so too are there a diversity of beliefs in pantheism. “Pantheism need not be, any more than theism needs to be, a univocal view” (Levine, supra).  With that being said, certain concepts are universal to any variation of pantheism — the foremost being Unity which is followed closely by Divinity.

I.  The Naturalistic Model of Unity

To begin, it is necessary to first dispel a common misconception regarding what constitutes the pantheistic Unity.  According to Professor Levine:

“…pantheism must not be interpreted in a way that makes identification of God with the world, and sees ‘God’ as the all-inclusive divine unity, redundant . . . [t]his would be to interpret it as asserting that everything that exists simply is everything that exists; or, to put it another way, everything is (of course) all-inclusively everything.  This is true but vacuous, and it trivializes pantheism at the outset” (Levine, supra).

Therefore, the pantheistic Unity must be something more than the mere formal unity of the parts which comprise the whole.  Unity sufficient to count as pantheistic may be derived from several different, though interrelated, models including the ontological model, the naturalistic model, the substantive model, and the geneological model. (Levine, supra). The model which seems to best exemplify pantheism as a “religious” endeavor is the naturalistic model.  “Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Plotinus, Bruno, etc. are all best interpreted on this model . . . their concerns are the usual religious ones — order as opposed to anomie in both the natural and moral spheres.  For the Presocratics — as for Lao Tzu and Spinoza — the natural and the moral are intrinsically connected . . . this is radically different from post-enlightenment ideas of nature, laws and naturalistic principles where no values are taken as inherent, and where associating moral judgements with nature makes no sense” (Levine, supra).

Consideration of specific examples of pantheistic Unity founded upon the naturalistic model aids in highlighting the efficacy of this approach.  For Anaximander, the Unity as embodied by apeiron was an “‘endless, inexhaustible reservoir or stock from which all Becoming draws its nourishment’ . . . [i]t is not only an originative principle, but also a governing one . . .” (Levine, supra).  For Lao Tzu, the Tao “flows everywhere both to the right and to the left.  The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.  It fulfills its purpose silently and makes no claim . . . It nourishes the ten thousand things, and yet it is not their Lord” (Lao Tzu translated by Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, Ch. 34).  While there are many significant similarities between the descriptions of  pantheistic Unity given by Anaximander and Lao Tzu; under the naturalistic model, the most important commonality is that both describe pantheistic Unity as a guiding force or principle.

Some naturalistic models of pantheistic Unity also include the ideas of plan and purpose. Professor Levine summarizes Hegel’s conception of Absolute Spirit, or Geist, as follows:

For Hegel, the overall purpose manifest in history is the self-realisation of Absolute Spirit.  History is the process through which this takes place — a process in which persons have their part.  Intentional action and consciousness are involved in the process, but the purpose that progressively manifests itself is not the result of Spirit self-consciously formulating and following a plan . . . Yet the overall purpose that does manifest itself is not just the result of chance.  There is an intrinsic logic, and so order, to the process of self-realisation that results from the dialectical movement constitutive of history.  The process that is history is not thoroughly deterministic, but the unifying overall purpose, which in this case is the Absolute coming to know itself as the Absolute, is inviolable.  Spirit is not some self-conscious individual out to fulfill a goal, and it is not the total of finite consciousness and their goals (Levine, supra).

Most significant in Professor Levine’s interpretation of Hegel’s philosophical approach is the fact that plan and purpose do not require the existence of a personal God.  For most theists, it is the intent, volition, and affect of a personal God that supply meaning and purpose to life.  Under Hegel’s theory, however, the pantheist may rationally assign plan and purpose to the pantheistic Unity without resorting to superstition and fairy tales. Ultimately the naturalistic models of Unity allow the pantheist to engage spiritual concepts in a meaningful and practical way that superficially seemed to be reserved only to theists.

A final note regarding pantheistic Unity — as Professor Levine points out, it is important not to conflate the naturalistic models of pantheistic Unity with the process of evolution or the laws of nature.  Though the physical realm may provide valuable insight into the true nature of the Unity, “the pantheist sees evolution, laws of nature, etc. as themselves part of the Unity subject to higher order (i.e. patheistically more fundamental) principles . . . [t]hus, the Tao as natural law and a system of self-regulating principles, and the Tao as a standard for behavior, are understood partly in terms of the Tao as a metaphysical reality” (Levine, supra).

II.  The Importance of Divinity

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, divinity is defined as “connected with or like God or a god.”  Before considering why the pantheistic Unity is rightfully characterized as divine, it serves good purpose to ask — why is divinity even a necessary element of pantheism?

Though Unity and divinity are not necessarily derivative of  nor dependent upon one another,  in order to answer the question at hand it is wise to consider the practical interrelation which exists between the two concepts.  A Unity which lacks divinity is really nothing more than the “sum of all the individual parts”.  As previously noted, mere formal unity does not suffice for pantheism — for if it did then it could be said that Richard Dawkins rightfully described pantheism as “sexed-up atheism” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion).  However, atheism surely involves more than denial of the existence of a personal God (such denial would be mere anti-theism), just as divinity in the pantheistic sense necessarily stands for more than all that is encompassed by the physical universe. To the extent that atheism stands for the denial of the existence of any form of divinity whatsoever  — including pantheistic divinity, or “God”, if you will — then pantheism is the antithesis of atheism.

