Tuesday, June 10, 2008


My Christian blog friend/debate opponent J.K., left some links to a couple of articles about pantheism. Now, I am not a pantheist but I admit I find ideas like pantheism, panentheism, or deism to be orders of magnitude more compelling than metaphysical ideas expressed in popular religions like Christianity or Islam. Now I saw "compelling" in a very vague sense. I see the epistemological ladder laid out like this:

1. What's a "god"? I don't get it at all. (ignostic)
2. I don't know anything about gods. Maybe knowing is in fact impossible. (agnostic)
3. OK, maybe there is some "ground of all being". We could call it "God". (deism, pantheism, etc.)
4. I believe or know the particular nature of God. (Christianity, Islam, etc.)

To brush dangerously close to making yet another post about semantics, levels 1 and 2 are both compatible with atheism (in its weak sense.)

I'm not sure how to jump from 1 to 2, or 2 to 3, except for idle speculation. I think the last leap from 3 to 4 is quite large. For the sake of argument I'm willing to imagine the possibility of 3, but again, only in a very vague sense. I don't see how we can move from that to reliable specifics claimed at level 4.

Here are the two articles by Dr. Norman Geisler:

Pantheism—Part 1: An Exposition [PDF]
Pantheism—Part 2: An Evaluation [PDF]

Part 1 is a general summary of all the flavors of pantheism that have existed or exist today. I won't comment on that one, but it is interesting. I certainly don't come anywhere near most of those types of pantheism since most of the ideas expressed there tip completely over into level 4 with lots of unfounded specifics.

Here are my comments about the criticisms Geisler makes in Part 2. His words are in quotes, and I only quote a few sentences out of many so you should read the article to get the full idea.

1. "The most fundamental criticism of a strictly pantheistic world view is that it is actually unaffirmable by man..."

I agree with him there. I also think that is true (at least so far!) for any other religious or metaphysical idea.

2. "Second, granting that there are no real finite selves or “I’s,” then there is no such thing as an I-Thou relationship between finite selves nor between men and God"

So what? Maybe that's the way it is, or maybe not. As in the first criticism, there is no way to know. He says some pantheists like Alan Watts try to get out of this "problem" by saying the relationship between the pantheistic god and humans is similar to the Christian ideas of the relationships between the parts of the Christian Trinity. Geisler writes, "This move, however, will not suffice, since the persons of the Trinity are not anchored to finite and changing natures. They interrelate in accordance with the perfect and unchanging unity of one absolute and eternal nature."

I don't think Watts or Geisler accomplish much by referring to the incomprehensible Trinity. I also don't understand how Jesus could be unchanging. Didn't he have a brain which grew and changed over time developing memories and learning new things? Anyway, there is no evidence for either of these ideas.

3. "Third, the basic metaphysical assumption of monism begs the whole question."

OK, I really don't know what he's talking about here, but that's from my lack of education. I do like to see the proper use of "begging the question." Don't let your friends use it incorrectly!

4. "Fourth, the ship of pantheism is wrecked on the reef of evil. Pronouncing evil illusory or less than real is not only hollow to those experiencing evil, but it is philosophically inadequate as well."

Maybe so, but I don't think any religion adequately explains evil and suffering. I suppose as a Christian philosopher Geisler blames suffering, in part, on a fallen creation. I don't see how that is satisfying, let alone being supported by evidence. To play "pantheist advocate" for a moment, I guess one argument would be that God can't (being the universe itself) do anything about evil and suffering. That's just the way it is.

5. "Fifth, there is neither ground for absolute Good nor an ultimate distinction between good and evil in a pantheistic universe."

Once again, so what? I guess a pantheist would say, that's just they way things are, sorry it doesn't appeal to you! Those are the breaks.

6. "Sixth, the pantheistic God is not really personal. Strictly speaking, personality is at best a lesser or lower level of God."

See 5.

7. "Seventh, the pantheistic God is incomplete without creation; he is dependent on the creation that flows from him for the attainment of the perfections that lie latent in his own infinite potentialities."

I don't see how this is different from Geisler's Christian idea of God. He tries to contrast it by saying, "the theistic God is eternally conscious and complete and without need for anything to realize latent potentials. Indeed, the traditional theistic God is pure actuality without any potential in his being whatsoever. While a pantheistic God creates out of necessity and need, the theistic God creates out of love and desire."

Why can't we say it's the other way around? I could say the pantheistic God becomes the universe out of love and desire. Why can't the pantheistic God be eternally conscious too? I don't see any reason to believe one idea over the other.

8. "Eighth, if God is “All” or coextensive in his being with the universe, then pantheism is metaphysically indistinguishable from atheism."

What's the problem with that?

He also writes, "What is more, statements that include everything, such as “God is All,” are vulnerable to the charge that they say nothing."

I agree with that. But the pantheist would respond that it doesn't disprove his position either.

9. "Ninth, pantheism involves a contradiction within the nature of God as infinite."

I don't really understand this section either. Why not just say the pantheistic God is finite if there is a problem with the infinite version?

10. "Pantheism’s stress on the unknowability or ineffability of God is self-defeating."

I agree with that point. I think the same criticism can be directed at Geisler's own religion though since I always hear talk about God (Yahweh) and his mysterious ways.

It seems like some of these criticisms are aesthetic in nature in that Geisler just doesn't like the pantheistic model of God. In some forms of pantheism, their God is not good, but beyond good and evil. I sense Geisler finds this idea distasteful, which is ironic to me because I often hear Christians say the unattractiveness of some of their own doctrines lends weight to their veracity since nobody would choose to make up such an inconvenient state of affairs! Why can't this also work for the pantheist?

To reiterate, I've said I find the ideas like pantheism to be interesting but I don't have any specific beliefs in that department. I suspect the true nature of reality is completely different from any human religion. I don't have any evidence for that suspicion but I base it on the fact that ancient humans had absolutely no idea about things like quarks, galaxies or DNA. Ancient people weren't just wrong, they were at a completely lower level of ignorance, incapable of even imagining anything close to our current conception of the world. I suspect any inkling of some kind of "ground of all being" is far beyond our current knowledge, many times the difference between the level of ancient people and where we are today.

Thanks for the links J.K., the articles were interesting!