As a world and life view pantheism has had a broad and persistent
influence in the world. Much of the Far Eastern world for most of its
recorded history has been influenced by pantheism. Even much of the
Western world has been a series of footnotes on plotinian pantheism.
The appeal of pantheism has not been without both truth and value.
Examples may be briefly noted.
Positive Insights in Pantheistic Positions
Pantheism has provided much of value to its adherents and has given
both insight and challenge to those who do not embrace it as a world
view. Among these values we may take special note of six.
1. First, pantheism attempts to be comprehensive in its
perspective. Pantheism is not a piecemeal philosophy. It is an
all-embracing view of the sum total of reality from that perspective.
In this sense it is both metaphysical and comprehensive, two
commendable dimensions essential to any world view.
2. Second, pantheism has laid special emphasis on an ultimate
dimension of reality that cannot be overlooked or denied, namely,
unity. Unity and harmony are constituitive elements in any
adequate world view. If this is a uni-verse, there must be some
reality basis for its uni-ty.
3. Third, no adequate view of a God who is worthy of serious human
interest can neglect his immanent presence and activity in the
world. A God who is totally and completely Other lacks relatability
and no doubt, at least to many, he will lack worshipability. Pantheism
appropriately stresses that God is really in the world, at
least within the depths of the human soul.
4. Fourth, pantheism acknowledges that only God is absolute
and necessary. Everything else is less than ultimate and
absolute in the supreme sense in which God is. No part of creation is
independent or ontologically detached; all is completely dependent on
God who is All in all. This insight is a valuable corrective for many
materialisms as well as for deisms.
5. Fifth, pantheism invariably involves an intuitive
epistemological emphasis which is often unappreciated by more
empirically oriented minds. This stress on the direct and unmediated
intimacy with the object of knowledge (especially God) is not only
valuable but it is unavoidable. Indirect or inferential knowing must
rest finally on direct and immediate seeing. All justification must
come to an end; first principles must be known intuitively. Hence,
some form of intuitive knowledge is essential to knowing God who is
the ultimate principle (person) in religion.
6. Sixth, pantheists place strong and appropriate emphasis on the
via negativa. God cannot be expressed in positive terms with
limited meaning. God is infinite and transcendent and all limitation
must be negated from terms applied to him. Without the way of negation
verbal idolatry results, namely, the finitizing of God. Pantheists
have preserved this important dimension of religious language.
One could take note of numerous other contributions pantheistic
thinkers have made to the philosophy of history (e.g., Hegel), to
comparative religions and human toleration (e.g., Radhakrishnan), to
the preservation of mystical and spiritual emphases, as well as to
many other areas. But time has come to critically evaluate the system
as a world view.
Some Criticisms of Pantheism as a World View
Understood as a metaphysical interpretation of the universe,
pantheism is decidedly lopsided and lacking. There are many reasons
for this conclusion and a number of areas in which it may be
1. The most fundamental criticism of a strictly pantheistic world
view is that it is actually unaffirmable by man, for no finite
individual reality exists as an entity really different from God or
the absolute. In essence a strict pantheist must affirm,
"God is but I am not." But this is self-defeating, since one must
exist in order to affirm that he does not exist.
Of course most pantheists are not absolute monists in that they
allow for some reality to finite man whether it be modal,
manifestational, emanational, or whatever. In this way they hope to
escape the self-destructive dilemma just mentioned. Their attempt,
however, is not convincing for the following reasons. Claiming that
man, as a self-conscious person, is merely a mode or aspect of God is
a denial of the way man experiences himself. If we are only
self-conscious modes, "why are we not conscious of being so? How did
this metaphysical amnesia arise and (yet more seriously) come to
pervade and dominate our whole experience?"1
In point of fact, is it not self-defeating to claim that individual
finite selves are less than real? How can any of our individual
statements be true including the statement that pantheism is true? If
we are being deceived about the consciousness of our own individual
existence, then how does a pantheist know that he is not being
deceived when he is conscious of reality as ultimately one?
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. Both fellowship and worship become
impossible. All alleged I-thou or I-I relations reduce to I. Indeed
there is no true changing relation at all, since there are no separate
changing relata to relate. Religious experience is impossible in any
meaningful sense of the term since all meaningful experience involves
something or someone other than oneself with whom one enters the
changing experience. For if when one is conscious of experiencing God
it is really only an experience internal to the modes or
manifestations of God, then he is not really having an
experience; only God is having the experience.
