New Age Pantheism - by David ClarkApologetics - A Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
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The concepts around New Age Pantheism (“we are all god”) is self-defeating. Read this short excerpt to find out why.
Pantheists’ views of reality have several common threads. Seven of these can be identified.
1. Oneness of reality. All pantheists agree that reality is one. This, of course, distinguishes them as pantheists. Though many modify this oneness in one way or another, in the final analysis, each pantheist believes that God (by whatever name he or it is called) is all that exists. (Perhaps the best example is Plotinus, who actually uses the word One to designate this unified ultimate reality. In this respect pantheism shares with naturalism the distinction of believing in only one form of reality. Naturalism, which says that Nature alone is real, affirms only one kind of reality, namely, the natural world described by scientific laws. Although many pantheists deny the reality of matter, with naturalists they affirm the oneness of all things.)
A corollary to this central point is of great importance. Since God is the All, it follows that whatever is real will be found within his being. Therefore, and quite significantly, opposites like good and evil coalesce in God. Or, as pantheists more commonly put it, God is beyond good and evil. Additionally, it is asserted that God is beyond personality/impersonality, being/becoming, and finitude/infinitude. What it means to say God is “beyond” these concepts is an issue we shall raise again. For now, it is enough to recognize that affirming God as the All involves pantheists in saying that God swallows up every pair of conceptual opposites.
2. The independence of God. Pantheists generally assert that the highest reality is in no way dependent. Everything else depends on God; God depends on nothing. Typical of this point of view is Sarvepali Radhakrishnan’s claim that even if the world should pass away, God would remain unaffected. Further, God is in no way limited by the world. The world and its creatures cannot force God’s hand in any way. In general terms, pantheism sides with theism in emphasizing that God is impervious to outside influence. Both of these views reject various positions (such as Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy) that affirm a finite God who is dependent on creation. In Christian theism, although God loves persons and chooses to answer their prayers, God’s creatures cannot dictate their will to God or force God to be other than he is. God can listen to his creatures and willingly act on their behalf, but he is clearly not dependent on the world he has created.
An important result of this stress on God’s independence surfaces in pantheists’ descriptions of God. Precisely because God is so magnificent, pantheists wish to avoid ascribing any characteristics to him. To define is to “finitize,” to make finite, to delimit. Even if we compliment God by ascribing to him what many take to be positive qualities like personhood or goodness, our concepts limit him. We have used our thinking and our logic to force God to be this way and not that way. But God cannot be so limited. He explodes all our puny concepts. Thus, pantheists typically avoid such descriptions altogether, preferring rather to leave him or it nameless. This method of emphasizing God’s greatness and independence will become especially relevant in later discussion.
3. God as impersonal. Although theists may agree with pantheists on God’s independence, the two positions differ significantly on the personhood of God. Is God personal or impersonal? Theists, of course, conceive God in personal terms. God is ultimately and maximally personal; humans are personal only in a derivative, finite, and truncated manner. Thus, God is far more than humanly personal; he is not merely personal as we experience personhood. Pantheists, however, generally argue that personhood is simply another of those delimiting concepts that reduce God to the level of our thought.
Additionally, personhood entails twoness, for to be personal is to be in relation to another person. (You cannot live personally by yourself, which is why solitary confinement is such a debilitating punishment.) Since pantheism militates against any form of duality, God must rise above personality into the impersonal. Many pantheists will use personal metaphors like Father to speak of God, and some will even allow for the worship of a personal God among unlearned people. But in the final analysis, the concept of personhood does not appropriately describe God.
4. Necessary creation. While pantheists and theists both speak of creation, they mean quite different things by that concept. When theists speak of creation, they mean that a personal God chose to bring other beings, his creatures, into existence. But pantheists view creation as a necessary event that occurs because it is God’s very nature to do it. Creation is not freely chosen; it occurs by necessity. Indeed, if only persons can choose freely and God is not personal, then God could not freely choose to create. Remember Spinoza’s statement that God “exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone.”( Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, ed. James Gutmann, based on the White-Sterling edition, The Hafner Library of Classics (New York: Hafner, 1963), pt. 1, def. 7.) This Spinoza calls freedom, but he cannot mean the sort of freedom in which an intelligent being chooses among several options. God acts “freely” only in that creation is not caused by something other than God. In reality, creation is necessary.
