Pantheism versus Panentheism


As a panentheist, I've never understood the point of pantheism, since all pantheism seems to do is give the universe another name without adding anything to one's understanding of it. Instead of calling the universe God, we could just as easily call it Bob and achieve the same thing. In effect, the God of pantheism is reduced to a merely tautological formulation. It is as if in mathematics we say that 3 = 3. Okay, that's nice--so what? And if we think that by calling the Universe God we did add something to our understanding of it--made it a source of reverrence or whatever--then that would imply that at some level our understanding of "God" is something more than the universe alone (apparently without wanting to admit it), which takes us right back to panentheism.

What is the the point of pantheism, exactly?


Cynthia said...

Perhaps a step in our evolutionary understanding of just who God is, perhaps allowing some former atheists or agnostics to join in the religious fray.

Pantheism also reminds me of the line of thinking that the universe is God's body, in which we live and move and have our being--which is closer to panentheism, really. It's a fine line that makes a world of difference.

Do you know any pantheists?

Kay said...

I think it was Keith Ward that wrote in one of his comparative religions books that, when you get down to brass tacks, there really haven't been any actual pantheists through-out history. If you question these so called pantheists they either turn out to be panentheists or atheists.

John Shuck said...

Well, I guess I am one. But then I could change tomorrow as I don't know what it is all about. I suppose pantheism is atheism that sounds spiritual.

Probably more than anything, I resonate with non-realism which might explain my pantheism.

I think you are right, pantheism doesn't add anything, it creates a world from the tools of religious imagination.

PrickliestPear said...

I've wondered about this myself. Perhaps pantheists believe the universe is properly an object of worship? That would go beyond merely identifying the universe with God. I really have no idea, I'm not sure if I've ever met an actual pantheist.

Mike L. said...

I have looked at both fairly close and don't have an answer. I think Pantheism, as used today, may be a way to counter the last traces of substance Dualism. Dualism (the idea that there are 2 types of substance material/spiritual) has been around a while, but Descartes rekindled the idea and made it the dominate view of Christianity in the modern era. But it doesn't really hold water any longer in the scientific community. To be PanENtheistic would still mean keeping a thread of that dualistic understanding of the universe. It demands that we still imagine something "else" outside the natural universe, which ironically makes the universe not so "universal" and we would need another name for it.

So here's are my questions to you...

What is "it" that is or could be outside or beyond everything? Can you describe it in any way? Is it physical or do you need to invoke a Cartesian "other" substance (spirit, ghost, etc)? If it is in any way physical (i.e. capable of interaction with the physical universe) then isn't the notion that its "beyond" actually just a product of our poor attempts at defining the universe as something less than "universal"?

It might be like deciding that my right foot is not part of me. I guess I could do that. I could decide that from this day forward "me" stops at my right ankle. Technically, I can exist without my right foot, so my right foot is not a definitive part of "me", right?

Often what happens is that we end up classifying the universe as the "known universe" or everything we know about everything. We draw a line there and then call stuff outside our knowing as "spiritual" or "God". But isn't that an artificial line that keeps changing as we keep learning? So pantheism in the 21st century may be an attempt to say that universal actual does mean "universal" and it seems silly to assume the universe stops at the end of our line of sight.

Mystical Seeker said...

My eighth grade English teacher was a fan of Spinoza and he is the person who taught me the word "pantheist". I'm not sure I've known anyone else who was a pantheist besides John Shuck. :)

Kay, I think your quote from Keith Ward has some truth to it. Maybe people use this term for the reason that John Shuck cites; for those who have a problem with theism, "it creates a world from the tools of religious imagination". Maybe it is a way of putting a spiritual spin on atheism?

Mystical Seeker said...


'What is "it" that is or could be outside or beyond everything? Can you describe it in any way? Is it physical or do you need to invoke a Cartesian "other" substance (spirit, ghost, etc)?'

That's a really good question. One way that process theology looks at it is that the "it" is a creative impulse that lies in front of (not behind, but in front of) the evolutionary unfolding of the universe. Can creativity and love be measured or objectively defined in the physical universe?

Mike L. said...


Are you saying "it" is a concept in our minds or maybe our projection of a possible future?

That's interesting, but I'm not sure if that is where you are heading. Please clarify.

"Can creativity and love be measured or objectively defined in the physical universe?

Not completely, at this moment, but if I had to bet, I'd say, "yes". It might be possible to explain them as brain activity and our brains interplay with physical stimulus.

So for example, I'm not sure I want to draw a line between digestion and love. I don't want to assume one is in the universe and the other is outside. I'm not so sure they are different "substances" just because we know more about how one physically works. That may not be true in 20 years and our "knowing" or not knowing doesn't make it so.

Mystical Seeker said...


