Why I am Not a Pantheist (Nor a Panentheist)
I. Introduction: What Adam Had Seen
Consider a Chinese landscape painting. Set against a background of mist, an endless stretch of white, a reed bends gently in the breeze. The object seems to take on an ineffable, even transcendent quality. In spite of all our usual concepts and labels, the generalities through which we banalize the world into items of mere utility, we are suddenly forced to perceive an ordinary thing in an entirely unique fashion. This is a perception of what Buddhists call tathata or “suchness.” Staring at the reed, we are in fact brought before “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation,” as Huxley eloquently described it, “the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”1
The reed is not the entire story however, for the portrait doesn’t allow us to remain there. Our eye is instead carried toward the painting’s massive horizon, a blanket of infinity against which the reed seems to borrow its form and contour. The effect is an apt one, for the reed—along with the grass, the mountain-top, and everything else—is the manifestation of a single, unitary ground. Alternatively called the Tao or the Void, this is an all-encompassing reality which permeates and shines through the “ten thousand things”—to borrow a phrase from Lao Tzu. The landscape paintings of China and Japan are no aesthetic embellishments, no exercise in nature romanticism. Rather they are metaphysical to the core, and guide us to a direct intuition of the sacred which underlies and continually generates the natural world.
From many Jewish, Christian and Muslim mystics to philosophers like Spinoza and Royce, there is also a longstanding and venerable tradition of spiritualizing the cosmos in the Occident. This may take the form of emanationism, in which the universe is to the Absolute what rings of light are to a flame, or an interpretation of the divine as the sole substance of which all existing things are a mode. There is, of course, one major distinction between the thinkers and contemplatives of the West and the landscape painters of Asia: The experiences of the former are molded within a primarily theistic cast. It makes little difference that the impersonal One of Plotinus is about as far from the impassioned creator-deity of Genesis as the latter is to Zeus; the legacy of near-eastern monotheism will not easily be shaken off. This includes even those quasi-religious and philosophical movements partly inspired by Hindu and Buddhist sources, such as American Transcendentalism. “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me,” claims Emerson in his most well-known tract. “I am part and parcel of God,” he immediately adds.2
The doctrine that God is the entire cosmos is called pantheism, literally: “God is all.” A closely related theological notion is pan-en-theism, or “all is in God.” Adherents of the latter concept like to stress that the divine both includes and yet extends beyond the universe. Moreover, that pantheism, while correct in advocating the radical immanence of the divine within nature, is too flat and simplistic a position. Scholars of great mystical movements and figures often go out of their way to explain that their subjects merit the term panentheism rather than pantheism, as if the second label is an insult.
And yet, on closer inspection, the distinction between the two notions revolves around how we interpret the meaning of “all,” for both pantheists and panentheists claim that God is to be equated with everything that is. Panentheists simply seek to remind us that the concrete is not everything; that, at the very least, there exists possibility as well as actuality, potentiality in addition to present fact. In other words, God has to be more than the mere collection of all finite things. Arguably, one position is really an upgraded version of the other. Had every professing pantheist in history been exposed to the idea of panentheism, perhaps each would immediately exclaim: “Yes, yes…I am that.”
My earliest and most abiding religious sympathies have been with those who demonstrate a kind of astonishment before being: From the landscape painters of China and Japan, to Wittgenstein’s famous remark that it is “not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” In short, I held (and still hold) a special appreciation for the art of perceiving “what Adam had seen,” to invoke Huxley once more. It was my eventual exposure to contemplatives of the Abrahamic traditions wherein I learned not only to perceive the ineffable character of things in a monistic fashion—that is, as a single reality—but to call it “God.” For years, I was a panentheist.
The overriding mission of what follows is to explain why this is no longer the case. Along the way, I will discuss, and refute, a number of classic arguments against the pantheistic/panentheistic worldview. This is partly in the hopes of isolating the most sophisticated version of this position as possible (which turns out to be the panentheism of process theology). I do not want to commit the straw man fallacy of critiquing a caricature instead of the real, living thing. But it is also to illuminate, as much for myself as for anyone else, what exactly my issue with this perspective really is. If what I have to say contributes to the more general task of fashioning a viable philosophy for our time, than any larger purpose will have been achieved.
II. Totalization and Its Critics
To pronounce the universe as God—or as part of God—is no small pretense in regards to the human capacity for knowledge. Both pantheism and panentheism are, after all, statements concerning the whole of things. And more: From the authors of the Upanishads to the essays of Emerson, a widely held theme among pantheistic philosophies is that the deepest level of our consciousness is already part and parcel of the deepest layer of the cosmos. In the writings of Leibniz, and later in Huxley, this idea is known as the Perennial Philosophy. Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic who identified the ground of the soul with the god-head, is listed more times in the index of Huxley’s popular volume on this topic than any other figure.
Much modern thought, both secular and religious, has been a revolt against precisely this tendency to conceive of reality as completely transparent to the mind. The act of bringing everything within the scope of awareness—either in terms of external detail or inner principle—is labeled by numerous contemporary philosophers as totalization, and is heavily contested on a number of grounds.