5. Creation out of God. In contrast to theists, who believe in creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), pantheists hold that creation is out of God (ex Deo). The universe (nature) is of the same substance as God. In fact, it is God. Whether it is spoken of as an emanation, a manifestation, or a dimension of God, the real world is not simply like God; it is God.
6. The divinity of humans. Pantheists naturally argue that every aspect of finite existence is an expression or extension of the divine. As part of this finite reality, humans are manifestations of God. This idea finds its classic statement in the Hindu doctrine, tat tvam asi (“that art thou”). Commenting on this theme, Shankara notes that union with God is not something to be sought. It only needs to be realized since it is already true—it is “self-established.”( Shankara, The Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana with the Commentary by Sankara, trans. George Thibaut, 2 parts (New York: Dover, 1962), 2.1.14; 1.1.) Each person contains the spark of the divine.
7. The world as a lower level of reality. Though critics sometimes contend that pantheism claims the world does not exist, this does not apply to all pantheists. Some explicitly reject this conclusion. In some cases they state rather emphatically that the world is real. Generally, pantheists try to ascribe to the world at least a rudimentary form of reality. For example, Radhakrishnan says that we must not infer the non-existence of the many from the higher existence of the One. At the same time, pantheists do affirm that the kind of reality they are talking about in reference to this world is at a lower level of being than the ultimate.
If the world has some sort of reality and it depends upon God, how does this differ from theism? Theists also assert that this world is dependent and yet real. The difference is that theists hold the world to be really different from God while pantheists do not. Though theists believe that creation is dependent, and in that sense a lower form of reality, they also affirm that the world is distinct from its creator. (The other possible position is held by deists, who, in contrast to both theists and pantheists, declare that the world is both distinct from and independent of its creator.) Pantheists believe that the world is neither independent of nor distinct from God.
8. Levels of reality as perceptual ignorance. Though pantheists often protest that this world is not completely denied, they also commonly affirm that it is real only from a certain point of view. Spinoza tells us that the solution to Descartes’s perplexing mind-body problem is that mind and body are the same reality viewed under different attributes. Idealistic Buddhists will say that the objects of this world are simply states of consciousness. Initially, Hindus like Shankara will not accept this interpretation. The world is real from a certain, lower point of view. One should not say the world is like the horns on a toad, entirely non-existent. Yet at the same time, Shankara tells us, the lower point of view is the perspective of ignorance.
We may summarize Shankara’s claims in this way: (1) reality is one beyond the multiplicity of everyday life, (2) yet empirical reality is not nothing, (3) empirical reality is real from a certain point of view, and yet (4) that point of view is ignorance compared to the greater truth of the union achieved through mystical insight. Despite protests, the effect of this set of beliefs appears to be that the world we live in each day is not, as such, real.
We turn now to relate these historic pantheistic themes to the claims made in the current manifestations of pantheism in the New Age movement. In what ways do New Agers promote these metaphysical ideas? Teaching about the unity and independence of God is omnipresent in New Age circles. The impersonal nature of the ultimate is emphasized by the Force of Star Wars. The little guru, Yoda, teaches us that the Force is within each of us, just as The Karate Kid informs us that ki is within. The divinity of each person is reinforced repeatedly. For example, Jack Underbill of Life Times magazine says, “You are God. Honest. I know your driver’s license says differently, but what does the DMV know?”( Quoted in Russell Chandler, Understanding the New Age (Waco: Word, 1988), p. 29.)
Since each of us is God, our innate human potential can solve world problems and holistic health can yield a higher degree of well-ness than ever before. Because of the connection with the divine, New Agers promote human potential for stress reduction, increased productivity, and personal transformation at weekend seminars and in corporate executive suites. The various elements of a “New Medicine” that taps inner energy sources are taught in several leading nursing and medical schools. The claim is that these can achieve a level of healing unavailable through traditional medical care.( See Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), pp. 57-91.) Both soul (through the human potential movement) and body (through the holistic health movement) can achieve impressive new heights of wellness through the recognition of the organic nature of reality. Clearly, the pantheistic world view lies behind many New Age claims.
