In defense of pantheism

Devadatta

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There’s quite a decent discussion of pantheism at the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pantheism/). One of its most important points is that the distinction between pantheism and theism shouldn’t be seen in terms of immanence/transcendence but simply in the presence or absence of a more or less anthropomorphic God that stands outside of nature, a Being beyond being(s). Pantheism says that “God” in this sense is a projection of our direct experience of transcendence, and may therefore be skilful means for spiritual practice but is not strictly necessary or literally existent. Theism says that all being is incoherent without an underlying Being, a first cause, and that this first cause is not only accessible in some way to human consciousness, but is accessible as a kind of person.

There appears in fact to be three fundamental spiritual dispositions, the pantheist, the theist, and the renunciant. They overlap & mix in the major religious traditions, and even within individuals, but I think in general most of us have minds that give off predominantly one of these three scents. My mind is very clearly scented pantheist.

For me, pantheism is really the baseline of all spiritual experience. If you can’t find some trace of the transcendent in your immediate experience then the idea of any sort of transcendent Other is off the table. So I think all spiritual life begins with pantheism. The problem then becomes one of practice, and how that practice becomes socialized & institutionalized.

Pantheism is hard to handle straight up, nakedly. (Infinity in the palm of your hand is a little frightening, when you think about it.) It requires skilful means, in the Buddhist sense (or more negatively pious frauds in the old Catholic sense). So that’s why pantheism has never existed on its own, as a separate religion, but only as a subversive strand in religions that are otherwise theistic or renunciatory (the Abrahamic faiths, (Buddhism, as the outstanding examples).

So pantheists traditionally use a lot of the same institutional means but toward different ends – or maybe it’s the case that pantheists are not all that interested in “ends”.

The big picture might help. In the grand schemes of divine emanation you find in most traditions – Vendantic, Neoplatonic, Kabbalistic, etc. – the details vary but the general drift is the same: we travel from luminosity to luminosity. From original luminosity we break down into creation; from creation we slowly reascend to final (but still original) luminosity.

The simple distinction is that while theists and renunciants are focussed on getting to, or back, to the luminosity – theists in God’s good time, renunciants asap - pantheists are in no hurry. Silly folks that they are, they say that we’ve never left the luminosity, that not only is creation not a fallen world but that the universe seems to have no other purpose but to create, and to create something novel at every instant.

Pantheists have had many great friends over the ages, from Chuang-tze to Spinoza; in the last century they had Henri Bergson. His Creative Evolution, with its vital pulse, illustrates what I’m saying here. Before Bergson, there were two prevalent spiritual views of human history: the Judeo-Christian linear lockstep to judgement day, and the “oriental” vision of vast tedious cycles with endlessly interchangeable parts. Bergson celebrates neither the forced march nor the repetition but the vital moment, endlessly renewed.

Sincerely,
Devadatta
 
A good post!

the Judeo-Christian linear lockstep to judgement day

There is some discussion in Catholic circles that the 'age' in which we live is but one of many ages - there is a correlation between God as the 'Ancient of days' and 'Lord of Ages'.

The contra argument is that 'ages' refers to temporal divisions within a given cycle.

The balance is between a certain 'plasticity' of thought that is the genius of the East, compared to a cerrtain 'legislative' nature, with its own mode of theological speculation, that is the genius of the West.

Overall the Judeo-Christian-Moslem 'lockstep' refers to the notion that each age 'returns to the source of its arising', and thus that each subsequent age begins, as it were, 'with a clean slate'.

Speculating further, I would say that the principle of 'the person', which is a subjective experience of an objective recognition of a mode of being, and which is foundational to the J-C-M line, belongs to that age, as it does, within it, to every given mode of (self-)conscious manifestation.

None of this is to gainsay your excellent post.

Thomas
 
Great post Devadatta, I am especially enamored of your view on the "involution/evolution" idea. Today, Religious Science holds a similar view and points back to the trancendentalist movement as its spiritual root. The more time I spend in meditation on these things the less I can argue philosophically, yet just beyond the horizon of cognition lies a truth that can be brushed with my fingertips yet not spoken of. Intuitively it makes sense that everything is tied inextricably together, there not being that and this, subject and object. Yet my conventional experience shows a duality that would be madness to deny. I am beginning to think that the difference between conventional and absolute IS the illusion, just as the trickle from melting snow at some point becomes a stream. It is difficult then to separate the stream from the snow.
 
