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Essays, non-duality, Pantheism

A Pantheist Takes On the Problem of Evil

I’ll be honest. Sometimes it really sucks to be a pantheist.

Not when I’m in my own company, mind you, nor in that of most other people. In fact, the sucking really just occurs when I’m trying to have a serious conversation in the simultaneous midst of two particular groups of people: theists and atheists. (And, unfortunately, many fellows pans who can’t see outside this false dichotomy.)

It sucks because neither side will admit to any kinship with you because you don’t believe exactly what they do, yet they also can’t pin you down as the Opposition Party, so they offer no intellectual grist for the spiritual mill. In the end, it leads to a whole lot of being ignored.

Debate groups are the worst. As a pantheist, watching theists and atheists debate on social media is like witnessing two people —one blind since birth and the other congenitally deaf— argue over who has the burden of proving whether or not rainbows sing. One insists that logic dictates the conversation must be conducted in sign language, while the other shoves a book across the table and shouts that the answers are all clearly stated there. In Braille.

If either one had any notion of the power of metaphorical language to invoke a feeling beyond words and awareness outside the senses, they might both learn to see what the other sees and hear what the other hears. After all, in some ways, the eye of the blind and ears of the deaf are perfect tools for understanding God.

But no. The debate rages on in mutually exclusive terms and languages, and no one is interested in mediation.

There are some discussion groups, though, where a markedly different tone and intention prevails, where different people actually want to learn from each other. (I know, right?!) I can’t expect to be agreed with or understood, but I can usually count on being heard.

Spoiler alert

I was poking around in one of these groups recently (where I am known as the “Token Pantheist”) and saw a post from a new member asking “Does anyone have a good argument to address the problem of Moral Evil?”

According to Wikipedia, “The problem of evil refers to the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. An argument from evil attempts to show that the co-existence of evil and such a God is unlikely or impossible.” The first recorded musing on the “PoE” is attributed (although apocryphally) to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who is said to have written:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The eminent naturalist philosopher David Hume was even more colorful about it:

“[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed [1]: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?”

(I find myself wanting to say, “Speak for yourself, Dave,” after each of those sentences, but fair enough. For the record, Hume’s naturalism tells us “Life sucks, then you die.” Duly noted.)

Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone….just kidding. It’s David Hume.

Now, pantheists tend to steer clear of this three-ring circus by disavowing the personal deity altogether, including anything that could be associated with such. Ideas like will, benevolence, and mercy tend not to enter the conversation, and so presumably we don’t even have to answer the Epicurean paradox. Let the a/theists duke it out over meaningless minutia while we go for a walk in the woods.

Yeah. Not my style.

If I claim that pantheism is the synthesis to theism’s thesis and atheism’s antithesis, I have to be willing to stake out a position that actually does synthesize their predominant viewpoints into something new that draws from both. To duck out of the Epicurean paradox on the notion that “God is not a person” and leave it at that is really just saying the atheists are right without saying so, and that is not what I believe.

So I jumped on this comment by the author of the original post, one of the group’s resident atheists:

“It is my understanding that most of the focus these days in the Problem of Evil is on evidential arguments and not logical arguments. I have read much of the contemporary literature on the subject from both sides of the debate and find the arguments from the PoE more compelling. In the end, the suffering we see in the world is exactly what we would expect if Naturalism is true, but markedly different from what we would expect if Theism were true.”

My response:

“And the joy we see in the world is exactly what we would expect if neither is exclusively true nor false. Naturalism devoid of what is meant and figuratively represented by Spirit has all the joy of a fish pond and all the suffering of an asteroid belt.”

Well, that got Resident Atheist’s attention.

But like everyone else in the group, he was a good fellow (I think they are screened for this trait), and interested in discussing that point rather than arguing it. The rest of the conversation went on somewhat like an interview, so I recorded it as such, with the ample pleasantries left out.

Resident Atheist: Very interesting. I would love to know how you reconcile Naturalism and Theism in way that makes neither one true or false. I hope you are not just hedging your bets.

