Many of you are probably telling yourself, No, of course I am not a pantheist. But you might change your mind after reading Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. Let me be clear: Pantheologies isn’t an apologia, or a plea, for pantheism. Pantheologies isn’t trying to convert anybody. But you might find yourself converting. Or you might find yourself converted.
Contemporary physics seems to be. The multiverse cosmologies it produces, cosmologies Rubenstein explores in Pantheologies (following explorations in her earlier book Worlds Without End), are pantheologies. The gods and monsters these cosmologies generate, and the realities they support, are pantheological. So if you believe in a multiverse, you believe in a pantheology.
No, you might be telling yourself, that can’t be. But Pantheologies shows you how it is, and what differences that makes. These differences matter. They’re real, practical, eminently ethical, profoundly political. They affect us where we live. They can change how we live together.
So Pantheologies makes a number of important, even urgent, sociocultural interventions. It intervenes in how we imagine, or like to imagine, relations of what we call “religion” and “science.” Pantheologies shows us why these names belong in quotation marks, by showing us how “religion” and “science” are entwined. Pantheologies shows us that “religion” and “science” aren’t antonyms. They’re metonyms. (That means Pantheologies exposes the lie of “science” as secular.)
Relations of “religion” and “science” have long reaches. They influence who has political power, and how they use it. And that influences public policies, about things like climate change, and cloning, and educational curricula, and surveillance, and military weapons. And that influences how dollars, public and private, get spent. (And that influences who has political power, and how they use it.)
So relations of “religion” and “science” affect who gets dollars to spend, and who dollars get spent on. They affect values, financial and ethical. They expose these different values’ inseparability. They expose, in other words, that ultimately, these values aren’t different.
That’s unsettling. But what does that have to do with pantheism or pantheologies? Plenty.
Pantheism is unsettling. It unsettles—it demolishes—distinctions that our senses of reality tend to rely on. These include distinctions between activity and passivity, animacy and inanimacy, spirit and matter, creator and created, god and world. Demolishing these distinctions disrupts valuated privileges: of gender (masculinity over femininity), race (light over dark), species (humans over everyone else).
If you care about these distinctions and privileges, you care about pantheism. That’s one of Pantheologies’s most important takeaways. Its ethical examinations are another. They’re some of Pantheologies’s most affecting parts. They appear most directly in its fourth chapter.
Before I turn to this chapter and these parts, I’ll say something about Pantheologies as a book. It’s polymathic in scope. It intertwines philosophy, physics, biology, religion, and literature, spinning them into a compelling exploration of pantheological possibilities. This exploration is an all-too-rare thing among academic books: a pleasure to read. Pantheologies is written in clear, captivating prose, in Rubenstein’s invigorating voice. So it sounds like Rubenstein: smart, not stilted, and never show-offy.
Pantheologies is another all-too-rare thing among academic books: a page-turner. It’s well plotted and well paced—like a first-rate mystery. The mystery Pantheologies is trying to solve is: what’s the matter with pantheism? (Why, in other words, might you have told yourself of course not or that can’t be?)
Like any first-rate mystery, Pantheologies has a wide cast of characters. They include philosophers (Lucretius, Pierre Bayle), physicists (Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein), biologists (James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis), novelists (Octavia Butler, Alice Walker), and a heretical friar (Giordano Bruno), among others. But Pantheologies’s protagonist is seventeenth-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. One way of reading Pantheologies is as a fresh reconsideration of Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” and its influence on relations of “religion” and “science.”
That reconsideration culminates in chapter 4. It’s, I think, Pantheologies’s best plotted, best paced, most page-turning chapter. Mostly, chapter 4 tracks debates about quantum mechanics between Bohr and Einstein. These debates, Rubenstein reveals, turn out to be—and turn on—a debate about Spinoza. Einstein believes, and says he believes, in Spinoza’s “God.” That he does affects his account of how quantum particles behave. So Bohr’s disagreement with Einstein about how quantum particles behave turns out to be a theological disagreement. That quantum-theological disagreement leads Rubenstein to reimagine Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” as “Deus sive omnes.”
Rubenstein’s reimagining leads to her ethical examinations: to examine pantheologies’ ethical implications. If, in short, everything is (at least potentially) divine, then everything changes. Everything—every thing—changes in how any thing is related to every other thing.
That means we change, too.
