One of the problems that some ‘normal’ people have with the idea of paganism is that they really don’t understand what it is. This isn’t surprising after all as the term covers such a broad range of beliefs, practices and ideas that even the Pagan federation has had to ‘throw in the towel’ and accept that a Pagan Is somebody who says that they are a Pagan. The so called self identify test.
In a way this is a good thing of course, Pagans tend to feel at home with a wide range of different faiths and belief structures. It can cause a problem however as somebody searching for a name for their own beliefs can be faced with a vast range paths all with their own underlying beliefs and rituals. Some have a vast range of gods and goddesses; some believe that their gods are literal individuals others see them as aspects of a greater divine.
Some are based one faiths that existed many years ago, some being well documented while others little more than a folk memory, while others are ‘new’ faiths born in the recent past.
Some of these faiths are well known, others hidden and secret while others are growing in popularity. All in all a bewildering array of faiths and paths to chose from.
So in the spirit of making things even more complex I would like to present a path that formalises some thoughts about the deity that many people have. This path isn’t as well known perhaps as some of the others and is called Pantheism.
What is pantheism?
Pantheism is a metaphysical and religious position rather than a tradition or organised religion. Broadly defined it is the view that in some way there is really only one deity which is part of everything and that everything is part of that deity. Naturally different people have different ’takes’ on what that actually means. For Example
(1) “God is everything and everything is God … the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature” (Owen 1971: 74).
(2) Everything that exists constitutes a “unity” and this all-inclusive unity is in some sense divine (MacIntyre 1967: 34).
(3)A slightly more specific definition is given by Owen (1971: 65) who says “‘Pantheism’ … signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.”
Personally I feel that somehow everything that exists, whether or not we can see it or even know of its existence, is somehow linked. These links have two effects, firstly that out of this network of existence the deity has come into being. Secondly that as everything is linked and is part of and part responsible for the deity then we should show a level of respect for everything that has existed, does exist and may exist in times to come.
The exact nature of this deity is, in my view, unknown and unknowable. It is likely to be an intelligence both immeasurably different to ours as well as immeasurably larger.
Importantly the deity, as conceived of by pantheists, is that it is NOT a personal, individualised deity existing as an entity in and of its self but rather an immanent deity that is totally part of creation rather than transcendent and existing outside it.
Pantheism therefore can be thought of as simply a belief structure describing the nature of the deity rather than a religion providing explicit ethical, moral, behavioural and theological guidance. These things are available from pantheism but as a consequence of the belief rather than explicitly demanded by it.
Where did we come from?
As I have noted pantheism suggests that the deity is not only part of the universe but is a consequence of it. This sort of does away with the problems around the creation of the universe that many other religious faiths have to explain by totally ignoring it 🙂
It is outside the scope of deity as the deity was as much part of the creation event as the universe its self That is not to say that pantheists don’t think about such things simply that any theory that does not require a transcendent and creator deity would be compatible with pantheism. It also suggests that the deity is evolving as the universe evolves; it isn’t a static unchanging deity. This allows believers to happily accept most, if not all, of the available scientific theories that attempt to explain creation and the universes subsequent evolution.
One of the implications of this belief is that pantheists don’t believe in gods and goddesses as separate, incarnate individuals. The Greek concept of the gods as existing in very much the same way that we exist living on mount Olympus wouldn’t be consistent with pantheism as though the gods were imminent in that they were ‘contained within’ the universe you couldn’t say that they were part of everything, and everything was part of them.
The concept of god / goddess as a conceptualisation of an attribute of the deity is however quite acceptable. Working with either a well know goddess, Hekate or Athena for example, by relating to one or more of their attributes or invoking that part of the power of the universal deity that the goddess represents is quite within the belief structure of pantheism. In a way in working with the aspects of the god or goddess could be thought of as bringing into existence the goddess
Rituals, prayers and Gods.
The lack of a body of sacred texts or revealed laws, rules and instructions has quite naturally lead to people interpreting exactly how the belief should be applied to their live for them self. This also means that there is no central authority or even consensus of what people should believe but rather a body of work where philosophers have considered what it means to them and how they see the belief in the world.
There are a couple of consequences to the belief in an imminent and ‘holistic’ deity and the lack of central authority or body of sacred texts however. The lack of gods and goddesses that have an independent existence means that there is no requirement for prayer or worship, after all if everything is part of the deity then there is no need for supplication or requests to an external power source. The lack of any central authority or body of texts means that no formalised, organised and approved rituals have been developed over the years. Indeed many pantheists don’t feel that rituals or prayers are even needed as part of their beliefs.
