Monday, December 21, 2009

Creeping Pantheism

Highbrow journalist Ross Douthat is bothered by creeping pantheism.

In a recent New York Times piece, he calls pantheism "Hollywood's religion of choice."

The "news hook" for his column is the new movie Avatar, which repeats the Pocahantas story once again. Some critic called it "Dancing with Smurfs."

To Douthat, "Avatar is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world."

And that bothers him. He likes the certainty of the monotheistic religions (he is Roman Catholic), even when you sense that he does not subscribe to all of even the Catholic church's dogma:

[P]antheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

I do not mean to dismiss his anguish:

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality.

I am not sure that all Pagans have reconciled themselves to that truth either.

Do you ever sing,

We all come from the Goddess,
and to her we shall return,
like a drop of rain
flowing to the ocean

and wonder if there is too much loss of individuality there? I think that that is something like what Douthat is trying to articulate.

UPDATE: Another blogger watches Avatar and says that minus the sci-fi elements, it is a movie that Wendel Berry or even J.R.R. Tolkien might have approved of, for it presents a fully integrated culture in contrast to "our world of Facebook friends and warehouse shopping clubs."



Anonymous ai said...

A little more pagan-friendly discussion about the film and the Douthat article can be found over at immanence and at Frames/Sing.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Small-p pagan mythology with a sledgehammer, yes. Very Ursula LeGuinn-ish.

Compare her Always Coming Home to Margaret St. Clair's earlier The Dancers of Noyo. St. Clair's book, written earlier, has the darker vision of eco-bliss. Interesting.

Frankly, I am not up to one more Pocahontas tale. I have not even seen "WALL-E" yet, although it is in my Netflix queue.

8:56 PM  
OpenID kvond said...

LfHC: "...and wonder if there is too much loss of individuality there? I think that that is something like what Douthat is trying to articulate."

Kvond: Of course the fear of pantheism is fear not of the loss of individuality per se, but of a specific kind of individuality, a qualified individuality which reflects civil citizenship here, as divine citizenship "up there". The worry seems to be that if souls don't end up in pearly cities, then they won't make very good persons in our dirty, dusty ones down here.

Perhaps we need a different conception of what "individuality" means.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Pagans and other nature-oriented thinkers could do with coming to grips with the problem of evil.

OK, I can just about accept that my aging and death are part of the great cycle, however much it doesn't feel like that when I look at my grey hair. I can also see predation in the same terms. However, I find that nature-worshippers tend to only look at the #prettier# kinds of predation - the osprey taking the trout, the stoat catching the rabbit - not ichneumon grubs rasping away within living caterpillars.

One solution is to argue that nature is fundamentally bad/flawed. I can think of several viewpoints that follow this line:

(a) Some Christians argue that predation is a deviation from God's plans, and that ultimately the lion will lie down with the lamb.

(b) Numerous groups argue that material existence is intrinsically flawed.

(c) Transhumanists argue that we will technologically refashion the ecosphere to aliminate predation. I have come across Christian transhumanists who blend this with position [a].

(d) In Patanjali it states that the yogi generates such an aura of benevolence that predation ceases in his proximity. Some Hindus thus argue that the only hope for the world is to try to generate more yogis.

I disagree with all the above positions, except perhaps, sneakingly, with Patanjali. Any suggestions for pagan resolution of the problem of evil? Discuss.

1:03 AM  
Blogger Sarenth said...

I would pose this: Evil and good are self-placed positions within which you have a perspective, and another has a differing one. Your 'evil' may be the wanton slaughter of cats. Another's 'evil' may be letting these cats overpopulate, spread rabies and disease and be hit by cars regardless.

Evil and good are so subjective, that only by, in my opinion, dumbing down arguments into 'good v. evil' between archetypal forces, and its use only works for so long, until a person discovers that there are shades of good and evil.

An animal eating another, from within it or not, is an act of nature. It, from my perspective, is morally neutral. However, I as a person have an instinct and self-governance to not be eaten and I act upon this. Am I evil for not allowing an animal to eat me, thus feeding him/herself or his/her starving children? I think that Paganism has grappled with modes of good and evil, we just don't spell those thoughts out as clearly FOR people as monotheism does.

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Ed H said...

