Pantheism and theism
We can philosophically divide spiritual beliefs into three general views, though this sketch can only be simplistic. These views are: the pan-view, the theist-view, and the trans-view.
This can be simply defined according to those who profess to be pantheists. This folk definition of a pantheist is one who believes that nature and the whole universe if divine. And since anything other than this universe and nature would have to be relegated to speculation, this manifest existence is the only reality worthy of ‘worship’. In other words, if we are to worship or sacredly revere anything, it ought to be the nature of life all around us, which also sustains our own living existence. This is where we are, and this nature is where we were born from; so this natural reality - our universe and world - is the ultimate Mother most worthy of sacred reverence.
The natural qualities of humanness are also worthy of sacred respect, as well as the animal qualities found in the world. So humanity, as well as all other living creatures, are worthy of sacred respect; and there is no theological idea of sinfulness or evil nature in this pantheistic view. For instead of God being beyond us, there is no God but Mother Nature.
The pan-view, or pantheism, is the general belief that the manifest universe is God, and God is the manifest universe. There is no God but that which is here existing; nothing outside of existence, no supernatural Being beyond this knowable existence. Pantheists revere and worship natural creation, rather than a god or an Idea [of God] outside of this creation, and the pantheist general ethic is to respect all lives of eco/nature and maximize interconnectivity and cooperation. Also, understand the sciences of nature and live most naturally (vs. artificially).
We can understand the pan-view from both not-this (denial) and is-this (affirmation) statements. There is no supernatural god outside of or beyond the universe, and this universe is completely what God is. What is outstandingly positive about the pan-view is its supreme reverence for this knowable existence, which for the most part is this earth life. This life on earth, the natural world, is the supreme sacred subject in the pan-view. Earth is the only sacred place, not some heaven of a different dimension. The highest and only Spirit is right here, in this life and through this world. So the natural world, including us because we are also natural, is the spiritual world; and all lives of earth-nature are sacred and have spirit within them. We come from nature-earth. This is our only true home. The lives here are our family, our relations. From here we arose. Here we belong. To here we give.
Now it is possible to have a purely physical pan-view, which believes that mind and ethical-spiritual values all derive from just physical existence. This would be philosophically consistent with a physical existentialism and the modern scientific physicalist paradigm. But a pan-view can also incorporate spiritualist beliefs; for instance that there are invisible spirits in nature and that living physical forms are outward manifestations of non-physical souls. Often included in this spiritualist pan-view is the belief that physical nature is imbued with Spirit-Mind – which includes attributes of consciousness, intelligence, love, and creative will. So the pan-view can be sub-divided into a physical based view and a spiritual-mind based view. And in this division is the debate whether mind and intelligence derives from a purely physical evolution, or if physical evolution is at least somewhat guided by a Mind-Intelligence of Nature ontologically preceding the physical. Is mind merely an evolution of physical bodies, or is physical evolution under the guidance of a Nature-Mind ?
Pantheists, in general, can thus be divided into two main camps, though both have essential similarities. With both there is an emotional reverence for the intelligence, beauty and power found in nature, as well as a profound feeling of belonging and oneness with the natural world. Yet a physical pantheist upholds a physicalist scientific paradigm, that mind and intelligence and empathetic love are natural evolutions from physical entities, and also adheres to the biological theory of natural selection. The physical-based pantheist, sometimes called a scientific pantheist, holds a naturalistic perspective and a belief that life evolves organically from just physical substance. Now this is essentially the same view as a non-theistic (or atheistic) scientific view, so it could be argued that a scientific pantheist is not a theist at all. But what distinguishes this from a mere atheistic view is that the physical-scientific pantheist has a feeling-sense of a spiritual dimension in life, though this spiritual sense naturally arises from physical laws and our existential situation. The scientific pantheist is experiencing and celebrating a spiritual-sacred aesthetic in nature, and holding an especially high value for natural beauty and intelligence. There is a spiritual-sacred dimension in the pantheist’s experience, but this spiritual dimension and experience is believed to have evolved out from a physical-base rather than being ontologically prior to the physical. So this is not merely a flat, valueless scientific view without heart, which gives reason for it being categorized as spiritual; but there is no assumption in this view of any supernatural god or mind that is creating or designing life as it is.