Some pantheists hope to avoid this problem by giving man a
manifestational or emanational status, at least temporarily, as a
self. This is true of both Plotinus and Radhakrishnan. Their attempt,
however, is unsuccessful because when all is said and done there is no
reality in the finite individual that is his own. His selfhood is real
only at the point at which it is one with the absolute. Logically this
means that as finite and as individual it is not real,
despite all attempts to say that it has some kind of lesser reality.
They wrongly assume that whatever is not really ultimate is not
ultimately or actually real.
Other pantheists, like Alan Watts, appeal to the Christian Trinity
as a model where there is more than one person in communion, I-Thou
relations, and yet only one being or essence. 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. By
contrast, finite egos bound to a space-time continuum (our "world")
are an entirely different matter. In this case, plurality of persons
involves also a plurality of changing essences.
3. Third, the basic metaphysical assumption of monism begs the
whole question. From Parmenides to the present, monists of numerous
varieties invariably assume a univocal notion of being without
justification. This is apparent in Parmenides’ premise that things
cannot differ in what they have in common (viz., being) for that is
the very respect in which they are identical. If one assumes that
being is identically the same wherever it is found, then of course it
follows that being is ultimately one. That is, if being always means
exactly the same thing (i.e., univocity of being), then the
attempt to show there is more than one being in the universe is
futile. Whatever being one points to and however distant and separate
it may seem from other beings, in the final analysis they are
all identical in their being. Not only is no proof offered for this
monistic assumption, but a pluralistic alternative to it is
overlooked, namely, that being is analogous. If being is not entirely
the same wherever it is found but is only similar, then there can be
more than one being in the universe. That is, there may be different
kinds of being, for example, finite and infinite. And as long as the
principle of differentiation is within the very being of the finite
beings, then there can be many beings. Each of these can have its own
identity different from the others, but each will have an element of
similarity in that each has being. This analogous concept of being is
at least a metaphysical possibility, and if it is possible then
pantheism is not necessarily true. In brief, the central metaphysical
premise of pantheism is the unproven assumption that being is to be
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.
If evil is not real, what is the origin of the illusion? Why has it
been so persistent and why does it seem so real? As it has been aptly
put, why is it that when one experiences suffering, he dislikes what
he fancies he feels? Or, more seriously, how can evil arise from God
who is absolutely and necessarily good? Making evil a necessary part
of God or of the world process that flows necessarily from God does
not explain evil; in fact, to the contrary, it explains away absolute
Good. It makes God both good and evil. Or, as a pantheist would
prefer, it puts God beyond both good or evil. But this leads to
another serious inadequacy with pantheism.
5. Fifth, there is neither ground for absolute Good nor an ultimate
distinction between good and evil in a pantheistic universe. The
ground of all is beyond being and knowing. It is beyond the laws of
logic and distinction. Hence, ultimately and really there is no basis
for distinguishing between good and evil. So, for God as God nothing
is either good or evil, for he is beyond both and contains both in a
transcendent way that is manifest in that which flows from him by way
of mode, manifestation, or emanation.
6. Sixth, the pantheistic God is not really personal. Strictly
speaking, personality is at best a lesser or lower level of God. The
Judeo-Christian personal God is a second-class citizen in the heavens.
The absolute as absolute and ultimate is beyond personality and
consciousness. These are pure anthropomorphisms or at best lesser
manifestations of the Supreme. Rather than being the most personal
Being and the paradigm for all personality, the pantheistic God is an
impersonal force driven by metaphysical necessity and not by
volitional and loving choice. God as a loving Father freely bestowing
kindness on the world of his creatures is alien to the highest level
of religious reality in a pantheistic world. A personal God—if there
is one—is at best a lower manifestation or appearance of the highest
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. To
borrow Plotinus’ illustration, God is like a seed that must unfold in
its own creation in order to blossom forth in all its potential. God
must create a mirror so that by reflection on his creation he may come
to know himself. For Hegel, God comes to self-realization by unfolding
in the historical process; history, as it were, is necessary to
By way of contrast, 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.2
While a pantheistic God creates out of necessity and need, the
theistic God creates out of love and desire.
8. Eighth, if God is "All" or coextensive in his being with the
universe, then pantheism is metaphysically indistinguishable from
atheism. Both hold in common that the Whole is a collection of all the
finite parts or aspects. The only difference is that the pantheist
decides to attribute religious significance to the All and the atheist
does not. But philosophically the Whole is identical, namely, one
eternal self-contained system of reality.
