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.

Peretz’s “The Hermit and the Bear”

Polish writer I. L. Peretz wrote a little tale titled “The Hermit and The Bear.” The story is a Yiddish folk tale, a little morality tale, that begins: “Once there was a man who could not abide evil.”

The man owned a little shop and turned it over to his wife while he occupied a room of the house to study the Torah and Kaballah and to pray. But even here was evil. So he decided to become a hermit. The man left his home and went to live in a corner of the synagogue. But even here was evil. People came and went and talked, so the hermit decided to go searching for a city that had no evil but couldn’t find one. So the hermit gave up civilization and traveled to forests, hills, and valleys, searching out a good habitation far from evil. He settled by the bank of a river.

But even by the riverbank there was evil. The water rushed and ran wild, overturning trees and flooding the land. And the fish and creatures were at constant war with one another. “So hermit has no peace and cannot sleep. As for running away — there’s no place left to run.” The hermit concludes that he won’t go searching any further and that evil occurs “because the soul of the world is asleep.”

The hermit’s logic is that when people are asleep they have no order or control over themselves. Their limbs may go here and there because the soul is asleep and not awake and present to control things. (Peretz doesn’t mention dreaming; his hermit is a simple soul.) Similarly, the world thrashes about because the soul of the world is asleep.

The hermit, in short, figures out that to awaken the soul of the world he must meditate and avoid every distraction such as a crow cawing or a bird singing, and meditate especially at night. But the river-spirit learns of what he is doing and seethes and roars and floods, disrupting the hermit’s concentration. He does not want to leave his new-found place and search for a place by a quieter river. Evil is everywhere, after all. Now, the hermit has learned a few spells in his reading and thinking, and after more fasting and meditation he goes out ready to tame the river. The hermit pronounces a holy spell and now the river is in a serious rage. It hurls a mighty wave at the hermit.

The wave turns into a bear, a “hairy black bear with bloodshot eyes” and the bear runs around “roaring and snarling, interfering with the hermit’s meditations.”

The hermit decides to quiet the bear. He goes out and sees the bear raging about, and when the hermit looks at him the bear falls, seething and foaming angrily. But the hermit looks at the bear with loving-kindness.

And there’s a war between the two sets of eyes — the hermit’s brimming with love and pity, the bear’s filled with hatred and rage. But the hermit’s eyes are strong. Slowly, slowly, they begin to conquer those of the bear.

And at last, the bear comes humbly to the hermit with a look in his eyes as if to submit peacefully to his wisdom, to be his humblest servant. And the hermit looks tenderly upon the bear and lovingly caresses him.

And so the hermit is ready to return peacefully to his thoughts and meditations, to think on what more he needs in order to awaken the soul of the world.

But there is nothing left for him to think. He himself no longer possess his former soul, because in the same measure that the bear has ascended to him, he has descended to the bear.

He sense a weariness in all his limbs: his eyelids grow heavy. Falteringly, he goes to his bed, and the bear follow him and lies down beside him.

There is no end to evil. The bear has become partly human, and the human partly a bear. And a saint who lies down with a bear cannot awaken the soul of the world.

Raymo’s scientism

Chet Raymo’s recent book will remind the reader a little of Andre Comte-Sponville, except that Raymo’s provocative title, When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, is intended to argue for atheism as natural rationalism or rational naturalism, except that Raymo does not succeed in softening it, though that is his purpose. The two writers are similar in their Catholic backgrounds, both admitting a nostalgia for candles and rituals; Raymo was educated at Notre Dame University and spent his career teaching science at two Catholic universities.

In the title chapter, Raymo muses about Catholicism turning into “religious naturalism” — his softening of the title blow. Comte-Spoonville has no such illusions. Both are stanch supporters of modern Western society and its values, biases, and illusions. That reverse triumphalism seems to be the political style of apologists for what must be called scientism.