There is, first, the question of our access to the external world, let alone the cosmos in its entirety. Since Immanuel Kant, philosophers no longer speak of knowing reality, but the condition for knowing it. The psyche, for the greatest figure of the German Enlightenment, impresses its categories upon the materials of perception, organizing the realm of appearance into a coherent form. We have as little ability to escape these contributions of the mind than we have of leaping out of our bodies. And since none of these a-priori structures inform us as to whether there is a divine being at all, neither pantheism nor any other form of theism can be an item of genuine knowledge.
After the Enlightenment, European thinkers would explore human finitude in innumerable ways. Kierkegaard, the Danish father of existentialism, would fill volumes critiquing an “age of speculation”—an era with the arrogance, typified by Hegel and his followers, to fit every fact of life within a set of ideas. But human existence is a precarious and open-ended affair, and resists being stuffed within a completed picture of any kind. If life is to be understood backwards, states Kierkegaard in regards to philosophy, “it must be lived forwards.”3 That the human being cannot step outside the universe in order to pronounce it as one or many, God or mindless matter, is the very essence of the objection to totalization.
There is also a spiritual argument against this totalization. Kierkegaard was as much the father of Protestant neo-orthodoxy as he was of existentialism, and for him, religious belief also refuses assimilation into any neat and convenient metaphysics. This is particularly so for the main object of Christian dogma—the Incarnation. According to Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard’s most theologically astute alter-ego, the moment of eternity entering time must either offend or transform us entirely. Hence, one is to approach the Paradox not with the confidence and self-assurance of the metaphysician or the mystic (and the pantheist is often both) but in the manner of Abraham’s lonely journey to Moriah: In fear and trembling.
The striving for totalization has come under fire for moral as well as spiritual and epistemological reasons, and pantheistic-style visions are consistently seen as the worst offenders. The attempt to push through the multiplicity of things into some divine ground is to promote a disregard for difference, to relegate the distinctions between individuals as either illusory or as stages to be overcome in the interests of a greater whole. A double-crime is in fact committed, for not only are other human beings liquefied into some homogenous totality, but the self is offered an escape from the contingencies and challenges of day to day existence. Seen against this light, the goal of the philosopher and the mystic is little more than a sophisticated defense mechanism, or worse, a form of intellectual imperialism designed to divest others from whatever moral claim they may have upon us.
The Jewish existentialist Martin Buber, for example, insisted that the true and authentic form of existence is that of a communion between a full-blooded “I” and a separate “Thou.” Neither side must disappear into the other, nor into some third and underlying element, less the relationship lose its vitality and transform into a vacuous idealism. Emmanuel Levinas, an early founder of postmodern theory, would radicalize this same critique, and insist on how the face of another human being eludes each and every attempt to close off a coherent ontology.
Perhaps the most frequently overlooked front on the war against totalization is the New World. The work of William James is, among other things, a sustained attack upon the Hegelian monism of Royce, Bradley, and his own father’s Swedenborgian mysticism. James fought for a universe that is not only open-ended, but pluralistic (despite the misleading term of “neutral monism” for one of his most important positions), and not reducible to a single, static metaphysical unity of any kind whatsoever.4 In defense of everything particular, peculiar, and finite, a loud “hands off to the Absolute” is found throughout all of James’s philosophical writings.
Indeed, one of James’s biggest problems with either an all-powerful or all-pervading picture of the divine (traditional theism and pantheism respectively) is the trivialization or outright denial of evil. If human history were guaranteed a positive ending, then all misfortune must be a part of God’s calculations—and therefore only apparent. And if the divine is found everywhere, even hidden beneath the contingencies and ambiguities of day to day existence, then evil is simply non-existent. A fine example of this kind of theology is a sect known as Christian Science (whose founder, Mary Baker Eddy, died 1910—the same year as James). Claiming that the material world is an illusion, and that God is the sole reality, Eddy holds that the appearance of sickness and hardship is but a product of our limited minds and lack of faith. This is pantheism with a vengeance.5
For James, the main consequence of denying the reality of evil is a slackening of moral purpose. If all danger and calamity were a fiction, then what could possibly be the point of all human striving and effort? What real difference do our actions and decisions make if there is nothing at stake in the universe? If is for this reason that James would advocate a finite God—one not all-powerful or identified with the totality of being, and one for whom the cosmos is an unfinished and even risk-filled venture. Only a universe beset with real possibilities, one whose outcome is not decided beforehand, can encourage the ethically vigorous life.
