A Reply to Ross Douthat's Preoccupation with Pantheism

avatar_poster2In his latest New York Times column, Ross Douthat isn’t happy that “Avatar” is yet another high-tech cinematic tribute to pantheism, which he calls “Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” 

He casts this position in contrast with Christian belief and concludes that pantheism can only offer “an escape downward” for humanity, while Christianity offers “an escape upward.” If pantheism is winning the day not just in Hollywood, but—if a recent Pew survey is correct—all across America, Douthat thinks we’re left with a “deeply tragic” position. 

I’ll not quibble with Douthat’s definition of pantheism (which he calls “a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world”)—but the conclusions he reaches are really much ado about nothing, and, in the end, constitute little more than an ideological argument.

First, I agree with him that elements of pantheism have been angel dusted into movies for decades. He draws a line from “Avatar” back through a list of films (including “Dances with Wolves”, “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”) to George Lucas’ enormously lucrative “mystical force” and the six mega hits it permeated. The line would stream through hundreds of movies if anyone had the time to name them all.  Pantheism in various configurations has clearly made good business sense for film makers.

But, if we take the most well-known of Hollywood’s pantheism spinners, George Lucas (or James Cameron if you prefer), and put him in broader historical context, we’ll see that there’s really nothing new going on here. Lucas’ formula is not unlike that used by many successful proselytizers for centuries, including the itinerant St. Paul of Tarsus. 

Paul focused his energies on building a belief matrix around the age-old story of the dying and rising God. In the belief-rich environment of Hellenistic Greece, Paul found ample ways to weave together religious traditions to make his message palatable to a larger audience. It’s no stretch to say that if not for Paul’s energy and penchant for synergy, modern-day Christianity would never have happened.

Ironically, it’s also likely due to Paul that Christianity itself embodies certain pantheistic sensibilities.  Paul popularized the notion that God is in us and in everything around us.  He famously told the Athenians, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” The crowd he was addressing knew that he was quoting the Greek poet, Aratus, who had been influenced by the Stoic Cleanthes–a pantheist. The notion of a “Holy Spirit” working in and through everyone and everything also has a strong pantheistic resonance.

To be clear, Paul was not what we’d now call a “new age pantheist.” Far from it. But he did integrate certain elements of the pantheism of the time into his message, and those elements have roots in a historic conception of pantheism that predated him by thousands of years.  In the Old Testament, these elements crop up in curious ways, such as in the story of the Hebrew diviner, Balaam, who is spoken to by a divinely inspired donkey. God chose to address Moses at Sinai in the form of a bramble bush (the “burning bush”). And God acted through a whale to teach the prophet Jonah a lesson.  

But in other cases it’s clear that the God of the Old Testament detests nature. In the most famous talking animal episode of the Old Testament, God curses the defiant serpent of the Garden of Eden by saying, “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (All snakes since then have been cursed thusly, just like all people since Adam were cursed due to his transgressions; the logic of Genesis is unequivocally cruel and final.) 

The point is Paul had quite a job on his hands. At times addressing Greek audiences accustomed to neo-Platonist and Stoic flavors of pantheism, and at times addressing Jewish audiences encumbered by a belief in a God at odds with his creation—it’s little wonder that he moved around a lot. Throw into the mix a medley of other groups with beliefs ranging from Mithraism to Baalism to every cult under the sun, and Paul makes George Lucas look like a garbage man.

Of course, Paul’s motivation was not money, as is Hollywood’s.  But whatever the motivation, the point remains the same: people have been loading pantheism into a stew of conflicting beliefs for eons. Nothing that has happened in Hollywood, now or ever, is new in this regard. In the same light, the recent Pew report about the beliefs of Americans is hardly shocking—belief mixology is older than dirt.

So what’s the real argument Douthat is making?  In my opinion, it’s chiefly ideological. He says that Americans find a number of qualities appealing in pantheism and have substituted them for the tenets of good old fashioned monotheism. He adds,

The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and a piping-hot apocalypse.   

Calling this a stretch is generous, and it says a lot about where Douthat is coming from and what he’s trying to tell us.  If you are concerned about the environment and think that we humans can make changes in our lives to prevent global warming (which presupposes that you believe in global warming), then according to Douthat you’re part of the “cult of Nature.” 

How is it that he’s somehow managed to miss the entirely pragmatic and scientifically grounded reasons for environmental concern? I doubt very much that he has. But they don’t fit well with the edifice he’s trying to build, which correlates environmentalism with new age pantheism, and thus positions environmentalism as a belief at odds with Judeo-Christian belief—the apparent cultural core for the writer. This linkage allows him to call Alexis de Tocqueville to the stand as predicting that pantheism would eventually seduce “democratic man.” And as every good ideologue knows, once Tocqueville is invoked, only fools dare dispute.