Therefore, to avoid dissolution to mere formal unity, the pantheistic divine Unity must entail some level of transcendence.  Of course, the mild transcendence of pantheism does not remotely resemble the radical ontological transcendence demanded by theism and which is inextricably intertwined with both the personhood and divinity of the theistic God. Pantheists reject the idea of a personal God and the very existence of a theistic God. While it is necessary to incorporate a form of transcendence into pantheism to meaningfully describe the Unity as divine, it does not follow that the pantheistic Unity must be an ontologically distinct entity.  On the contrary, “[w]hatever criteria are decided upon as necessary for attributing divinity to something, one cannot decide a priori that possession of divinity requires personhood . . . Spinoza’s God and Lao Tzu’s Tao are distinctly non-personal as are the governing principles of the Presocratics” and all of these concepts of divine Unity, including Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, involve a certain level of transcendence (Levine, supra).

Furthermore, while the pantheistic Unity is radically immanent in ways that the theistic God is not, it is not inconsistent to likewise claim that the Unity is possessed of mild transcendence.  “[B]eing ‘wholly other’ does not so much imply transcendence in any strong ontological sense as it does a kind of epistemic transcendence.  The ‘wholly other’ is ‘beyond our apprehension and comprehension . . . because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits.’  Yet this transcendence is not absolute . . . Transcendence is bridged via our affective natures” (Levine citing Rudolf Otto, supra).

In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto “coined the word ‘numinous’ to describe ‘that aspect of deity which transcends or eludes comprehension in rational or ethical terms . . . [t]he feeling of it [mysterium tremendum] may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide . . . It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul . . . thrillingly vibrant and resonant . . . lead to strange excitements . . . and ecstasy.  It has wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror . . . it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious” (Levine citing Otto, supra).  Based on Otto’s experiential model of divinity, the Unity is ultimately divine to the pantheist because “[t]hey experience it as such” (Levine, supra).  Therefore, the numinous and resulting mysterium tremendum provide sufficient grounds to claim a level of transcendence in the divine Unity without imparting to pantheism the well-known quandaries which arise in theism due to its demand of radical ontological transcendence.

Leaves of Grass (Accola Gallery)

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least.
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four and each moment then,
In the faces of of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come —
Forever and ever.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

A Personal Note
Like so many others, my original conception of God was not my own.  It was given to me by well-intentioned friends and family members, and by the predominantly monotheistic Christian society and culture in which all of us existed.  While there may have been messages of “love and tolerance” embedded somewhere in what I saw and heard, I was left with the image of God as a being who is judgmental, angry, harsh, and who would never welcome me into the fold.  Naturally, I rebelled against any form of religion and put the whole “God idea” out of my mind entirely.

Thus, it was with great concern and trepidation that I learned that  recovery from addiction would depend in part on my efforts at personal spiritual development.  Though my prejudices ran deep, I was able to recognize that I was guilty of the same hypocrisy of which I accused others.  I claimed disdain due to the intolerance of the “religious wackos” and yet I was exuding a level of intolerance and contempt of my own.  In an effort to dismantle my prejudices, I sought out and found several “progressive” Christian congregations.  Progressive, of course, in the sense that their social doctrine coincided with my own.  There I found much love and acceptance — and much of my prejudice against “organized religion” dissolved.  I tried to revert to the “God of my childhood” and yet, I remained the “Doubting Thomas”.

I had to ultimately face the fact that my disbelief was not a mere symptom of my opposition to many of the practices and political positions of the church.  It ran far deeper.  When I faced the truth, what I found was that I did not believe in their God at all, notwithstanding church doctrine.

Fortunately, in recovery, I was given the freedom to explore my own conception of a Power greater than myself.  I began with the idea of a Universal Force of All That is Good and Loving.  It seemed far easier for me to believe in an abstraction rather than an anthropomorphic being onto to which I projected my own fears and insecurities.  In my efforts to find a shoe that might fit, I stumbled upon Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and in those verses I found the words which so wondrously expressed my thoughts and feelings in a way that I never could.  Granted, I am but a neophyte on this spiritual journey, but thankfully I am no longer wandering around in the pitch black of night.

Pantheism is the shoe that fits.  It is rational and mystical all at once.  It stimulates my intellect, and stirs my soul.  Most importantly, I believe in it and I believe in the concept of the pantheistic divine Unity.  My eternal gratitude to Professor Michael Levine and his treatise on pantheism from which I have found my spiritual home, and to the other sources for this research.  May we all someday unite in the harmony of the Eternal.

 Sources/Bibliography

Levine, Michael P., Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity, Routledge, London (1994).

Picton, J. Allanson, Pantheism:  Its Story and Significance, London (1905).

Harrison, Paul, A History of Pantheism: Movements, Thinkers, and Readings, http://www.pantheism.net

Hastings, James, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 18, Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2003).

Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life, Cambridge University Press (2001).

Tillich, Paul, The Idea of a Personal God, Students of Union Theological Seminary, New York (1940).

Tzu, Lao translated by Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane, Tao Te Ching, Vintage Books, New York (1997).

Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass (1892).

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