The Knowledge of Mystical Consciousness
Most pantheisms depend on mystical experience as the primary mode of consciousness. Mystic insight provides access to the divine in a way qualitatively different from sensuous experience. Seven common themes can be identified in this mystical mode of knowing.
1. The abandonment of the senses. Pantheism tends to turn away from knowledge that depends on the observations of the senses. Instead, pantheists often use a mystical epistemology. But even when they use a more rational way, pantheists warn that naive dependence on the senses can be misleading. Typical of mystical pantheists’ claims would be Shankara’s statement that since ignorance is due to dependence on the senses, Brahman is empirically unknowable. Those who write in modern times, Radhakrishnan particularly, do incorporate the validity of science, which obviously depends on sensuous observation. At the same time, they believe that knowledge is inadequate if it is based only on the senses. Even though he believes that perception has a legitimate role, Radhakrishnan places it at a lower level than intuition.
2. Two levels of knowledge. In most pantheists the minimizing of sensuous knowledge leads to some sort of two-truth theory. This view affirms the correctness (at least initially) of two different modes of knowing, even though those two modes may ultimately lead to vastly different conclusions about the nature of reality. Very commonly, pantheists will acknowledge a rudimentary adequacy of everyday knowledge and language. But intuitive knowledge must transcend this level. Generally the intuitive is described metaphorically as higher knowledge; one rises above sensuous and logical knowledge to the heights of truth.
The higher levels of knowledge perform several functions. In general, all the pantheists believe that the higher knowledge corrects the distortions of the lower. More specifically, Shankara uses the two-lev-els-of-truth idea to resolve apparent problems in the Hindu scriptures: difficulties arise when we suppose that contradictory statements in scripture operate at the same level, but in fact they do not. Radhakrishnan uses the two-truth theory to support his pluralism: all religious doctrines, despite greater or lesser adequacy, point to the same God.
3. Knowledge by direct apprehension. Pantheists in general depend on a direct, first-hand grasp of reality. The lower levels of knowledge, which depend on the senses, give at best a knowledge based on logical steps. Since this knowledge must use logic to move from a sense experience to knowledge of the object of experience, it will always be indirect. But this lower knowledge gives way to a higher knowledge based on an immediate, direct, and intuitive experience. Even the rationalist Spinoza considers intuition the highest knowledge. Intuition depends on reason, but is “more potent” for it gives a knowledge that is clear, distinct, and perfect.( Spinoza, Ethics, pt. 5, prop. 36, scholium; props. 25, 28.) A claim more typical of mystical pantheists is one by Plotinus, that we may achieve a kind of knowing where knower and known are one. Here one knows the One by becoming the One.
4. The self-certifying nature of mystical intuition. Since some experiences mislead us, many philosophers are interested in whether we have warrant for accepting certain experiences as genuine. For example, we might check our own experiences against those of others to minimize the chance that we might be misled by an unknown illusion. But mystics do not accept any factors external to their experiences that could certify the genuineness of their intuitions. They believe the mystical intuition carries its own stamp of authenticity. To someone who has experienced the mystical union, external verification procedures are no more necessary than fins on a cat. As D. T. Suzuki says, a mystic who has experienced the highest knowledge can say with assurance, “I am the Ultimate Reality itself” and “I am absolute knower.”( D. T. Suzuki, “Zen: A Reply to Dr. Hu Shih,” in D. T. Suzuki, Studies in Zen (New York: Delta, 1955), p. 147)
5. The inadequacy of logic. Pantheistic epistemologies of various types typically give logic a preliminary validity at best. Logic always involves a division between A and not-A. But the unifying thrust of pantheism seeks to overcome this distinction at the ultimate level. Shankara surprises us by his admission that logic plays a vital role in knowledge. In fact, he argues that to insist on an absolute distinction between self and Brahman opposes true logic. At the same time, Brahman is clearly beyond logical distinctions. Plotinus says the same of the One. And Suzuki, in his desire to achieve shock effect, provides the most extreme example of this tendency when he says that Zen can “serenely go its own way without at all heeding . . . criticism” about logical contradictions.( D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 49.)
