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Author Topic: Let's Define Pantheism!  (Read 5548 times)

AlisonLeighLilly

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Let's Define Pantheism!
« on: January 16, 2012, 06:39:54 pm »
Okay, so, I recently wrote an article on the bardic tradition of satire and the modern Pagan use of "deep play" in ritual as spiritual responses to the lack of transcendent/supernatural authority in the theological worldview of pantheism, drawing parallels between the incompetent king and the absent creator/god-figure.

I thought it was a pretty intriguing idea, even though I'm not actually a pantheist myself but a somewhat soft animistic polytheist type. But in typical fashion, many of the comments I'm getting on the article are overlooking the actual topic of the piece and instead focusing on whether or not they agree with my use of the word "pantheism." (Which kind of makes me want to go ::headdesk:: and "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS." and so forth.)

So I thought I'd turn to the ever-awesome TC for some feedback. How do you all define pantheism?

When I was earning my degree in comparative religious studies and doing field work interviewing people in various religious communities, I used the term "pantheism" in a pretty straight forward way: the belief that God/Spirit is identical to the Universe, that there is no supernatural deity or transcendent reality but that the physical world itself is sacred. Naturally, this theological perspective entailed certain other beliefs, like for instance that there is no afterlife in which a transcendent "self" survives the physical death of the body.

I'd never heard that this was a controversial definition, though obviously there are going to be nuances in belief among individuals. I was really surprised when someone accused me of making "blanket statements" when I used the word pantheism in this way. The same way I would have been surprised if someone made that accusation about me defining polytheism as "belief in many gods." I thought that's just what the word meant!

It seems from the comments I'm getting that people are either eliding polytheism and pantheism, and/or treating pantheism as just another synonym for "nature reverence." Is that how most of you use it? Does anyone else use the word "pantheism" in the way I defined it above? Is this actually a controversial subject, or just another example of Pagan-PC-labeling gone mad? (Can we Pagans please have a conversation about something other than labels someday-maybe-plzkthnx?)

Gumpy Ali is grumpy...

Fireof9

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2012, 08:07:01 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39001


Gumpy Ali is grumpy...


Oh cheer up, I for one read that article and finally understood what pantheism is. I may be now more confused about my own beliefs but I think it was a great explanation.
Really?  So, hey, want to go fishing?  I\'ve got a telescope, and it\'s going to be a dark night, so we should see the fish really well.
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Nomad of Nowhere

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2012, 08:20:25 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39001
Okay, so, I recently wrote an article on the bardic tradition of satire and the modern Pagan use of "deep play" in ritual as spiritual responses to the lack of transcendent/supernatural authority in the theological worldview of pantheism, drawing parallels between the incompetent king and the absent creator/god-figure.

I thought it was a pretty intriguing idea, even though I'm not actually a pantheist myself but a somewhat soft animistic polytheist type. But in typical fashion, many of the comments I'm getting on the article are overlooking the actual topic of the piece and instead focusing on whether or not they agree with my use of the word "pantheism." (Which kind of makes me want to go ::headdesk:: and "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS." and so forth.)

So I thought I'd turn to the ever-awesome TC for some feedback. How do you all define pantheism?

When I was earning my degree in comparative religious studies and doing field work interviewing people in various religious communities, I used the term "pantheism" in a pretty straight forward way: the belief that God/Spirit is identical to the Universe, that there is no supernatural deity or transcendent reality but that the physical world itself is sacred. Naturally, this theological perspective entailed certain other beliefs, like for instance that there is no afterlife in which a transcendent "self" survives the physical death of the body.

I'd never heard that this was a controversial definition, though obviously there are going to be nuances in belief among individuals. I was really surprised when someone accused me of making "blanket statements" when I used the word pantheism in this way. The same way I would have been surprised if someone made that accusation about me defining polytheism as "belief in many gods." I thought that's just what the word meant!

It seems from the comments I'm getting that people are either eliding polytheism and pantheism, and/or treating pantheism as just another synonym for "nature reverence." Is that how most of you use it? Does anyone else use the word "pantheism" in the way I defined it above? Is this actually a controversial subject, or just another example of Pagan-PC-labeling gone mad? (Can we Pagans please have a conversation about something other than labels someday-maybe-plzkthnx?)

