Pantheism is optimism in divinity, shattering the supernatural into infinite fragments in order to account for creation. Pantheism is enthusiasm in nature, not as rational or flawed design, not even viewing nature sub specie aeterni, but just because there is nothing above or eternal, and everything below is good.
Pantheism does not see every creature animated by spirits — either as animism or as Jain or Druidic panentheism — nor does it distinguish the divine substance from that which is impermanent. Sharman Apt Russell, in her popularizing book Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, initially identifies pantheism with the creed of Marcus Aurelius, but Stoicism did not go so far as to interest itself in metaphysics.
Pantheism simply identifies God as being equivalent to everything, not in or behind or mingled with. Pantheism is the initial attempt to reconcile divinity to empiricism. It opens a detente to the philosophy of science — except that science responds by killing the theos even before the love of the natural world can get so far along as to grant divinity to nature.
For what is the point of divinizing nature except to add awe and wonder to the experience? Unsentimental science easily wields Ockham’s razor against pantheism as a cosmology, as one more theism. Yet the awe and wonder remain. Who can refute the divinity of nature, the awe of viewing the spectacle as all there is, really all?
But that is an abstraction, enjoyed by those who either know no suffering or have gotten past it. At such points, however, one is no longer within pantheism. And the argument is not a pressing one but makeshift, for we have seen into things by then. Pantheism is simply a label for the experience of wonder, not a description of anything either empirical or metaphysical.
If we add divinity to nature and pursue wonder as a kind of rational mysticism, we remain in the realm of aesthetics, positing an aesthetics of nature that we call divine. Granted, we achieve one of Plato’s virtues: the Beautiful. But we are at the lowest rung of his triumvirate that includes the Good and the True. And how is the Beautiful to even approach the other two if everything is finished and complete with the Beautiful?
We have not far to go to dissuade ourselves that nature is not all beautiful, even as perennial philosophers, looking at all the pain and suffering, still insist that everything is good, everything is right, just as it is. Pantheism tries to provide an explanation for this latter point of view. Everything is alright because everything is divine. It’s not even that some things are alright because some things have got divinity within them, while others don’t seem to. How can anything be left out? replies pantheism. Whatever is not good is just our puny minds and hearts unable to perceive that it is.
Traditional theism accounts for suffering with temporality and eternity. Non-theistic thought like Buddhism accounts for suffering as the very stuff of existence made conscious. Suffering is such because we are aware of it. But not just human consciousness is aware of suffering, for everything with consciousness is aware of pain and suffers. Thus to the Jain even kicking a rock as we go walking along is a bad thing because the rock (or the spirit that gives it form) will suffer, even if the relatively inert material does not. All destruction and change represent this deeper process of suffering.
Pantheism is not a traditional philosophy (although elements appear in ancient thought) because it does not offer an account of being, suffering, existence, time, change, and impermanence. Even traditional mythology and religion know that these are the key issues. But neither is pantheism a modern philosophy animated by logic, reason, science, and imagination. Pantheism’s postmodern resurrection in New Age and perennial thinking attempts to bridge science and mysticism, to provide an avenue to appreciating the universe. But without the emotional and aesthetic elements, pantheism strains optimism, though it provides shelter to solitude and the sense of alienation resulting from the shortcomings of institutional creeds.
The Christian (and other) Gnostics foresaw the shortcomings of pantheism on the essential question of suffering. Without a resolution of the issue of suffering (along the same lines as Buddhism), metaphysics is irrelevant to daily existence. The Gnostics concluded that divinity could not be found in nature, that nature was intrinsically flawed, that suffering was built-into existence and nature — irrationally, haphazardly, and cruelly.
The divine must be in a different place, argued the Gnostics, not intersecting with what we call nature. The world or the universe was the product of a demi-urge, not a god or God, for such a vale of suffering could not possibly harbor divinity or divine intelligence, could not possibly be the brainchild of a benevolent and loving being. Pantheism was an impossibly wrong interpretation, a Gnostic might argue, an aesthetic pleasure projected on the universe, simply a divinely subjective experience.
However, because of its optimistic intuition, pantheism might yet be redirected to the Gnostic point of view. We look upon the beautiful in nature and call it divine, but in fact we look upon beautiful shadows at the back of Plato’s cave. We have only to recognize that they are shadows, though full of hints.
The realm of the Good can only be far, far, away, in what the Gnostics called the pleroma, with only intimations of God’s aspects reaching us as aeons. Jung called the pleroma everything and nothing, what cannot be spoken of. Perhaps the precious aeons are the chance elements we experience as indicators of the distant forms, as fingers pointing to an unseen moon. Even if pantheism does not account for everything, perhaps it accounts for just enough to keep us hopeful of enlightenment, or at least content with the awe of that which is before us.