Who’s Afraid of Pantheism?

Clayton J. Crockett

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pp. $35.00
Not Mary-Jane Rubenstein, perhaps our most intrepid and brilliant contemporary philosopher of religion.

In this book, she explores the history of intellectual discussions of pantheism, and raises questions about why so many Western philosophers and theologians have resisted this concept. Pantheism is combined of two Greek words, pan—which means ‘all’—and theism, which consists of belief in God. Here All is God, or God is All. In most of Western thought, pantheism functions as a limit concept. That is, if we want to think about or have faith in a divinity, it needs to be related to the world, the all or everything, but pantheism names the collapse of this God into everything else to the extent that there is nothing that is not God.

One way to characterize Western religious thought is the resistance to pantheism. Rubenstein mines this resistance, and offers new ways to think about pantheism and even pantheology. So many people today are caught in the either/or of monotheism vs. atheism. The theists and the atheists agree on their conception of God—a Supreme Being who is all powerful, all good and all knowing, but they differ in terms of the existence or nonexistence of such a being. Pantheism offers new ways to intervene into such conversations. For many people, pantheism is a kind of monism, the idea that everything is a unity, and we can call that unity God. There is only one kind of thing in the universe. This is a mystical, new age, or sometimes Eastern (Advaita Vedanta) perspective, and it raises as many problems as it solves because it collapses the multiplicity of existence into a monotonous sameness.

So now there are three options in thinking about God: theism, atheism, and pantheist monism. Each of these are conceptually flawed, and they do not account for the complexity of our experience. The appeal of pantheism for Rubenstein is how it counters the dualism of Western thinking and the structures that shape our experience of the world. She cites the feminist theologian Grace Jantzen, who asserts that “pantheism is a far more radical position than atheism, which ends up reinscribing the concept of the God it doesn’t believe in.” Pantheism at best undermines the split between God and world, mind and matter, male and female, culture and nature, and so on.

What Rubenstein uncovers here is an alternative pantheism, with the help of William James, a pluralist pantheism. Instead of characterizing the All as a unity, she suggests that there are resources to consider this pan of pantheism as a multiplicity. This multiplicity does not reflect a distant transcendence, but it expresses a radical immanence of our complex and dynamic existence. If pantheism is a pluralist multiplicity, then this type of pantheism is better associated with our ideas of God and world.

Why does this matter? Because such a conception of existence accords more adequately with contemporary philosophical and scientific understandings of the nature of reality. Some of these perspectives include posthumanism, new materialism, and philosophies of radical immanence. Each of these theories emphasizes a dynamic reality of interactive multiplicity. We can also consider such perspectives in connection with scientific theories of quantum physics.

Pantheologies builds upon and partly presupposes the work that Rubenstein did in her previous book, Worlds Without End. In that book, she explored multiverse cosmologies, also in history and contemporary perspective. At the end of Pantheologies she returns to some of these issues, explaining why and how Albert Einstein recoiled from the world that he helped open up with quantum physics. Quantum physics opens up multiple and endless worlds, that cannot be easily constrained or re-appropriated, although these worlds themselves end up proliferating in chaotic and confusing ways.

For Rubenstein, and I would argue for anyone who is invested in serious theoretical thinking, the question is how best to understand and articulate a perspective of multiplicity. Pantheism divides into monist and pluralist versions, pantheisms that stress unity vs. those that emphasize multiplicity. Pantheism is a valuable and useful discourse insofar as we can canalize it along these fecund lines of pluralism and multiplicity. How can we better think about the world as a pluralist multiplicity?

At the heart of this book, Rubenstein shows what is at stake by explaining how James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis re-described the planet in terms of the ancient Greek name Gaia. Gaia could be viewed as a mother Earth goddess, but in ancient Greece, she was better understood as a primal element, along with eros and chaos. Lovelock came to understand how the climate was self-regulating in and by living organisms. His friend William Golding suggested the name Gaia, but it was “instantaneously and unanimously ridiculed” as unscientific and mystical new age nonsense.

Rubenstein also discusses Lynn Margulis’s theories of the symbiogenesis of bacteria, and Margulis also affirmed the name Gaia even though she understood it differently from Lovelock. For Margulis, Gaia is not some super-organism, but composed of a “microbial multitude” of “symbionts” constantly interacting. Although Lovelock and Margulis were largely ridiculed by the orthodox scientific communities that critiqued them, their ideas have remained relevant, especially in light of newer forms of systems theory, complexity theory, and the insistence of anthropogenic climate change.

Contemporary theorists like Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, William Connolly, and Donna Haraway are drawing on the ideas of Margulis, Lovelock, and others to fashion contemporary accounts of ecological multiplicity.  In his 2013 Gifford Lectures published as Facing Gaia, Latour takes pains to emphasize that Gaia is not God; Gaia represents a way to think across all of these disparate but connected processes in a way that does not unify them. But Rubenstein argues that Latour cannot steer clear of “deceptively theological waters.”

Gaia is not exactly God, but Gaia offers an increasingly useful place from which to situate our multiple perspectives on existence. For Rubenstein, Gaia is a pantheistic concept, not because Gaia is an anthropomorphic goddess, but because Gaia helps us to frame a pluralistic pantheology. If there exists an irreducible multiplicity, then there are not just multiple subjective perspectives on a world, but there are in fact multiple—endless—worlds.

