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"Pantheism" is a doctrine that usually occurs in a religious and philosophical context in which there are already tolerably clear conceptions of God and of the universe and the question has arisen how these two conceptions are related. It is, of course, easy to read pantheistic doctrines back into unsophisticated texts in which the concept of the divine remains unclarified, but it is wise to be skeptical about the value of such a reading. Some commentators have confidently ascribed pantheistic views to the Eleatics simply because they assert that what is, is one. But even if one considers Xenophanes, the most plausible candidate for such an ascription, it is clear that considerable care must be exercised. Thales and Anaximenes had some idea of objects in the world being infused with a divine power or substance that conferred life and movement. Xenophanes took over this idea and added to it a critique of Homeric and Hesiodic polytheism, attacking both their anthropomorphism and the immorality in which they involved the gods; his own consequent view of deity remains mysterious, however. Aristotle said that Xenophanes "with his eye on the whole world said that the One was god," but he also complained that Xenophanes "made nothing clear." It seems likely that Xenophanes, like other early Greek thinkers, did not distinguish clearly between asserting that an object was divine and asserting that a divine power informed the object's movement.

A failure by commentators themselves to observe this distinction makes it misleadingly easy to present both earlier pre-Socratic and later Stoic philosophers as recruits to the ranks of pantheism. But even Marcus Aurelius, the only notable thinker among them who can plausibly be represented as a pantheist, when he addressed the Universe itself as a deity did not clearly address it in the sense of all that is rather than in the sense of some principle of order that informs all that is.

Vedic Pantheism

As in Greek thought, the approach to pantheism in Indian thought is a systematic critique of polytheism. Although there are also conceptions of a god who reigns as the highest deityIndra at one time held this positionwhat emerged with the growth of theological reflection was the notion of Brahman. Brahman is the single, infinite reality, indefinable and unchanging, behind the illusory changing world of perceived material objects. The equation of plurality and change with imperfection is an assumption of the Vedanta teachings. From it there is drawn a proof of the illusory character of the material world, as well as of its imperfection. Were the material world real, it must, being neither self-existent nor eternal, have originated from Brahman. But if Brahman were such that from within it what is multifarious, changing, and therefore imperfect could arise, then Brahman would be imperfect. And what is imperfect cannot be Brahman.

We take the illusory for the real because our knowledge is itself tainted with imperfections. Our ordinary knowledge is such that knower and known, subject and object, are distinct. But to know Brahman would be for subject and object to become identical; it would be to attain a knowledge in which all distinctions were abolished and in which what is known would therefore be inexpressible. Two features of the pantheism of the Vedanta scholars deserve comment. The first is the affinity between their logical doctrines and those of F. H. Bradley, whose treatment of the realm of appearance is precisely parallel to the Vedanta treatment of the realm of illusion (māyā ); Bradley's Absolute resembles Brahman chiefly in that both must be characterized negatively. As with Bradley's doctrine, the natural objection to Vedanta pantheism is to ask how, if Brahman is perfect and unchangeable, even the illusions of finitude, multiplicity, and change can have arisen. The Vedanta doctrine's answer is circular: Ignorance (lack of enlightenment) creates illusion. But it is, of course, illusion that fosters the many forms of ignorance.

Yet if the explanation of illusion is unsatisfactory, at least the cure for it is clear; the Vedanta doctrine is above all practical in its intentions. It will be noteworthy in the discussion of other and later pantheisms how often pantheism is linked to doctrines of mystical and contemplative practice. The separateness of the divine and the human, upon which monotheists insist, raises sharply the problem of how man can ever attain true unity with the divine. Those contemplative and mystical experiences, common to many religions, for whose description the language of a union between human and divine seems peculiarly appropriateat least to those who have enjoyed these experiencesfor that very reason create problems for a monotheistic theology, problems that have often been partly resolved by an approach to pantheistic formulations. It is at least plausible to argue that the essence of the Vedanta doctrine lies in its elucidation of mystical experience rather than in any use of metaphysical argument for purely intellectual ends.

Western Pantheism to Spinoza

The pantheism of the Vedanta argues that because God is All and One, what is many is therefore illusory and unreal. The characteristic pantheism and near pantheism of the European Middle Ages proceeded, by contrast, from the view that because God alone truly is, all that is must in some sense be God, or at least a manifestation of God. Insofar as this view implies a notion of true being at the top of a scale of degrees of being, its ancestry is Platonic or Neoplatonic. It would be difficult to call Neoplatonism itself pantheistic because although it views the material world as an emanation from the divine, the fallen and radically imperfect and undivine character of that world is always emphasized.

erigena and averroes

However, the translation of Neoplatonic themes of emanation into Christian terms by John Scotus Erigena (c. 810c. 877) resulted in De Divisione Naturae, which was condemned as heretical precisely because of its break with monotheism. It might be argued that Erigena does not seem to be wholly pantheistic in that he did not treat every aspect of nature as part of the divine in the same way and to the same degree. This would be misleading, however, for on this criterion no thinker could ever be judged a pantheist.

According to Erigena the whole, natura, is composed of four species of being: that which creates and is not created, that which is created and creates, that which is created and does not create, and that which is not created and does not create. The first is God as creator; the last, God as that into which all created beings have returned. The second and third are the created universe, which is in process of passing from God in his first form to God in his last form. Erigena wrote as if each class of beings belongs to a different period in a historical unfolding, but he also treated this as a misleading but necessary form of expression. Natura is eternal; the whole process is eternally present; and everything is a theophania, a manifestation of God.

Pope Honorius III condemned De Divisione Naturae in 1225 as "pullulating with worms of heretical perversity," and much earlier Erigena's other work had been described by the Council of Valence (855) as "Irish porridge" and "the devil's invention." Clearly, part of what perturbed them was Erigena's ability to interpret in a pantheistic sense both the biblical doctrine of creation and the biblical notion of a time when God shall be all in all.