My favorite of the anti-totalizers is James’s unsung countryman, correspondent, and fellow experimenter in nitrous oxide: Benjamin Paul Blood. The very title of Blood’s second book, Pluriverse, is a critique of the presumptuous and metaphysically loaded term “universe.” Our immediate experience of the world is that of a many; who is in the position of knowing otherwise? Even if it were possible to see or intuit an “All”—this would be the All plus the individual perceiving it, and therefore really two things. That the largely ignored Blood was something of a self-styled mystic and poet was music to the ears of James, who perceived in Blood a vindication of his own spiritual war against monism. “I feel now as if my own pluralism were not without the kind of support which mystical corroboration may confer,” states James in “A Pluralistic Mystic,” the last published article of his lifetime.6
In light of the above, are the doctrines of pantheism and panentheism discredited once and for all? To the extent that a worldview claims to possess the entire universe within its grasp, or to subsume all individuality into a flat and impersonal monism, it falls prey to the polemics of Kant and Kierkegaard, Buber and Levinas, James and Blood. Traditional pantheism of the acosmistic sort, one which deems the material world as ultimately illusory and unreal, one which liquidates all difference into a homogenous unity, is indeed an unnacceptable position for the critics of totalization. But there are pantheisms and pantheisms (or panentheisms and panentheisms), and the differences between them are worth exploring.
III. Process Panentheism
Consider the panentheism commonly attributed to Alfred North Whitehead (not without controversy) and openly embraced by his numerous philosophical descendents. In Process and Reality, Whitehead’s most important metaphysical statement, God is a two-sided entity. He is, first, the ground of all possibility, the realm of “eternal objects”from which the universe continually receives its form and structure. Second, the material universe, the physical world of becoming, is God’s “consequent nature.” Hence, between his abstract and concrete nature, God envelopes and in some sense is the whole cosmos. While there are some scholars who would disagree with this categorization of Whitehead’s thought, to my mind this is a clear case of panentheism.
Now, is Whitehead guilty of totalization? Does he do violence to the particular and the individual in the name of some greater reality? It is worth taking a closer look.
In Process and Reality, Whitehead’s most elaborate ontological statement, the most basic elements of reality are tiny droplets of experience called “actual occasions.” Each actual occasion is constituted, in part, by its relationship to other moments of experience, and yet each also possesses a measure of freedom and independence. One of Whitehead’s most controversial notions is in fact his panpsychism (what David Ray Griffin calls “pan-experientialism”), the idea that all of reality possesses, however rudimentary, an inner or subjective life. Not even God can force a destiny onto actual occasions, since the deity of process thought operates through “persuasive” as opposed to “coercive” power. In different combinations, actual occasions form houses and trees, elephants and people, black holes and supernovas. For Whitehead, God is not an exception to the basic ontological principles of Process and Reality but its “chief exemplification.” Hence, God is one giant and everlasting actual occasion, the one in whom all other occasional occasions reside like cells in a body.
Whitehead’s metaphysics is a gigantic and ornate hypothesis, a generalization from the structure of experience to the nature of reality. Even his depiction of the relationship between actual occasions is modeled after the texture of our subjective life: For each act of perception not only inherits from those which come before it; each aims, in turn, to influence those which come after. Such is the process vision: Wave after wave of actual occasions succeeding one another forever, with each individual occasion partly contributing to and partly reflecting an ever-expanding whole. Whitehead’s practice of continually beginning with and returning to experience—what he compared to an airplane constantly touching ground and taking off again—yielded a system every bit as organic as his method. For the process universe, like the previous ones of Pierce and James, is a plastic and open-ended one, and marked by what Whitehead called “The Creative Advance.”
Such a perspective makes short work of the anti-totalizers I have listed above. As a grand conjecture, one based upon experience and continually open to revision, the ontology of Process and Reality has no pretenses toward either axiomatic self-evidence or finality. Thus, no crime of totalization has been committed. The metaphysics of Process and Reality is, after all, an edifice built on the far side of James—whose influence on Whitehead was both extensive and deep. As a cosmology of mutually inter-related particulars, each of which appropriates and yet stands out from the others, there is no dissolving of the individual into the whole. And not only is each actual occasion a dynamic event instead of a finished and atomized thing—the totality is itself in a state of becoming. Therefore, all complaints of fitting a self within a closed system are null and void. Since God pervades and yet extends beyond the created universe, the pious person can either choose to feel immersed within the divine presence, as in mysticism, or submit to a transcendent reality in a state of fear and trembling. Hence, Kierkegaard’s opposition of faith against totalization is now without teeth. Moreover, since the God of process thought is not the all-controlling and all-powerful being of, say, Luther or Calvin, each actual occasion possesses genuine freedom.7 The absolutism of traditional theology has also been avoided.
Since process ontology is a fundamentally relational one, a metaphysics in which each component internalizes its relationship to all of the others, the insights of thinkers like Buber and Levinas are actually underlined and supported by the Whiteheadian worldview. Because each actual occasion reflects the whole cosmos from its own unique (and irreducible) standpoint, process ontology goes beyond the monism-pluralism split—a divide which William James perceived as the most pregnant issue in the history of philosophy. Finally, since the interconnected nature of things in Process and Reality is not a thorough All-in-All, process metaphysics never results in anything as monolithic as the One of Neo-Platonism. Thus, a Whiteheadian can also speak of a “pluriverse” (if they so wish).
What Whitehead and his followers have provided is nothing less than a panentheistic vision that escapes the assorted ills of complete totalization. But that is as far as it goes, for there are other issues at stake in pronouncing the universe to be God (or as part of God).