At the end of her chapter on Cosmos, Rubenstein cites the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveros de Castro. According to Vivieros de Castro, Native Amerindians adopt a kind of perspectivism that differs from the more well-known European one. For many intellectuals, perspectivism means that there are diverse and even incompatible subjective perspectives on a given, objective reality. At an extreme situation of social constructivism or ethical relativism, we could go so far as to say that reality is caught up so much into our representations of it that we cannot speak of any objective reality, only our subjective perspectives.

According to Vivieros de Castro, however, Amerindians possess a relational naturalism, which means that they do not view our subjective perspectives as multiple, but rather the ‘objective’ worlds in which we live are. Substances are not substantial; they are “relational pointers” to a shared social reality that opens onto multiple worlds, and these worlds cannot be consistently integrated into one world. For Rubenstein, this perspectivism means that we can share “the same representation of different worlds.” We use the same signs, symbols, and pointers, but these signs refers to irreducibly different referents, objects, natures, or worlds.

This anthropological perspective that Vivieros de Castro helps us understand helps Rubenstein explain and affirm her own cosmological perspectivism. We each work with similar or shared representations of multiple, endless worlds. Rubenstein connects the work of Vivieros de Castro to her interpretations of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, each of whom she explored much more fully in Worlds Without End. Pantheologies gives Rubenstein a theological orientation to the work she did in her former book, and allows the reader to see how they are not merely superficially but deeply entangled.

Pluralist pantheology means that we share an orientation onto multiple worlds that are incommensurable and irreducible to one world. This natural-cosmological perspectivism argues that what we share is our all, the pan we have in common that both constitutes and unsettles us. If Pan (in Greek mythology Pan is a hybrid of animality, humanity, and divinity) is what we have in common, it refers to so many uncountable and uncontainable gods, worlds, and monsters that we often want to resist, to deny, and to shrink back from. Rubenstein’s insightful courage lies in exposing this irreducible pantheism at the heart of ‘our’ thinking, our philosophy, our language, and our theology.

Pantheology does not name ‘a’ God; it is a shared name for the multiple gods that we cannot escape, either via atheism or theism. To signify is to signify gods, worlds, and monsters, necessarily, as well as animals, people, systems, processes, and energies. According to Rubenstein, we need to reconceive divinity as “immanent, self-exceeding, relational, changing, and multiply perspectival.” Pantheology affirms “pancarnation,” because there is no way to understand god/pan/Gaia as other than embodied in and as “the endlessly, stubbornly un-totalized run of all things.”

Rubenstein may not self-identify as a radical theologian, but I would like to affirm her work as a species of radical theology. In the 1960s, Death of God theology erupted in the United States, associated largely with the Christian atheism of Thomas J.J. Altizer. The term radical theology was generally used to characterize this Death of God theology, and in some respects to cordon it off from other forms of non-orthodox theology like liberation theology and process theology. Some forms of radical theology mutated into postmodern theologies, and were then largely confined to self-referential forms of academic discourse. In the early part of this century, however, there has been a certain revival of radical theology, in a new key. Sometimes this theology is more explicitly Christian, and occurs on the edges of an emergent theology for evangelicals who wake up from their dogmatic slumber. Sometimes this radical theology is more associated with political theology, as in the work of Jeffrey W. Robbins.

In addition to the work of people such as Robbins, John D. Caputo, Catherine Keller, Katherine Sarah Moody, and Karen Bray, in 2018 Palgrave Macmillan published a massive “Handbook of Radical Theology” edited by Christopher D. Rodkey and Jordan E. Miller, in a series on Radical Theologies and Philosophies. Rubenstein is not neatly or simply a radical theologian in her identity as a philosopher of religion. And yet, her pluralist pantheology is resonant with some of the perspectives of what passes for radical theological thinking today.

To conclude, and to push this argument one step further: whatever radical theology is, it needs to become more pantheological, in the direction opened up by Rubenstein. I am appropriating her pantheology as a kind of radical theology, not to discipline or domesticate it, but more as a Trojan horse, because I would like her pluralist pantheology to work in and against radical theology in transformative ways so that radical theology can become more and more pantheistic, in the best sense. This means that radical theology needs to more explicitly reconceive divinity as “immanent, self-exceeding, relational, changing, and multiply perspectival.”

Rubenstein argues that the word God “is the guarantor of the whole structure of Western metaphysics.” Western metaphysics underlies the logics of modernity, democracy, and human rights, but also the logics of colonialism, racism, capitalism, and environmental destruction. It is not sufficient to leave this word alone, to cordon it off from everything else, the all of pan. We need to change our thinking of and about God, to push god into the pluralist pantheism that affirms a relational naturalism of multiple worlds without end, assuming we want to continue to inhabit this one. The classical view of God is static, fixed, immutable and eternal, but if the concept of God has any use for us today, it must be “recoded as change: as the ongoing, intraspecies processes that world and unworld worlds.” Herein lies Rubenstein’s challenge, which is nothing less than changing everything. All of it.

Clayton Crockett is Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of a number of books, including Radical Political Theology; Religion, Politics, and the Earth (with Jeffrey W. Robbins), Derrida After the End of Writing; and co-editor of Doing Theology in the Age of Trump (with Jeffrey W. Robbins). He is a co-editor of the book series “Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture” for Columbia University Press, as well as a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).