Token Pantheist: “I’ll answer this from the perspective of a classical pantheist (ie not a religious naturalist or “sexed-up atheist,” but someone who actually reads and understands Spinoza and can apply his logic transmodally):

God does not merely participate in the suffering of creation, but is the direct, subjective Experiencer of it.

The relationship is somewhat analogous to that of character and actor in a play. A good actor is supposed to forget that he is playing a role, and the talented ones are those who seem to manage this well enough. A superlative actor, though, will forget so thoroughly that he will lose himself entirely in the character while on stage. I remember reading that one of the actors who played an SS guard in Schindler’s List was so convincing that some Jewish audience members were spooked to see him in real life. That could be called the mark of superlative acting. [2]

To me as a pantheist, God is the Supreme Actor behind ALL characters, and while it is the characters who suffer at the hands of evil and relish the joy of seeing it vanquished, it is the Actor whose heart rate rises and breath is taken by pain and beauty alike. When the character dies, the Actor lives on, for death is only what happens on stage in the context of that particular play. There are innumerable stages at any point in linear time, and I AM, the Supreme Actor,  is omnipresently within and beyond them all, telling one composite story called Life.

(Heaven, you could say, is Life’s backstage, where the Actor reconvenes with Himself before taking another role on another substage.)

Not all pantheists will cop to believing in or seeing a teleological purpose or theodicean outcome in the Grand Play, but I do. No matter how wicked and perverse some of the actions on this stage may seem, no matter how much a bad deed seems to never go unrewarded nor a good one unpunished, I see it all happening within the arc of a story that will make the audience cry and cheer. I believe in a God who is the embodied ideal of a unified Whole, unbroken and untainted by ego, and that each time one of the characters learns to forgive us our trespasses against ourselves, we bring the story that much closer to its ideal conclusion. I remain mindful of the words of one of the most astute observers of the human condition in recent times, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

RA:  It’s been a while since I’ve read Spinoza, but I have always understood both his philosophy and pantheism in general to be inconsistent with the notion of a personal God. But you seem to be describing a personal conception of the divine. Is this correct?

TP: No, not personal, but also not impersonal, because our concept of what constitutes a person is too small for what we’re trying to describe. Wherever a kind of anthropomorphic personhood is being described (such as in my analogy above), it is safe to say that this is a metaphorical symbology, a compression of detail that does not have a 1:1 verbal relationship with reality, though it may draw a decent map to the experience of God.

But this is not to say that God is divorced from the qualities of personhood as we understand them (such as in a purely mechanistic concept of the universe), only that those qualities do not contain God.

The most literal statement in my Actor-character analogy is that I see God as “the embodied ideal of a unified Whole, unbroken and untainted by ego.” The “embodied” part of that statement means that God is literally the substance of the universe (consistent with Spinoza) AND the life force that animates that substance when and where physically possible (perhaps a step beyond Spinoza into Vedanta, but not a huge step). The “ideal” means that something is trying to take form, and that implies a kind of will. I see in this “transpersonal” (still an imperfect word but it’s getting closer) ideal of God a will to creative expression and self-discovery, to get lost down every possible tunnel of the labyrinth it built & then find itself, over and over and over again.

RA: Does your theology inform your ethics and if so how?

TP: Absolutely, in every way possible. “Thou art That” is the highest principle of pantheism, and it works omnidirectionally, whether “Thou” addresses God, the soul, or divine substance manifest in and as all things (not an exact analogy, but echoes of Duns Scotus’ “univocity” in there). This means that all things and beings are due the reverence we confer to God, concurrently and in the same voice, not simply as “God’s handiwork” but as extensions of the Pure Mind that is God. The idea that “what you do unto the least of these my brothers, you do unto me” becomes all the more poignant and tangible.

I have been attending & soon will become a practicing member of the local Quaker meeting because I recognize this principle in their doctrine of Inner Light and “that of God in all.” Their emphasis on “living the Light” through working toward social justice and environmental sanity mirrors my ethic of seeking to embody the ideal of a unified Whole over the selfish interests of my ego.