A similar problem arose for the Islamic interpreter of Aristotle, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whose discussions of the relation of human to divine intelligence aroused suspicion of pantheism and whose assertions of fidelity to the Qurʾan did not save him from condemnation. A Christian Aristotelian such as Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, was also condemned. Both Eckhart and Johannes Tauler spoke of God and man in terms of a mutual dependence that implies a fundamental unity including both. However, in every medieval case after Erigena the imputation of pantheism is at best inconclusive. Only since the sixteenth century has genuine pantheism become a recurrent European phenomena.


Giordano Bruno (15481600) was an explicitly anti-Christian pantheist. He conceived of God as the immanent cause or goal of nature, distinct from each finite particular only because he includes them all within his own being. The divine life that informs everything also informs the human mind and soul, and the soul is immortal because it is part of the divine. Since God is not distinct from the world, he can have no particular providential intentions. Since all events are equally ruled by divine law, miracles cannot occur. Whatever happens, happens in accordance with law, and our freedom consists in identifying ourselves with the course of things. The Bible, according to Bruno, insofar as it errs on these points, is simply false.


Jakob Boehme (15751624) was a shoemaker, a mystic, and a Lutheran whose wish to remain within the church was shown by the fact that to the end he received the sacraments. The pantheism of Erigena or Bruno was founded upon a view that the universe must necessarily be a single all-inclusive system if it is to be intelligible. Their pantheism derived from their ideal of explanation. Boehme, by contrast, claimed that he was merely recording what he has learned from an inward mystical illumination. He saw the foundation of all things in the divine Ungrund, in which the triad of Everything, Nothing, and the Divine Agony that results from their encounter produces out of itself a procession of less ultimate triads which constitute the natural and human world. Boehme made no distinction between nature and spirit, for he saw nature as entirely the manifestation of spirit. It is not at all clear in what sense the propositions that Boehme advanced can have been the record of vision; it is clear that both in claiming authority for his vision and in the content of his doctrine he was bound to encounter, as he did, the condemnation of the Lutheran clergy.


Benedict de Spinoza's pantheism had at least three sources: his ideal of human felicity, his concept of explanation, and his notion of the degrees of human knowledge. His explicit aim was to discover a good that would be independent of all the ordinary contingencies of chance and misfortune. Only that which is capable of completely filling and occupying the mind can be the supreme good in Spinoza's sense. The only knowledge that could satisfy these requirements would be the knowledge that the mind is part of the total system of nature and is at one with it when recognizing that everything is as it must be. Felicity is the knowledge of necessity, for if the mind can accept the necessity of its own place in the whole ordering of things, there will be room neither for rebellion nor for complaint. Thus, from the outset Spinoza's characterization of the supreme good required that his philosophy exhibit the whole universe as a single connected system.

So it is with his concept of explanation. To explain anything is to demonstrate that it cannot be other than it is. To demonstrate this entails laying bare the place of what is to be explained within a total system. Spinoza made no distinction between contingent causal connections and necessary logical connections. A deductive system in which every proposition follows from a set of initial axioms, postulates, and definitions mirrors the structure of the universe, in which every finite mode of existence exemplifies the pattern of order that derives from the single substance, Deus, sive natura (God, or nature). There can be only one substance, not a multiplicity of substances, for Spinoza so defined the notion of substance that the relation of a property to the substance of which it is a property is necessary, and therefore intelligible and explicable; however, the relation of one substance to another must be external and contingent, and therefore unintelligible and inexplicable. But for Spinoza it is unintelligible that what is unintelligible should be thought to exist. Hence, there can be only one substance; "God" and "Nature" could not be the names of two distinct and independent substances.

It follows that God cannot be said to be the creator of nature, except in a sense quite other than that of Christian or Jewish orthodoxy. Spinoza did distinguish between nature as active (natura naturans ) and nature as passive product (natura naturata ), and insofar as he identified God with nature as creative and self-sustaining rather than with nature as passive, he could speak of God as the immanent cause of the world. But this is quite different from the orthodox conception of divine efficient causality. Also, in Spinoza's view, there can be no divine providential intentions for particular agents and there can be no miracles. What, then, of the Bible?

Spinoza regarded the Bible as an expression of truth in the only mode in which the ordinary, unreflective, irrational man is able to believe it or be guided by it. Such men need images, for their knowledge is of the confused kind that does not rise to the rational and scientific explanation of phenomena, let alone to that scientia intuitiva (intuitive knowledge) by which the mind grasps the whole necessity of things and becomes identical with the infinita idea Dei (infinite idea of God). Freed from all those passions that dominated his actions so long as he did not grasp them intellectually, man is moved only by a fully conscious awareness of his place in the whole system. It is this awareness that Spinoza also identified as the intellectual love of God.

In using theological language to characterize both nature and the good of human life, Spinoza was not concealing an ultimately materialistic and atheistic standpoint. He believed that all the key predicates by which divinity is ascribed apply to the entire system of things, for it is infinite, at once the uncaused causa sui and causa omnium (cause of itself and cause of everything) and eternal. Even if Spinoza's attitude to the Bible was that it veils the truth, he believed that it is the truth that it veils. He considered his doctrine basically identical with both that of the ancient Hebrew writers and that of St. Paul. This did not save him from condemnation by the synagogue in his lifetime, let alone from condemnation by the church afterward.

