Is pantheism a form of atheism
“You are God” (Aslan, 199). It is with this conviction that the American religious scholar and avowed Sufist Reza Aslan closes his recently published book “God”, in which he develops a plea for pantheism. Aslan calls to mind a concept that is present in many (including religious) worldviews, but is rarely made explicit. Pantheism had its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, even then, the experts disagreed about its importance and relevance. While Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel saw pantheism as a philosophy, Heinrich Heine saw it as a hidden religion in Germany. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, rated it as “polite atheism” and at the same time as an absurd term because it said nothing new (cf. Wollgast, 8). In the 18th century, the term also functioned as a battle term. On the one hand, it served to mark those who think differently and to denounce them as "atheists or enemies of Christ, opponents of the personal God of Christians" (Graf, 34). At the same time, however, it was also used affirmatively as a self-designation and definition of demarcation.
The solitude conception of pantheism occurs in different contexts of meaning, in various facets and different worldviews. The traces of pantheism can be seen in esotericism, in new intellectual movements such as “Christian Science”, in spiritualism, in secular explanations of the world, in mysticism and theology as well as in the “religion of natural scientists” (cf. Gladigow). Notions of solitude can be found in the Stoics, in Mahayana Buddhism, in Kabbalah and in Sufism. Whether they are correctly classified under the term pantheism would have to be analyzed specifically. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, already assumed theism as a criterion for a meaningful discussion of pantheism (cf. Schopenhauer, 198).
"Pantheism" derives from the Greek pān (everything, the whole) and theós (God) ex. The term was coined in the 18th century by the English natural philosopher John Toland (1670-1722). In 1705 he wrote the text “Socinianism truly stated”, in the subtitle of which he added the term “pantheist”. In the following years he continued to use the term. In his work “Pantheisticon” he describes pantheists as persons who start from the ontological figure of thought that “all things are from the whole, and the whole is from all things” (Toland 2001). According to Toland, pantheists are characterized by a belief system in which God and the universe are one and the same and there is no transcendent Creator God. Toland's late writings on pantheism are classified in research as the esoteric doctrine of the "pantheistae", since Toland sympathized very strongly with pantheism and integrated religious elements into his research (for example he developed a liturgy of pantheism).
The concept of pantheism spread rapidly. He was increasingly associated or identified with the philosophical ethics of Baruch de Spinoza. Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was known for the formula "deus sive natura" (God or nature). In his ethics he postulates the existence of an absolute principle, which he calls God or the one unconditional substance. According to Spinoza, this principle is at the same time the cause of itself and of all things. But it is not introduced as a creative or personal God (cf. Bartuschat).
The identification of Spinozism with pantheism became historically evident above all in a controversy between Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn, which went down in intellectual history as the pantheism controversy. The question was whether Lessing was a Spinozist and a pantheist (cf. Freudiger, 42). The philosopher and theologian Heinrich Scholz, however, criticized the reduction of pantheism to the formula “deus sive natura” in the dispute and urged greater differentiation. For this he introduced two directions of pantheism. A form is characterized by the identification of God and All. It leads to a “transfigured feeling for nature” and is described by Scholz as “idolizing the world” (Wollgast, 16). He defines the second form as panentheism. This assumes a "suppression of the world in God" (ibid.). The abolition of the finite world in the infinite, described in Panentheism, "the feeling of the being of everything finite in the infinite", has become a leitmotif of romantic natural philosophy (Gladigow, 224).
Friedrich Schleiermacher brought this point of view into connection with Protestant theology. In the second speech on religion, Schleiermacher explores whether “he who looks at it [the universe] as one and everything, even without the idea of a god, [should] have more religion than the most educated polytheist? Shouldn't Spinoza be as far above a pious Roman as Lucretius above an idolater? ... Which of these views of the universe a person appropriates depends on his sense of the universe, that is the actual measure of his religiosity; whether he has a god for his view depends on the direction of his imagination ”(Schleiermacher, 128). Schleiermacher expresses his respect for pantheism as a form of individual piety without, however, appropriating its concept of solitude.