I’m also a fledging writer, currently at work on a book that, among many other things, posits that the “greatest commandments” of Jesus —love God with all thy heart and all thy mind and all thy soul, and love thy neighbor as thy self— are two poles of one act of redemptive love we are all called to make in this lifetime.

The non-dual logic behind pantheism also lends itself to holistic systems thought as opposed to reductionism and nominalism. So thinking in terms of ecology, both social and environmental, becomes kind of second nature. Borders start to seem less significant when you realize why they don’t exist in the world of the river, the storm system, the drought, the rising sea level, the ripple effect of one economy upon all others, etc.

Lastly, because my style of pantheism posits the world as drama for drama’s sake/the Self-exploration of God, I can play my role in it passionately without taking it too seriously. I can keep a light heart about it, and not get so rabid about my issues that I forget that those who oppose them are also “Thou.” It is an automatic reality check against ego inflation and the corresponding self-righteousness. Even if I virulently oppose someone on this stage and consider his agenda the absolute evil incarnate, I know that figuratively speaking I will be hugging him backstage as we are both handed bouquets of roses for our stellar performances.”

RA: Sounds like your view would resonate nicely with eastern philosophy.

TP: I was an autodidactic student of Buddhism, Taoism and Vedanta long before I’d even heard of Spinoza. What I love about pantheism is that I see it as a kind of intermodal nexus where wildly diverse thinkers and ideas can relate over a shared perception of Oneness in many forms of expression. Even the die-hard empiricists among us grasp the idea of the material world as one field connected atomistically. They have a tougher time with the unity of Mind that is meant by God/Tao/Brahman, but at least we have that common ground with which to start. Similarly, mystics like myself come to it and get blown away by how downright spiritual some of these scientists can get.

FOOTNOTE

[1] This actually isn’t a common monotheistic belief, as it smacks much more of determinism than the notion of free will characteristic of Christian theology, but why interrupt a good quote?

[2] From JP: “As I was building this page, I came across a wonderfully corroborative passage from Alan Watts’ “Beyond Theology:”

“This isolated experience of identity is far out in the double sense of being very lost and very courageous: it is a heroic identity. But, alas, one of the most troublesome kinds of people is the hero without humor, who is, in this case, the style of individual who is unconscious even of the ghost of a connection. He is acting Hamlet so seriously that the player of Polonius is actually murdered on the stage. On the level of “real life,” as well as on the level of dramatic performance, there must always remain some hint or clue (Ariadne’s thread) so connecting the players with reality that they can afford to get lost in their roles. Mastery in the drama consists in so concealing the clue that it almost appears to be gone. So superb is the acting that the audience very nearly forgets that there is a proscenium arch, marking off the stage from actual life. Likewise, mastery in nature consists in evolving an individual organism so unique and so autonomous that it almost appears to be a separate universe. Such is human personality at its best.”

About Waldo Noesta

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “A Pantheist Takes On the Problem of Evil

  1. I did try, but I suspect I’m not the audience you were aiming for. I looked up pantheist and am not too much wiser. I’m what you might call a believer.
    When I think of evil, I remember a photo I saw once. A group of ordinary men and women in holiday mode; playing up for the camera, having a good time. They were young and attractive. They were SS soldiers and their wives.

    Posted by marymtf | June 16, 2018, 9:41 pm
    • I appreciate you giving the ideas a try and investigating further. Whether we agree or not in the end is not terribly important compared to cultivating the openness to new ideas.

      I see evil as a temporary state of delusion, surrounded and ultimately subsumed by eternity. It exists, but only within the temporal framework of an observer. Think of the most heinous villains who have appeared on stage or in films. When we are in the audience, they sure as heck are behaving evilly. But when the performance ends, we know that the characters are also actors who are not evil, they have just mastered the art of performing evil characters. Granted, it may be harder to see when we are characters ourselves in the same play or movie than when sitting safely in the audience. I would just argue that this doesn’t change the existential truth and asymmetrical relationship between finite evil and infinite Good (aka God). Maybe that is why the “good guys” always win in our dramas.

      Posted by Waldo Noesta | June 23, 2018, 11:01 am

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