Sunday, 24 June 2012

Philosophical Investigations: Pantheism

Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele.  Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson.  But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi..  To St. Francis Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
(G.K. Chesterton)

Pantheism is the idea that the universe embodies God, and that, as the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it, ""God is everything and everything is God ". The Western tradition of pantheism goes back to the Stoics, who took the analogy of the human being as both body and soul. God is the soul of the Universe, the universe the body of God in the Stoic tradition. As this conceived of neither existing without the other, the two are essentially identical: God is the universe; the universe is God.

In many ways, this is an experiential belief - looking at the beauty of the natural world, and experiencing a sense of wonder and joy. But not all of the natural world is so beautiful. It is that which attracts us, but it is not the whole picture.

The idea of a God who created the world in Creationism is subject to a critique, which is well expressed by David Attenborough when he says:

My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy'

The Victorian natural theologians who sought, after Paley, evidence of the design of God in the natural world, also came up against the ichneumon, a particular kind of wasp. As Stephen Gould notes:

Among ectoparasites, however, many females lay their eggs directly upon the host's body. Since an active host would easily dislodge the egg, the ichneumon mother often simultaneously injects a toxin that paralyzes the caterpillar or other victim. The paralyzes may be permanent, and the caterpillar lies, alive but immobile, with the agent of its future destruction secure on its belly. The egg hatches, the helpless caterpillar twitches, the wasp larvae pierces and begins its grisly feast.

Darwin was well aware of the problem, and made plain his thoughts in a 1860 letter to Asa Gray:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

But that is also a critique which applies to pantheism. If everything is God, then what do matters like these or - for that matter natural disasters - tell us about the nature of God?

If we take nature and everything natural as divine, and remove any moral judgement from the equation, then we have the classic pantheist defence:

 "If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realize that this also is God."

Yet this is just as crippling an answer - it suggests a god that is so alienated and detached from human concerns that we must accept the cruelty and suffering as somehow part of life, rather than fighting against it, or railing "against the dying of the light". It is the kind of notion of god that C.S. Lewis attacked in a Grief Observed:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand. The conclusion is not "So there's no God, after all" but "So this is what God is really like, the Cosmic Sadist. The spiteful imbecile?"

To say that we must remove all attribution of judgement on nature makes the notion of nature as god a very strange one indeed. The divine nature gives us the worship of an impersonal mystery, carelessness, or cruelty. Is that really a conception of divinity that is worthy of respect? As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

Taking an unprejudiced view of the world as it is, no one would dream of regarding it as a god. It must be a very ill-advised god who knows no better way of diverting himself than by turning into such a world as ours, such a mean, shabby world, there to take the form of innumerable millions who live indeed, but are fretted and tormented, and who manage to exist a while together, only by preying on one another; to bear misery, need and death, without measure and without object, in the form, for instance, of millions of negro slaves, or of the three million weavers in Europe who, in hunger and care, lead a miserable existence in damp rooms or the cheerless halls of a factory.

And of course the argument that we need to change to focus of our perspective, and then we will see that nature is divine, and bracket out the matter of suffering is the same kind of argument that we could levy at anything that goes on in the world. Why should we look to judge the actions of human beings, when they are just simply the outworking of the divine in nature? The Jewish holocaust, for instance, becomes just a random act, an outworking of the divine, because we have not got the right perspective.

It might be argued that is not the case because we are moral creatures, capable of making judgements on right and wrong in our own behaviour. But from the pantheism point of view, this is surely incoherent.

If we remove human beings from the domain of nature as divine, and set them apart, then not all of nature can be divine. We cannot exclude ourselves if the whole of nature is divine, because we are part of nature. But if we include ourselves as part of nature, then human behaviour is no more reprehensible than that of the  ichneumon. As the writer Saul Bellow said:

But make nature your God, elevate creatureliness, and you can count on gross results.

Of course, we can judge that we possess the ability to engage in moral discourse, but then that means we have a nature to which we attribute divinity which is unable to engage in any moral discourse. Isn't it strange that we have abilities that most of what is considered divine is unable to do so?

John Macquarrie looked at how pantheism worked out in practice:

It is sometimes said that in pantheism, God is supposed to be equally present in every part of the physical universe. This may be an implication of the literal meaning of pantheism, that everything is God or God is everything. In practice, however, some things are accepted as more fully manifesting the presence of God than others.

I think that in practice, like the Paley argument for design in nature, and the wonders of nature that pantheism - in its Western forms - is very much in the tradition of natural theology. An external deity has been removed from the equation, so that all that remains is in fact a romantic idolising of nature; it is no surprise that the rise of pantheism as an alternative to Christianity comes in with the romantic movement back to nature; the backlash of the psyche against the increased urbanisation and alienation from the countryside that was wrought by the Industrial revolution.

That is why for example, in a modern example, nature worship takes the form of posting very beautiful pictures on the internet. Facebook users who tend to pantheism do not, as a rule, post photos of the ichneumon, or of the kind of ugliness in nature that is depicted in abstract forms by the artist Francis Bacon. They don't show a creature savagely attacking another creature, or a decaying carcass riddles with maggots and post the caption "Wonderful Nature". Dead bodies cast ashore by a tsunami do not feature as something to be contemplated as part of the divine in nature.

Clearly while there is a philosophical defense against the ugly side of nature, in practice that is ignored. Western pantheists are selective pantheists in practice, and they don't dwell on the more unpleasant aspects of nature, and certainly they don't often extol them as examples of divinity manifest, which of course logic suggests that they should.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't feel awe or joy at the beauty in nature, or that people are wrong to do so. On the contrary, I think that's a very appropriate response. The response we have to the beautiful, to the intricate patterns of the natural world, is a very important one.

But what pantheism does is to take that response one stage further, and attribute divinity to the natural world. It is an attempt to make sense and order out of a response, but because it goes beyond that response, and tries to make a philosophy about it, it ends up as an incoherent muddle which faces just as many problems as monotheism. We should enjoy the beauty of the natural world, the wonders of the solar system, but we should not worship them:

Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended.  Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. (Chesterton)

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