Pantheism is the doctrine that the world is either identical with God or an expression of His nature. Pantheistic ideas appear in many schools of Buddhism and Hinduism, and in the Tao-te-Ching.
Pantheism is the view that the world is either identical to God, or an expression of God’s nature. It comes from ‘pan’ meaning all, and ‘theism,’ which means belief in God. So according to pantheism, “God is everything and everything is God.”
First, pantheism rejects the idea that God is transcendent. According to traditional Western conceptions of God, He is an entity that is above and beyond the universe. So, although God may be fully present in the universe, He is also outside of it. Simply put, He transcends the totality of objects in the world. When pantheists say that “God is everything and everything is God,” this is meant to capture that idea that God does not transcend the world.
A second important difference between pantheism and traditional theistic religions is that pantheists also reject the idea of God’s personhood. The pantheist God is not a personal God, the kind of entity that could have beliefs, desires, intentions, or agency. Unlike the traditional God of theism, the pantheistic God does not have a will and cannot act in or upon the universe. These are the kind of things that only a person, or a person-like entity, could do. For the pantheist, God is the non-personal divinity that pervades all existence. It is the divine Unity of the world.
While these two points may clarify how pantheism and traditional theism differ, they may make us wonder if there’s much difference between pantheism and atheism. After all, pantheism denies the existence of a transcendent, personal God, which is the God of traditional theism. So, in that sense, pantheism seems to be a form of atheism. It’s not clear what exactly pantheists are talking about when they talk of “God.” If pantheists just consider God to be the totality of all existence, then why talk of “God” at all? Moreover, if that’s what “God” means to the pantheist, then the slogan “God is everything and everything is God” now seems circular and redundant. As Schopenhauer, a critic of pantheism, says, “to call the world ‘God’ is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word ‘world’.”
But Schopenhauer seems to be operating with a very narrow definition of God here. Why suppose that God must be personal and transcendent in order to be God? This limits the concept of God in an ad hoc way that privileges the traditional theistic view of divinity. Looking at other non-theistic religious traditions, we find many conceptions of a divinity that pervades all existence, like Lao Tzu’s Tao, Sankara’s Brahman, and arguably also Hegel’s Geist and Plotinus’s One. To call all these views “atheist” simply because they reject the traditional theistic conception of a personal, transcendent God is to miss the point. Atheism, after all, is not a religion.
If we accept that pantheism differs from atheism, in that it does posit some kind of divinity in the world whereas atheism does not, it’s still a little difficult to see in what sense pantheism is a religion. There are no pantheist churches or services, for example, and it’s not even clear if there are any particular pantheist rituals or practices. Do practices like prayer or worship even make sense in the pantheist scheme of things?
Love of nature is often associated with pantheism, but that does not seem to be a central tenet of the religion. Self-professed pantheists like Wordsworth, Whitman, and other Romantic poets certainly had a deep love of nature, but that was not necessarily the case for pantheists like Spinoza and Lao Tzu. Nevertheless, for some pantheists the idea that nature is something that inspires awe, wonder, and reverence is important. This attitude toward nature is perhaps what motivates many contemporary pantheists to identify themselves as such. It is no coincidence that there are strong ties between pantheism and the ecology movement.
Given some of the issues raised here, I look forward to having a number of questions clarified during our upcoming show. One important question is: what exactly is the relationship between pantheism and atheism? Are they complementary or conflicting views of the world? Can we distinguish pantheism from traditional theism without the view simply collapsing into atheism? Is pantheism really a religion, or just a metaphysical view of the world? Does it have distinctive rituals or practices? What would motivate someone to identify as a pantheist? And how central is reverence for nature to pantheism?
Joining the conversation with John and Ken will be Philip Clayton, Dean of the Claremont School of Theology and Provost of Claremont Lincoln University. He is also the co-author of The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy and Faith.