IV. Sexed-Up Atheism
As we have seen, pantheism equates the universe with God, while panentheism typically interprets the universe as part of God. Both, I have argued above, identify reality or “the All” with the supreme Being—with the latter doctrine simply providing a more complex understanding of “the All” really means. To recap the latter point: Reality is not just the physical, but the realm of potentiality from which the physical world derives and receives its form and structure.
Whether staring at the limitless horizon evoked in a Chinese landscape painting or appreciating Hasidic parables: It is not difficult to appreciate the tendency to spiritualize the totality of things. Even James, a philosophical enemy of traditional pantheism if there ever was one, could admit that a Hegelian colleague’s work possessed the ability to “charm the monist in me unreservedly.”8
Let us grant that there is indeed something spiritual about the sheer existence of everything (when seen through the enlightened eye, of course). By what right do we call it God?
“God,” or the equivalent in any language, is not merely the most loaded term in history. It has possessed a specific set of meanings both from its inception in the major holy books of the Near East (at least for the Abrahamic traditions), as well as in the hearts of the majority of today’s believers—very few of whom, incidentally, think they are worshipping “the All” when entering a Church or a Mosque. In much of the Bible and the Quran (as least taken at face value) there exists humanity, the universe, and the Creator; the term “everything” simply does not denote God.
Moreover, many of the earliest attempts to promote a radically immanent notion of the divine have been non-theistic in both tone and substance. In one striking passage, the Tao Te Ching pronounces the Tao—the source of the cosmos and the harmony working through nature—as “older than God.”9 And the more ecumenical philosophers of religion are bold to the point of arrogance in claiming that Brahman of the Upanishads is the same being worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims (even if the later devotional sects of Hinduism make this easier to do so). In other words, calling the totality of things “God” is a betrayal of the deepest and most aboriginal sources of both Abrahamic theism and Eastern non-theism.
But religions transform over time, claims the pantheist and panentheist in return, and even the Bible possesses more than one portrait of the God. The entity whose legs are heard walking through the Garden of Eden seems wholly unrelated to the more abstract and universal being of Isaiah, the creator of light and darkness. So, what is so wrong about seeing the other pictures of the divine as lesser but increasingly sophisticated steps toward the correct conception of God? Hence, the J-writer, limited to the intellectual resources of his time, was doing mythology, while the prophet who stated that the earth is full of God’s glory was far closer to the mark.10
However, another question immediately arises for the pantheist and the panentheist: Namely, what significance does the label of “God” really have if it is merely a synonym for all that is? If God is to be equated with everything, than can we, in principle, substitute “everything” or “the totality of things” in place of God once and for all? If so, “God” then becomes a vacuous and unneeded term, the buzzword of a non-committal and low-maintenance spirituality—a tag employed, perhaps, as a nod to theism while remaining inoffensive to both naturalists and Buddhists. “Pantheism,” sneers Richard Dawkins, “is sexed-up atheism.”11
Writing these words, I cannot help but imagine the following scenario. One day, the most missionary and outspoken of our contemporary atheists hold a secret meeting and henceforth announce themselves to be panentheists. From conference to conference, debate to debate, each proclaims that the concept of God should be employed as a label for everything that exists—from the invisible rules of mathematics to the massive explosions of stars and volcanoes. At one of these public dialogues, a university student walks up to Christopher Hitchens, arguably the most eloquent and biting of the “new atheists,” and inquires as to how he came to change his opinion. The author of God is Not Great grins ear to ear as he replies: “I have not changed one bit.”
V. The Personal and the Impersonal
One attempt to answer Dawkins’ charge is to insist that reality possesses a quality that is not merely the universe by another name. What makes it permissible to label reality itself as God, it can be argued, is that the totality of things possesses a personality, a mind or a will. A closer look at the Absolute of Vedanta thought, for instance, yields not merely an impersonal “it,” a blind stuff from which the universe issues, but pure consciousness itself. This is bliss-consciousness, the universal mind of which each individual soul is a microcosm. But this alone will not help us, since it is the same question rebranded: Can “God” be replaced with “universal consciousness?” Once again, the meaning of theism is strained beyond the point of recognition.
Process theology is as personalistic as panentheism can be, since the consequent nature of God, the very body of the cosmos, is subject to what every actual occasion feels—much like the agonized groaning of a man whose every cell is riddled with cancer. In Process and Reality, Whitehead informs us that his God is not a heavenly demiurge modeled after the Caesars but “the fellow sufferer who understands;” not the unmoved mover of Aristotle/Aquinas, but what Charles Hartshorne would later call “the supremely moved mover.”12 But upon what ground does the process theologian establish such a feeling and personal deity?
