PANTHEISM AND CHRISTIANITY
How are pantheism and Christianity intertwined? Or related to each other?
Biblical Christianity teaches that God is separate from his creation
and he created it where pantheism says that God and creation share the same nature and essence.
A huge problem with pantheism is that it cannot account for the existence of the universe. The universe is not infinitely old. It had a beginning. This would mean that God also had a beginning, but how can something bring itself into existence? This is impossible, so this leaves us with the question of where God and the universe came from. Pantheism cannot answer this question, and it naturally leads to absurdities.
Since the duality knower-known is an illusion in pantheism, what could be the meaning of knowledge in the case of the atman-Brahman identity? Knowing this identity cannot be a real epistemological process. As the distinction between the highest self and the individual is one of false knowledge, we get rid of it by true knowledge. This “true knowledge” corresponds to experiencing a pantheistic perspective on reality. To “know” Brahman is not equivalent to having a relationship with an external personal being. Therefore, a better term than that of knowing what Ultimate Reality really is is that of experiencing unity with it, through certain meditation techniques. Meditation is a way of transcending duality through focusing consciousness on the ultimate unity of the world in Brahman, and terms such as “direct knowledge of truth” represent one’s actual experiences in meditation.
According to the doctrine of world-illusion (maya), empirical knowledge is elusive in matters of finding out ultimate truth. The senses, through which we interact with the phenomenal world, as well as mind, which operates with this data, provide confusing information when trying to grasp spiritual realities. They feed human ignorance (avidya) of the true reality, which is Brahman.
However, we can consider empirical knowledge illusory only by using an objective standard as reference against which it can be proven to be wrong. As long as the knower is inside the world of illusion, bound to it, he or she cannot know what is wrong with his empirical way of knowing. In other words, in a closed system where illusion reigns, we can prove that empirical knowledge is true or false only by having an absolute standard which does not belong to the same system. Without such an epistemological basis we cannot make objective judgments on reality. But what could be the standard for establishing the illusory value of empirical knowledge? If it is a god, a being which is external to our closed system but still able to communicate with humans, we arrive at what is called revelation in theistic religions. In this situation we should accept duality and intelligible communication inside a dualistic system, but this obviously cannot be the case in pantheism. If the required standard were an internal one, such as experience (the effect of living out “reality” in one’s personal life, or experiencing life as suffering), we arrive at another contradiction of an epistemological nature: If we knew from experience that phenomenological knowledge is false, then no room would be left for reaching “absolute knowledge” because it is always introduced and mediated by empirical, or first hand, experience. In other words, as long as all information we get about spiritual reality is mediated by our senses (sight and hearing) and mind, and these have ultimately illusory value, how can we know that the pantheist perspective itself is not a deceptive illusion itself?
As long as atman, the core entity that defines human existence, has an impersonal nature, personhood is a hindrance to attaining liberation and, consequently, has to be abolished. The oblivion of personhood does not refer only to some of its products, such as egoism, but to the very existence of the psycho-mental faculties which define it – intellect, will, emotions, consciousness, communion, etc. All these are said to belong to the inferior ego, totally distinct from the self (atman). No possible relationship can exist between them.
However, it is only personhood that makes us distinct humans and confers personal identity, not the impersonal atman devoid of any attributes. Since real freedom is experienced only at liberation it must have a different meaning from what we normally imagine. It means liberation out of personhood, not becoming a free person. So the puzzling thing is that there is no personal agent left to experience freedom when the self merges with Brahman. The raindrop has become one with the ocean. What kind of freedom can this be?
In the famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo there is the memorable scene of the creator God extending his finger to the outstretched hand of the newly formed Adam. The imagery makes clear that Adam is a creation of God, not an extension of him. Creator and creation are distinct. That is the clear understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview. In contrast to Eastern religions, where God is seen as everything (pantheism), or in everything (panentheism), the biblical teaching is that there is an eternal, personal and infinite God who is not to be confused with his creation.
For millennia the West was based on the monotheistic religions which viewed creation as the finite result of an infinite God, while the East has been shaped by monism (the belief that all is one) and pantheism. But recently these two opposing worldviews have experienced a massive crossover. There are various reasons why East and West have lost their distinctive differences, and become so entwined.
Whether it is popular films such as the Star Wars series, or bestselling New Age tomes such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, on all sides the West is being inundated with Eastern thinking and New Age concepts. The most recent – and most spectacular – example of this is the runaway hit film, Avatar. It is a classic example of the pantheistic worldview, dressed up to suit modern Western tastes. It is thus quite a part of the New Age revolution which has conquered so much of the West over the past few decades.
Part of the reason why the New Age appeals so much to Westerners is that it offers the Eastern religious system but without much of its more demanding religious and ethical emphases. People are free to choose in the New Age spirituality what they like, and little or no demands are made on them. Many of the people today who tinker with the East are really just imbibing in the New Age smorgasbord. They pick and choose those aspects which they like, and leave those which they don’t. It is all very Western really, fitting our consumerist lifestyle. Thus Eastern thoughts and concepts have very much become a part of Western life.
Indeed, they get to be God. That is the real attraction of the New Age worldview. Instead of a transcendent God with whom we must do business, and bow to, we in fact are all a part of the divine already. We just need to realize that we are already God, that we are already divine. Sadly, many Christians have bought into the explicitly non-Christian worldview as well. Many Christians seem to think they can simultaneously hold to Christianity while dabbling in New Age beliefs and practices. Indeed, how many Christians would have gone to a film like Avatar and left it all agog, without even being aware of how in so many ways it is promoting a decidedly non-biblical point of view. Of course many people have warned about how this new paganism is creeping into the churches.
It is biblical Christianity which provides the right mix between divine transcendence and divine immanence. God is wholly other and separate from us (his transcendence) and yet he chose to become one with us in the incarnation, and he dwells with those who seek to follow him (his immanence).
There is no possibility in the biblical worldview of confusing who we are and who God is. But the tendency amongst so many Westerners influenced by pantheism, Eastern thought and the New Age movement is to think we are God. That type of thinking runs counter to the entire biblical belief system. We are doubly alienated from God: first, by creation, and secondly, by sin. It is so congenial to unregenerate man because it simply means “what man says about God, and not what God does about man”. In biblical Christianity God is sovereign and we are not. No wonder people prefer pantheism. “Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images-of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.”
Ever since our first parents fell, people have been looking for a way to get back to God, but on their own terms. The way of the cross is simply too hard and too demanding for many. But a worldview which tells us we are already God, well, that is something most people can readily sign up for. But it is a false path to salvation. There is only one path whereby we can get right with God, and that path goes through a hill with a cross on it, and it goes through a person, Jesus Christ. The masses may marvel at the God-is-everything philosophy of a film like Avatar, but only those who have come to an end of themselves will realize that reunion with god is something that God decides and God lays out the specs for.
Philosophies like the New Age readily appeal to us. They allow us the right to set the boundaries and determine the rules. They assume mankind is already alive and part of the divine. Biblical Christianity, by contrast, assumes that we are all spiritually dead and alienated from God. That is why Christ came – not to tell us we are already part of the divine, but to show us how to flee the wrath to come, and how to become who we were truly meant to be.