Gumpy Ali is grumpy...

 
Well, one thing I've noticed is that many people call themselves pantheistic while they're actually more panentheistic.

Fier

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Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2012, 08:32:42 pm »
Quote from: Nomad of Nowhere;39018
Well, one thing I've noticed is that many people call themselves pantheistic while they're actually more panentheistic.

We have had many discussions defining the two terms here in the past. I will try to find and link to them later. For now, I'll say that just because pantheists believe that the universe and all that are in it are sacred, that doesn't mean that they don't believe in gods or spirits. Just that those gods and spirits are also a part of the universe or All-That-Is.

AlisonLeighLilly

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2012, 11:03:46 pm »
Quote from: FierFlye;39019
We have had many discussions defining the two terms here in the past. I will try to find and link to them later. For now, I'll say that just because pantheists believe that the universe and all that are in it are sacred, that doesn't mean that they don't believe in gods or spirits. Just that those gods and spirits are also a part of the universe or All-That-Is.

 
So this is where I get confused. I've never heard of pantheism defined in this way. (This sounds to me much more like people using "pantheism" to simply mean "nature reverence.") Religious communities are rarely pure in their theologies, and I've known plenty of people who combine pantheism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, monism, etc. in nuanced ways with nature reverence.

But the word pantheism itself was coined by John Toland in 1705 explicitly to describe a spiritual reverence for the natural, material world as distinct from the concept of a supernatural or transcendent theism, describing a pantheist as someone who believes "in no other eternal being but the universe." He was attempting to describe Spinoza's philosophical views with the word, and a controversy ensued because Spinoza's philosophy was generally viewed as atheistic at the time, while Spinoza himself insisted that he was not a pantheist because he did believe in a God that was not simply identical to the material world (later, the term "panentheism" came into use as a more accurate description of Spinoza's philosophy). Spinoza wouldn't have had to make that distinction if the word pantheism was being used the way you suggest. Pantheism is, arguably, actually a kind of anti- or a-theism (Dawkins refers to it as a "sexed-up atheism" - it holds much in common with secular, scientific atheism but still retains and embraces a sense of sacredness and will utilize religious language, while most atheists will tend to avoid that kind of language on principle).

So the idea that pantheists are people who believe that God or the gods are "part of the universe or All-That-Is" is not only not in keeping with the history of its use in philosophical and theological writings, but it basically renders the word meaningless. Are there any theistic belief systems that think that the gods aren't "part of All-That-Is"?

There is absolutely no doubt that nature reverence is a very big part of pantheism - as it is a very big part of animism and certain forms of polytheism and has been increasingly embraced in monotheistic traditions. But just as none of those other "-theisms" are defined solely by nature reverence, neither is pantheism. Pantheism doesn't just say "everything is sacred." It says "the material universe is all there is, there is nothing transcendent beyond the material universe, and yet that universe is itself sacred." Those are very different statements. The latter is much more specific. Lots of theologies say that "everything is sacred." Hell, that was pretty much the first Sunday school lesson I was ever taught as a little kid being raised Catholic. What makes pantheism different is that it also makes a statement about what exactly that "everything" is.

See? I told you I was grumpy. Now I know why Pratchett said getting an education is like getting an STD. It can make you really cranky if you're rubbed the wrong way! :p

--Ali

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2012, 11:07:58 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39044
So this is where I get confused. I've never heard of pantheism defined in this way. (This sounds to me much more like people using "pantheism" to simply mean "nature reverence.") Religious communities are rarely pure in their theologies, and I've known plenty of people who combine pantheism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, monism, etc. in nuanced ways with nature reverence.