There is, first, a certain purposefulness attributed to the ever-evolving structure of the universe. Here, process theologians employ an already venerable strategy among post-Darwinian philosophers of religion, and claim evidence for the divine in the passage of natural forms from the crude to the complex. Perhaps actual occasions, the essential building blocks of the process cosmos, would never have moved out of brute immediacy without some gentle prodding from underneath. The deity of process theology persuades each unit of reality to actualize its highest potential (in a subtle form of influence Whitehead labeled the “initial aim”), a suggestion that each occasion is free to reject. The primordial aspect of God envisions all abstract possibilities, all “eternal objects” as Whitehead calls them, orders them in terms of relevance and brings them into the world of concrete actuality. Hence, without God’s provocation, there would be no break from the dead routine of the past, no openness toward the higher and more detailed forms of existence. Like water rushing toward the lowest part of the street, each occasion would simply exert the least amount of effort possible and mimic the ones that came before. Reality would resemble a flattened and homogenous mash, a buzzing of quarks (if even that), but no molecules, cells, or minds.
To those who remind us that the fangs by which a leopard rips out the entrails of a caribou is as much a product of evolution as the unconditional love of a mother for her children, the process theologian replies that his or her God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense, and is subject to a host of invariable laws and limitations. These include not only the relative autonomy possessed by each actual occasion, but the close relationship subsisting between the complexities of design on the one hand with increased fragility and susceptibility to misfortune on the other. With the development of consciousness for instance, comes the capacity for pain and suffering. But the risks are worth it, claims the process thinker, for God’s overriding mission is nothing less than to encourage increasingly intricate levels of being—including greater intensities of feeling. One of the great sins the deity of process thought perpetually strives to overcome is triviality; the reluctance, for example, to promote the inspired sentiments of great scientists and poets for fear of the darker moods which typically accompany them.
At first blush, all of this is quite compelling. A God who persuades through wisdom and profundity of vision is far more palatable than the demiurge who commands and storms from above. But is such a being truly necessary to account for both the order and freedom exhibited by the cosmos?
Here, one cannot help but feel that process thought has taken away with one hand what it has given with the other, for if actual occasions are granted their own awareness, however dim and subliminal, then why add the picture of a Master pulling the strings (or more accurately, whispering suggestions) from behind? Panexperientialism is one of the boldest doctrines of process ontology. To go so far as to attribute experience and feeling to the basic stuff of the universe, and then to deny actual occasions the ability to push out their own frontiers and embark on new and unprecedented forms of being (however unknowingly in most cases) is a curious move indeed. Process metaphysics seems to collapse right back into the demand that intelligence of some sort is required for structure. For most scientists and philosophers, natural selection is perfectly capable of explaining the design in species without evoking a transcendent (or transcendental) mind. Even if we are to dissolve, along with process metaphysics, the line between life and “inanimate matter” and read sentience all the way down into the atom and the quark, why should anything be different?
Outside of satisfying one’s prior religious convictions, there seems little reason to evoke a divine personality in order to make sense of how smaller and less complex things can crystallize into more ornate ones. After every morning shave I observe the most exquisite multi-colored whirlpool develop as the water drains in my bathroom sink. This is a phenomenon that never fails to astonish me. And yet, nothing is added in terms of either scientific explanation or aesthetic effect by introducing a creator behind the whole affair.
There is a second argument for a personal and volitional God in process theology, one involving not beginnings but endings, not the structure of the cosmos buts its ultimate resolution. For Whitehead’s ontology has accommodated a feature of Western religion outright neglected by most other metaphysical schemes: This is the eschatological dimension, the doctrine of history’s fulfillment and ultimate triumph over evil. Housing and enveloping all actual occasions, the consequent nature of God not only feels what each occasion undergoes, but preserves these feelings for eternity. And more: God’s concrete nature goes to work on these moments of feeling, weaving them in such a way as to vindicate the struggles of each actual occasion against pain and misfortune. Thus, the all-too-common victory of cruelty over justice in this world is reversed in the long-run, and evil is relegated into a minor and subsidiary element within the everlasting body of God. Finally, something of the deity’s completed nature spills backward into the present, providing a sense of spiritual depth within the here and now. The end is thus felt in right the midst of the journey, an event which is hinted at by Whitehead in the most elusive terms: “For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.”13
This is, without question, a lovely and imaginative portrait of things. But can it be supported philosophically?
Process theologians will immediately reply that just as all actual occasions are a synthesis of previous occasions with eternal objects, so the deity must reflect this same constitution. This clearly supports Whitehead’s statement that God is no exception to the ontology of Process and Reality but its “chief exemplification.”14 Hence, if the deity has a conceptual side, so he must have a concrete side as well—and the two aspects must reach a synthesis. The eschatological moment, which includes the victory of good over evil, is just such a fusion; the subsuming of inherited feeling from all existing entities, both positive and negative, with the abstract ideals of peace and justice. Process eschatology is thus to be understood by its place within Whitehead’s overall system. However, if the primordial aspect of God—that which purposefully sends “initial aims” into the realm of becoming—is shown to be unnecessary (as I have argued above), than the concrete aspect of God is equally needless.
Process theologians will then remind us that Whitehead held actual occasions to be final reason for everything, and therefore eternal objects require an occasion in which to reside. But why can’t eternal objects be grounded, say, within the totality of existing and potential actual occasions? Why must they reside within one gigantic occasion called God? Individual occasions may be transient, but not the entire collection of occasions. It should be noted that there is no creation ex nihilo in the cosmology of Process and Reality, and the universe is never subordinate to God, but is in fact co-eternal with the deity.
