Everything You Probably Thought You Knew About Pantheism Is a Half-Truth…OK Maybe Two-Thirds.

The John Toland Ideological school of Pantheism needs to step off, sit down, and have a brief history lesson.

I recently set aside some time to catch up on an egregiously long backlog of Saved articles, and right off the top in this piece by Peter Dawkins about the pantheism of Sir Francis Bacon, there was something quite interesting that changed my afternoon coffeehouse plans.

Backstory: Paul Harrison, via the World Pantheism website, states that “John Toland has a triple claim to fame in the annals of pantheism. It was he who coined the term ‘pantheist.’ He was the first strictly materialist and scientific pantheist of modern times. And he was the first to conceive of a network of societies observing the pantheist religion.” The first item refers to Toland’s 1704 “Letters to Serena” in which he used the expression “pantheism,” and more significantly to his publication “Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist” in 1705.

I had bought that rhetoric for a while, but only because I had forgotten about Joseph Raphson, the English mathematician who beat Toland to the punch. From the Dawkins article: “The term Pantheism…was first used in Joseph Raphson’s 1697 Latin book ‘De Spatio Reali seu Ente Infinito,’ wherein he refers to the ‘pantheismus‘ of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and others. It subsequently became an English word in a translation of Raphson’s work in 1702.”

With all due respect to Mr. Toland, a fine republican rabble-rouser and critic of corrupt religious institutions, he clearly did not coin the term. He almost certainly would have read the previous work by Raphson and appropriated the term for his own use, quite possibly in all sincerity, as imitation is said to be. I see no reason to deny that Toland pioneered the use of the term in the unique materialist form and social context as indicated by Harrison, which means that two out of three claims are legit. That, as they say, ain’t bad.

But there is something fishy to me about the one that Harrison got wrong…a too convenient mistake, it would seem. As the Dawkins article goes on to say:

“In his work, Raphson distinguishes between atheistic “panhylists” (from the Greek roots ‘pan/all,’ and ‘hyle/matter’), who believe everything is matter, and Spinozan ‘pantheists,’ who believe in ‘a certain universal substance, material as well as intelligence [emphasis mine] that fashions all things that exist out of its own essence.’ He referred to the pantheism of the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Syrians, Assyrians, Greeks, Indians, Jewish Kabbalists, and in particular, Spinoza.”

Pretty significant list there, though far from exhaustive, and a substantial distinction from what Toland wrote about. But why does it matter to us now?

Because the World Pantheist Movement wants you to think that the real pantheism all began from the work of John Toland, that the physicalist connotations of the term are the authoritative definition, and that we, the Spinozan pantheists, are the obscurantists muddying everything up.

Exaggeration? Here are Harrison’s own words:

“It is important to note what Toland himself meant by pantheist: he meant the belief that the only divine being is the material Universe itself. Different definitions have been added later by extension and by error, and have crept into dictionaries where they now lead to confusion. But this is the original and fundamental meaning of the word pantheist. The closest embodiment today is Scientific Pantheism.”

Nope. I find it impossible to believe that Harrison did all the research that went into his treatise of the history of pantheism and did not come across Raphson’s pre-existent use of the term to mean something quite different than “panhylism.” Raphson put his observation of pantheism into an historical context that includes a great wealth of metaphysical and religious monism, up to and through the era of Spinoza. This intellectual heritage and the developments inspired by Toland are the foundation of modern pantheism.

To his credit, Harrison states outright that “Pantheism is not a monolithic creed,” and includes this 2,500 year-old heritage in his extensive and well-documented History of Pantheism. Despite a little editorial bias woven into his scholarship, he leaves the readers free to draw their own philosophical conclusions. But there is still a pervasive sense throughout the site that the panhylist beliefs of scientific pantheism are synonymous with pantheism itself, rather than a single branch or an historical development of the ancient principle. I find it an oddly duplicitous approach to the subject, as though Harrison wants the cache that comes with two and a half millennia of contemplation and cultural development, yet somehow only the most recent three hundred years gave us the “original and fundamental meaning” of it.

Fine, just one man’s slanted opinion…except now, through his book and website and social media presence, he’s convinced a whole legion of fans of his work that Spinozan pantheists are the ones glomming onto his pet notion of pantheism by “extension and error.” Toland legitimately appropriated the term, but Harrison has rebuilt it in his own materialist image.

Personally, I don’t care if panhylists want to call themselves pantheists too. The bigger the tent, the better as far as I’m concerned; it makes us more viable and visible and formidable on the world theological stage. But I resent like hell being told over and over that I’m not a “real” pantheist, or — horrors! — a panENtheist, and being de-platformed more than once in Harrison’s groups, when I’m actually being historically accurate, and I know I’m far from alone.

Published by Waldo Noesta

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