But the word pantheism itself was coined by John Toland in 1705 explicitly to describe a spiritual reverence for the natural, material world as distinct from the concept of a supernatural or transcendent theism, describing a pantheist as someone who believes "in no other eternal being but the universe." He was attempting to describe Spinoza's philosophical views with the word, and a controversy ensued because Spinoza's philosophy was generally viewed as atheistic at the time, while Spinoza himself insisted that he was not a pantheist because he did believe in a God that was not simply identical to the material world (later, the term "panentheism" came into use as a more accurate description of Spinoza's philosophy). Spinoza wouldn't have had to make that distinction if the word pantheism was being used the way you suggest. Pantheism is, arguably, actually a kind of anti- or a-theism (Dawkins refers to it as a "sexed-up atheism" - it holds much in common with secular, scientific atheism but still retains and embraces a sense of sacredness and will utilize religious language, while most atheists will tend to avoid that kind of language on principle).

So the idea that pantheists are people who believe that God or the gods are "part of the universe or All-That-Is" is not only not in keeping with the history of its use in philosophical and theological writings, but it basically renders the word meaningless. Are there any theistic belief systems that think that the gods aren't "part of All-That-Is"?

There is absolutely no doubt that nature reverence is a very big part of pantheism - as it is a very big part of animism and certain forms of polytheism and has been increasingly embraced in monotheistic traditions. But just as none of those other "-theisms" are defined solely by nature reverence, neither is pantheism. Pantheism doesn't just say "everything is sacred." It says "the material universe is all there is, there is nothing transcendent beyond the material universe, and yet that universe is itself sacred." Those are very different statements. The latter is much more specific. Lots of theologies say that "everything is sacred." Hell, that was pretty much the first Sunday school lesson I was ever taught as a little kid being raised Catholic. What makes pantheism different is that it also makes a statement about what exactly that "everything" is.

See? I told you I was grumpy. Now I know why Pratchett said getting an education is like getting an STD. It can make you really cranky if you're rubbed the wrong way! :p

--Ali

 
IDK if it helps but I usually use a dictionary or other definition when engaging on posts where a term is heavily relied on mostly in an attempt to deflect such grievances as you've just endured. I suspect a lot of it is inadvertent ignorance or misuse of a term.

In other words, words mean certain things and a lot of times the general reader has either determined that meaning via context - which is problematic when it may be consistently wrongly used by certain groups - or presumption.

For what it's worth it seems you had the correct definition.

Fireof9

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #6 on: January 17, 2012, 01:13:09 am »
Quote from: FierFlye;39019
We have had many discussions defining the two terms here in the past. I will try to find and link to them later. For now, I'll say that just because pantheists believe that the universe and all that are in it are sacred, that doesn't mean that they don't believe in gods or spirits. Just that those gods and spirits are also a part of the universe or All-That-Is.

 
That is a very very Gwyddon way of looking at it :lol:
Really?  So, hey, want to go fishing?  I\'ve got a telescope, and it\'s going to be a dark night, so we should see the fish really well.
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HeartShadow

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #7 on: January 17, 2012, 08:08:39 am »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39044


 
This response is specific, the next one will be my essay on the subject.

One of the problems with the word "pantheism" is that it's often used as a "hey you idiots DON'T really believe in anything" term - that's why panentheism and whatnot exist.  For actual pantheists, the idea that there is nothing outside the physical is NOT a requirement.

The difference between pantheism and, say, Christianity, is WHERE the god(s) are.  In Christianity, God created everything.  He stands OUTSIDE what is created.

Pantheism, EVERYTHING is inside creation.  There is no creator-god, because there was no before-stuff.  There's EARLIER stuff, and later stuff, but there's no EXTERNAL stuff.  God(s) do not stand outside the natural order of things.  They can't muck with the laws of the universe.  (doesn't mean there aren't built-in loopholes though)

There really is a HUGE difference between "everything is sacred because God says so" and "everything is sacred simply because it exists".

essay to follow.

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #8 on: January 17, 2012, 08:10:17 am »
Quote from: HeartShadow;39073