The spiritual-based pantheist, on the other hand, believes that physical lives and evolution arises from the will and intelligence of a monotheistic Being called Nature, or Mother Earth; or if this pantheism is polytheistic then there is a plurality of independent autonomous spirits, or powers, interacting on Earth. A middle sub-division of the spiritual pantheist, between strict monotheism and radical pluralism, is the reconciling view that there are multiple nature-powers (spirits) interacting with some degree of independence yet interconnected in a general integrated way and under the general guidance of an encompassing [Mono] Spirit-Intelligence of Earth.
But let us briefly finish our outline of all three spiritual views. The theist-view can be found in traditionalist western religions. Though there are subtle differences of view within this greater view; the general theist view is that this world (or universe) we live in is a creation of the Great God – Who is beyond and independent of this world. Thus, the absolute reality of God is metaphysically separate from the world we live in, and fundamentally different from nature. God created nature, or the world (or universe), and nature is always dependent on God while God is always independent of nature. We are speaking here of monotheism; for polytheism and dual-theism contain more than one supreme power, though these views also uphold a definite gulf between world and Spirit.
There are four main debates within this general theist-view. One debate is whether God as Influencing Spirit pervades our world, or whether God creates the world but then leaves it to be. Most people would believe in the former, while science is more akin to the latter. Another debate is whether God is sensitive to and feeling the world, including our sufferings, or if God is beyond such emotional empathy. And the other debate is whether God volitionally wills creation and makes decisions about what shall be, without any internal necessity; or whether God’s creative decisions and power springs forth from the internal necessity of God’s own Nature – in other words, God cannot help but create under the principles of reason and compassion because that is how God naturally is. A forth debate is whether everything is exactly determined by God - either predestined or immediately decided each moment; or if God allows varying degrees of freedom, without absolute predestination or without divine micro-management.
The third spiritual view can be called a trans-spiritual view, though also called panentheism. This view is philosophical between the other two views; it has some properties from both in it. Like the other views there are subtle sub-distinctions within this larger view, but generally it can be defined as a belief that our world is completely sacred, permeated with God/Spirit, yet within the metaphysically greater Being known as God. This world is in God, and God is in this world; yet God is not just identical with this world, but instead, the Full Reality of God/Being is more and greater than this world.
This trans-view generally holds that God is di-polar, meaning that God can only be rightly understood by logically distinguishing two aspects of God. God is the Transcendent Absolute-Essence-Source which is independent of creation, yet IT is the Essence/Being from which creation emanates. The other aspect is God-Immanent, whereby creation is God in this Immanent aspect. This side of God-Reality is temporal, changing, unpredictable and undetermined. Absolute Eternal Essence and the temporal, relative, everchanging, creative manifestation are both God, yet in different aspects or modes of Being.
This trans-view is more radically non-dualistic than the theist-view, though maintaining a complementing duality or di-polarity of God-Being. It should not be merely equated with the moderate theistic view of divine immanence that the Transcendent God is pervading creation as the Presence of Holy Spirit or as divine grace, like sweet perfume drifting through air. This theistic view is sort of similar to the panentheistic view, except that a panentheist would clarify that the very air we breathe, the bodies we are, all of nature, all of manifestation, all of creation, is actually God Itself though distinguishable from God as Absolute-Essence-Source. An analogy would be that God Absolute is like the Sun and creation is the light-energy-matter emanating from this Sun. Or that God Absolute is the eternal reservoir of [Potential] creative power and intelligence, while the natural world of creation is how this Divine Potential has actualized in time and space.
