Definition of Pantheism
(From Greek pan, all; theos, god).
The view according to which God and the world are one. The name pantheist was introduced by John Toland (1670-1722) in his "Socinianism truly
Stated" (1705), while pantheism was first used by his opponent Fay in "Defensio Religionis" (1709). Toland published his "Pantheisticon" in 1732.
The doctrine itself goes back to the early Indian philosophy; it appears during the course of history in a great variety of forms, and it enters into
or draws support from so many other systems that, as Professor Flint says ("Antitheistic Theories", 334), "there is probably no pure pantheism".
Taken in the strictest sense, i.e. as identifying God and the world, Pantheism is simply Atheism. In any of its forms it involves Monism (q.v.), but
the latter is not necessarily pantheistic. Emanationism (q.v.) may easily take on a pantheistic meaning and as pointed out in the Encyclical,
"Pascendi dominici gregis" the same is true of the modern doctrine of immanence (q.v.).
These agree in the fundamental doctrine that beneath the apparent diversity and multiplicity of things in the universe there is one only being
absolutely necessary, eternal, and infinite. Two questions then arise: What is the nature of this being? How are the manifold appearances to be
explained? The principal answers are incorporated in such different earlier systems as Brahminism, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Gnosticism, and in the
later systems of Scotus Eriugena and Giordano Bruno (qq.v.).
Spinoza's pantheism was realistic: the one being of the world had an objective character. But the systems that developed during the nineteenth
century went to the extreme of idealism. They are properly grouped under the designation of "transcendental pantheism", as their starting-point is
found in Kant's critical philosophy. Kant (q.v.) had distinguished in knowledge the matter which comes through sensation from the outer world, and
the forms, which are purely subjective and yet are the more important factors. Furthermore, he had declared that we know the appearances (phenomena)
of things but not the things-in-themselves (noumena). And he had made the ideas of the soul, the world, and God merely immanent, so that any attempt
to demonstrate their objective value must end in contradiction. This subjectivism paved the way for the pantheistic theories of Fichte, Schelling, and
Fichte set back into the mind all the elements of knowledge, i.e. matter as well as form; phenomena and indeed the whole of reality are products of
the thinking Ego-not the individual mind but the absolute or universal self-consciousness. Through the three-fold process of thesis, antithesis, and
synthesis, the Ego posits the non-Ego not only theoretically but also for practical purposes, i.e. for effort and struggle which are necessary in
order to attain the highest good. In the same way the Ego, free in itself, posits other free agents by whose existence its own freedom is limited.
Hence the law of right and all morality; but hence also the Divine being. The living, active moral order of the world, says Fichte, is itself God, we
need no other God, and can conceive of no other. The idea of God as a distinct substance is impossible and contradictory. Such, at any rate, is the
earlier form of his doctrine, though in his later theorizing he emphasizes more and more the concepts of the Absolute as embracing all individuals
According to Schelling, the Absolute is the "identity of all differences"-object and subject, nature and mind, the real order and the ideal; and the
knowledge of this identity is obtained by an intellectual intuition which, abstracting from every individual thinker and every possible object of
thought, contemplates the absolute reason. Out of this original unity all things evolve in opposite directions: nature as the negative pole, mind or
spirit as the positive pole of a vast magnet, the universe. Within this totality each thing, like the particle of a magnet, has its nature or form
determined according as it manifests subjectivity or objectivity in greater degree. History is but the gradual self-revelation of the Absolute; when
its final period will come to pass we know not; but when it does come, then God will be.
The system of Hegel (q.v.) has been called "logical pantheism", as it is constructed on the "dialectical" method; and "panlogismus", since it
describes the entire world-process as the evolution of the Idea. Starting from the most abstract of notions, i.e. pure being, the Absolute develops
first the various categories; then it externalizes itself, and Nature is the result; finally it returns upon itself, regains unity and
self-consciousness, becomes the individual spirit of man. The Absolute, therefore, is Mind; but it attains its fullness only by a process of evolution
or "becoming", the stages of which form the history of the universe.