In addition to the distinction between pantheism and panentheism, the closely related division into materialistic and idealistic pantheism according to Hegel and Feuerbach has gained importance (cf. Wollgast, 19). In materialistic pantheism, God and the world are equated, they are regarded as absolutely identical, so that a creator god is excluded. This form of pantheism flows in its essence into atheism (cf. ibid., 21). In idealistic pantheism, however, it is assumed that the world emerges from God. God is viewed as solitude, as an absolute spirit, which is not identical with the world, but is its origin. In idealistic pantheism there is therefore no absolute equation between the world and God. This opens up spaces for theistic religions in this variety of pantheism, which can be found particularly in mystical traditions. While in Christianity, for example, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) is associated with such an idealistic pantheism, in Islamic mysticism the Sufist Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) can be remembered. However, there are controversial discussions regarding both mystics as to whether they can really be assigned to pantheism (cf. Schimmel, 298-305; Flasch, 414-416).
The concept of pantheism was conceived in different ways in its history and integrated into different worldviews. The assessment of the absolute or relative unity of God with the world or with the universe fluctuated. Because of its normative charge, the term pantheism was used in particular in the context of philosophical criticism of religion and Christian theological apologetics, but it only spread slowly as a religious-scientific category (cf. Maier, 627).
Pantheism as a collective term for concepts of solitude
If one detaches the concept of pantheism from its religious-historical contexts and regards it as a collective term for ideas of solitude, numerous pantheistic conceptions can be found in the current landscape of religions and beliefs.
They were prominently developed, for example, in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical worldview, which follows on from the ideas of Helena Blavatsky and Ernst Haeckel's monism (cf. Dinkel, 857). Various facets of the pantheistic concept of unity are also represented in the spirituality of the New Age (cf. ibid.). They manifest themselves in esoteric techniques of self-realization and cosmic experiences and often combine a scientific and a spiritual claim.
The connection between science and belief is also represented in a pantheism that is important in the natural sciences. Burkhard Gladigow rates its relevance so high that he speaks of pantheism as the religion of natural scientists. He develops his analysis against the historical background of the tense relationship between science and theology, as it developed in the course of the Enlightenment - especially in the French Enlightenment. At that time, scientific findings were increasingly placed in opposition to religion and viewed as an instrument for liberation from religious ideology.
The juxtaposition of religion and natural science stimulated the development of a romantic natural philosophy. In it, the study of nature was defined as an investigation of the "eternal transformation of God in the world" (Gladigow, 220). In this context, pantheism appears as a possible approach to determine the relationship between religion and natural science without conflict (cf. ibid., 222). Pantheism also fulfilled this function for Albert Einstein and Max Planck in the 20th century. Einstein explicitly called his worldview as pantheistic and thus describes “that conviction of reason, connected with deep feeling, which reveals itself with the world that can be experienced” (Einstein, 18). The attractiveness of pantheism as an explanatory model for a rational conception of the world, as exemplified by Einstein, expresses a need to always interpret natural research in a religious way, as, according to Gladigow, for European religious history, starting with the pre-Socratics, proceeding via Spinoza's “deus sive natura ”, was formative (cf. Gladigow, 235f). The attraction of pantheism consists in a rational interpretation of the world, which, however, includes an emotional connection (cf. ibid.).
Due to the complexity of pantheism, a general assessment of the concept and its relationship to the Christian faith is difficult. Rather, the directions and facets of pantheism show the need to look at the term in concrete ideological or religious references. For the evaluation it is decisive whether it is assumed in pantheism that God is completely absorbed in the world or whether the world is viewed as the appearance of God. Although there is clear friction with pantheism, especially with regard to the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and the explanation of evil in the world, it can still be seen as a way to reject an excessive emphasis on divine transcendence and to emphasize God's saving action in the world (see Wolfes). This approach can be observed in Schleiermacher, for example. He takes up pantheism as an attempt to interpret God's being in reality as an expression of a salvific trade, without, however, equating God with the world as a whole (cf. ibid.).
However, if concepts of solitude appear in esoteric or occult contexts, they are often in conflict or even in opposition to Christian teachings and propagate alternative worldviews. A pantheism that is strictly adherent to materialism presents itself as incompatible with the Christian faith. A materialistic pantheism, which equates God with the world or the universe in substance and reduces God to matter, leads to a materialistic atheism.
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Dr. Hanna Fülling, July 2019
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