We change in how we’re related to every other thing. Our senses of relatedness intensify. So we change in our senses of who “we” are. Those demolished distinctions expand our ethical sense of who counts, and should count, among this “we.” And we change in how we decide to relate to every other thing: other humans, other animals, other living and nonliving things, the world we share. We change because our responses, and responsibilities, to every other thing change.The ethical implications of these changes are incalculable. They would, or could, change everything for us (including our relations to pantheism).
At this point, Pantheologies changes, too. In the sentence (in chapter 4) after it recognizes these changing responsibilities, it turns to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Then it turns, in the next paragraph, to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I wonder about these turns at this point. Rubenstein recognizes it’s no accident that she turns here to African American female characters (Celie and Lauren, respectively). But what about her turning here to African American female novelists? Why is her ethical turn also a literary turn? If that’s no accident, either, then is this turn necessarily literary? What is Rubenstein telling us about roles literature, and arts more generally, play in figuring and refiguring “religion” and “science”—and, as a result, ethics?
I want to make another turn: to Rubenstein’s turn to indigenous cosmologies. Their inclusion is unexpected. And it’s refreshing, and refreshingly integral.
Rubenstein’s turn to these cosmologies isn’t tokenistic. It’s not motivated by an (all-too-common) academic desire to include non-European elements just to include them. It’s motivated by Rubenstein’s recognition that her cosmological considerations should be cosmic in scope. They should reach beyond familiar figures. Thinking cosmologically, Rubenstein implicitly insists, requires thinking inclusively.
This inclusivity is political. It emphasizes the political edge limning any philosophical, religious, or scientific account of reality. That makes this inclusivity personal. It involves rethinking what “person” might mean.
In the Ojibwa cosmology that Rubenstein considers, “person” isn’t a synonym of “human.” Any being able to act, interact, move, change can be a “person.” So nonhuman animals, minerals, characters from dreams and mythologies, or natural phenomena like lightning can be persons. Refiguring “person” dislodges our oh-so-common humanistic hubris. It forces us to confront other kinds of others in new ways, and with new ethical and political implications.
It also forces us to unthink our easy certainties about reality. Rubenstein does so with my favorite figure in Pantheologies: a jaguar. When we look at a jaguar through our usual cosmological lenses, we see a jaguar. And when this jaguar looks at another jaguar, we think, this jaguar sees a jaguar.
When we look at a jaguar through the cosmological lenses of Juarana (Tupi) peoples of Brazil, we see something different. We see a jaguar looking at another jaguar and seeing a person. We see a jaguar looking at a human and seeing a monkey. We see, in other words, that “person” is a relative category. “Person” is perspectival. It’s a way of seeing what’s there, not a way of seeing what’s really there.
When we look through the cosmological lenses of Ashanika (Campa) peoples of Brazil and Peru, these perspectives further complicate what we call “reality.” When a vulture sees (what we call) maggots, this vulture sees grilled fish. When a jaguar sees (what we call) blood, this jaguar sees beer.
Pantheologies treats these cosmologies respectfully, by taking them seriously. It recalls and repeatedly uses their insights, like the blood-beer difference, to reiterate different creature-relations. Doing so is another way that Pantheologies refuses familiar binaries and deliminitations and resists orientalizing moves at work in denigrations of pantheism and pantheologies. It’s another way that Pantheologies performs its pantheological work.
This work, Pantheologies makes clear, is de-anthropocentrizing. It decenters humans and their perspectives. It makes, cosmologically, a kind of pantheological Copernican turn.
As someone who works to refigure human-nonhuman borders and relations, I’m all for that. So I’d like to know more about this turn’s effects on what we call “humanity.” How can—how do—pantheological perspectives refigure “humanity”? How does “humanity” look differently through pantheological lenses? How can these lenses give us different, and disruptive, and more inclusive ways of seeing who “we” are?
I have one more set of questions for Rubenstein. How can—how do—pantheologies reimagine what we call religion: its shapes, its containers and contents, its possibilities? And how do these reimaginings affect how we approach religion? What, in other words, are Pantheologies’s methodological implications for how we study religion?
While I wait for her responses, I have questions for you. So, are you a pantheist now? (Do you want to be?) Even if you’re not, does your no comes less quickly, less assuredly, and without an of course not? If your response to any of these questions is yes, then you should read Pantheologies to discover why.
William Robert is an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University.