It is more simple to say that God is the Source and creation is what naturally emanates from this Source; but creation should be understood as none other than God – though it is distinguishable from the Transcendent Absolute aspect. The Transcendent Essence maintains its eternal Self-Independence and also Singularity; even as the plurality of creation unfolds from IT and within IT. Additionally, the Absolute Essence is ontologically prior or primary in relation to the manifest world; thus the temporal and everchanging manifestation is dependent on God-Absolute, but God-Absolute does not depend on the manifest world – except in the sense that manifestation is an essential Purpose intrinsic in Absolute Being, so without a manifested world God would not be fulfilled, the very Purpose and Nature of God would be cramped.
…. Within the Absolute is subsisting Purpose, Will, Intelligence, and Love. Yet from the perspective of creation these are Potentials, to be actualized through creation and the beings of creation.
Merits of pantheism
Pantheism has special merit to consider because of its absolute spiritual focus in nature itself and in this life on Earth. The concentration of this focus in nature, without being sidetracked by otherworldly religious concepts and beliefs, helps bring about a more intense respect and reverence for the natural world we are in, and it can also bring about an intense spiritual and aesthetic experience of being right in here within the Sacred, right here on Earth. So even if one believes there is more to spiritual existence than what pantheism suggests, its special focus and emphasis is of great value to consider and is also a way to more directly experience one’s belonging-ness in this life
Pantheism places ultimate value on this life and these living processes, instead of an abstract notion of God or some other kind of salvation or an afterlife, all of which requires faith rather than common sense. Pantheism does not require religious creeds or complicated stories about what is good or how to achieve salvation. The important story is right here involving life and evolution, and all that is good is right here in possibility on Earth. It’s not anywhere else. There is no other place to be; no idealized heavenly place apart from the possibilities of this world.
Pantheism fully accepts being here in life and fully accepts the very sacredness of nature. By nature is meant the living ecology of human, animal, plant and mineral parts of Earth, as well as all of the physical universe we are in and the natural laws of this universe. This nature we are in, which includes our own self-nature, is the reality to be revered and considered sacred. Human beings are in and of nature, not apart from nature. We are part of nature, not above it, nor alien to it. Thus, we ourselves are part of the sacred reality; yet, so are all other parts of life. So, we see ourselves as part of a greater life, a greater wholeness, a greater relational process. So our spiritual reverence is for this greater life we are in, and our spiritual consideration is for all the lives that are here and for the larger ecological relations. For this world is the divine, is the sacred, is the spiritual, and we are right in it and part of it.
Thus, the spiritual is fully immanent right here in life, in all of nature, so pantheism’s reverence is towards nature, not anywhere else. The beauty and mysterious specialness of our natural world is sacredly revered, as well as the amazing intelligence at work in living beings and processes. Life’s intelligence, beauty, mystery and power, evokes in us a natural awe, wonder, and reverence in the presence of it all. At times we might be intellectually amazed by this wondrous working of nature. At other times we might feel an aesthetic enjoyment and reverence for nature, for its beauty and wonder.
The Values of pantheism are life, beauty, enjoyment, love, freedom, and cooperation. Its Ethic is to value actions that are life sustaining, life enhancing, life loving, life harmonizing, and life beautifying. Personal enjoyment is a natural value, rather than something to suppress or efface for some abstract religious or spirituality ideal. Although, we still need to ethically consider the enjoyments and freedoms of others, not just of our own self; which at times might require some degree of sacrifice of personal enjoyment for the good of the larger whole. Pantheism is not simply a personal hedonistic philosophy, even though it does value personal enjoyment, because the Larger Value in pantheism is the greater filed of all life. In other words, we are part of a Greater Life, so along with reverence for this Greater Life we also have ethical responsibility in it. The reverence in pantheism is more towards the Greater Life, or the Whole, than it is the personal self, myself. There is some degree of natural reverence for myself and ethical value for my own enjoyment, but only because I am a part of the Ultimate Value – which is the Whole Greater Life.