German Pantheism

Erigena, Bruno, Boehme, Spinozaeach of these, no matter how much he may have made use of material drawn from earlier philosophical or religious writing, was a thinker who was independent of his specifically pantheist predecessors and who revived pantheism by his own critical reflections upon monotheism. It was only in the eighteenth century that something like a specifically pantheist tradition emerged. The word pantheist was first used in 1705 by John Toland in his Socinianism truly stated. Toland's hostile critic, J. Fay, used the word pantheism in 1709 and it speedily became common. With the increased questioning of Christianity, accompanied by an unwillingness to adopt atheistic positions, pantheism became an important doctrine, first for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, both of whom were influenced by Spinoza, then for Friedrich Schleiermacher, and finally for Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich von Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

goethe and lessing

Goethe's aim was to discover a mode of theological thinking, rather than a theology, with which he could embrace both what he took to be the pagan attitude to nature and the redemptive values of Christianity. Suspicious as he was of Christian asceticism, he also recognized a distinctive Christian understanding of human possibility, and his various utterances about Christianity cannot be rendered consistent even by the greatest scholarly ingenuity. In the formulas of pantheism, which he was able to interpret in the sense that he wished precisely because he failed to understand Spinoza correctly, Goethe found a theology that enabled him both to identify the divine with the natural and to separate them. The infinite creativity Goethe ascribed to nature is what he took to be divine; but while the seeds of a consistent doctrine can be discerned in this aspect of Goethe's writings, it would be wrong to deny that part of pantheism's attraction for him was that it seemed to license his will to be inconsistent.

Lessing, by contrast, was consistent. He found the kernel of truth in all religions in a neutral version of Spinozism, which allowed him to see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as distorted versions of the same truth, distorted because they confuse the historical trappings with the metaphysical essence.


Schleiermacher's quite different preoccupation was to make religion acceptable to the cultured unbelievers of his own time. The core of religion, on his view, is the sense of absolute dependence; to that on which we are absolutely dependent he gave a variety of names and titles, speaking of God in both monotheistic and pantheistic terms. However, he committed himself to pantheism by asserting that it is the Totality that is divine.


It is clear from Goethe, Lessing, and Schleiermacher that Spinoza's writing had become a major text for philosophical theology, but for these writers he was an inspiration rather than a precise source. With the advent of German idealism, the attempt to criticize the deductive form of Spinoza's reasoning while preserving the pantheistic content became a major theme of German philosophy. Nowhere is this more evident than in Fichte's writing, in which God and the universe are identified because the world is nothing but the material through which the Ego realizes its infinite moral vocation, and the divine is nothing but the moral order that includes both world and Ego. The divine cannot be personal and cannot have been the external creator of the world. Fichte poured scorn on the unintelligibility of the orthodox doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). He distinguished sharply between the genuinely metaphysical and the merely historical elements in Christianity. It is the theology of the Johannine Gospel that he treated as the expression of the metaphysical, and to this he gave a pantheistic sense.

schelling and hegel

Schelling's pantheism was cruder than Fichte'saccording to him, all distinctions disappear in the ultimate nature of things. The divine is identified with this ultimate distinctionless merging of nature and spirit, a unity more fundamental than any of the differences of the merely empirical world.

Hegel was subtler and more philosophically interesting than either Fichte or Schelling. Like Boehme and Schleiermacher, he remained within orthodox Protestant Christianity, claiming to be engaged in the interpretation rather than the revision of its dogmatic formulas. The Hegelian Absolute Idea preexists its finite manifestations logically but not temporally, and it receives its full embodiment only at the end of history, when it is incorporated in a social and moral order fully conscious of its own nature and of its place in history. This phase of self-consciousness is already reached at the level of thought in Hegel's Logic. But the Absolute Idea has no existence apart from or over and above its actual and possible manifestations in nature and history. Hence, the divine is the Totality.

After Hegel pantheism was less in vogue. The critique of Christianity became more radical, atheism became a more acceptable alternative, and Spinoza dominated the intellectual scene far less. In England a poetic pantheism appeared in Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth, but in Shelley it coexisted with something much closer to atheism and in Wordsworth with a Christianity that displaced it. In any case, the intellectual resources of such a pantheism were so meager that it is not surprising that it did not survive in the nineteenth century.

Criticisms of Pantheism

Pantheism essentially involves two assertions: that everything that exists constitutes a unity and that this all-inclusive unity is divine. What could be meant by the assertion that everything that exists constitutes a unity? It is first and most clearly not a unity derived from membership of the same class, the view that seems to have been taken by Boehme. "There is no class of all that is," wrote Aristotle. Why not? Because existence is not a genus. To say that something exists is not to classify it at all. When Boehme asserted that the universe includes both existence and nonexistence, he both anticipated a long tradition that culminated in Martin Heidegger and remained unintelligible. The notion of a unity that includes all that existsor even all that exists and all that does not existis a notion devoid of content. What could be unitary in such an ostensible collection?

The unity might be of another kind, however. In Spinoza the unity of the universe is a logical unity, with every particular item deducible from the general nature of things. There is a single deductive web of explanationthere are not sciences; there is science. About such an alleged unity two points must be made. First, the contingent aspect of nature is entirely omitted. Even a total description of the universe in which every part of the description was logically related to some other part or parts (assuming for the moment such a description to be conceivable) would still leave us with the question whether the universe was as it was described; and if it was as it was described, this truth would be a contingent truth that could not be included in the description itself and that could stand in no internal conceptual relationship to the description. The fact of existence would remain irreducibly contingent. Second, the actual development of the sciences does not accord with Spinoza's ideal. The forms of explanation are not all the same; the logical structure of Darwinian evolutionary theory must be distinguished from the logical structure of quantum mechanics. Thus, the kind of unity ascribed by Spinoza to the universe seems to be lacking.

In Fichte and Hegel the unity ascribed to the universe is one of an overall purpose manifest in the pattern of events, as that pattern is discovered by the agent in his social and moral life. In order for this assertion to be meaningful it must be construed, at least in part, in empirical terms; in Fichte's case as a hypothesis about moral development, in Hegel's case as a hypothesis about historical development. Neither hypothesis appears to be vindicated by the facts.