6. The inadequacy of language. Pantheists generally agree that the self-certifying knowledge of direct union cannot be expressed in words. Language necessarily depends on the either/or of logic. Without A/non-A, language would not communicate content. If A = non-A, if black equals white and cat equals dog, what would The cat is black communicate? To accept the essential correctness of linguistic description is to acknowledge that the law of noncontradiction relates to reality. This they believe suggests that reality is made up of more than one thing, of A and non-A. This conclusion the pantheist cannot accept. So language is universally thought by mystical pantheists to be a distortion. Speaking of the holistic knowledge of the One, Plotinus reminds us, “we are forced to apply to the Supreme terms which strictly are ruled out.”( Plotinus, The Six Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page, 6 vols. (Chicago and London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 6.9 [3, 10, 11]; 5.3 .)
7. The ineffability of mystical objects and intuition. The inadequacy of language leads to an important corollary, ineffability. Ineffability means that since linguistic description must break things into logical opposites, things that cannot be so broken must be indescribable. As Radhakrishnan explains, “God is too great for words to explain. He is like light, making things luminous but himself invisible.”( Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, An Idealist View of Life (London: Alien and Unwin, 1932), p. 97. ) When mystics, whether Western or Eastern, do use language, they often limit themselves to negative language. That is, though they will not say what God is, they may try to say what he is not.
To what degree are these themes reflected in New Age affirmations? New Age advocates commonly denigrate logical, conceptual, and empirical ways of knowing. Instead, they practically deify mystical and intuitive knowledge. For example, Shirley MacLaine places the hero of a novel in an acupuncture session where the “doctor” says, “Now relax. . . . Let your mind go. Don’t evaluate and don’t let the left brain judge what you are thinking. Give your right brain more space. As a matter of fact, don’t think.” (Shirley MacLaine, Dancing in the Light (Toronto: Bantam, 1985), p. 312.) Ironically, as this quote suggests, New Age proponents are fixated on the right brain/left brain research. The irony lies in the fact that the distination depends on the rational, left-brain methods of science. New Agers use the rational, left-brain distinction between left and right brains primarily to promote holistic, immediate/ intuitive right-brain thought to the exclusion of dichotomistic left-brain thought.
Many New Agers also defend the self-certifying and ineffable character of the higher consciousness. The author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, Marilyn Ferguson, says that you reach genuine knowledge “only when you get yourself out of the way. You have to be willing to have experiences and not have words for them.”( Interview with Chandler, Understanding, p. 38) When we shut down the analytical left brain, reach beyond the logic-chopping words inherent in all conceptuality, and open ourselves to Mind-at-Large, then the Higher Consciousness breaks in. For those who hope to apprehend true knowledge, this is the New Age party line.
The Religious Dimensions of Pantheistic Mysticism
The pantheists’ views of religious experience and of salvation follow closely their epistemology. The mystical experience that pantheists depend on to show that God is the all is the same experience that provides liberation from our most basic human dilemmas. In general, we can specify six common ideas about religious experience and salvation that pantheists share.
1. Knowledge is salvation. In the classic question of faith and reason, several positions have been proposed. For most theists, faith (that is, our trust in and relation to God) and reason (that is, our cognitive knowledge about God) are different. Some have said that faith and reasoning about God are mutually exclusive. Seren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth have taken this position. But many theists believe that they are mutually supportive. Pantheists generally hold that the two are the same; there is no substantive difference between faith (salvation) and reason (experiential knowledge). Salvation is knowledge, though this knowledge is intuitive, not rational. To be enlightened through mystical intuition or higher consciousness about the true reality of our oneness with God is in itself to be saved from our false experience of pain in the world.
