Pantheism, the Enlightenment and Materialism


Introduction: What is Pantheism

 Pantheism is the belief that what religions call “God” is the universe itself, in all its splendour and horror. In Pantheism the universe and God are synonymous. Pantheism is as old as the marrow of Indian philosophy; the Upanishads (etymology – “sitting close to” a guru) , and as new as “New Age.” The Jewish Kabbalah, Pantheist to the core, states: 

The essence of divinity is found in every single thing — nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof (the Eternal, literally “without end”) emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say, “This is a stone and not God.” God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity” (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Shiur Qomah to Zohar 3:14b; Idra Rabba). 

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero's grave in Safed, Israel

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s grave in Safed, Israel

Adorning the pantheist pantheon in the late 18th to early 19th centuries were the greats Goethe and Hegel in Germany, Shelley and Keats in England, and Emerson and Thoreau in America. Later in the 19th century pantheism was close to becoming the dominant philosophy.

If pantheism is as old as the Upanishads (the bulk of it probably written circa 600 BCE), how old is materialism? At least as old as the pre-Socratic Greek philosophy of 600-500 BCE, reaching its peak in the 4th Century BCE with the atomists Democritus and Epicurus. “Atomism” was the philosophy that ultimate reality consists of invisible, indivisible bits of randomly colliding matter. Not very different from the materialism of modern times, spearheaded by the Enlightenment. It believed that human beings and nature could be controlled by reason and empirical methods. The reasoning was the laws of society emerge from the laws of nature. Once these social laws were understood, it would be possible to create a better world. 

The Enlightenment 

In his What is Enlightenment? Emmanuel Kant describes the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”, where “tutelage” is (Kant continues) “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”. The “Enlightenment” has profound relevance not only for understanding modern man. God saw that the light was good, but man saw that enlightenment was better – much better. “Enlightenment” puts man at the centre. Whereas theology, previous to the “Enlightenment,” was the handmaiden of science, after the “Enlightenment,” the movement of “positivism” (August Comte) reduced it to the “charwoman” of science (Frederick Copleston in one of his volumes on the history of philosophy. (Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology). 

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Force and Chemical Stuff 

Scientists such as Lavoisier (1743-94) in France and John Dalton (1766-1844) in England promoted a materialistic philosophy where all entities including human beings were entirely the product of physical and chemical forces. One of the most popular books of the 19th century was Ludwig Büchner’s, “Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter, 1855). The argument of the book is that there is no need for a transcendent (immaterial) force to explain the universe: the laws of physics and chemistry are sufficient to do the job. Here is Büchner strutting his Stoff in his concluding observations (English translation (1870) by J. Frederick Collingwood, p, 251-52): 

Exact science inculcates modesty ; and it is perhaps for this reason, that our modern naturalists have hitherto neglected to apply the standard of exact science to philosophy, and from the treasury of facts to forge arms for the overthrow of transcendental speculations. Now and then there issued from the workshops of these industrious labourers a ray of light which, reaching the noisy philosophers, did not fail to heighten the existing confusion. These single rays were, however, sufficient to cause in the camp of speculative philosophy a feverish excitement, and gave rise to sallies in anticipation of a threatened attack. There was something ludicrous in it to see these philosophers so desperately defend themselves before they were seriously attacked. It certainly will not be long before the battle becomes general. Is the victory doubtful ? The struggle is unequal ; the opponents cannot stand against the trenchant arm of physical and physiological materialism, which fights with facts that every one can comprehend, while the opponents fight with suppositions and presumptions.” 

Büchner’s  Force and Matter was followed four years later by the sensational materialisation of Charles Darwin’s “On the origin of Species,” 1859). Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection dumped the notion that there was design or purpose in the universe. All phenomena could be explained by chemistry and physics, even history; to wit, the “historical materialism” of Marx and Engels and the evolutionary psychology of Herbert Spencer. 

Historical materialism 

Here is Marx and Engels’ broad overview of historical materialism: 

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature….Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

Pantheism takes a sandwich break 

I contrast the views of Francis Schaeffer and Herman Bavinck on the relationship between materialism and the “infinite creator God (Schaeffer) in 20th century humanism. Here is Schaeffer in 1982: 

[I]nstead of the final reality that exists being the infinite creator God; instead of that which is the basis of all reality being such a creator God, now largely, all else is seen as only material or energy which has existed forever in some form, shaped into its present complex form only by pure chance.(F. Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto”). 

The above position describes the Darwinian position as it exists today in 2013.Now, here is Herman Bavinck in 1908. Note how the second paragraph contrasts with Schaeffer:

(My italics) 

The term evolution embodies in itself a harmless conception, and the principle expressed by it is certainly operative within well-defined limits throughout the imiverse. But the trend of thought by which it has been monopolized, and the system built on it, in many cases at least, avail themselves of the word in order to explain the entire world, including man and religion and morality, without the aid of any supranatural factor, purely from immanent forces, and according to unvarying laws of nature.” 

Nevertheless, the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century has witnessed an important change in this respect. The foremost investigators in the field of science have abandoned the. attempt to explain all phenomena and events by.mechanico-chemical causes. Everywhere there is manifesting itself an effort to take up and incorporate Darwin’s scheme of a nature subject to law into an idealistic world-view. In fact Darwin himself, through his agnosticism, left room for different conceptions of the Absolute, nay repeatedly and em- phatically gave voice to a conviction that the world is not the product of accident, brute force, or blind necessity, but in its entirety has been intended for progressive improvement. By way of Darwin, and enriched by a mass of valuable scientific material, the doctrine of evolution has returned to the fundamental idea of Hegel’s philosophy. The mechanical conception of nature has been once more replaced by the dynamical ; materialism has reverted to pantheism; evolution has become again the unfolding, the revealing of absolute spirit. And the concept of revelation has held anew its triumphant entry into the realm of philosophy and even of natural science.” 

Bavinck’s “The mechanical conception of nature has been once more replaced by the dynamical ; materialism has reverted to pantheism.” 

This implies that in the 19th century (recall Bavinck wrote this in 1908) the purely mechanical conception of nature was in vogue, just as it is in vogue again in the late 20th and 21st century. This is not to say that “creationism” is insignficant in the 21st centrury. The interesting observation in Bavinck is that between the mechanical conceptions of the late 19th century and our time, there existed a pantheistic hiatus.

Herman Bavinck (1854 - 1921)

Herman Bavinck (1854 – 1921)

Here is Carl Sagan: 

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.” And: Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” One thing Sagan, while alive, was sure of; it wasn’t God.

 Conclusion: I am Gaaaaad, I am Gaaaad 

The world with all its stuff is more pantheistic than ever. No one sums it up more than the delightful Shirley Maclaine. Here is an excerpt of an ABC-TV interview featuring Shirley Mclaine:

During an oceanside conversation, David presses her to stand up and assert the presence of the ‘God-truth’ within.  After suggesting several affirmations, he selects a powerful one for Shirley:  ‘I am God.’ Timidly, she stands at the Pacific.  Stretching out her arms, she mouths the words half-heartedly. ‘Say it louder.’ Shirley blusters about this statement being a little too pompous. For him to make her chant those words is – well, it sounds so insufferably arrogant. David’s answer cuts to the quick: ‘See how little you think of yourself?’ This deep insight embarrasses MacLaine into holy boldness. Intuitively, she comes to feel he’s right.  Lifting both arms to the sky, she pumps it out — ‘I am God!  I am God!’ — as the ocean laps at her feet.”

Shirley Maclaine (1934 - )

Shirley Maclaine (1934 – )


5 thoughts on “Pantheism, the Enlightenment and Materialism

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