As the two letters in this issue indicate, there is sometimes confusion about the two different strains of pantheist philosophy. It is also important to 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.
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 which is why 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, and all
of which point to one consistent direction in looking toward the natural world for our
source of spiritual enrichment. If critics finds a duality or "doublespeak" in
our writings, it is simply a reflection of these principles.
It is undeniable that strict "Pantheism" differs from a similar religious
philosophy, known as "panentheism". The 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
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
The reality of the two types of pantheistic philosophy notwithstanding, is it
sufficient 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 Pantheism and panentheism, and the single most
important source of both our inspiration and our obligations.
The Encyclopedia Americana points out that "Both atheists and theists object to pantheism." (This is proven by our two letters to the editor this month!) It seems to me that UPS 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 concentrating on 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.
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