2. Ignorance as the source of evil. If knowledge is salvation, the cause of the problems from which we are saved is our own ignorance. We languish far from our heavenly home because we do not realize our true identity. Oriental writers tie their view of reincarnation to this problem of ignorance. If we fail to realize our oneness with God, we suffer through the debilitating series of lives full of pain and sorrow. Enlightenment enables us to begin walking the path toward God. Through this ascent we can overcome the evil caused by ignorance. Similarly, Spinoza tells us that viewing God as a mysterious person who controls things by an omnipotent will leaves unexplained all the absurd and evil things that happen to us. This false view of God leads to spiritual blindness.
3. Salvation through human effort. Pantheists affirm various techniques for arriving at true knowledge, the mystical experience of enlightenment that is salvation. Generally, however, achieving higher consciousness involves human effort and discipline. Although Spinoza is unique among the pantheists we have discussed in his use of geometry to achieve knowledge, favorites in the East are yoga and other forms of meditation. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism leaves nothing either to chance or to the will of a capricious personal God. Through the use of koan (those maddening mental puzzles that bring reason to a standstill) and zazen (sitting meditation) the Zen novice begins the journey toward enlightenment. The Vedanta Hindus usually permit the three avenues to salvation: meditation leading to intuitive consciousness, good works of service, and devotion to a personal God. But the latter two are given legitimate status only grudgingly; the real path to Brahman is mystical union. Here most emphatically can we theists depend on to show that God is the all is the same experience that provides liberation from our most basic human dilemmas. In general, we can specify six common ideas about religious experience and salvation that pantheists share. Only through experience is that indescribable sweetness by which we rise above this world of pain and find union with God.
4. The mystical ascent. Pantheists often describe the path to salvation as an ascent. We have “fallen,” metaphorically speaking, and we need to rise again to our true oneness with God. Although this fall is sometimes given moral overtones, the pantheists’ use of the metaphor is not identical to the Judeo-Christian idea of a fall into sin. Instead of holding to a moral fall, pantheists teach a fall into ignorance. Salvation reverses this fall, and for this reason the concept of an ascent into something higher (both a higher point of view episte-mologically and a higher reality metaphysically) dominates pantheists’ descriptions of salvation. In Plotinus the language of ascent is prominent, for he speaks most directly about the descent from God in his idea of emanation. Matter and this world are things that weigh us down. Through mystical devotion and ethical living we cast off this excess baggage like sailors throwing weight off their ship during a storm. Thus lightened, we move back up the ladder to Mind and finally to the One, our home.
This aspect of Plotinus finds parallels not only in the other pantheists who speak often of the higher and lower points of view, but also in many medieval Christian writers. We should note, however, that in the majority of cases, Christians speak of ascending to a personal union with God. The culminating stage of the Christian’s climb is the two-in-one union of personal love, not the absolute oneness of impersonal identity.
5. The peace of salvation. As with any religious philosophy, pantheism claims to give a solution to life’s problems. This solution includes a sense of peace, tranquility, and repose. Although it is sometimes heavily philosophical, the whole point of pantheism is not philosophical in the traditional sense in that pantheists do not seek rational truth for its own sake. Pantheism’s goal is the religious sense of assurance, peace, and contact with God that religions seek.
Put another way, pantheists do not seek primarily to explain our experiences of the world and of evil; they seek instead to resolve our problems with evil. Consequently, each pantheist in this study ends his chain of thinking by promising a sense of peace and release from tension and worry. Even the rationalist Spinoza believed that knowledge brought the tranquility we need for living; he argued for a blessedness that he described as “constant and eternal love toward God.”( Spinoza, Ethics, pt. 5, prop. 36, scholium.) Similarly, each pantheist, no matter how philosophically oriented, finds the purpose of his philosophy fulfilled in this religious goal.