So the ultimate focus and value-placed reverence is on the larger field of nature, of which I am just one participant. Thus, I myself am not the Ultimate Value nor the ultimate consideration. Neither is any other human being, and neither is humanity as a whole, because humanity is not the whole of Life either, but merely just one part. This non-anthropomorphic centricism, whereby human beings are not the all-important issue, nor spiritually supreme in relation to all other lives, is another significant distinction of pantheism from most religions.
This earth and its nature is felt to be sacred or spiritual. We can actually feel the sacred spirituality of nature. How? Because we are of nature ourselves. Everyone in life has a potential capacity to be sensitive to all other forms of life, because we are all connected by one unitive natural life energy. Therefore, we each have a sensitive capacity to feel the energies and feelings of others, including non-human life. Also, recognize that we humans are evolutionary branches from the same earthy roots as all other life on this planet, which further explains how we are intimately related and sensitively connected.
So, because of our physical and evolutionary relatedness to all other life, we can naturally feel at-ONE with all life and all that is here. Thus, a pantheist can experience mystical union with all life. This similar but somewhat different from mystical experience with God. The similarity is of course the mystical experience of oneness, but one should also remember that God is life – though traditional theism might be inclined to argue against this. The mystics of religion realize that God is life, and also that God is here – having presence in the world right here. Dualistic theists might hold that God is separate from life and this world, but mystics who realize their union with God know that God is here in life, or that life is God’s Expression.
Nature is our mother, our home, our past and our future. We belong here. This is home. Too many religious and spiritual teachings have suggested that this is not our real home and that we belong elsewhere; in heaven or perhaps in some higher dimension. Some have said that we are here to perform some kind of penitence for our sins or for our karma, or because our consciousness is so lowly; otherwise we would be somewhere else, of much greater grandeur. This are teachings that denigrate this earth and warp our natural sense of being at home. These false teachings make us feel alienated on this earth and alienate us from the rest of life here. The Truth is that this IS our home. And this IS where we belong. Our circumstances right now may be ideal, and we can easily see many problems here at this time and also in the past. So this is not a perfect home. But nonetheless, it is our home. And part of our purpose being here is to make this whole place a better home!
Pantheism does not buy into some of the key assumptions of theistic religions. For example, it does not believe that a wise and lovingly-good Godly Power is handing out or measuring out all circumstances and events; for this would mean that terrible weather, famines, and other natural disasters were from this God. Moreover, if all circumstances and events were God-created, then human caused events would also be God created. And if this is so, then human freedom is also in question. And where is the love and good and wisdom and divine justice in much of what happens? Such theistic assumptions fall easily apart with common sense reason, unless these beliefs are artificially enforced by religious conditioning and emotionally stimulated rhetoric.
Pantheism does not need worry about these inherent problems and inconsistencies in traditional monotheisms. In fact, it does require any super-structures of other-worldly deities or powers, thus avoiding all complicated meta-religious dogmas and dimensions. Pantheism simply accepts that natural events are caused by natural causes, as explained by natural science.
Things happen because of a vast complicated set of natural causes; not by an almighty dictating God, nor by a pluralism of believed deities. And these natural events are not of a divine Plan, in the sense of everything that happens was planned out beforehand. And of course, many events and circumstances are actually caused by human beings or by societies; as many examples of human poverty and suffering are caused by capitalistic outcomes or by tribal greed, though socialism can also produce its own set of problems. So the causes of these problems and sufferings are not from a God dictating upon us from a separate dimension. The problems are from right here; either by natural forces that are indifferent to our distinct human interests, or by other humans who are indifferent to the needs of other people. Yet the solutions are here as well. We must work right here to gather help in order to make solutions. We should not waste time believing that God will take care of it all.
Pantheism does not accept the varying and often contradicting religious beliefs about evil. Evil is not merely an illusion, in the belief that all is divinely Good, Merciful, Wise and Just. Neither is evil some kind of Entity or Force in the world, in opposition to God the Good. Instead, evil – which is just a word referring to actions that seem diabolically awful – is the result of human actions based on either stupidity, greed, or mental illness, or some combination of these. Natural calamities, which are not usually labeled as evil anyways, are the result of natural causes. Nature is just doing its own thing – which is not always or necessarily ideal for us.