These idealistic constructions were followed by a reaction due largely to the development of the natural sciences. But these in turn offer,
apparently, new support to the central positions of pantheism, or at any rate they point, it is claimed, to that very unity and that gradual unfolding
which pantheism has all along asserted. The principle of the conservation of energy through ceaseless transformations, and the doctrine of evolution
applied to all things and all phenomena, are readily interpreted by the pantheist in favor of his own system. Even where the ultimate reality is said
to be unknowable as in Herbert Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy", it is still one and the same being that manifests itself alike in evolving matter
and in the consciousness that evolves out of lower material forms. Nor is it surprising that some writers should see in pantheism the final outcome of
all speculation and the definitive expression which the human mind has found for the totality of things.
This statement, in fact, may well serve as a summary of the pantheistic doctrine:
Reality is a unitary being; individual things have no absolute independence- they have existence in the All-One, the ens realissimum et et
perfectissimum of which they are the more or less independent members;
The All-One manifests itself to us, so far as it has any manifestations, in the two sides of reality-nature and history;
The universal interaction that goes on in the physical world is the showing forth of the inner aesthetic teleological necessity with which the All-One
unfolds his essential being in a multitude of harmonious modifications, a cosmos of concrete ideas (monads, entelechies). This internal necessity is
at the same time absolute freedom or self-realization.
The Church has repeatedly condemned the errors of pantheism. Among the propositions censured in the Syllabus of Pius IX is that which declares:
"There is no supreme, all-wise and all-provident Divine Being distinct from the universe; God is one with nature and therefore subject to change; He
becomes God in man and the world; all things are God and have His substance; God is identical with the world, spirit with matter, necessity with
freedom, truth with falsity, good with evil, justice with injustice" (Denzinger-Bannwart, "Ench.", 1701). And the First Vatican Council
anathematizes those who assert that the substance or essence of God and of all things is one and the same, or that all things evolve from God's
essence (ibid., 1803 sqq.).
To our perception the world presents a multitude of beings each of which has qualities activities, and existence of its own, each is an individual
thing. Radical differences mark off living things from those that are lifeless; the conscious from the unconscious human thought and volition from the
activities of lower animals. And among human beings each personality appears as a self, which cannot by any effort become completely one with other
selves. On the other hand, any adequate account of the world other than downright materialism includes the concept of some original Being which,
whether it be called First Cause, or Absolute, or God, is in its nature and existence really distinct from the world. Only such a Being can satisfy
the demands of human thought, either as the source of the moral order or as the object of religious worship. If, then, pantheism not only merges the
separate existences of the world in one existence, but also identifies this one with the Divine Being, some cogent reason or motive must be alleged in
justification of such a procedure. Pantheists indeed bring forward various arguments in support of their several positions, and in reply to criticism
aimed at the details of their system; but what lies back of their reasoning and what has prompted the construction of all pantheistic theories, both
old and new, is the craving for unity. The mind, they insist, cannot accept dualism or pluralism as the final account of reality. By an irresistible
tendency, it seeks to substitute for the apparent multiplicity and diversity of things a unitary ground or source, and, once this is determined, to
explain all things as somehow derived though not really separated from it.
That such is in fact the ideal of many philosophers cannot be denied; nor is it needful to challenge the statement that reason does aim at unification
on some basis or other. But this very aim and all endeavors in view of it must likewise be kept within reasonable bounds: a theoretical unity obtained
at too great a sacrifice is no unity at all, but merely an abstraction that quickly falls to pieces. Hence for an estimate of pantheism two questions
must be considered:
at what cost does it identify God and the world; and
is the identification really accomplished or only attempted?
The answer to the first is furnished by a review of the leading concepts which enter into the pantheistic system.