6. Pluralism of beliefs. The pantheistic emphasis on experiential knowledge leads very naturally to religious pluralism, a perspective that has gained a firm foothold in this century. Because pantheists deem our experience to be so important, they imply that the concepts we use to describe God, ourselves, and the world are correspondingly less important. Historically, Western pantheists have not generally followed this logic; they affirmed instead that differences in religious beliefs are important. Certainly Spinoza, at least, thought that certain concepts about God (say, the idea of miracles) were both philosophically false and religiously dangerous. But Oriental pantheists do commonly hold that differing religious beliefs can all be “true.” Suzuki’s Buddhism does not really accept any doctrine. Actually, he affirms that no religious doctrines are ultimately true. This is within the spirit of the original Buddhist teaching.
Hinduism, however, most emphatically states that contradictory theoretical conceptions can be accepted as true. This all-embracing religious pluralism of Hinduism is at home in a modern world where the mood is characterized by the statement, “Your faith is good for you; mine is good for me.” The willingness within Hindu faith to accept alternative conceptions means that Hinduism includes pantheism, polytheism, and even theism. In fact, scholars generally concede that Buddhism no longer survives in India, the land of its origin, because Hinduism’s inclusive nature simply swallowed up Buddhism’s distinctive teachings. Radhakrishnan, the modern Hindu, explicitly affirms this pluralism in his belief that various religions are all acceptable paths toward the religious goal of happiness and goodness. Even though Westerners historically have been more exclusive, this aspect of Hinduism is increasingly becoming part of the dominant religious perspective of our time.
How does the New Age movement today display these ideas? Salvation from the suffering of reincarnation and the pain caused by ignorance are common pantheistic themes. These find expression in the writings of typical New Age proponents. That ignorance causes pain and requires a change in consciousness is a primary theme of the many seminars that promote the new awareness necessary for enlightenment. Famous examples include the est training sessions of Werner Erhard (he now has a new group called Forum) and the Esalen Institute in California. The Esalen Institute has attracted a number of famous psychologists, including Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and Abraham Maslow. These seminars preach the same message: you are ignorant of your true divinity, so gain a new perception through (insert one of a number of techniques here) and experience a transformed personal consciousness.
Pantheism’s Self-Defeating Character
Pantheism’s analysis of our individual experience of the world brings up a final point: pantheism is unaffirmable and self-defeating. The principle of self-defeat comes into play whenever a statement does something that it affirms cannot be done. Though it can be uttered or said, such a statement cannot be affirmed meaningfully because of its self-destructive character. The statement is philosophically suspect, for it tries to do something that it says cannot be done. If the sentence were meaningful, it would destroy itself. Therefore, it is unaffirmable.
A well-known example of this problem is found in our own century. Philosophers known as logical positivists developed what they called the Verification Principle. This axiom of positivist thinking stated that only two kinds of statements could count as meaningful:
definitions and facts, with facts defined as statements that are empirically verifiable. On this criterion, logical positivism considered statements about theological, ethical, or esthetic realities meaningless because they were neither definitional nor factually verifiable. But here is the catch: the Verification Principle is self-defeating for it is neither a definition nor a fact. If the Verification Principle were somehow correct, it would be meaningless on its own criterion. The historic collapse of the positivists’ agenda shows the power of this principle of self-defeat.
This principle makes it difficult to affirm pantheism meaningfully. A pantheist usually claims that he was once blind, lost in ignorance due to the dominance of the logical, empirical view of things. But now he has regained his sight, the ability to see the truth that only God exists and that the finite perspective of sensuous observation is essentially misleading. He is saying, in effect, “I came to realize that I don’t exist. I came to see that I was always God.” This raises an appropriate question: Who is talking? What does I refer to in these sentences?
Several possibilities confront us. Perhaps I in this statement refers to a finite individual. The pantheist is speaking from a limited perspective as an individual person. But in this case, his statement is self-defeating. He is saying, “I am telling you that I don’t exist.” What sense can we make of that? If someone exists to tell us this, the statement must be false. If the statement is true, there could be no speaker to utter it. If I means a finite individual, then the pantheist’s affirmation declares that he does not exist as such, and in this way he pulls that rug out from under his statement.
