Pantheism and Panentheism
by Harold Wood
There are two major different strains of pantheist philosophy. Before we explain the difference, we must note that the Universal Pantheist Society's bylaws strictly prohibit the Society from imposing any particular interpretation of religion or subscription to any particular religious belief, doctrine, or creed. This is one of our guiding principles because freedom of belief is inherent in the Pantheist tradition. Accordingly the Society welcomes both pantheists and panentheists as members.
Pantheism is not something which can be dogmatically defined like most other world religions or philosophies. Such an approach leads of course to a diversity of viewpoints -- as it should be! And this is one reason that this Pantheist Society is an "Universal" one.
We have a huge variety of beliefs and opinions among our members; many different from one another, but all of which provide insights which are valuable to one another. Despite the diversity, all point to one consistent direction in looking toward the natural world for our source of spiritual enrichment. Why make fine distinctions of theology? Some critics say they see a duality in our approach, but to us we are simply allowing a wholesome sense of diversity and tolerance, which is a reflection of core pantheist principles.
Let's look at the differences between these two keywords.
It is undeniable that strict "Pantheism" differs from a similar religious philosophy, known as "panentheism." The Universal Pantheist Society has strived to be open to persons of both persuasions; but perhaps not all persons of one emphasis or the other will remain comfortable with our willingness to accept people with differing beliefs.
According to the Encyclopedia Americana, "Several varieties of pantheism are acknowledged. Some strictly equate God and the universe. Of these, absolute pantheism defines God as the basic reality and the universe merely as the way he appears.... In contrast, for panentheism, the universe or its animating force are just part of God, who is also transcendent."
The definition for "Pantheism" given in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy is: "The belief that God, or a group of gods, is identical with the whole natural world; pantheism comes from Greek roots meaning "belief that everything is a god."
By contrast, "panentheism" is the doctrine that God includes the world as a part, though not the whole, of "his" being.
An example of "Panentheism" is given by Fr. Charles Cummings, a Trappist-Cistercian monk, author of Eco-Spirituality: toward a reverent life. In Cummings approach, "Pantheism exaggerates divine immanence to the point of identifying God and the universe. The Judeo-Christian tradition maintains both that God is immanently in all things (or all things are in God) and the God is transcendentally beyond all things. "
For Fr. Cummings, "Reverence for nature is not irreverence for God; reverence for nature does not diminish our reverence toward God. God need not compete with nature for our reverence. Rather, we can reverence God by reverencing nature, because all creation is permeated with God's presence."
Similarly, Michael Fox has found value in a panentheistic approach. He writes: "The pantheism that regards the totality of Nature as being God (i.e.., that God is swallowed up in the unity of all) rather than an aspect of divinity is quite distinct from monotheistic pantheism. This monotheistic pantheism conceptualizes God as the all-inclusive essence or substance, the first cause of the universe, with many attributes, including intelligence, which we can perceive in Nature's lawful harmony. This form of pantheism would be better termed panentheism."
In short, the philosophy of "panentheism", as distinct from strict "Pantheism", believes in the immanence of God, but also in its Transcendence. By contrast, for strict Pantheists, like Ernst Haeckel, John Burroughs, and Joseph Wood Krutch, God and the Universe are one and the same, and the concept of a transcendent deity is abandoned.
The reality of the two types of pantheistic philosophy notwithstanding, is it appropriate to force UPS to divide into two factions? As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy , "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." This, for me, is the most crucial aspect of both strict pantheism and panentheism, and the single most important source of both our inspiration and our obligations. It seems destructive to try separate people into the "saved" and the "damned" merely because of such minor philosophical approaches, when the important thing given our place in history is to renew a global reverence for the natural world, regardless of philosophical distinctions.
The Encyclopedia Americana points out that "Both atheists and theists object to pantheism." This is confirmed by letters to the editor we have received, from both atheists and theists! But it seems to me that the Universal Pantheist Society is much needed to defend both pantheists and panentheists, and we need the strength of numbers for both. I for one am quite disinclined to orthodoxy and sectarianism, and I believe most pantheists and panentheists alike tend to feel the same. Cannot we avoid the theological squabbles that have plagued so many other faiths?
While debating the philosophical aspects of pantheism can be an interesting diversion, I can only repeat, "the identification of sacredness in the Earth demands reverent behavior. In turn, such behavior necessitates a personal commitment toward living in greater harmony with the biosphere."
If trying to accept people of all pantheistic persuasions is a problem for some, I am convinced that for most of our members, it is preferable not to impose a pantheist orthodoxy.