 
Ramifications of Pantheism
   These concepts are mentioned in other places, but I'm also going to discuss them clearly here.  Pantheism is a distinctly different way of ordering the universe than other systems.
   The best way to demonstrate this is for you to pick up a scrap of paper.  Draw a person on it, and pretend it's a picture of yourself.  (Drawing skills are not important here).
   Now crumple up the paper.  Look what that does to the “you” there.  Now, the you outside the paper is untouched.  You are separate from the paper universe.  But the you on the paper – that one just got crumpled.  You can't crumple the paper without crumpling what's on the paper.
   We are all in the same universe.  It cannot be crumpled without crumpling us.  There is no creative force that stands outside that paper, no savior or tempter that stands to the side and reaches out to us.  No one holding the pencil and drawing us, either.  There is no outside.
   Okay, so we're all on the same sheet of paper.  But it's not really a paper.  It's more flexible, more malleable than that.  What I do over here affects people over there, sometimes people I never see or even know are there.  It's all connected.
   In FlameKeeping, the paper, the thing we're all a part of – that is God.  That is the Divine.  You cannot separate us from it, or it from us.  What we do to the paper is done to everything.  What the paper does happens to everyone.  The Divine is inseparable from everything else.  What we do to ourselves, to each other, is done to the Divine.
   I often focus on the self being Divine.  Our self, other people's selves.  But it's bidirectional.  We are all of the Divine, yes, but the Divine is also whole and inseparable and its own thing.  One and many, both at the same time.

Prompts -
Standing things on their head – what does the Divine do to you?  How does the connection change you, change the way you look at things?  How are you Divine?  How is the Divine you?

Fier

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #9 on: January 17, 2012, 08:32:53 am »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39044
So this is where I get confused. I've never heard of pantheism defined in this way. (This sounds to me much more like people using "pantheism" to simply mean "nature reverence.")

I'm not sure where you are getting nature reverence out of anything I said. You are divine. I am divine. Zeus is divine. That spoon is divine. My computer is divine. It's ALL divine, not just nature. Nature is no more divine than the spoon.

Quote
So the idea that pantheists are people who believe that God or the gods are "part of the universe or All-That-Is" is not only not in keeping with the history of its use in philosophical and theological writings, but it basically renders the word meaningless. Are there any theistic belief systems that think that the gods aren't "part of All-That-Is"?


I don't know. That's why the whole 'transcendence' definition of pantheism vs. panentheism has always confused me, honestly. Looking back now I see that my explanation was a bit confusing (I was locked outside my house in the cold and typing on the phone, apologies). HeartShadow said it better than I.

Quote
Pantheism doesn't just say "everything is sacred." It says "the material universe is all there is, there is nothing transcendent beyond the material universe, and yet that universe is itself sacred."
I would agree with that. But I don't see how that precludes the existence of spirits. They exists, therefor they must be part of the universe. What we generally consider to be 'gods' aren't worthy of reverence because they are divine, they are worthy of reverence because of the roles they hold or the lessons they teach us, ect.

Fier

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #10 on: January 17, 2012, 09:42:42 am »
Quote from: FierFlye;39019
We have had many discussions defining the two terms here in the past. I will try to find and link to them later.

 
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=16534.0
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=16126.30
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=15394.0

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #11 on: January 17, 2012, 06:56:00 pm »
Quote from: FierFlye;39082
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=16534.0
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=16126.30
http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=15394.0

 
Thanks, FierFlye - I wasn't looking forward to digging those up.  Mostly, I think, because my reaction to this thread was, Oh, ye gods and little fishes, not again.

I'd include this thread, as well.

I was all over those threads, and don't feel much inclined to repeat myself.  This really does look like the same argument all over again, in which one definition of "pantheism" is being presented prescriptively as the only legitimate definition.

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #12 on: January 17, 2012, 08:26:47 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39044
So this is where I get confused. I've never heard of pantheism defined in this way.


So far, honestly, you don't sound confused; you sound un-confused and very certain - and grumpy because people aren't using words in accordance with prescribed usage as you understand it.

Quote
But the word pantheism itself was coined by John Toland in 1705 explicitly to describe a spiritual reverence for the natural, material world as distinct from the concept of a supernatural or transcendent theism, describing a pantheist as someone who believes "in no other eternal being but the universe." He was attempting to describe Spinoza's philosophical views with the word, and a controversy ensued because Spinoza's philosophy was generally viewed as atheistic at the time, while Spinoza himself insisted that he was not a pantheist because he did believe in a God that was not simply identical to the material world (later, the term "panentheism" came into use as a more accurate description of Spinoza's philosophy). Spinoza wouldn't have had to make that distinction if the word pantheism was being used the way you suggest. Pantheism is, arguably, actually a kind of anti- or a-theism (Dawkins refers to it as a "sexed-up atheism" - it holds much in common with secular, scientific atheism but still retains and embraces a sense of sacredness and will utilize religious language, while most atheists will tend to avoid that kind of language on principle).