Suppose, however, that a unity of some kind, inclusive of all that is, could be discovered. In virtue of what might the pantheist claim that it was divine? The infinity and the eternity of the universe have often been the predicates that seemed to entail its divinity, but the sense in which the universe is infinite and eternal is surely not that in which the traditional religions have ascribed these predicates to a god. What is clear is that pantheism as a theology has a source, independent of its metaphysics, in a widespread capacity for awe and wonder in the face both of natural phenomena and of the apparent totality of things. It is at least in part because pantheist metaphysics provides a vocabulary that appears more adequate than any other for the expression of these emotions that pantheism has shown such historical capacity for survival. But this does not, of course, give any warrant for believing pantheism to be true.

See also Aristotle; Averroes; Boehme, Jakob; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Brahman; Bruno, Giordano; Darwinism; Eckhart, Meister; Erigena, John Scotus; Eternity; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; God, Concepts of; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Indian Philosophy; Infinity in Theology and Metaphysics; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; Neoplatonism; Pantheismusstreit; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Shelley, Percy Bysshe; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Tauler, Johannes; Toland, John; Xenophanes of Colophon.


Boehme, Jakob. Works. Edited by C. J. Barber. London, 1909.

Bruno, Giordano. "Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One." Translated by Sidney Greenberg in The Infinite in Giordano Bruno. New York: King's Crown Press, 1950.

Bruno, Giordano. "On the Infinite Universe and Worlds." Translated by Dorothea W. Singer in Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought. New York: Schuman, 1950.

Eckhart. Meister Eckhart. Edited, with introduction, by O. Karrer. Munich, 1926.

Erigena, John Scotus. Opera. In Patrologia Latina, edited by J. P. Migne. Paris, 18441864. Vol. 122.

Fichte, J. G. Die Schrifte zu J. G. Fichte's Atheismusstreit. Edited by H. Lindau. Munich, 1912.

Fichte, J. G. The Science of Knowledge. Translated by A. E. Kroeger. Philadelphia, 1868.

Flint, Robert. Antitheistic Theories. London, 1878. Baird lectures.

Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Translated by E. B. Speirs and J. B. Sanderson, 3 vols. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1895.

Schelling, Friedrich. Werke. Edited by M. Schröter. 8 vols. Munich: Beck, 19271956.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translated by J. W. Oman. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1893.

Spinoza, Benedict de. The Chief Works. Translated by R. H. M. Elwes, 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1951.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)


views updated May 18 2018


Pantheism, from παν, all, and θεός, god, is a view of reality that tends to identify the world with God or God with the world. Pantheism is not so much a doctrine as it is the implication of views expressed in terms of the world, god, the absolute, or infinity. It generally emphasizes the immanence of God in the world and deemphasizes, or ignores, His transcendence over the world. Since no one has as yet failed to make some distinction between transcendent and immanent aspects of infinite being, there never has been a complete and utter pantheism.

Scholastics tend to reduce pantheism to a form of atheism on the ground that identification of God with the world implies the denial of Him as transcendent and really distinct from the worlda view fundamental to all forms of theism. However, the majority of those who are labeled pantheists manifest a strong religious commitment to God in one way or another; in fact, many of them are properly classified as religious thinkers. Again, views of reality termed pantheistic usually embody some limitation that effectively negates complete identification between God and the world. One such limitation now identifies itself as panentheism and claims many earlier thinkers as proponents. Beyond this, a more general element of restriction is found in monism, which distinguishes between absolute and finite being, but reduces one to an illusion or appearance of the other. Interpretations of such reductions, of course, differ widely.

Origins in the East. Throughout ancient Indian philosophy, with its direction toward self, themes occur that are clearly pantheistic. The general current of Vedic literature conveys the notion of a purely immanent deity (Purusa), frequently described as the whole of reality (see vedas). In the upanishads, the notions of Brahman and Ā tman are proposed as manifestations of the Absolute, Brahma being the objective evolutionary manifestation and Ātman the conscious or subjective manifestation. In idealistic interpretations of Upanishadic literature, the world is appearance or illusion (see maya religion). In materialistic interpretations, the world is the reality; deity is impersonal, mythical, a manifestation of the world. Even the lofty Bhagavadgītā presents the Absolute as equally present in all things. Since jainism and buddhism fully identify the Absolute with the world, their pantheism is at root atheistic.

In ancient Chinese thought, taoism, especially in doctrines of lao-tzŬ, reflects a certain pantheism in that the Tao is said to have produced all things out of itself.

Greek and Roman Thought. Among the ancient Greeks, Xenophanes denounced the polytheism of his day but made God the totality of being. parmenides extended this pantheism to an extreme monism expressed in terms of being and paralleling some of the ancient Hindu notions of the Absolute. This doctrine of Parmenides was developed by Melissus to include the notion of infinity. For these monists, changing reality was an illusion, much as it was for the idealistic interpreters of the Upanishads. On the other hand, heraclitus offered a monism in which permanence was the illusion and change the only reality. He called his primal fire Zeus, Logos, or Deity, and developed a doctrine similar to the almost contemporary Buddhist theory of "momentariness" (Kaabhangavāda). [see greek philosophy (religious aspects).] Both Platonism and neoplatonism evidence tendencies toward pantheism that derive from foundations in Plato's thought. The relation between the doctrine of the One and that of Ideas suggests a similarity to the Hindu doctrine of Maya, where the only reality is God and everything else is merely an appearance. Centuries later, plotinus reinforced this Platonic implication of pantheism with his own doctrine of emanationism, which gave inspiration to many later pantheists.

The stoicism of Greece and Rome tried to overcome polytheism but seems have fallen short of theism and to have settled for pantheism. The Stoics maintained that the material alone was real, yet they looked upon God as the author of the world. For most of them God was the world soul, and they described Him as fire, ether, air, mind, or combinations of these; in this sense the Stoic God was part of this world.