Perhaps the most far-reaching justification for the eschatology in process theology—along with the personal deity it implies—is the appeal to certain forms of religious experience. The very mission of speculative philosophy, according to the author of Process and Reality, is to fashion a body of concepts “in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”15 Doing justice to the full range and variety of human intuition is a major preoccupation of Whitehead’s mature philosophy—from his discussion of poetry in Science and the Modern World to his extensive litany of relevant experiences in Adventures of Ideas (“…experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience skeptical, experience anxious and experience care-free …”).16 In agreement with James’s view that spiritual states of awareness possess a noetic or truth-bearing value, Whitehead holds religious sensibilities as possessing at least as much importance as the insights of science, logic, and the arts. And the manner in which process ontology has integrated different forms of religious perception is not lost to the theologians who have served as some of its most zealous champions and defenders.
David Ray Griffin, for instance, has spoken of Whitehead’s thought as unique in its inclusion of the “two absolutes”: The impersonal divine ground expressed by many Asian and Western mystical traditions, and the personal deity of Abrahamic theism (as well as, say, the Bodhisaatva cults of Mahayana Buddhism and devotional sects of Bhakti Hinduism). Whitehead’s concept of Creativity, the ceaseless production of fresh actual occasions from earlier ones, corresponds with the former absolute, while the primordial and consequent natures of God support the latter. The respective ontologies of both are, of course, justified by the experiences corresponding to each: The sense of interconnectedness among actual occasions for the impersonal absolute (i.e., a feeling of oneness with the Tao), and the feeling of transcendent and divinely inspired purpose for the personal one (i.e., the moral and eschatological vision of the Hebrew prophets). Thus, in allowing for a personal as well as an impersonal aspect, the panentheism of process thought is not simply the cosmos by another name.
It can be asked, however, if all varieties of the religious experience possess the same ontological weight. Is a metaphysical scheme truly stronger for integrating the insights from all experiences considered religious? Consider those experiences strongly disliked by the kind of liberal theologian sympathetic to process thought: The Old Testament prophet who feels God’s intense disapproval at sparing the lives of the women and children from the heathen tribe; the schizophrenic whose brain is seared by infrared rays sent by demons from outer space; and the “Christian Identity” theologian who is overwhelmed by a powerful identification of the Aryan race with the tribes of Israel. To be sure, these experiences have much to teach us about the foibles and frailty of the human condition. But what can they teach us about reality in the larger sense? It is interesting to note the extent to which process theology does not integrate all religious experiences. Process metaphysics seems to discriminate among experiences after all. One begins to suspect that the types of religious feeling taken seriously by process theologians demonstrates more of their private convictions than their concern for philosophical honesty.
It can be replied that the faith-centered experience oriented toward a personal God and an eschatological future is far more common than the fleeting and aberrant experiences I have listed above. But does it therefore possess the same metaphysical import as the more contemplative experience—that of complete self-transcendence and/or union with an impersonal reality?
On closer inspection, it does not. At least as it is described in much of the literature of the West, the more faith-centered and eschatological form of the religious experience can be accounted for without the existence of the being toward which it is directed. For example, from Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” (a phrase, though apt, actually found nowhere in his writings), the faith experience is often depicted in the following manner: First, a shipwrecking of the mind against an intellectually inassimilable truth, and second, the heightened sense of interiority achieved through this releasing of the intellect’s need for control and explanation. Most typically, the wall against which reason is to collide is the Incarnation—God’s appearance as a first century Palestinian Jew. It should immediately be recognized that what is encountered in these experiences is not God directly, but some paradoxical idea attributed to the deity. One finds the very same kind of experience with the use of riddles or koans in Zen Buddhism, an entirely non-theistic faith.
The same goes for the depth experience that comes with eschatological yearning: A sense of vindication in the present, or what some Protestant theologians have called the “eternal now.” Consider the striving of a dedicated Trotskyite for the end of all economic exploitation and the establishment of a classless state. Even if this person feels as if the revolution will not take place until long after her lifetime, the future victory against capitalism not only lends significance to her present efforts; it imbues every minute of her struggle with a sense of (I dare say it) transcendent meaning and purpose. The end already lies dormant within the journey, and the Kingdom of Marx, to play with Whitehead’s most cryptic phrase, is with us today.
It is important to acknowledge, finally, that the great majority of sects which have systematized the methods of attaining a religious experience have envisioned a non-personal as opposed to a personal absolute. Even the term “experience” is often deemed by scholars of mystical movements as inadequate to their subject, since it presupposes the interaction between the senses with some external thing (For example, I experience the juiciness of an apple). Meanwhile, the kind of intuition spoken of by Sufis and Christian Contemplatives, Yogis and Hasidic masters, has nothing to do with sensory experience. It is instead commonly described as the dissolving of the ego into some transcendental ground, the affirmation of a reality more fundamental than the split between subject and object, self and world. But again: Why call this reality God?
