An ancient spiritual impulse wins new followers
IF YOU SEE DIVINITY in a moonlit sky or a field full of daylilies; if a walk outdoors fills you with reverence more than stepping into a grand cathedral, synagogue, or mosque, chances are good that you are a pantheist.
If so, you?re in good company. Albert Einstein, Georgia O?Keeffe, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Sitting Bull, and Mikhail Gorbachev are just some of the notables who have counted themselves as pantheists, subscribing to the fundamental notion that nature and the universe merit deep reverence and awe. Believing that the universe itself is divine, pantheists have no use for a personal, anthropomorphic God, much less supernatural realms like heaven and hell. As Canadian novelist and poet Atwood elegantly put it, ?God is not the voice in the whirlwind; god is the whirlwind.?
?We want to . . . take in fully the beauty, the wonder, the mystery of things just as they are,? says Paul Harrison, author of the book Elements of Pantheism: Understanding the Divinity in Nature and the Universe (Element Books). ?Seeing in all this the reflection of some transcendent creator-figure with a humanlike mind seems to miss the point, to pass by the reality that?s right in front of our noses.?
The term pantheism (not to be confused with panentheism, which holds that everything, including the universe, is contained within the supreme being of God) was coined in 1705 by Irish writer John Toland. But the underlying doctrine dates back to the ancient Greeks?most notably the sixth-century philosopher Heraclitus, who denied the existence of God, believing instead in a living cosmos where everything in the universe?you, me, the trees, the stars, the sun?is connected in a profound unity.
Although pantheistic philosophy dominated antiquity, influencing everything from Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism to Western philosophies like Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and Epicureanism, it was eclipsed for some 1,200 years by the spread of Christianity and Islam. Then the scientific revolution in the 17th century?in which Copernicus proved that the earth actually moved around the sun, thereby challenging our title as the center of the universe?laid the foundation for intellectuals like Giordano Bruno, Benedict Spinoza, and Toland to dare publish works advocating pantheistic principles. By the late 18th and the 19th century, Harrison writes, pantheism had become the ?religious heart? of romantic poets and philosophers like Goethe, Blake, Hegel, Wordsworth, and Whitman.
But pantheism waned in the first half of the 20th century as a new faith in the power of technology took center stage; but mounting environmental problems and the recent expansion of movements like deep ecology have granted pantheism a renaissance of sorts. And in 1998, Harrison founded the World Pantheist Movement (www.pantheism.net) to knit together the global pantheistic community.
The organization now has more than 2,000 members and anticipates that there are millions upon millions of pantheists out there who just don?t know there is a name?or group?for their beliefs. But here?s the question: If pantheism has been around forever, why organize now? After all, modern pantheists seem to pride themselves on how amorphous and unstructured their practice actually is. It can be a religion, a philosophy, or simply a way of life; rituals are strictly optional?some pantheists choose to celebrate solstices and equinoxes and Thoreau?s birthday; others, like Harrison, choose to spend at least half an hour every day exploring nature?and many pantheist traditions seem right in line with the environmental activism already espoused by many organized groups.
?Some people think that pantheists should just commune with trees alone and bump into other pantheists only by chance,? Harrison says. ?That?s fine as long as they?re happy with it. But we know that many pantheists feel quite isolated, especially in largely Christian America.? Harrison believes millions of people are becoming dissatisfied with traditional religions and are searching for alternatives. ?We want to make sure that there is a rational, evidence-respecting, nature-revering option on offer.?