Non-Christian Medievals. Among the Hindus of the Middle Ages, Shakara (788820) tried to maintain the transcendence as well as the immanence of God, but his doctrines imply a limited variety of pantheism (panentheism) that accepts the Upanishadic notion of God as the lower Brahma (Īshvara) and immanent in the world. In the 12th century, Ramanuja also perceived the inadequacy of pure pantheism, identified Brahma as God and individual, but then regarded God as qualified by matter with souls constituting His body. A limiting factor in Ramanuja's thought is his notion that identity includes difference and unity includes diversity, much as this was later proposed by Hegel.

The Islamic philosopher alfarabi, under the influence of the Neoplatonic Theologia Aristotelis and liber de causis, combined the Aristotelian spheres with emanationism to maintain the existence of a supreme agent intellect from which all substantial forms were derived. No Arabian philosopher went further than Alfarabi, and most of them, including avicenna and averroËs, were saved from the pantheistic implications of their views by their concern for religious truth and the transcendence of God. (see arabian philosophy.)

While relatively little pantheism is found in Jewish thinkers of the time, one man stands out for his leanings in this direction, viz, avicebron (ibn-Gabirol). He seems to have identified the matter of this world with God and to have reduced the doctrine of creation to a theory of emanation. Yet his attempt to unite the world and God in terms of Divine Wisdom or the Divine Word led many European scholars to regard him as a Christian. Avicebron exerted a strong influence also on the cabalists, a 13th-century group of mystics (see cabala).

Christian Thinkers. Four distinct tendencies are apparent among the Christians of the Middle Ages. First there is that of the controversial john scotus eriugena, the 9th-century Neoplatonist. In his Division of Nature, he made what seems to be a real distinction between God as the Creator and God as the end of all thingsa distinction similar to Whitehead's antecedent and consequent God. For Eriugena, creation was a "theophany," a manifestation of God. Although this strongly resembles the Hindu doctrine of Maya, Eriugena clearly accepted the reality of both God and the world, and his pantheism (a matter of prolonged controversy) may be more a consequence of inadequate language than an attempt to identify the world with God.

Then, at the beginning of the 13th century, amalric of bÈne made God the formal principle in all things by his notion that the Holy Spirit was the soul of the world, while david of dinant presented a monistic and materialistic view of the world by identifying primary matter, mind, and God in the ancient Hindu tradition.

Thirdly, the thought of Meister eckhart shows the influence of Neoplatonism on the highest levels of religious thought. For Eckhart, God transcends all concepts, even that of being, so that strictly He cannot be called a being. Yet Eckhart held that being flows eternally from God, and this led him to identify being with the Holy Spirit. Thus he tended to confuse ideas in the mind of God with the world itself, much as did Erigena.

Finally nicholas of cusa, the leading Platonist of his day and a staunch believer in the orthodoxy of both Erigena and Eckhart, held that the world is explication of what is implication in God; God is infinitely one so that, in Him, all opposites are reconciled or overcome. Although Nicholas does mark God off from the world, his expressions have implications similiar to the views of the ancient Hindus on the Absolute and of Plotinus on the One.

Renaissance and Reformation. Giordano bruno anticipated Spinoza in his monistic concept of substance: God is substantial nature. For him, God (natura naturans ) is transcendent and beyond our knowledge; yet the world (natura naturata ) is that into which the Infinite divides itself and is likewise infinite. Consequently there is a recurrent identification of God, as Nature, with the world, with God being the immanent principle as well as external cause of the universe.

In the 17th century, the Protestant mystic Jakob bÖhme exerted wide influence, especially on later German and Russian mysticism. While his doctrine of external dualism suggests panentheism more than pure pantheism, Böhme viewed God as an evolutionary figure, sometimes nothing more than a divinity in man or his spiritual force.

Later in the same century, spinoza formulated his pantheism. His monistic approach to the notion of substance made the world attributes or modes of God. While he did use the term "creation", he also spoke of natura naturans and natura naturata in the same way as Bruno, with the same suggestion of emanationism. Thus, while Spinoza looked upon God as the cause of the world, immanent cause and nature are for him one in essence and identical with God.

It was during the 18th-century debate over religion that Toland actually introduced the terms "pantheism" and "pantheist". Toland's final view seems to have reduced God to the material universe and to have made Him little more than a mechanistic law of nature.

Transcendentalism and Idealism. Although kant was not a pantheist, his idealistic immanentism did occasion in many of his followers a tendency toward pantheism. An interesting aspect of this development of transcendental idealism was the great outpouring of ideas about God in the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries (see kantianism; neo-kantianism).

Within the 19th century, schopenhauer distinctively and consciously took direction from Indian thinkers, principally from Buddhism. Although his philosophy tends toward atheistic Buddhism, Schopenhauer makes the world and man momentary reflections of a transcendent Will. His views of this absolute Will imply something more personal than mere force, even though he considered his pantheism as an atheism. Later fechner held that God is the totality of things as the infinite consciousness of the universe and a kind of world soul.

The transcendental egoism of fichte reduced God to moral order and an expression of the self. schelling developed a bipolar approach like that used later by Whitehead and identified both the real and the ideal in the Absolute in a manner reflecting Böhme's influence and the Upanishadic approach. While Hegelian monism qualified by dialectical logicseems more panentheistic than pantheistic, hegel regarded the Absolute as totally immanent to, and constantly developing in, human consciousness. Later feuerbach reduced the Absolute to a mere abstraction in his atheistic philosophy. The Russian mystic solov'ev reflected the influence of Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Buddhism; he proposed a spiritualistic personalism that drifted toward pantheism through its emphasis on the unity of all beings with the Divinity and its relatively uncritical notion of Godmanhood.