Good and Evil are solely human responses, and even deeper responses to our culture. No such thing as good and evil exist in nature, in the natural world, or at any other level of the material world. It exists only in our minds as humans as control mechanisms to allow for the only rule of nature, survive or die.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Apuleius Platonicus said...

".... and wonder if there is too much loss of individuality there? I think that that is something like what Douthat is trying to articulate."

Modern Pagans tend to be almost completely innocent of any understanding of ancient Pagan theology. An simple remedy for this would be, for starters, reading Book VI of Vergil's Aeneid, and meditation thereon. There is no "loss of individuality" for the great Anchises. Far from it.

It seems likely that Vergil's two main sources for what he wrote in Book VI were the Eleusinian Mysteries, and also the teachings associated with Orphism and/or Pythagoreanism.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Pitch313 said...

What, at the roots, guided me into paganism and Neo-Paganism, was a series of experiences--at an early and impressionable age--of and in nature. Experiences with animals, with trees, with rivers, the ocean, weather, and other such.

Equally telling for me, I encountered in nature (specifically, in the second growth redwood forests that had been ruthlessly logged out) both the dying and decaying stumps of the huge, ancient, and wise in a way I can never describe trees that had been felled and the rusting jumble of industrial trash left behind once the felled trees were moved out and the money made.

These experiences generated within me a life long reverence for nature and natural phemomena. I have never, in my heart of hearts, regarded this reverence as a philosophical or spiritual problem.

Yes! I am a Neo-Pagan! And a pantheist! That's my magic and I'm sticking to it!

6:21 PM  
Blogger neheti said...

As I comment here, a tornado warning is in affect over my head.

I've seen Avatar, and in some respects, I think that the article you've looked at is pushing the ideas of the movie too far. I didn't walk away with an impression of a loss of individuality in the implications.

But yes, Pagans generally don't wrestle that much with the problem of evil... or they don't express their thoughts on it very often.

The pantheist in me says that if a tornado took out my apartment right now, the Universe probably wouldn't blink at the death of me and mine. I am too small in the grand scheme of things.
The polytheist in me says that my deities, however, would notice, and would be sad, perhaps, but again, they have a greater perspective of how such an event would effect, or wouldn't effect, change in the overall pattern.

Tornadoes, hurricanes and the like, natural disasters are not good or evil. People just apply the labels of 'good' or 'evil' based on our limited scope of understanding and vision. That's not to say that there aren't things that are clearly in the umbrella of good and evil, because there certainly are, but those aren't acts of nature but acts of men, and tend to rarely be so black and white.

(My first time to post here, and here I go babbling along. My apologies. ^^' )

12:40 AM  
Anonymous K. Mapson said...

A riddle, friend. Why do theists rail against pantheism and deism, but never pandeism? Answer: they can't; pandeism is unlike the others in that, by combining their strengths and discarding their weaknesses, it subsumes and fully accounts for all forms of theism, making it unassailable to theistic objection.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

That's easy. It is because pandeism, which you neglected to define, thus the Wikipedia link, is so obsure a position that few people have heard of it.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous K. Mapson said...

I thought I was generous in providing a link to the YouTube Pandeism Channel, which lets you hear all about the inevitable triumph of pandeism over theism, and its rogue's gallery of mad, murdering Gods. The obscurity of pandeism itself is as much the result of theists refusing to address it as they seek to dispatch the easier targets of pantheism, deism, and each others' theistic faiths.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Most readers would not click on the commenter's name -- it is better to put your link in the text and to explain it. That would be generous.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

My problem with the concept of evil is that it lumps together all undesirable things and treats them as though they sprang from a common source, one separate from the source of desirable things.

From where I sit, it looks instead like every force can bring about desirable or undesirable outcomes, and there's no way to separate the two - you can have fire that burns, or you can have fire that doesn't burn, but you can't have fire that only burns the things you want it to burn. Eliminate all the potential sources of undesirable outcomes, and you eliminate all sources of any outcomes whatsoever.

As a side note, I agree about the loss of individuality. That strand of mysticism has always bothered me, and not because I have all that much affection for my current identity. But making the dissolution of individuality the ultimate goal of practice seems to say that the existence of individuals is some kind of mistake. I don't agree, though I can't articulate a good counter-argument. But don't many creation mythologies have the Original Something subdividing his/her/itself in order to create companions?

8:41 PM  

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