VI. Experience and Reification
So far, I have argued as follows: If the absolute is considered impersonal, than to call it “God” is disingenuous to both the original tenor of Abrahamic theism (before its absorption of ideologies like Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism) as well as the traditions which have always espoused a radically immanent notion of the divine. The latter have typically been either flatly non-theistic, or have depicted personal gods as derivative, a manifestation of a deeper and undifferentiated reality. If we must spiritualize all of existence, labeling it God adds nothing at best, and plays frivolously with a word deeply resonant to the great majority of theists. That is, unless the cosmos or the “All” can be argued to have a personal element over and above the sentient beings who occupy it (as insisted upon by process theologians), a position which has little experiential or philosophical justification.
But there exist other reasons for not calling the “All” God. One place to begin is a closer examination of the root experiences which have typically led philosophers and theologians to spiritualize the universe.
First, let us return to our portrait of the reed. For the Asian landscape painter, the reed is not just a “reed,” but an expression of the beauty, spontaneity, and mystery of the void (sunyata).
Second, consider the Muslim dervish feverishly spinning himself into a trance. The ultimate goal, for the Sufi mystic, is to lose himself within the godhead entirely—like a drop of water disappearing into the ocean. Once existing as a separate and definable ego-self, the Sufi is now released into a greater and more expansive state of awareness.
It is essential to recognize that both experiences involve a movement, a transition from one state of perception or awareness to a different, more exalting kind. By shocking myself out of old and stale ways of looking at things, I perceive the reed in a completely novel fashion. By nullifying my sense of separateness, I identify with a reality greater than the self. Now try, for a moment, to imagine the goal and end of each experience taken in complete isolation: Pure astonishment, without the prior banality of our concepts (that a reed is just a reed), and the bliss of self-transcendence, without a finite and worldly self from which to be liberated. I submit that these things are impossible to even imagine, let alone describe. For both cases, it is not only that the passage from one kind of awareness to another is what provides the exhilaration of the religious experience (the breaking through of banality, the release from the confinement of individual selfhood). Rather, the very object and goal of spiritual attainment becomes utterly meaningless without reference to the condition of the human being directed toward it. The Buddhist concept of Nirvana for instance (from the Sanskrit: “to blow out” or “make extinct”) is utterly nonsensical without the prior existence of the suffering caused by desire.
Why, precisely, is the universe or “the All” spiritualized? Because it is an integral part of two fundamental experiences: An appreciation for the suchness of things, and the blissful overcoming of self. But considered by itself, the cosmos is, well, simply the cosmos. It is the nature of our involvement with it that matters. The larger universe is an occasion for our personal transformation, a condition for the most heightened and valued perceptions a human being can attain. But it is not religiously valuable in its own right. It is neither the cosmos which merits spiritualization, nor the self considered alone, but the depth of the relationship between the two.
An obvious rejoinder is that this relationship is itself part of the All, and to think of it in abstraction from the totality of things is as fallacious as conceiving of heightened and exalted experiences without the human beings undergoing them. I have no quarrel with this picture; that we are part of the totality of things is a matter of logic (where else can we be?). But this is no argument for pantheism or panentheism, and in fact can be turned against both: For the relationship of the self to the rest of existence is indeed part of the All—and not to be identified with the totality in which it inheres. Platinum, for instance, may come from the earth. But this doesn’t mean our whole planet possesses the same quality or value as the world’s most expensive metal.
There is a long tradition among theosophical systems East and West—from Gnosticism to Kabbalah, Vedanta to Hegelian thought—which in fact sees evidence for pantheism/panentheism in this very idea of consciousness as a late addition to the cosmos. After all, what a part it is: We are the pilot project through which God comes into His or Her own. For the absolute had to first lose itself to gain itself, had to descend into the muck of finitude and corporeality in order to reach new levels of self-awareness. In this interpretation, we are the mind of the cosmos, the eye through which the “All” comes to discover its own unique nature.
Besides the extremely speculative and even mythical character of this narrative, it can be asked: Is this dialectical process something the All consciously and purposefully engaged in? Or is this a wholly blind development like natural selection?
If the latter is the case, then we are back to an earlier challenge: Why call this God? The All somehow gave birth to consciousness. To claim it as therefore worthy of worship and veneration is like calling someone a great artist who, after accidentally spilling paint on the floor, creates a beautiful pattern. The former position entails a personal and volitional aspect to the universe, a position which, as I have argued earlier, there is really no convincing argument.
In A Common Faith, John Dewey argues that all objects of religious devotion are reifications of qualities found within our experience into independently existing realities. In other words, the crest and highpoint of our perceptive and cognitive life is thrown outward upon the heavens and branded as Holy—whether this is interpreted as angry Jehovah or the serene Dharmakaya of Mahayana Buddhism. But what is so bad about this, it can be asked, if such reifications can serve as a direct expression of such experiences and can even help to engender them?