What is more, statements that include everything, such as "God is
All," are vulnerable to the charge that they say nothing. For to say
everything of God, including opposites, is to say nothing meaningful
of him. Unless some real distinction can be made between the finite
and the infinite, good and evil, and so on, then nothing significant
is being said. Every affirmation must imply by contrast a possible
negation in order to be meaningful. Even the general statement "God is
being" implies that "God is not non-being." But to affirm, as
pantheism does, that "God is All and All is God" in the ultimate and
absolute sense is equivocal and nonsensical because it contains within
it opposites such as good and evil, being and non-being.
9. Ninth, pantheism involves a contradiction within the nature of
God as infinite. For if God is infinite and yet he somehow shares his
being (ex Deo) with creation, then either the finite is
infinite, the contingent is necessary—which is clearly
contradictory—or else the finite and contingent and many are not
really finite and contingent and many. Rather, they are one,
necessary, and infinite. In short, either absolute monism is clearly
self-defeating (first criticism above) or else if God shares part of
his infinite being with creatures, then part of it is lost and becomes
less than infinite. It will not suffice for the pantheist to opt for a
third alternative, namely, that when God gives being to a creature it
is not God’s own being that is given but a being separate from it
which is created in the creature; for this position is not pantheism
but theism. The choices within this overall framework, then, appear to
be absolute monism, which is self-defeating; contradictory pantheism,
which holds that God remains infinite in his being even when part of
his being is given to another; or theism. Some would attempt to avoid
this dilemma by opting for a panentheism. But one thing seems certain;
one must move in some other direction than pantheism for a rational
and coherent world view.
10. Pantheism’s stress on the unknowability or ineffability of God
is self-defeating. The very assertion that God is unknowable in an
intellectual way is either meaningless or self-defeating. If that
assertion is one that cannot itself be understood in an intellectual
way, then it is a meaningless assertion. On the other hand, if the
assertion "God is unknowable in an intellectual way" is really
understandable in an intellectual way, then it is self-defeating. For
in this case the pantheist is offering a statement about God to the
effect that such statements cannot be made about God. He is making a
positive predication about God that claims that predications cannot be
made about God in a positive way. Totally negative predications tell
one nothing. As even Plotinus admitted, every negative predication
implies some positive knowledge.3
Some pantheists, like Alan Watts, frankly avoid this dilemma by
admitting that their writings are not informative about God. Besides
signifying that their writings are meaningless, this implies in
addition that the whole communication process is fruitless. Why write?
Pantheists do write and often write long books. Furthermore, it is
self-defeating for the pantheist to communicate to us his view of God
only to inform us that he has not done so. Despite what some
pantheists say, what they actually do is use language to
communicate to us a view of God which in turn they say is
Summary and Conclusion
Pantheistic emphases provide numerous insights into the nature of
reality including the absoluteness of God, his immanence in the world,
the unity of being. Pantheism attempts to provide a comprehensive,
all-embracing philosophy. In addition, many pantheists have provided
valuable insights into intuitive epistemology and the need of negation
in religious language in order to preserve the transcendent and
infinite nature of God. On the interpersonal and social level many
pantheists have stressed the need for tolerance and the desire for a
spiritual unity among men. All of these, and more, are commendable
contributions by proponents of the pantheistic viewpoint.
However, when we consider pantheism as a metaphysical system, there
are numerous problems—some of which seem insurmountable. Most
significant is the fact that pantheism is self-destructive of
religious experience, of its own concept of God and of the ability
even to affirm the position of pantheism without involving the
existence of that which is contrary to the system, namely, the
existence of a finite self making the affirmation. In addition, the
inability to adequately explain the apparent reality of evil and the
relegation of God to an incomplete potential for perfection dependent
on manifestation or emanation for completion of his being is a shabby
concept of absolute and necessary perfection compared to the God of
Christian theism. Finally, pantheism is often built on an intuitive or
mystical epistemology that makes self-defeating or meaningless
statements about the unknowability of God. If it were true that God is
actually unknowable and inexpressible by language or thought, then the
pantheist could not have so expressed his view to us. The fact that
pantheists in writing and speaking do express their view proves that
their claim about God’s unknowability is self-destructive.
1 H. P. Owen, Concepts of
Deity, p. 72.
2 See Aquinas, Summa
Theologica I, 13, 11.
3 Enneads, VI, 7, 29.