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French panthéisme, from panthéiste pantheist, from English pantheist, from pan- + Greek theos god



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"

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. 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". 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".


  • 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.

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