If we accepted Douthat’s myopic argument, we’d have to ignore quite a lot. A century of scientific advancement, for example, that provides an adequate framework for taking decisive environmental action and needs no pantheistic crutch to lean on.  We’d also have to ignore immense swathes of history littered with examples of pantheism and countless other beliefs intertwined like giant rubber band balls rolling through time.

And we’d have to ignore perhaps the most basic fact of all—that traditional theism and new age pantheism are but two belief options available to citizens of what philosopher Karl Popper called the open society. For some they might be inextricably linked, but for most they are not. Trying to place us along a contrived belief continuum–or downward curve, depending on your perspective—is reductionism of an especially shallow kind. 

Paraphrasing one intellectually irascible poet, and pantheist of a sort, who didn’t honor such contrivances: “We are large, we contain multitudes.”  Amen to that.


6 thoughts on “A Reply to Ross Douthat's Preoccupation with Pantheism

  1. Mr. Disalvo,

    You are quite correct that the distinction between “Pantheism” and “Christianity” is entirely false one. There have always been Pantheistic Christians (or Christian Pantheists). However there is also a very anti-pantheist trend in the church as well. St. Augustine said “Concerning the rational animal himself,—that is, man,—what more unhappy belief can be entertained than that a part of God is whipped when a boy is whipped? And who, unless he is quite mad, could bear the thought that parts of God can become lascivious, iniquitous, impious, and altogether damnable? In brief, why is God angry at those who do not worship Him, since these offenders are parts of Himself?”

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  3. I suppose this is why this website is called ‘True/Slant’.

    1. Agree with environmental concern.

    2. Sarcasm aside, a lot of what De Tocqueville wrote is still relevant today. From this article I can only assume you’ve read little. Your conception of Pantheism is too narrow.

    3. The problem with modern, late-capitalist democracy is that it spews out fantasies – like containing ‘multitudes’ that your Whitman professes – at the expense of reality; and not just on an environmental level.

    It’s not unrealistic to think that we’ll all be sat in the dark, watching McCormack’s The Road, stuffing pop corn in our faces, while it literally happens outside.

    4. Your counter argument is just as ideological, only slightly less myopic, but certainly more flimsy.

    “Science! Science will solve everything! If something’s proven, of course people will have to do something!” Ha.

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  5. davidlosangeles, you claimed that “the distinction between ‘Pantheism’ and ‘Christianity’ is entirely false one. There have always been Pantheistic Christians (or Christian Pantheists).”

    I’m sorry, but no, there haven’t. Genuine Christians have always understood that God is holy; indeed, this is the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about God. The word “holy” literally means “set apart.” God is set apart from all else: there is the Creator, and there is the creation. Period. If pantheism were true, virtually nothing taught in the Bible would make a bit of sense, particularly the notion of our sin having estranged us from our Creator and leaving us in need of a Saviour.

    Mr. Disalvo: “yes” and “no” re. the Apostle Paul. He clearly promoted the *omnipresence* of God, but that’s just orthodox biblical theology straight out of the OT. To say “God is everyPLACE” is _not_ the same as saying “God is everyTHING.” But if anyone chooses to read pantheism into Paul’s words, well, it’s just another case of man-centred readers imposing their own notions onto Scripture.

    Paul performed no such “integration.” He reiterated the revelation of God’s omnipresence in terms his pagan listeners could relate to. Nothing more; nothing less. If there is some overlap (and I agree there is) between the biblical worldview and any other worldview, it’s not as if any “integrating” needed to take place – as if to suggest the content of Scripture was actually influenced by ideas from other religions. The Bible-writers’ *choice of words* was sometimes influenced by paganism (e.g., 2 Peter is rife with pagan terminology reinvested with Christian meaning), but not the concepts themselves.

    Of course one can make the leap from omnipresence to pantheism by virtue of the simple logical fact that if God = everything, then He/She/It must logically also be in every *place*. But only in that regard could we rightly say that pantheism logically dovetails with omnipresence. But omnipresence in and of itself does not equal pantheism. In other words, you can’t have pantheism without omnipresence, but you *can* have omnipresence without pantheism.

    You appear to be divorcing these occasions from the total biblical worldview. These instances are logically consistent with *both* pantheism and agency. The biblical worldview demands the latter explanation, of course. And therefore these are not cases of ancient pantheism “cropping up” in the OT. Rather, these events really occurred; the Bible records them; and the Bible furnishes the worldview in which these events are to be understood.

    It would be far more accurate to say that the reverse process is actually true: elements of the _biblical worldview_, handed down since the time of creation, “crop up” in pagan worldviews. But when those truth-elements do so “crop up,” pagans misinterpret them within the context of their pagan worldviews. Hence, something like omnipresence becomes paganistically misconstrued as pantheism.

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