Religious naturalism is the term Raymo assigns to his own belief, the atheism of his career of science, which he hopes to make palatable with an agenda wherein Catholic tradition renounces its doctrines and embraces something akin to his own beliefs. For readers interested in this sort of modern quasi-religious apologia, the attraction will be to similar-minded Catholics only, for that is where it seems to occur almost exclusively. For non-Catholics, the personal agenda is less obvious. Raymo’s book ranges from active hostility gradually softened over the course of short chapters to end in Catholic name-dropping from Columbanus to Duns Scotus to Thomas Merton to Teilhard de Chardin. Seen from this perspective, the book is too confessional to provide value outside its targeted clique.

But there are larger issues.

Raymo’s chief gaff, as with most apologists of scientism, is the failure to see that reason and science operate within the same human social and cultural context as religion. Both are products of such contexts, and science does not transcend human foibles. Furthermore, science thrives on its byproduct: technology. In technology one finds a representative measure of human ingenuity, because technology represents the totality of effort behind both reason (as logic or capability) and society or politics. Technology, from the club and spear to the atomic bomb, is an inevitable brainchild of a science that has no ethical bounds. Scientists themselves bristle at such bounds, dismissing them as epistemological bounds and refusing to acknowledge that their work is culturally-based. The selective criteria scientist apply to their projects is largely motivated by the cultural values they hold and the political (in the widest sense) context of their times.

Reason cannot manufacture or analyze itself. Reason is the product of the imagination, as Wittgenstein noted. Reason as scientific method is the application of one fragment of mental capability. Apologists of scientism elevate that fragment to the status of absolute. Absolutes have a tendency to be intolerant, whether it is Yahweh or Reason. B. F. Skinner, a relentless champion of scientism, is the representative denyer of evidence outside the paradigm of science. Such was the application of an unfettered empiricism coached by the political winds of the day.

Who can doubt that science and technology have created wonders? But what better wonders if they had an ethical basis? And who can doubt the good that religion would do if it had an ethical basis, too, even if we acknowledge the epistemological and psychological issues. Science and religion are bound to clash, but even when they do not clash they shed blood.

Science and religion — and the clash of science and religion — shed blood perhaps not because they are intrinsically extreme or because they ought to adhere to ethics — and ethics that would also have to come from society and culture. Both shed blood because both have the tendency, indeed, trajectory, to become absolute.

Religious wars, whether tribal or national, are obvious products of the worse human instincts. But these wars employ the weapons that are the obvious products of science and technology. For science to make an absolute of reason when reason does not exist outside of random and pragmatic expressions or as mechanisms of social order, consensus, consumption, and the like, is as much a folly as any religious dogmatism — or, rather, in line with them as human expressions. The argument that, well, at least science does not kill people, is not true.

Raymo accelerates his arguments slowly, starting with easy targets: popular superstitions, Romantic poets, New Age ideas, alternative medicine. With the last, for example, Raymo reveals his defense of established power in the fields of science and technology. To Raymo, modern medicine is sacrosanct; he ignores the corrupt relationship between its players, from medical to pharmaceutical to agri-business to corporate producers of toxins and pollutants, a ring of well-protected and well-concealed power bases that selectively fund whatever agenda of “science” they want to present. Or one might cite the tight economic circle binding military merchants, weapons manufacturers, politicians, scientists — all taking advantage of the latest technology, economic profits, and human suffering.

By ignoring the political and economic context of science and technology, Raymo ignores the inherent weakness of human reason and scientific objectivity: that they are not based on reason or objectivity. By ignoring the issue, he becomes an unwitting apologist for an irrationally-driven social and cultural system.

We can see this tendency, too, when Raymo marvels at the wonders of technology while writing on his laptop in an idyllic Bahamas setting. How could anybody ever live in a world “without knowledge of the galaxies and the DNA?” he says. As a matter of fact, most of the world probably does. Only the elites of power, using science and technology to craft their weapons, and well versed in such knowledge.

So by the time we get to the book’s title chapter, it is too late to find the Catholic nostalgia much of a redeeming factor. Though Raymo wants to call himself a religious naturalist or an agnostic, the title gives away what the left brain insists upon, even if the right brain wants to salvage the dregs of childhood. “When God is gone everything is holy,” says Raymo, but not by any criteria of science or reason. Raymo turns Liebnitz on his head, or, rather, turns himself upside down, claiming that we live in the best of all possible worlds after all.