It has often been claimed that pantheism by teaching us to see God in everything gives us an exalted idea of His wisdom, goodness, and power, while it
imparts to the visible world a deeper meaning. In point of fact, however, it makes void the attributes which belong essentially to the Divine nature
For the pantheist God is not a personal Being. He is not an intelligent Cause of the world, designing, creating and governing it in accordance with
the free determination of His wisdom. If consciousness is ascribed to Him as the one Substance, extension is also said to be His attribute (Spinoza),
or He attains to self-consciousness only through a process of evolution (Hegel). But this very process implies that God is not from eternity perfect:
He is forever changing, advancing from one degree of perfection to another, and helpless to determine in what direction the advance shall take place.
Indeed, there is no warrant for saying that He "advances" or becomes more "perfect"; at most we can say that He, or rather It, is constantly
passing into other forms. Thus God is not only impersonal, but also changeable and finite-which is equivalent to saying that He is not God.
It is true that some pantheists, such as Paulsen, while frankly denying the personality of God, pretend to exalt His being by asserting that He is
"supra-personal." If this means that God in Himself is infinitely beyond any idea that we can form of Him, the statement is correct; but if it means
that our idea of Him is radically false and not merely inadequate, that consequently we have no right to speak of infinite intelligence and will, the
statement is simply a makeshift which pantheism borrows from agnosticism Even then the term "supra-personal" is not consistently applied to what
Paulsen calls the All-One; for this, if at all related to personality, should be described as infra-personal.
Once the Divine personality is removed, it is evidently a misnomer to speak of God as just or holy, or in any sense a moral Being. Since God, in the
pantheistic view, acts out of sheer necessity--that is, cannot act otherwise--His action is no more good than it is evil. To say, with Fichte, that
God is the moral order, is an open contradiction; no such order exists where nothing is free, nor could God, a non-moral Being, have established a
moral order either for Himself or for other beings. If, on the other hand, it be maintained that the moral order does exist, that it is postulated by
our human judgments, the plight of pantheism is no better; for in that case all the actions of men, their crimes as well as their good deeds, must be
imputed to God. Thus the Divine Being not only loses the attribute of absolute holiness, but even falls below the level of those men in whom moral
goodness triumphs over evil.
No such claim, however, can be made in behalf of the moral order by a consistent pantheist. For him, human personality is a mere illusion: what we
call the individual man is only one of the countless fragments that make up the Divine Being; and since the All is impersonal no single part of it can
validly claim personality. Futhermore, since each human action is inevitably determined, the consciousness of freedom is simply another illusion, due,
as Spinoza says, to our ignorance of the causes that compel us to act. Hence our ideas of what "ought to be" are purely subjective, and our concept
of a moral order, with its distinctions of right and wrong, has no foundation in reality. The so-called "dictates of conscience" are doubtless
interesting phenomena of mind which the psychologist may investigate and explain, but they have no binding force whatever; they are just as illusory
as the ideas of virtue and duty, of injustice to the fellow-man and of sin against God. But again, since these dictates, like all our ideas, are
produced in us by God, it follows that He is the source of our illusions regarding morality-a consequence which certainly does not enhance His
holiness or His knowledge.
It is not, however, clear that the term illusion is justified; for this supposes a distinction between truth and error-a distinction which has no
meaning for the genuine pantheist; all our judgments being the utterance of the One that thinks in us, it is impossible to discriminate the true from
the false. He who rejects pantheism is no further from the truth than he who defends it; each but expresses a thought of the Absolute whose large
tolerance harbors all contradictions. Logically, too, it would follow that no heed should be taken as to veracity of statement, since all statements
are equally warranted. The pantheist who is careful to speak in accordance with his thought simply refrains from putting his philosophy into practice.
But it is none the less significant that Spinoza's chief work was his "Ethics", and that, according to one modern view, ethics has only to describe
what men do, not to prescribe what they ought to do.