Recent Directions. Among significant contemporary thinkers, Spencer viewed God as some kind of physical force and the ground of evolution. Haeckel, while attempting to find some middle position between making God either extrinsic or intrinsic to the world, identified God with nature. For E. von hartmann, the Absolute was the Unconscious but also the principle of vitality in all things. H. Höffding offered a critical monism in which reality was one; yet for him the One is immanent in the many, although it transcends the many. Although peirce admits a doctrine of creation, he seems to have looked upon God as a primordial element of the universe, an evolutionary principle within the world. William james described his position as a kind of pantheism, not absolute and monistic, but rather a "finite pluralism" that provided for God's being in the world but not as the only existing substance. For F. H. bradley, the Absolute was the reality of things in their psychical existence. Josiah royce considered God the absolute experience of which our minds were fragments; this absolute was infinite and all comprehensive.

Although bergson denied any suggestions of pantheism in his ideas, his doctrine of creative evolution is open to such implications. Samuel alexander identifies Deity as a quality of the world and goes on to consider the world as God's body and Deity as God's mind in much the same way as Upanishadic Hinduism. Because whitehead deliberately limited his pantheism through the instrumentality of Hegelian dialectics, he is more properly classified as a panentheist. brightman tried to limit his own tendency toward pantheism by negating absolute unity in God and by having God achieve his goals gradually. Weiss presents God as one of his modes of being; yet, in offering four coordinate and irreducible modes of being, he insists that each mode enters as part of the others.

Catholic Doctrine. Catholic teaching has always opposed the basic notions of pantheism. A personalistic religion, Catholicism upholds metaphysical reality of the individual, the spirituality but finitude of the human soul, and personal fulfillment through immortal union with God as an infinite and distinct personal being. All such ideas are suppressed or negated by pantheism.

From the Middle Ages to the present, the Church has concerned itself with pantheistic implications in the writings of individual thinkers such as Erigena, Eckhart, and Bruno. Yet a formal condemnation of pantheism as such was not made until Pius IX condemned pantheism by a decree of the Holy Office (1861), in his allocation Maxima quidem (1862), and in his "Syllabus of Errors"(1864) [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (32d ed. Freiburg 1963) 2843, 2845, 2846,2901]. Vatican Council I condemned it formally also (ibid. 302325). Under leo xiii, the Holy Office again condemned such ideas as those implied in the works of rosmini-serbati (ibid. 3206, 3209, 321215). pius x, in his encyclical Pascendi, further warned against the implications of pantheism (ibid. 3477, 3486).

The fact that pantheistic leanings are found primarily among Catholic thinkers who are more mystical than doctrinal, and whose religious sincerity can hardly be questioned, may serve to explain why other views with pantheistic overtones have never been formally condemned.

Critical Evaluation. In criticizing pantheism, one should first acknowledge the religious fervor manifested in the works of most pantheists, their dislike of distinctions and abstract analysis, and a basic difficulty in their subject matter, viz, that it is impossible for finite minds to comprehend the infinity of God.

As a general criticism, pantheism negates or limits the excellence of God to the point where He does not seem to be a special and distinct being. The confusing element is that all pantheists use special terms, usually capitalized, such as God, the Absolute, the One, or the Infinite, and seemingly intend to denote a special being or, at least, a special mode of being that transcends other beings. Nevertheless, atheistic implications are almost always present, if only because the thinkers involved, in their religious enthusiasm, do not concern themselves with the theoretical implications of their statements.

Pantheists further fail to distinguish between cause and effect. They often speak of God as the cause of the world, but not as the efficient, extrinsic cause; rather they tend to reduce God to some kind of a material source of the universe. Such thinkers frequently substitute a doctrine of emanationism for creation, ignoring the notion of efficient causalityitself basic to our understanding of the world.

Ignoring fundamental metaphysical distinctions, pantheists approach or discuss reality in a univocal, rather than an analogical, manner that does not take into account difference as well as sameness (see analogy). In this respect, pantheism is too limited in its treatment of ultimate values. This limitation of viewpoint is reflected in the monism that is either explicit or implicit in pantheism. Where dualism seems to be accepted, one aspect is actually reduced to the other, considered as a mere manifestation of the other, or treated as an illusion.

Another confusion arises from the notion of transcendence, reduced by some pantheists to the potentiality of the world or of man. This view seems to contradict itself by establishing transcendence, which stands for perfection, as a mere extension of this world or finite beings in this world: both notions involve imperfection. Other pantheists look upon transcendence as the negation of all finite being to the degree that all perfections of finite being, such as personality, immortality, and freedom, become ultimately meaningless. Such reductions of transcendence to either superimmanence or negation cannot be accepted as reasonable.

Lastly, pantheism does not seem to grant the infinite positive value except as a mere quantitative inclusion of all things. It makes no distinction between actual infinity, which must be looked upon as pure perfection, and potential infinity, which involves incompleteness or imperfection. Reason demands that a superlative beingand the Infinite is presented by pantheists as superlativebe judged as actually and absolutely infinite.

Bibliography: c. n. bittle, God and His Creatures (Milwaukee 1953). f. j. thonnard, A Short History of Philosophy, tr. e. a. maziarz (rev. and correc. New York 1955). j. f. anderson, The Bond of Being (St. Louis 1949). j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). c. sharma, A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (London 1960). e. h. gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (Toronto 1949). n. a. berdi[symbol omitted]ev, The Russian Idea; tr. r. m. french (New York 1948; repr. pa. Boston 1962). c. hartshorne and w. l. reese, eds. Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago 1953). f. clark, "Pantheism and Analogy," The Irish Theological Quarterly 20 (1953) 2438. j. bayart, "Hindu Pantheism," Clergy Monthly Supplement 3 (1956) 102108. e. a. pace, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann, 16 v. (New York 190714; suppl. 1922) 11:447450. f. a. schalck, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350) 11.2:185574.