To evade this glaring problem, he could claim that I in this statement is God. He is speaking from the ultimate point of view. But although this alternative solves the problem of self-defeat, it raises two more pressing questions. First, why is he trying to express this to me? Presumably, I do not exist either. But he is treating me as a real entity by recognizing my presence and responding to my questions. Second, how is it that the infinite mind of God was once deceived and has now come to see the truth? This implies both that God’s understanding was once wrong and that it changes through time. If / denotes the ultimate being God, then the pantheists’ statement implies that God is a limited being, not infinite, as pantheists claim.
The rational pressure these problems create puts stress on pantheism’s view of the reality of the finite individual’s perspective. For example, Shankara says that the lower perspective of the sensuous realm is true. In that perspective, my individual existence is real and God is personal. But from the higher perspective, my individual existence is not real, and God is beyond personhood. Both viewpoints, he says, are true. Yet from the higher perspective, the lower point of view confuses a coiled rope with a snake. In other words, we assume, the lower perspective is not really true. Yet here is the pantheist, writing as a finite individual to convince us in our finite perspectives that finite egos are part of that coiled-rope point of view.
So which is it? Do pantheists speak from the finite, individual perspective of empirical egos or not? If they do, it appears that the statements they utter concerning the unreality of their own finite existence self-destruct. If they do not and if they claim instead to speak from God’s ultimate perspective, it seems that they are introducing into God hefty doses of fallibility and mutability. Shankara paints himself into a corner. Mutism, the refusal to say anything, would be better. But that, too, has problems, as we shall see in chapter 8. In a word, the noble desire to compliment God as the All negates the very reality of the one who compliments. God therefore cannot get complimented at all. This dilemma, it appears, is a powerful challenge to the coherence of the pantheistic philosophy.
Personal existence may have some reality in modified forms of pantheism. As our descriptive survey revealed, not all pantheists call the world absolute nothingness. They have various means for ascribing some sort of limited reality to individual persons. One would run roughshod over the pantheists’ actual beliefs by considering only the extreme illusionist view of the world. But we can state the objection in another way to incorporate this fact: to the degree that the perspective of the experiencing/thinking person as an individual is claimed to be part of an illusion, pantheism is self-defeating. If the finite point of view is admitted, then the self-defeat is mitigated. However, to the degree that the pantheist admits the reality of the individual experiencing/thinking person he abandons his fundamental pantheistic premises and moderates in a theistic direction.
As a response, a pantheist might try to maintain his own existence just long enough to assert that he does not exist. But if he does this, we can only think that it is somehow ad hoc and unfair to exempt that one statement from the broader premises of his philosophy. This reminds us of the psychological determinists, who exempt their own rational choices that lead them to accept their deterministic theory from the general principles of that theory. The ad hoc nature of these self-licensed exceptions to the rule reveals basic conceptual flaws that, in our view, can be corrected only by major structural changes. In pantheism’s case, this means the affirmation of the real existence of the person who affirms a world view. It means a modification in the direction of theism.
Discussion of pantheistic metaphysics has revolved around the pantheists’ persistent resistance to the predication of concepts to God. Pantheists have claimed that using concepts to describe God both divides what is unified and limits what is infinite. Concepts are always defined in terms of opposites. We know black because it is the opposite of white and good because it is the opposite of evil. So using concepts for description always divides unity and entails that what is so described is limited to only one of the two concepts. Therefore, if God is personal, then he is not impersonal, and there is something that he is not.
This fundamental pantheistic urge arises from noble motives. But it also entails certain consequences that cannot be ignored. Some of these create problems internally in that they run up against the tests of consistency and coherence. If we cannot describe God at all, then the word God loses any intelligible meaning. If we cannot describe God as personal, then creation is necessary, and he must create.
Other consequences concern external problems in that they run into the criteria of comprehensiveness and congruence. If God alone exists, how do we explain the vast wealth of experience had by every person alive that apparently leads us to believe that selves, others, and the real world actually exist? And if God alone exists, how could we ever affirm his existence from our individual, presumably nonreal point of view? Judgment then, says that these rational tensions make pantheistic metaphysics, despite its positive contributions and noble motivations, a poor choice if we are seeking the world view that best explains the total experience of our lives.
See his book, “Apologetics in the New Age.”