In forming its conception of God, pantheism eliminates every characteristic that religion presupposes. An impersonal being, whatever attributes it may
have, cannot be an object of worship. An infinite substance or a self-evolving energy may excite fear but it repels faith and love. Even the
beneficent forms of its manifestation call forth no gratitude, since these result from it by a rigorous necessity. For the same reason, prayer of any
sort is useless, atonement is vain and merit impossible. The supernatural of course disappears entirely when God and the world are identified.
Recent advocates of pantheism have sought to obviate these difficulties and to show that, apart from particular dogmas, the religious life and spirit
are safeguarded in their theory. But in this attempt they divest religion of its essentials, reducing it to mere feeling. Not action, they allege, but
humility and trustfulness constitute religion. This, however is an arbitrary procedure; by the same method it could be shown that religion is nothing
more than existing or breathing. The pantheist quite overlooks the fact that religion means obedience to Divine law; and of this obedience there can
be no question in a system which denies the freedom of man's will. According to pantheism there is just as little "rational service" in the
so-called religious life as there is in the behavior of any physical agent. And if men still distinguish between actions that are religious and those
that are not, the distinction is but another illusion.
Belief in a future life is not only an incentive to effort and a source of encouragement; for the Christian at least it implies a sanction of Divine
law, a prospect of retribution. But this sanction is of no meaning or efficacy unless the soul survive as an individual. If, as pantheism teaches,
immortality is absorption into the being of God, it can matter little what sort of life one leads here. There is no ground for discriminating between
the lot of the righteous and that of the wicked, when all ,alike are merged in the Absolute. And if by some further process of evolution such a
discrimination should come to pass, it can signify nothing, either as reward or as punishment, once personal consciousness has ceased. That perfect
union with God which pantheism seems to promise, is no powerful inspiration to right living when one considers how far from holy must be a God who
continually takes up into Himself the worst of humanity along with the best--if indeed one may continue to think in terms that involve a distinction
between evil and good.
It is therefore quite plain that in endeavoring to unify all things, pantheism sacrifices too much. If God, freedom, morality and religion must all be
reduced to the One and its inevitable processes, there arises the question whether the craving for unity may not be the source of illusions more fatal
than any of those which pantheism claims to dispel. But in fact no such unification is attained. The pantheist uses his power of abstraction to set
aside all differences, and then declares that the differences are not really there. Yet even for him they seem to be there, and so from the very
outset he is dealing with appearance and reality; and these two he never fuses into one. He simply hurries on to assert that the reality is Divine and
that all the apparent things are manifestations of the infinite, but he does not explain why each manifestation should be finite or why the various
manifestations should be interpreted in so many different and conflicting ways by human minds, each of which is a part of one and the same God. He
makes the Absolute pass onward from unconsciousness to consciousness but does not show why there should be these two stages in evolution, or why
evolution, which certainly means becoming "other", should take place at all.
It might be noted, too, that pantheism fails to unify subject and object, and that in spite of its efforts the world of existence remains distinct
from the world of thought. But such objections have little weight with the thorough-going pantheist who follows Hegel, and is willing for the sake of
"unity" to declare that Being and Nothing are identical.
There is nevertheless a fundamental unity which Christian philosophy has always recognized, and which has God for its centre. Not as the universal
being, nor as the formal constituent principle of things, but as their efficient cause operating in and through each, and as the final cause for which
things exist, God in a very true sense is the source of all thought and reality (see St. Thomas, "Contra Gentes", I). His omnipresence and action,
far from eliminating secondary causes, preserve each in the natural order of its efficiency-physical agents under the determination of physical law
and human personality in the exercise of intelligence and freedom. the foundation of the moral order. The straining after unity in the pantheistic
sense is without warrant, the only intelligible unity is that which God himself has established, a unity of purpose which is manifest alike in the
processes of the material universe and in the free volition of man, and which moves on to its fulfillment in the union of the created spirit with the
infinite Person, the author of the moral order and the object of religious worship.
EDWARD A. PACE