The "justice" of nature is simply causal. If nature affects our life, whether it be for good or bad, this is not some kind of directed intention upon us. It is a human psychological narcissism to think that the events around us from nature are being intentionally directed to us; yet this is the overall belief in theistic religions. In truth, nature is working along its own necessity. Tectonic plates are moving as they must, by the natural forces at work. Weather is moving as it must, by the natural forces at work. Plants and animals are manifesting according to the natural forces and natural intelligence at work in them. They are doing what they are doing, according their nature; and we can either work with them, work around them, or work against them. But the biggest difference between us humans and the rest of nature is that we have the unique capacity to make brand new inventive decisions – to change, to alter course, and even to change our own behavior.
SCIENCE has limits in its Scope
This is not to deny the cogent theories of modern science. Of course, any theory of science is difficult to prove absolutely and, as is well known, many beliefs of science throughout history are found to be wrong and are then replaced by new theories or beliefs. This presented metaphysics and theology is not incompatible with physical and biological science, and it is not opposed to the modern scientific quest. It’s only disagreement would be that physical/bio science is not sufficient to explain all of what life is about, and that physical/bio scientific theories are limited both in their scope of permissible questions and permissible evidence. Such limitations are logical and needed for these sciences, so this is not a scolding, but we need to realize the limitations of the scientific scope. Philosophy, metaphysics, theology, intuition and heart, are all ways to make quests to reach past these limitations. Though no one should expect these quests to be as rigorous in evidence as is science, because these intuitional quests are attempting to go beyond the limited scope of science. Additionally, in this arena there are no absolute authorities of truth just as there are no absolute evidences, so each person will have to judge or decide what is true by themselves, by their own intuition, heart, reasoning, personal experience, and also by taking into consideration scientific evidences. Any Metaphysics needs to be at least compatible with physical science and not show contradictions with science. Yet there can be a certain kind of disagreement, not with the empirical evidences of science, but with some of science’s presuppositions and theoretical conclusions which are really only based on its presuppositions.
For example, if a science-minded authority were to say that the physical world is all that exists and there is nothing else; then one might ask how this conclusion is known. There is no empirical evidence for this; it is beyond the provable possibilities of science and is thus a metaphysical belief. It is also a conclusion that is really just its own presupposition. All that physical science can say with any sufficient certainty is that its theories explain, without any contradiction, the empirical evidences found in physical measurements. It uses physical evidences to create and support theories of physics and biology. But it cannot make any scientific claims beyond what can be inferred from these physical evidences. Therefore, it cannot delve into questions or realms beyond the limitations of physical measurement and physical instruments of observation. If it does delve beyond its empirical limitations, it is delving into metaphysical speculation, and if it does this then it cannot claim an empirical superiority over other metaphysics or even over religion.
Another example of science breaching beyond its scope is if it were to claim that there is no Consciousness and no transcendental Intelligence pervading the universe. It could say cogently that there is no sufficient scientific evidence for this conclusion, but it cannot claim that it is not true. It can claim that a belief is unproven or even unprovable, but it cannot claim that the belief is untrue – because this would be just as much an unprovable claim. Unless of course the belief directly contradicted scientific evidences, for then one can cogently say that the belief is untrue (untrue by the evidences of science), but if the belief is simply beyond the scope of scientific inquiry then science cannot have anything to conclude about it – except that it is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.
Take one more example. Suppose that science claims that this existence has no a priori purpose, or that the universe came about by accident or by probabilities, or that consciousness and life on earth is purely an accident, the fate of just physical causes. What evidence does science have for these kinds of statements? None at all. Indeed, these are merely the presuppositions of science, the starting assumptions of science – which themselves are unsupported by direct evidence. Science is amazing in its quest and in its discoveries, but all that it can ever claim as true is in the very limited scope of physical data and measurements. Within this scope, science can make reasonable and agreeable theories of truth based on physical empirical evidence (it cannot allow mental empirical evidence because this cannot be verified as objective – as not merely subjective) , and it can also claim that a theory sufficiently explains the evidences – in the simplest manner, without complicated extra variables or ambiguous entities/particles or energies.