[e. r. naughton]


views updated May 18 2018


Derived from the Greek words pan (all) and theos (God), thus meaning "all is God," pantheism is the view that the universe or nature as a whole is divine. In relation to rival views, pantheism is defined as the doctrine that God is neither externally transcendent to the world, as in classical theism, nor immanently present within the world, as in panentheism, but rather is identical with the world.

As a religious position, pantheism holds that nature is imbued with value and worthy of respect, reverence, and awe. As a philosophical position, pantheism is the belief in an all-inclusive unity, variously formulated. Historically, the nature of the unity has been defined quite differently in Plotinus's "One," Baruch Spinoza's "Substance," Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's "Geist," and Charles Hartshorne's "All-Inclusive Totality." Due to ambiguities in the chief analogies used by philosophers (whole-part; mind-body) the line between pantheistic and panentheistic positions is often difficult to draw. In general, pantheism represents an alternative to the classical theistic notion of God in Western philosophy and theology, and has close counterparts in Taoism, Advaita Vedanta, and certain schools of Buddhism. It is also the ism closest in spirit to Native American religions.

Types of pantheism

Two broad types of pantheism may be distinguished: monistic pantheism and pluralistic pantheism. Examples of monistic pantheism are classical Spinozistic pantheism, which devalued the importance of dynamic and pluralistic categories, and Hindu forms of pantheism, which have relegated change and pluralism to the realm of the illusory and phenomenal. In addition, the romantic and idealistic types of pantheism that flourished in nineteenth-century England and America were generally monistic.

The pluralistic type of pantheism is found in William James's A Pluralistic Universe (1908) as a hypothesis that supersedes his earlier "piecemeal supernaturalism" in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James's conception emphasizes the full reality of insistent particulars, embedded in a complex web of conjunctive and disjunctive relations in which manyness is as real as oneness. Religiously, pluralistic pantheism affirms that evil is genuine, the divine is finite, and salvation, in any sense, is an open question. Further exemplifications of pluralistic pantheism are found in a series of late twentieth-century movements, including James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis that the earth behaves like a single entity, the deep ecology movement, the feminist spirituality movement, and the New Age movement. In 1990 American historian Catherine Albanese, canvassing diverse forms of pantheistic piety since the early republic, considered nature religion in America "alive and well, growing daily, and probably a strong suit for the century to come" (p. 198).

Challenges to pantheism

The chief challenge to pantheism, according to critics, is the difficulty of deriving a warrant for the criteria of human good. How is one to establish any priority in the ordering of values and commitments if nature as a whole is considered divine and known to contain evil as well as good, destruction as much as creation? In light of this concern, John Cobb and other process theologians recommend a fundamental distinction between creativity as the ultimate reality and God as the ultimate actuality. In this way, the divine character is identified only with the good. Other theologians, like David Tracy, view such a metaphysical distinction as dubious and point out that the denial of any identity between ultimate reality and the divine may foster the view that ultimate reality is not finally to be trusted as radically relational and self-manifesting (Tracy, p. 139). The pantheistic model is capable of countering both of these concerns. On the first point, pantheism underscores the blunt fact that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, whatever model of the divine one holds. Critics of pantheism observe that human efforts toward compassion and justice are frequently not reinforced by ultimate reality. Nature is often indifferent to human desires and deaf to moral urgencies. Pantheists say this is indicative of the remorselessness of things, not of the superiority of either the theistic or the panentheistic model. In the second place, by collapsing the distinction between creativity and the divine, pluralistic pantheism does identify the religious ultimate with the metaphysical ultimate, but this identification may or may not entail the further (Christian) specification of ultimate reality as radically relational and self-manifesting. Due to its extreme generality, the pantheistic model is susceptible to multiple specifications of various kinds, on lesser levels of generality as found within the more concrete symbols and images of the world's religious traditions.

For secularist critics, the most significant objection to pluralistic pantheism is the semantic question. Why call it "God" or divine? According to nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, calling nature or the universe God does not explain anything, but only serves "to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word 'world'" (p. 40). Pantheists are apt to concede this point but to urge attentiveness to nature's terrible beauty all the same. In the words of the early twentieth-century American poet Harriet Monroe, "Call the Force God and worship it at a million shrines, and it is no less sublime; call it Nature, and worship it in scientific gropings and discoveries, and it is no less divine. It goes its own way, asking no homage, answering no questions" (p. 454). Recoiling from anthropomorphic myth-making, modern pantheists like Monroe express astonishment over the way religious creeds impose a name and person-like traits upon the creative force animating the universe. Avoidance of personalistic imagery and preference for vague talk of a "force" in nature is characteristic of contemporary pantheism.

Science and religion

Without using the term pantheism, many people who are not traditionally religious acknowledge the feeling that nature is sacred. While panentheism is a theological construction, pantheism probably has more grass roots appeal among ordinary people, artists, and scientists. As the most important challenge that the sciences pose to traditional religion is their skepticism about the existence of "another world" not of human making or open to human inquiry, supernaturalism is less and less an option among scientifically educated populations. In the engagement of science and religion issues, the relevant religious alternatives tend to reduce either to pantheism or to panentheism. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan spoke for those who prefer a straightforward pantheistic orientation over what they regard as the equivocations of panentheism: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe untapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge" (p. 52).