It sounds like you are taking a reductionist approach, unless I am misinterpreting what you are saying. I do not believe, for example, that human consciousness is reducible to brain activity. Science is about objective measurement, but subjectivity cannot be measured. One philosopher once famously asked the question, "What is it like to be a bat?" None of us will ever know what it is like to be a bat, because none of us are bats. Subjectivity defies objective measurement.

The thing about creativity is that it surprises us. It is about novelty, and novelty cannot be predicted. I would argue that unfolding of novelty in the universe, including the evolution of human beings, reflects a creative impulse that seems to underlie what transpires, and that this creative impulse cannot be objectively found by scientific measurement.

Mike L. said...


My digestive system frequently surprises me! LOL! But if I go to a doctor and he runs some tests, he says, "nope, I'm not surprised at all. Just look at these levels of acid, or this tumor, or what you ate last night, etc." So one person's level of surprise or inability to predict/describe an event says a lot about the limits of that one observer, but not much about the thing being observed.

Your argument sounds like a "God of the gaps", right? It's based on our limit, not the actual thing. Creation used to "surprise" us. It appeared to have a "mind" or "creative impulse", but Darwin came along and showed that it CAN be objectively found by scientific measurement. Now we even know many details of how it works thanks to recent DNA discoveries. We could still say it has a "mind", but we'd now see that as a metaphor for natural selection, DNA mutation, and environmental changes.

I wouldn't use the word "reductionist" in the way you may mean it, but it is somewhat true about me. Really, Everyone is a reductionist on many (most) things. Aren't you a reductionist about photosynthesis? Don't you "know" how that process works based solely on its parts? Aren't you confident this process works without divine intervention? Why couldn't consciousness be reducible to a product of its parts also?

I've been reading a lot about this topic and it does seem that the idea of a dualistic "other" mind/soul is pretty much gone. However, reductionist, is too strong a word because it doesn't give enough credit for emergent properties (like consciousness). I might be more of a emergence materialist (not sure about that term). Consciousness is an emerging property of the physical brain/body system. No individual neurons are "conscious", but the right collection of in a system is conscious. Still, consciousness is not something independent or separate from those neurons. The sum emerges as more that its parts, but only exists because of, and within the system of parts.

In pantheism, emergent consciousness may be a good correlation to the God/universe question.

As always, thanks for the fun dialog! I'm not sold on any of these terms, but I like twisting my brain a bit.

Mystical Seeker said...


I don't see it as the same as the God of the Gaps, because we aren't talking about physically measurable and objective concepts. Some things do remain outside the purview of hard science and scientific measurement, and I think always will be; concepts like like values and love are simply immune to efforts at rationalizing according to the scientific method. Certainly people have tried to accomplish this--August Comte, for example--and they have always failed. In fact, it was when I studied Comte in college that I began to experience the first cracks in my previous attachment to logical positivism (a rather outdated 1920s idea anyway).

I am not really a reductionist, not at least at an extreme level, because I believe, like you do, that certain properties are emergent at a higher level. Sure, consciousness depends on same way on the material elements that make up human beings. The question is whether you can say that consciousness is exactly equivalent to neuronal activity. If you take this to its logical extremes, you get people like BF Skinner, who essentially claimed just that. But I think that this defies everyone's understanding of the most fundamental fact that you and I are subjective beings who think and feel.

I also don't believe in Divine intervention, so I'm not sure how to respond to your question about being confident in photosynthesis working without it. Darwin showed us a process that is in effect, which is part and parcel of how the world works. I see creativity as a meta-theme that underlies this process. Maybe you don't see the evolution of the universe as a creative process, but I do. I think that amazing things emerged through that process--like human beings. Process theology recognizes that the universe is always in process, always in flow, and that things emerge out of this. It doesn't posit an interventionist God but it does posit the creative possibilities of the future as representing the potential that lies behind development in the history of the universe.

John Haught, in his book "God After Darwin", does a much better job of articulating this than I do.

Frank said...

I agree with Cynthia that pantheism holds some value to people as a stepping stone. It is appealing for people who have grown up in a repressive religious environment where Creation, the body, sexuality, etc., were all deemed to be evil. Pantheism says that there is divinity therein and it is easy to get excited about that.

If someone wants to work through the theology, though, they probably hit the brick wall soon when they realize that if everything is God, and there is no non-God, then what is divinity? Divinity is only special if there is non-divinity to compare to. Like you said, MS, pantheism is just another name for Bob.

The idea that God is "other" than us, but that somehow God is also incarnate, is a very delicate balance that has been maintained in the Judeo-Christian tradition but I think there are lots of possibilities there that are absent in pantheism. Having a notion of God as "other" means we can be in relationship with God, which would be hard to do if we are God in a pantheistic sense.