So in the final argument between science and metaphysics (and also theology), science can claim that its own physical/bio theories can sufficiently explain life in the most simplest manner, and thus it can also say that other claims by metaphysics or by theology are unnecessary and unnecessarily complicated. They can coherently claim this, but they cannot coherently claim that the other views are provably wrong. Thus, scientists tend to fall into an insistence that truth has to be the most simplest idea and that more complicated ideas of truth ought to be abandoned. This is the real basis of the scientific argument against other views – that they are unnecessarily complicated with entities or energies unprovable. Simplicity is of course a great virtue, but is it a necessary cornerstone of reality?
A strictly scientific view of nature/reality is often seen in opposition to a spiritual view. Of all the spiritual views, the physicalist pan-view is most compatible with a scientific view, while theist-views can be less compatible. But we should be cautious here about over-generalizing, because any view can often be adjusted to accommodate other ideas. The scientific view of the universe is that it has been slowly transforming and organizing into interacting systems, from very large to very small, and that these systems of energy have no consciousness, no will of their own, and are not being guided or designed by any super-universal Intelligence; rather, these systems are fundamentally interacting and transforming by random chance, though natural forces [non-conscious, unintelligence forces) such as gravity bring systems together into some organized stability. Scientists keep refining theories for how the universe and also biological life evolve into organized systems; in other how does order derive from chaos, and how does intelligence derive from unintelligence?
The scientific theory of evolution is intended to explain how purely physical matter could transform into reproductive biological systems within a greater biosphere and also evolve into super-complex intelligent life-forms, without any trans-physical force and guidance. The scientific view is not assuming any super-intelligence or guiding power that is transcendental and a priori to the physical universe and to biosphere; so they need to explain how order, organization, and intelligence can naturally evolve from exploded random energy and mere chance. Theists often look at the scientific endeavor and smugly criticize any weaknesses of scientific inference and theory. But a popular misconception about science is that it is necessarily opposed to spiritual or metaphysical theories. Science is not necessarily opposed to these non-physicalist theories; it is just that spiritual or metaphysical beliefs (‘theories’) are untestable and unverifiable by physical evidence. In other words, metaphysical causal theories cannot be tested by physical methods and evidences; so these theories or ideas are beyond the scientific endeavor. For example, there may be intelligent purpose and design at work in natural evolution, but it is empirically impossible to verify this on just physical grounds for evidence. Science and also logic cannot disprove a spiritual-based belief, but nor can it prove it. So science and empirical reasoning has to work with what can be verified and proven, and refrain from bringing in the unverifiable. Spiritual and religious beliefs can be viewed, scientifically, as possible truths, for science has never disproved the overall spiritual view of life. All that scientific theory has accomplished, and hopes to accomplish, is a consistent and verifiable explanation for how nature works – without having to assume any extra-physical or Supernatural powers and intelligence. And if science can accomplish a consistent and verifiable explanation (theory) on just physical grounds (without having to invoke any mysterious, spiritual or supernatural forces) – that is, based just on reasonable inferences and inductive generalizations based on just sensorial observation and physical data – then this would seem good enough. If everything were consistently explained by just physical-scientific theory, then this does raise doubt about any additional spiritual forces being necessary for the way things are. The scientific theory would not completely disprove spiritual theories, but it would raise reasonable skepticism about such spiritual forces that are not even needed to explain the way this physical universe behaves. We might still need some spiritual theory to explain profound inward experiences and extraordinary ethical choices, but this is another subject all together.
To add: spiritual or metaphysical theories can be compatible with scientific theories or with physical evidence, and not be disproved by physical evidence; but they are not induced by just physical evidence (as is science) nor necessarily verified by physical evidence.