See also Creation; Deep Ecology; Feminist Cosmology; Gaia Hypothesis; God; Nature; Supernaturalism; Theodicy


albanese, catherine. nature religion in america: from the algonkian indians to the new age. chicago: university of chicago press, 1990.

cosby, donald. wings of the morning: a religion of nature. albany: state university of new york press, 2002.

james william. the varieties of religious experience (1902). new york: scribner, 1997.

james, william. a pluralistic universe (1908). lincoln: university of nebraska press, 1996.

levine, michael p. pantheism: a non-theistic concept of deity. london and new york: routledge, 1994.

monroe, harriet. a poet's life: seventy years in a changing world. new york: macmillan, 1938.

sagan, carl. pale blue dot: a vision of the human future in space. new york: random house, 1994.

schopenhauer, arthur. "a few words on pantheism." in essays from the parerga and paralipomena, trans. t. bailey saunders. london: george allen and unwin, 1951.

tracy, david. "kenosis, sunyata, and trinity: a dialogue with masao abe." in the emptying god: a buddhist-jewish-christian conversation, eds. john b. cobb jr., and christopher ives. maryknoll, n.y.: orbis, 1990.

nancy frankenberry


views updated May 23 2018


Pantheism ("all God") is a family of views espousing total immanence—that is, the essential identity of the Divine and the world. It resembles but is distinguishable from panentheism ("all in God") in which the world is part of the Divine, the Divine also transcending the world. It stands in contrast to monotheism ("one God"), which tends to see God as separate from and transcending the world. It may contrast with polytheism ("many Gods"); but polytheism and pantheism may also be combined, with the many Gods seen as varied images of the Divine Oneness.

Modern forms of pantheism have major roots in Hindu Vedanta and the Neoplatonic tradition. The conception of God of Barukh Spinoza (1623–1677) was reached by reflective analysis; God is Substance, the changeless Unity underlying the fleeting many. God is not the external creator of Nature but is Nature as source: "Nature naturing," whereas the many things are "Nature natured." God does not possess intellect, will, or freedom, though "he" could be said to be the totality of thought.

Pantheistic themes appeared in about 1790 in German and English romantic thinkers, partly influenced by Spinoza and Indian thought. The romantics' starting point was not analysis but the human feelingawareness of the Infinite Oneness that generates, permeates, and sustains the finite many. It is when we reflect on these experiences that we form specific images of God. The human imagination, its perception and creativity, are one with the Divine generative powers.

The New England Transcendentalists of the 1830s and 1840s drew upon these themes. Generally optimistic, they held a view that the world is one and one with God; the Divine Mind indwells the world in every part, and each part presents in microcosm the laws and meaning of the whole. This is especially true of the human soul, and thus the deepest human intuitions are divinely authoritative. Some of the Transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau, translated these views into action against slavery.

Pantheistic elements also appear in the "metaphysical" movements of the mid-nineteenth century onward. They have roots in the visionary teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg that the world of Spirit is the ultimate reality, in Anton Mesmer's concepts of an invisible magnetic fluid permeating all things, and to some extent in Transcendentalism and Hindu ideas. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, taught that the only reality is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestations. Matter is unreal, disease is unreal; human beings are not material but spiritual. False ideas lead to disease, whereas knowledge of the Truth heals.

Among her followers was the influential Emma Curtis Hopkins, mother of the New Thought movement. Strongly feminist, Hopkins saw the present age as the period of the Spirit or Mother-Principle, the time for the rise of women. Her students formed such groups as the Unity School of Christianity and the Church of Religious Science. They affirm God as Universal Wisdom, Love, and Truth, and the universe as the Body of God. Matter is real, but secondary; a human being is an individualized expression of God. To move from sickness to health, from poverty to prosperity, is to manifest Divine Truth.

At the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions appeared the magnetic Hindu teacher Vivekananda, who founded the Vedanta Society. Its members taught the identity of Brahman, the impersonal Absolute, with Atman, the human self. By the disciplines of study and devotion, one may pierce the veil of Maya (enchantment) that makes the world appear to be separate things, and realize that all things and persons are essentially Divine.

Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass, and others informed by Hindu ideas influenced New Age thought, an amorphous movement of the 1960s and thereafter. Ranging from psychedelic religion and neoshamanism to near-death experience and UFO movements, it rejects dualistic and mechanistic worldviews and focuses on altered states of consciousness leading to both individual and planetary transformation: full realization that the cosmos is one and permeated by the Divine.

Pantheism is supported by intuitions and mystical experiences of the universe and all within it as one and Divine. It stands in tension, however, with intuitions of individual freedom and the reality of evil. If all is God, it would seem that human choice really cannot make a difference, nor can there be any basis for opposing evil and promoting good. Thus pantheistic movements tend toward quietism. However, despite the tension, individuals such as Vivekananda and Thoreau have been inspired by the perceived sacredness of all beings to take action on behalf of the oppressed.

See alsoChristian Science; Ecospirituality; Hinduism; New Age Spirituality; New Thought; Theism; Vedanta Society.


Eddy, Mary Baker. ScienceandHealthwithKeytotheScriptures. 1875.

Goddard, Harold Clarke. NewEnglandTranscendentalists. 1960.

Melton, J. Gordon. TheEncyclopediaofAmericanReligions. 1989.

Gracia Fay Ellwood Robert Ellwood


views updated Jun 08 2018

pan·the·ism / ˈpan[unvoicedth]ēˌizəm/ • n. 1. a doctrine that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.2. rare worship that admits or tolerates all gods.DERIVATIVES: pan·the·ist n.pan·the·is·tic / ˌpan[unvoicedth]ēˈistik/ adj.pan·the·is·ti·cal / ˌpan[unvoicedth]ēˈistikəl/ adj.pan·the·is·ti·cal·ly / ˌpan[unvoicedth]ēˈistik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated May 11 2018

Pantheism, panentheism. A family of views dealing with the relation between God and the world. In contrast to theism's stress on the total transcendence of God, both terms reflect an emphasis on divine immanence. In pantheistic views, God and the world are essentially identical; the divine is totally immanent. In panentheistic views, the world exists in God (all reality is part of the being of God), but God is not exhausted by the world; the divine is both transcendent and immanent. Such views are often closely related to mysticism.


views updated May 14 2018

pantheism Religious system, contrasted with certain forms of deism, based on the belief that God (or gods) and the universe are identical. According to pantheism, all life is infused with divinity. It sees no distinction between the creator and creatures.


views updated Jun 11 2018

pantheism a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.


views updated Jun 08 2018