Huxley’s agnosticism

In 1869, Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” to label a point of view concerning knowledge — although it has wider implications. There are ambiguities and insufficiencies in his description that continue to need refinement. The following passages written by Huxley are now pretty standard reading.

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion …

Huxley presents agnosticism as an alternative to extremes concerning knowledge, especially knowledge of God, though Huxley assumes this of the reader: he does not actually write the word. He presents a spectrum of beliefs but doesn’t try to tease apart the strengths or weaknesses of the points of view, saying that their adherents are all “good people,” or people of good will in their respective spheres. Huxley talks like a member of a men’s club not wanting to offend any member but nevertheless obliged to choose a point of view.

Thus, on Huxley’s list, atheist, theist, and Christian are religious terms referring narrowly to a position on Christianity, at least in his day. Pantheist seems an allusion to romanticism — presumably he was not broadening the historical sense of the word. Materialist, idealist, and freethinker refer to philosophy. What is missing is deism as an alternative to theism, or the various degrees of philosophical thinking like Stoicism or Epicureanism or Cynicism, not crude like the points of view on his list, but that need not be belabored.

The continuation of the passage reveals from where Huxley is coming:

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our [i.e. Metaphysical] Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

Ah, the men’s club of viewpoints, like booths at a fair, chapters in a philosophy text. Not having a favorite, do not judge even the merits or weaknesses of anyone, lest you offend.

The term “agnostic” is presented first as a bulwark against Christianity. However, Huxley’s use of the term “gnostic” is hardly an orthodox term in the “Church history” he refers to, nor can that which Christians “professed to know so much about” be said to equate with historical Gnosticism but rather Revelation or dogma. Huxley was, of course, not ignorant of what Christians said or believed but rather professed not to be convinced.

As “Darwin’s bulldog” — what some called Huxley in his day — it is not surprising that he would disbelieve the mechanics of information that could not be validated scientifically. This had been the case since Galileo. But Galileo had recanted to save himself from torture, and presumably could believe whatever else he wished in his society as long as it was not publicly controversial. Does agnosticism merely save its skin, like Galileo?

Huxley mentions Hume and Kant, and that is appropriately the source of the philosophical mechanisms for the breakdown of the certainty of knowledge. With Kant, however, this breakdown applies to reason as well. Huxley finds safety in agnosticism, which he begs off from a militancy like skepticism, being a gentleman who will need to protect his society’s ethics and politics. He chooses a diffuse “I don’t know.”

Huxley continues:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good;” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Hindsight may adopt the Reformation as agnostic, but that is far-fetched. The process of devolution in Christianity was tied to intellectual reflections but as much to social and economic conditions. Socrates’ “method” and Descartes’ methodical doubt are useful historical models for philosophy but accepted as outdated by the science of Huxley’s day in the realm of knowledge.

But as Wittgenstein — no stranger to rigorous science as well as philosophy –pointed out, reason cannot examine itself or ethics, art, or anything imagined or created. There is no method for methodical doubt, no method even for agnosticism, because it is still based on the paradigm of knowledge and reason, when their coveted throne has long since been unmasked.

Agnosticism is not a creed, as Huxley rightly notes. But neither is it a method, a parallel empiricism. In the 20th century, the progress of knowledge as a good has been revealed to be false, and creeds to be but social intuitions. Huxley’s method is a suspension of probability, a lack of trust in a teleology of meaning, a collapse of what science and technology once believed to be progress.

Agnosticism is a negative wonder, a fear of shadows, a groping for meaning instead of a plunging into experience. Experience of “gnosis” was the goal of the historical Gnostics, not an attempt to attach puny human reasons to the universe and call it or its components “knowledge.” With agnosticism Huxley thought to suspend the betting on whether science or religion would win out, confident that the latter would not. But Nietzsche rightly declared that they had plummeted one another to death.