That isn’t to say that Pantheists don’t use rituals though. Pantheists tend to look towards relationships and links between things, and as such marriages, or other types of joining between people, is certainly to be celebrated. Many also feel that our links to the land, the country we live in, our ancestors, be they blood ancestors or simply the people of the land from times gone by, are part of the relationship that we have by the virtue of all being part of the unity.
It might be worth saying here that I believe that the unity transcends not only space but time, that is to say we are linked not only to other things in the deity now but to everything that has been and potentially will be. Most Pantheists however feel uneasy with rituals that are dedicated to distinct deities, for example a ritual to one of the Greek Goddesses where the Goddess was considered to have a personal / individualised existence and presence. They would however be happy where the ‘aspect’ of the goddess for example was used as a representation for one part of the nature of the deity. Pantheists can happily work with Gods and Goddesses from many paths as they would see it as working with the unity through the attributes of the god / goddess n question. Here the god / goddess is seen as a projection of the unity embodying just one or two of the attributes / power of the unity rather than an individual in their own right.
The pantheist’s ethic, her environmental ethic and her ethics more generally, will be metaphysically based in terms of the divine Unity. It will be based on the belief that in and through the divine unity all things are linked. Not just people but all life and indeed all things living and non-living. For Pantheists the moral community, the group of things that inform and concern the moral and ethical thoughts of a pantheist, is the whole of creation, both living and non-living, everything that is part of the divine.
Aldo Leopold (1949: 219, 240) says, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land … A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This gives a very good feel for the ethical and moral frame work within which a pantheist will operate and the considerations that will act to form the pantheists moral and ethical framework.
Pantheists will generally reject any ethical or moral stance as unsound if it fails to regard the non-human world as a full-fledged member of the moral community. In their view, to do otherwise is ultimately to rest the prospects of well-being of other parts of the divine on the good will of the only members of the moral community there are humans. This is seen like resting the welfare of colonies on the goodwill of the colonisers.
This insistence that nature, in fact al of creation, is part of the moral and ethical landscape for a pantheist does lead some to feel that to fully be a Pantheist you must prefer the country to the city and living in a city is something to be avoided. However cities too are part of the divine. They are just as much part of the moral landscape of the pantheist as the forest and seas. “God’s country” for the pantheist denotes urban as well as pastoral settings-indeed it extends to the suburbs. Given the existence of a divine Unity one should not regard all personal preferences (e.g., for a garden), as cosmically endorsed. If the goal of pantheism is a way of life then any locale that is generally conducive to promoting those goals is acceptable. It is in bringing the well being of all of the divine, and this means all of creation, into the ethical framework that is important.
Taking over the world?
One of the things that people notice about pantheism is that they don’t notice it at all. It simply hasn’t made impact on the world stage in anything like the same way that other faiths have. This may have something to do with its lack, indeed opposition to, of any kind of power structure. After all it’s rather difficult to have a hierarchy when by definition everybody is as much of the deity as everybody else! This means that pantheism simply can not play the power game that other faiths do so successfully.
Another possible reason for its apparent lack of popularity is that in not providing a ready made religious belief structure, there are no proscribed rituals, no creed and organised group of like minded people, it is necessary for people who would follow the path to develop their own thoughts and ethical position within the frame work pantheism provides.
Magic and Miracles
Pantheism doesn’t intrinsically involve either magic or miracles. It does strictly limit how miracles might work however. The normal view of a miracle is that of an event, usually fortuitous, that is made to happen by the deity. Where that deity is seen as a separate, transcendent individual then Pantheism does say that such miracles simply can not happen. This means that miracles that violate the natural laws of the universe simply can not hap- pen. This strictly limits the type of miracles that can exist. Magic, usually being thought of as using or manipulating events through natural, but as yet scientifically unknown, methods is quite compatible.
The pantheistic view of existence as consisting of a set of links between everything, as everything is part of the deity and the deity part of everything and everything is indeed linked through the deity, does sit rather neatly with many thoughts of how magic operates. Indeed one form of magic, sympathetic magic, relies explicitly on establishing and then using these links between things.
Pantheism as we have seen provides a belief structure that em- phasises the links and relationships between people and creation; it provides us with a sense of our place within creation and a feel for our importance in it. Its strength, and perhaps its weakness, is that it doesn’t impose a rigid set of morals and ethics and allows the individual to develop a truly personal faith within a coherent framework.