The problem is this: What seems at first like a benign and harmless form of self-delusion and metaphysical presumptuousness possesses some grave, if barely noticed consequences. For to project our own wishes into the very ground and foundation of reality is to quench something of the desire to understand it, and meshes uneasily with the more searching and experimental approaches to the universe. Chief among these is the natural sciences, that body of methods defined by the testing of hypotheses, the perpetual open-endedness of inquiry, and the potential falsifiability of a theory. To define the spiritual as a living relationship to nature instead of a finished doctrine about the cosmos, a property of heightened experience rather than acquiescence or return to a pre-existing order of things, is a vision far more akin to this most forward-seeking and beneficial of modern projects. There are some who associate science with reductionism, and claim that it is the grand dispeller of mystery, the objectifying discipline par excellence. But to bemoan the loss of a sense of mystery with the expansion and ascent of the sciences is to demonstrate complete ignorance in regards to the lives of its greatest practitioners and defenders. From Newton’s analogy of the scientific life as one of picking up shells by a boundless and undiscovered ocean to the haunting ruminations of Loren Eiseley on the half-buried origins of our species and the enigmas of time and space: The life of scientific inquiry is rife with a sense of the numinous. To stand on the threshold of the vast Unknown is to live, move, and have one’s being within the very heart of mystery. There are few better ways to achieve astonishment before the suchness of things.
Some would claim that conceiving the All as holy would actually promote attempts to explore it, to learn “the body of God” so to speak. But to deify the cosmos is to be settled as to its ultimate and abiding character, and to reserve the category of mystery for the mere details. This is domesticated mystery at best, and no great intellectual adventure. For to be assured of a transcendental ground undergirding the world of fact, or the sacred character possessed by the totality of things, is as much an act of hubris as claiming to know the mind of a transcendent and personal deity. Even process panentheism, with its affirmation of a plastic universe, is but a meager improvement. After all, the process god continually sends out its “initial aims” or suggestions for the proper development of each actual occasion. And who gets to decide what this proper development is? While this may not be “totalization” in the absolute sense, it is still a value-system concocted by metaphysicians, a contrivance of liberal theologians who have come to prefer intensity of feeling to the obsessive righteousness and moral consternation affirmed by Calvinist thinkers of the past. It matters little that we happen to appreciate liberal values over conservative ones. Either way, we do not engage in mystery from encountering what truly is; rather we sit, as if in front of a mirror, and admire our own preferences and fantasies.
It can be asserted that science is not everything, that it is matched in importance by the cultivation of beauty and the striving for moral perfection. Perhaps God can be understood as the source of the principles which underlie these loftiest of human endeavors. But it is difficult to see how identifying the substance of aesthetics and ethics with God, or as part of God, adds anything to their value whatsoever. In fact, a case can be made for the contrary. A man risks his life to save a stranger and a production of The Glass Menagerie makes us cry: These events shake us to the core because they carry their significance directly, not because they point somewhere else. The noble action and the artistic masterpiece are worthy of respect and adulation. To anchor the meaning of these things within another source—a ground of all Being no less than the volition of a person deity—is to rob both of their integrity.
VII. Conclusion: Universalistic Supernaturalism
In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James draws a distinction between “universalistic supernaturalism” and “piecemeal supernaturalism.” The former has been most appealing to intellectuals, explains James, for it espouses a divine being agreeable to a rational and a post-enlightenment world. This is a reality approachable through thought and meditation, not petition and prayer; an absolute one can contemplate but not speak to—for it is impersonal and aloof to both the contingencies of history and the needs of individual human beings. Piecemeal supernaturalism, by contrast (and preferred by James), stresses the god of folk-religion, a volitional deity who enters continually into the stream of time and communicates through miracles and prophets.
Pantheism and most forms of panentheism are prime examples of universalistic supernaturalism, for they are edifying without being irrational, spiritual without being sectarian. Even if a personal element is introduced, as in process panentheism, it remains a theological schema congenial to a multiplicity of traditions—including non-theistic ones—and willing to assimilate the discoveries of the sciences. In other words, philosophies like pantheism and panentheism are perceived as the means by which the more thoughtful citizens of late modernity can safely re-spiritualize (or “re-enchant,” to borrow a phrase from one of the more able defenders of process theology) their worldview without commitment to the delusions of dogmatic and literalistic belief.17
All of this not only assumes that the world requires re-enchantment, but that this re-enchantment need be of an overarching and metaphysical kind. But there is more than one way to restore meaning to life in an increasingly post-theological and secular era. There exists a tendency, relatively recent in the history of ideas, which seeks to uncover the layers of significance already built within the texture of experience. William James and John Dewey are our great American representatives of this movement (although Dewey’s critique of religion along these lines is far more radical). These layers of meaning are religious as much as aesthetic and moral, and possess an inherent value. They need not be vindicated by any metaphysical vision, including that of a “universalistic supernaturalism.” It is the summation of my argument that, in regard to what is most exalting in human life, there is need for neither a One nor an Oversoul, neither Brahman nor God. There is the reed plain and simple, and our willingness to see it as Adam had.
4 Although James would employ the term pantheism for his own position in A Pluralistic Universe, it is of a highly idiosyncratic variety (meaning “indwelling” rather than identified with the All), and unrecognizable to the great bulk of historical pantheists.
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