First, your dates seem to be off.  If Toland didn't coin the word until 1705, how did Spinoza (who died in 1677) go about insisting that he wasn't one?  I should note that I'm not saying you're wrong here, just that your explanation of the situation is oversimplified.

Secondly, if Spinoza's position is indeed more accurately described as panentheism, FierFlye's usage of pantheism would not have made a difference, since it's not panentheistic.  This, though, depends not on Spinoza himself, but on interpretations of his position - which isn't at all easy to tease out from his writings.

Thirdly, this is all about religious philosophy in the Enlightenement era - if "pantheism" must adhere strictly to that definition, then it can only be a rarified and esoteric post-JudeoChristian position, dependent on Abrahamic monotheism and the scientific understanding of that era for its foundational premises.  Even naturalistic pantheism (Dawkins' "sexed-up atheism") is in a tenuous position in using the word, because many of the foundational terms (such as "substance" and "material") no longer have the same significance in science as they do in philosophy - keep in mind that, in that era, science as we understand it was still a nascent branch of philosophy.

Quote
So the idea that pantheists are people who believe that God or the gods are "part of the universe or All-That-Is" is not only not in keeping with the history of its use in philosophical and theological writings, but it basically renders the word meaningless. Are there any theistic belief systems that think that the gods aren't "part of All-That-Is"?


Wait, what?  Did you just say that no belief system has transcendent deity/ies?  Or are you just chopping logic because FierFlye didn't phrase her point in exactly the way you want?

The pantheists who are making you grumpy (and, trust me, it's mutual) aren't rendering the word meaningless; they're simply not attaching the metric shit-ton of connotations you think they should be attaching.  The denotative meaning - pan-theist - is still intact.

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #13 on: January 17, 2012, 09:16:32 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;39130
Thanks, FierFlye - I wasn't looking forward to digging those up.  Mostly, I think, because my reaction to this thread was, Oh, ye gods and little fishes, not again.

I'd include this thread, as well.

I was all over those threads, and don't feel much inclined to repeat myself.  This really does look like the same argument all over again, in which one definition of "pantheism" is being presented prescriptively as the only legitimate definition.

Sunflower


Sorry to drag up an argument that's apparently already been had and Decided Once and For All. I think you'll probably find the email I sent to my husband immediately after starting this thread (and somewhat regretting it) kind of amusing (subject line: "Somebody's wrong on the internet!"):

Quote
I'm having arguments with people online now about what the word "pantheism" means. Is it being linguistically prescriptivist to debate the definition of a word that seems to be used in vastly different ways by different people?

I'm torn between not wanting to be the kind of person who demands the right to define how other people get to use words... and not wanting to allow anti-intellectual relativism to win the day over the more difficult but more fruitful processes of theological inquiry.

I think I'm just going to give up and, when I use words from now on, just specify the context in which I'm using them. Make sure every sentence begins with a caveat.

 
Just because someone doesn't agree about the definition of a word does not mean they are trying to be prescriptivist (or maybe it does - want to start a debate about what the word "prescriptivist" means?). Just because a person asks for clarity or challenges people's initial responses to try to dig deeper doesn't mean their mind is already made up. Yes, I have opinions about what the word means, opinions based on my own experiences, conversations I've had and research I've done in both an academic and non-academic setting. And yes, the initial response I got was pretty much just repeating the comments I'd received elsewhere, so I responded here like I did elsewhere in hopes that in this forum, where conversations are often complex and evolving, we could continue the discussion.

Honestly, the response "Oh no, here we go again, just another prescriptivist" seems to be a pretty rude response mostly designed to shut me up (and/or make me feel embarrassed for not having read the previous threads and therefore not being "informed" according to TC standards). If you don't want to repeat yourself - don't. Nobody's forcing you to respond, let alone read this thread. Geesh.

AlisonLeighLilly

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