Thomas said:
There is some discussion in Catholic circles that the 'age' in which we live is but one of many ages - there is a correlation between God as the 'Ancient of days' and 'Lord of Ages'.

Ah, Catholic circles. Not another Popish plot, I hope! But that’s the glory of the Catholic tradition, isn’t it, that so much intellectual activity goes on even within orthodoxy? I stumbled across a book some time back that even brings Derrida-type deconstruction into the service of theology. (Although I guess this isn’t so surprising since others have long pointed out that deconstruction is a kind of super-scepticism, which often has no exit except through a leap of faith.)


Thomas said:
The balance is between a certain 'plasticity' of thought that is the genius of the East, compared to a cerrtain 'legislative' nature, with its own mode of theological speculation, that is the genius of the West.

That’s a useful & diplomatic distinction. But I guess I would add that “plasticity” is a little vague in meaning, and that back of Abrahamic legalism is a kind of ideological, political engagement which is the real point of difference between, for example, the Levant and (traditional) India. I’ve been sort of a crusader (!?!) for stressing the ideological core of the Abrahamic faiths, which many find uncomfortable or unhelpful. But in the end, I think you might agree, there’s invariably a close association between the greatest strength/virtue and the greatest weakness/defect. I think there’s ultimate benefit in recognizing the problem of ideology in turning it to its best use, east & west.

Thomas said:
Speculating further, I would say that the principle of 'the person', which is a subjective experience of an objective recognition of a mode of being, and which is foundational to the J-C-M line, belongs to that age, as it does, within it, to every given mode of (self-)conscious manifestation.

I believe I follow you here. But I’m not certain of what you mean by tying this particular experience of Being to “an age”. Are you saying that in some other cosmic age sentient beings will experience Being under radically different conditions?

Sincerely,
Devadatta
 
Paladin said:
Great post Devadatta, I am especially enamored of your view on the "involution/evolution" idea. Today, Religious Science holds a similar view and points back to the trancendentalist movement as its spiritual root. The more time I spend in meditation on these things the less I can argue philosophically, yet just beyond the horizon of cognition lies a truth that can be brushed with my fingertips yet not spoken of. Intuitively it makes sense that everything is tied inextricably together, there not being that and this, subject and object. Yet my conventional experience shows a duality that would be madness to deny. I am beginning to think that the difference between conventional and absolute IS the illusion, just as the trickle from melting snow at some point becomes a stream. It is difficult then to separate the stream from the snow.

You’re so right. This is perhaps the ultimate axis of all spiritual struggle. But I think the dilemma was put most nakedly by Nagarjuna & the Madhyamikas. And what you’ve said here is right in line with that tradition. In ultimate terms, the conventional IS the absolute. Or you might say that to posit an absolute, any “Being” underlying phenomena (or to which phenomena points) is an evasion/obscuration of the direct experience of actuality or reality, i.e., enlightenment. But with these comments I’m no doubt already violating the rigor of the Madhyamika, ruthless dudes that they are.

But of course this can be put more simply, even theistically, as Bergson does, when he says that there are no things only actions. In that sense, God is no object, let alone a person, but pure activity. In the beginning was the Word, or logos. Pragmatically, the Word doesn’t express activity. It is activity: “let there be light”. As a sign, the Word is a trace of completed action, a finger pointing at the moon; or better, a sign that melts away in the presence of the moon. In either case, the Word is essentially not a thing but an activity, a process.

But of course the paradox you point to is that we experience this process through a succession of “things”. Not only that, the seat of enlightenment/salvation is precisely the intersection of these two levels of experience. An old adage of Buddhists is that human birth is precious exactly because only here is enlightenment possible. Buddhists chant “not-self, not-self” ad infinitum but the tradition itself reveals that what is really at stake is the transformation of this problematical self from clinging concept to pure activity. As they say, without ordinary sentient beings there are no Buddhas. Or as that crazy old William Blake said, “eternity is in love with the productions of time”.

Sincerely,
Devadatta
 
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