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What is Pantheism?    Is it some obscure religion that not many have heard about?

Pantheism is the belief that the universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God.   Pantheists do not believe in a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god.   Some Eastern religions are considered to be pantheistically inclined.

Pantheism was popularized in the West as both a theology and philosophy based on the work of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose book Ethics was an answer to Descartes’ famous dualist theory that the body and spirit are separate.    Spinoza held the monist view that the two are the same, and monism is a fundamental part of his philosophy.   He was described as a “God-intoxicated man,” and used the word God to describe the unity of all substance. Although the term pantheism was not coined until after his death, Spinoza is regarded as its most celebrated advocate.

Pantheism is derived from the Greek roots pan (meaning “all”) and theos (meaning “God”). There are a variety of definitions of pantheism. Some consider it a theological and philosophical position concerning God.

As a religious position, some describe pantheism as the polar opposite of atheism.  From this standpoint, pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God. All forms of reality may then be considered either modes of that Being, or identical with it. Others hold that pantheism is a non-religious philosophical position. To them, pantheism is the view that the Universe and God are identical.

It has been widely held that there are  ‘pantheists’ who believe in “a certain universal substance, material as well as intelligent, that fashions all things that exist out of its own essence.”   The universe was found to be immeasurable in respect to a human’s capacity of understanding, and believed that humans would never be able to comprehend it.   The Catholic Church regarded pantheistic ideas as heresy.   An Italian monk, Giordano Bruno, evangelized about an immanent and infinite God, was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Catholic Church. He has since become known as a celebrated pantheist and martyr of science.

Although the term “pantheism” did not exist before the 17th century, various pre-Christian religions and philosophies can be regarded as pantheistic. Pantheism is similar to the ancient Hindu philosophy of non-dualism to the extent that in the 19th-century thought that it was “a western system of philosophy which occupies a foremost rank amongst the philosophies of all nations and ages, and which is so exact a representation of the ideas of the Vedanta, that we might have suspected its founder to have borrowed the fundamental principles of his system from the Hindus.”

In the mid-eighteenth century, pantheism was defined as: “It supposes God and nature, or God and the whole universe, to be one and the same substance—one universal being; insomuch that men’s souls are only modifications of the divine substance.”  Yet in the early nineteenth century, a German theologian defined pantheism as the belief that God and the world established by God are one and the same.    In the late 20th century, pantheism was often declared to be the underlying theology of Neopaganism, and Pantheists began forming organizations devoted specifically to Pantheism and treating it as a separate religion.

Pantheism is mentioned in a Papal encyclical in 2009 and a statement on New Year’s Day in 2010, criticizing pantheism for denying the superiority of humans over nature and “seeing the source of man’s salvation in nature”.   In a review of the 2009 film Avatar, Ross Douthat, an author, described pantheism as “Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now”.

There are multiple varieties of pantheism which have been placed along various spectra or in discrete categories.      Some have argued against treating every meaning of “unity” as an aspect of pantheism, and there exist versions of pantheism that regard determinism as an inaccurate or incomplete view of nature

It may also be possible to distinguish two types of pantheism, one being more religious and the other being more philosophical.   The Columbia Encyclopedia writes of the distinction:    “If the pantheist starts with the belief that the one great reality, eternal and infinite, is God, he sees everything finite and temporal as but some part of God. There is nothing separate or distinct from God, for God is the universe. If, on the other hand, the conception taken as the foundation of the system is that the great inclusive unity is the world itself, or the universe, God is swallowed up in that unity, which may be designated nature.”

Religious inclined pantheisms include some forms of Hinduism while philosophical inclined pantheisms include Stoicism.

In 1896, several categories of pantheism were identified: Mechanical or materialistic (God the mechanical unity of existence); Ontological (fundamental unity); Dynamic; Psychical (God is the soul of the world); Ethical (God is the universal moral order); Logical; and Pure (absorption of God into nature, which is equated with atheism).     More recently, several other categories of pantheism were identified: Hylozoistic; Immanentistic; Absolutistic monistic; Relativistic monistic; Acosmic; Identity of opposites; and Neoplatonic or emanationistic.

There are several elements of pantheism in some forms of Christianity, Islam (Sufism), Buddhism, Judaism, Gnosticism, Neopaganism, and  Theosophy as well as in several tendencies in many theistic religions. The Islamic religious tradition, in particular Sufism and Alevism, has a strong belief in the unitary nature of the universe and the concept that everything in it is an aspect of God itself, although their perspective, like many traditional perspectives, may lean closer to panentheism.  Many other traditional and folk religions including African traditional religionsand Native American religionscan be seen as pantheistic, or a mixture of pantheism and other doctrines such as polytheismand animism. A variety of modern paganists also hold pantheistic views.

It is generally regarded that Hindu religious texts are the oldest known literature containing pantheistic ideas

The branches of Hinduism teaching forms of pantheism are known as non-dualist schools.  All Mahavakyas (Great Sayings) of the Upanishads, in one way or another, seem to indicate the unity of the world with the Brahman.  It further says, “This whole universe is Brahman, from Brahman to a clod of earth.”

In the tradition of its leading thinkers Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi, Taoism is comparable with pantheism, as the Tao is always spoken of with profound religious reverence and respect, similar to the way that pantheism discusses the “God” that is everything. The Tao Te Chingnever speaks of a transcendent God, but of a mysterious and numinous ground of being underlying all things. Zhuangzi emphasized the pantheistic content of Taoism even more clearly: “Heaven and I were created together, and all things and I are one.” When Tung Kuo Tzu asked Zhuangzi where the Tao was, he replied that it was in the ant, the grass, the clay tile, even in excrement: “There is nowhere where it is not… There is not a single thing without Tao.”

Two organizations that specify the word pantheism in their title formed in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Universal Pantheist Society, open to all varieties of pantheists and supportive of environmental causes, was founded in 1975.    The World Pantheist Movement has been considered by some a form of religious naturalism. It has been described as an example of “dark green religion” with a focus on environmental ethics.

Nature worship or nature mysticism is often conflated and confused with pantheism. It is pointed out by at least one expert in pantheist philosophy that Spinoza’s identification of God with nature is very different from a recent idea of a self-identifying pantheist with environmental ethical concerns.   There are many nature mystics who also identify as pantheists use “nature” to refer to the limited natural environment (as opposed to man-made built environment). This use of “nature” is different from the broader use other pantheists describing natural laws and the overall phenomena of the physical world. Nature mysticism may be compatible with pantheism but it may also be compatible with theism and other views.

Panentheismwas formally coined in Germany in the 19th century in an attempt to offer a philosophical synthesis between traditional theism and pantheism, stating that God is substantially omnipresent in the physical universe but also exists “apart from” or “beyond” it as its Creator and Sustainer.   Panentheism separates itself from pantheism, positing the extra claim that God exists above and beyond the world as we know it.   The line between pantheism and panentheism can be blurred depending on varying definitions of God, so there have been disagreements when assigning particular notable figures to pantheism or panentheism.

Pandeism is another word derived from pantheism and is characterized as a combination of reconcilable elements of pantheism and deism. It assumes a Creator-deity which is at some point distinct from the universe and then merges with it, resulting in a universe similar to the pantheistic one in present essence, but differing in origin.

Panpsychism is the philosophical view held by many pantheists that consciousness, mind, or soul is a universal feature of all things.   Some pantheists also subscribe to the distinct philosophical views hylozoism (or panvitalism), the view that everything is alive, and its close neighbor animism, the view that everything has a soul or spirit.

Kathy Kiefer

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