Pantheism: A Monstrous Multiplicity?

Karmen MacKendrick

To hear “science and religion” together fills me with an immediate urge to be elsewhere. I anticipate an earnest pairing showing the compatibility of the two, perhaps explaining how much science does not (yet) know, or how a creator could be behind the Big Bang. Or, even more tiresomely, how foolish one of these disciplines is, when the other clearly has better answers. But a few thinkers are bringing science and religion together in ways that are interesting and unexpected.

MaryJane Rubenstein is decidedly among them. Her books draw us in, in ways both straightforward and sneaky.

In Pantheologies, as in her consideration of possible multiple cosmoi in Worlds Without End, Rubenstein is well aware of how different scientific and religious approaches are, and consequently of how unproductive it is to put a single question to them for analytical answers that we might then compare; instead, she puts them into conversation until they start talking about startlingly similar things. She invokes what remains one of the smartest responses to the differences, drawing on William James, whose pragmatism allowed him to value both without insisting that they fit into an overarching system of final Truth. Rather than flat-footedly following James’s pragmatic claims, however, Rubenstein brings him into the conversation as a way of thinking about different pantheisms: those that see the universe as monistic, consisting entirely of one thing that is God; and those whose pantheism is a matter of multiplicity, scattering godliness all over the place and between all sorts of things. She and James are both more interested in and engaged by the latter, and by the end of Pantheologies, any but the most insistently hostile reader will be, too.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pp. $35.00

This engagement comes in part out of what science and religion—and art and literature and more—actually do have in common. As Plato and Aristotle said of philosophy, both begin in wonder, as Rubenstein had already realized in Strange Wonder, her first book. They require a defamiliarized curiosity that is at once inquisitive and astonished, even if they might differently emphasize the terms of that pair. Pantheologies begins inquisitively, by asking why so many people, ecclesiastic and scientific and philosophical, have been so dedicated to rejecting any thought that even looks like pantheism—and so agitated about it, besides. Though the answers to this puzzle turn out to be grounded in fears that are by now familiar to us—fears of the monstrous and hybrid; the feminine or the ambiguously gendered; the racial, ethnic, or cultural other—there is nothing in the book that is overly familiar, and nothing familiar that is not made newly interesting.

The authoritative fear of pantheism has been a fear of this monstrous multiplicity. Authority is necessarily fond of hierarchy and stability; it cannot retain itself otherwise, and so it reacts strongly when the otherness that ought to be safely tucked away at the bottom of the hierarchy sneaks into its highest levels—and no level is higher than God. It’s bad enough when the singular God might be more than one god. It is worse when those gods are no longer numerable. Rubenstein plays upon the etymological slippage between the pan that is all and every and Pan the mischievous god who is himself a hybrid monster, indiscriminately lustful in the face of difference, put together from parts of both human and goat.

A meticulous detailing of monstrosity is central to Pantheologies, and at monstrosity’s heart is the fundamental admixing that is even more frightening than human-plus-goat: that of god and world. Among many others, Pierre Bayle (with a proper Enlightenment and Protestant love of order) objects to Baruch Spinoza’s identity of God and Nature as a blasphemous and absurd mixing of the greatest possible difference, that of divine and material. Giordano Bruno’s joyful exegesis of divine matter gets him burned by the authority of the Catholic church. The Gaia hypothesis, by which the earth works toward its own homeostasis, is not only rejected as overly spiritualized (and, of course, feminine) by proponents of competing scientific theories, but even carefully reframed by one of its own creators, James Lovelock, so that he isn’t pulled into Lynn Margulis’s alarmingly pan-animist understanding of the entire world as living. Albert Einstein’s awe and wonder at the cosmos leads others to label him (with no small hostility) a pantheist, but his own need for a God who is orderly and rational (rather than a child playing dice for eternity) forces him to reject the quantum theoretical approach that brings that wonderousness into everything and out of a god who both imposes and follows the rules.

It emerges that, perhaps because it contains multitudes, pantheism generates not only many, but opposing, objections. It is too crazily multiple and too indiscriminately unifying, too worldly and too unworldly, too abstract and too material, too mathematically rational and too touchy-feely, too full of god and too full of world. As quickly becomes clear, these are not abstractly theological considerations, but concretely theological considerations, which is to say vital and urgent issues of human and planetary connection. These considerations unfold equally from the monstrous hybrid of a flute playing half-goat and from Spinoza’s rigorous logic; from philosophers, physicists, biologists, poets, priests, and more.

Rubenstein seems to have taken from William James not only a multiplicity of approaches, worlds, and modes of gods, but also a readable and even conversational style that is all the more remarkable given the complexity she considers. There is another stylistic echo here, of another figure she briefly considers when describing Spinoza’s work—Gilles Deleuze, who may be best known for his work with Felix Guattari. That work has been understandably influential on contemporary pantheisms and eco-theologies, with its emphasis on rhizomatic connectivity and immanence without transcendence.

But the Deleuze of whom I was reminded in Pantheologies is another version, and perhaps my own favorite—Deleuze the historian, who considers not only Spinoza but other figures from early modernity and the Enlightenment  (such as Leibniz and Hume) through Kant and the nineteenth century (including Nietzsche), and into the twentieth (such as Foucault).  Deleuze’s histories of early modern figures are particularly intriguing in their ability to take texts that one might, if one were of a certain turn of mind, find agonizingly boring or unreadable, and to pull out of them concepts, systems, and patterns that are at once excitingly new and deeply grounded in the works that he reads. And they are absolutely clear, allowing them to remain accessible in all their unexpectedness.

Rubenstein reads with a similar attentiveness, sets forth with a similar clarity, and is likewise open to the unexpected or not yet received. Because of the clarity and the textual attention, we find ourselves following her into the unexpected as if it made perfect sense, and realizing that it just might. And if it does make sense—because it does make sense—it carries no small political and ethical urgency as well. Our world might need us to understand it as a place of both monsters and gods. This book can help.

Karmen MacKendrick  is a professor of philosophy at Le Moyne College. Her work in philosophical theology is entangled with several other disciplines, particularly those involved with words, with flesh, or with the pleasures to be taken in both. These preoccupations appear in several books, most recentlyThe Matter of Voice: Sensual Soundings (Fordham University Press, 2016).