It was suggested in a philosophy forum recently that pantheism might offer the only definition of God that is not disprovable. After all, the post reasoned, equating God with the universe makes it something only a solipsist would dispute (and actually, solipsism is the easiest kind of pantheism to explain, but that’s another idea for another time).
I’ve seen the same logic used in discussions among pantheists and skeptics, and it is something I’d like to forestall. I certainly don’t think it is wrong to present pantheism as self-evident and axiomatic by definition, but to rest on that is a shallow and even pyrrhic victory. In pantheism, we are taking a deliberate step away from this kind of reductionism that wants to rely on simple equations and definitions. I also think it creates more questions than it answers, especially from those who are accustomed to a different concept of God. Some of the common follow-up questions: What is the point of a God that is everything –and, by logical extension, nothing? Isn’t that just a kind of atheism? What value is there in a God without attributes, such as love, forgiveness and foreknowledge? Doesn’t the rejection of a personal God fly in the face of pantheist reality as the source of all?
The first way to address these counterpoints without resorting to reductionist logic is to understand that pantheism is not a rejection of any kind of theism. It is simply a third option that fully envelops both sides of the a/theist dichotomy and, ultimately, swallows it whole. But it has nothing to fear nor fight in the partisan beliefs of theists. What it does say is that a God of definite attributes, defined as such by doctrine or tradition, cannot in and of itself be the ultimate Divine Ground of Being that theists suppose it to be. A symbol of it, for sure, and there are any number of “correct” symbols that one can use to approach this ineffable Nature, but as soon as we feel like we have God in our grasp, we need to “pan back” (if you’ll accept a gratuitous pun) and see that the map is not the territory, just a smallish representation thereof, and a creator-god –imaginary or otherwise– is floating in infinity as we all are. In creating the space for supernatural explanations to be distilled into metaphor, pantheism validates the theist’s perception (“Yes, God is real.”) while offering an explanation rooted in a far broader concept of Nature, obliviating the juxtaposition of “supernatural” to “natural” (“And it is waaaay bigger than you could possibly imagine.”) Theistic pantheism, then, is a lot like scientific pantheism: an intellectual preference for and/or emotional resonance with a specific set of symbols designed to engender experience of the Divine Ground –nothing more divisive than having a favorite flavor of ice cream.
So what is the value of a pantheist God –or any unitive concept of an Absolute Ground of Being by any name, such as Tao– without attributes?
Assigning definite attributes to God (which, let’s be honest –this is what revelation has always been about: humans revealing to other humans what their subjective experience of God looks and feels like) is problematic because of its inference of non-attributes that God is NOT. Inevitably, these “gaps of the God,” if you will, get filled with all manner of supernatural caulk and devils du jour, leaving unfalsifiable dichotomies for partisans to fight over –not much different than the political world, and far worse as many would argue, not without basis.
On the other hand, an all-encompassing singular Ground of Being without attributes unifies within itself all phenomena and beings which otherwise seem separate and even opposed to each other. The God offered by pantheism gives us reason to trust our intuitive notion that we are One with each other and therefore do not have a whole lot to gain by fighting over resources, authority and the like. The blank slate of atheism doesn’t offer this. If asked what is the definitive difference between pantheism and atheism, I would offer that.
This.is no minor distinction from either side of the a/theism coin, but the resonance between pantheism and theism definitely falls on a sliding scale with the mystical and doctrinal approaches to the understanding of God on either end —not, as commonly assumed, by simplistic sectarian encampments such as “East vs West.” Because we are verbal creatures, we are very susceptible to category error when it comes to concepts of God. “Christian God” or even “Biblical God” are such errors. The God of Eckhart, Angelus Silesius, John of Ruysbroeck, Paul Tillich etc has far, far more in common with pantheism, Taoism, Advaita Vedanta etc than with the concept of its doctrinal Christian counterparts; likewise, Confucianism and many forms of Hinduism show as much fidelity to doctrine as any Baptist or Shiite denominations. This is not to say that Christian Mystics are unbiblical in their approach, as certainly many started their journey that way and never disavowed it as the proper place to start. But their writings show a consensus feeling that one must transcend this provisional, conceptual God of attributes in order to arrive at the ultimate Truth of God (sometimes called the Godhead). It is here, in recognition of a unifying infinite space-time reminiscent of Rumi’s field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” where the mystic and pantheist meet, and there is no concern for arguing over the paths that brought them there.
Mystics are opposed, often violently, in all cultures and walks of life, by fundamentalist doctrinal approaches to religion in which a Manichean duality is the a priori assumption, and true collaboration with other philosophies and faiths is impossible. None of this conflict happens outside the omnipresence of Divine Ground to the pantheist of course –it is merely the subjective experience of he who, trapped in dualistic logic, sees himself as subject and God as object, and in that conflict something like an existential steel cage wrestling match to the death plays out. To us, it is just God fighting God, for the sake of good drama perhaps.
Ultimately, it seems to come down to one’s comfort level with non-dual thought and logic as to whether one even needs to consider one’s God-concept “provable.”. If you haven’t much comfort, your ir/religious life will be pretty insular, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and you’ll be inclined to prove your point of view by looking to beat down all others. Conversely, those of us who learn non-duality will find friends everywhere across all cultural bounds –and even the islanders cannot truly harm us, so we can be available to them as well. At this point, whether God is provable or disprovable becomes moot –and not because “God is the universe,” but because there is no doctrine to defend, no “thing” which can be taken away at the non-dualist’s expense. Slap him on one cheek, he will turn the other to you; demand her jacket, she will give you her hat and shoes as well. Borrowing from the immortal words of Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” nor prove. Having nothing to defend, we are invincible.
So, does pantheism offer the only definition of God that is not disprovable? Yes. And no. And so do many other paths within it.