What Is the Difference Between Pantheism and Panentheism?

Perspectives on Pantheism and Panentheism

Inbam inbam jagam engum Iyarkkai ânandam pongum

Joy, joy, all over the world, Nature brimming with bliss!   (From a Tamil song.)

Theism is the belief in a Transcendental Principle managing and manipulating the world here below. This Supreme Principle is personified as God.

But where is God located? One ancient view was that there is a glorious region up  there in the depths of space (Heaven) which is the Kingdom where He resides and reigns.

Centuries ago Vedic sage-poets on India, like their counterparts in other cultures, saw divinity in sun and moon, in sky and dawn. Countless thinkers in many cultures, traditions, and ages, from Parmenides and Confucius and Lucretius to Thoreau, Tagore, and Einstein, have seen God’s presence in the natural world.

The term pantheism has been popular among philosophers and theologians for more than three centuries now. In its broad meaning it sees an impersonal God’s presence everywhere in the created world.  Baruch Spinoza is sometimes regarded as one of the first to popularize pantheistic ideas in the post-Galilean Western world.

The word panentheism made its entry into the language in early decades of the twentieth century. Here the idea of God permeating the universe may be interpreted in two different ways. One is that everything is in God. This implies that every quark, lepton and boson, every plant, animal, and star is embedded in the Divine just as every land animal is immersed in an ocean of air. Another view of panentheism is that God is in everything, just as electric charge is in every ordinary material substance.

In either interpretation, panentheism makes the universe sacred and worthy of reverence, for everything is linked one way or another to God.

Another view is that every element in the universe, simple or complex, is an aspect of God, i.e. everything in the universe is God. This may also be regarded as a key idea of pantheism. In the Hindu vision, for example, Brahman (Cosmic Consciousness) is undergirding the universe. We find this  idea in the terrestrial context in Urabe-no-Kanekuni of  the Shinto tradition: “Even in a single leaf of a tree, or a tender blade of grass, the awe-inspiring Deity manifests Itself.”

Eighteenth century German thinkers like Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven resonated with some Hindu (Upanishadic) metaphysical views, and were drawn to pantheism. Nature poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge don’t differentiate between pantheism and panentheism.  Recall Walt Whitman’s lines:

I hear and behold God in every object.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

This is pure pantheism. But it is panentheism when he says in the same poem,

I see something of God each hour of the twenty four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.
I find letters from God dropped in the street – and everyone is signed by God’s name,
I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.

Goethe expressed a similar idea when he asked rhetorically,

Wär’ nicht in uns des Gottes eigne Kraft,

Wie könnt’ uns Göttliches entzücken?

If  God’s power is not in us,

How could the God-like delight us?

These are echoes of the Upanishadic aphorism: tat tvam asi: Thou art That, i.e. one can experience God in oneself and in every human face. We are, one and all, sparks of the Divine. If  internalized, this view can instill respect and regard, even reverence, for fellow-humans.

One may also look upon pantheism as saying that the Creator is the Creation. In other words, the orbiting electron and the blossoming flower, the rain, the river, and the mountain, the sun and the galaxy are themselves Divine. As Margaret Atwood put it, “god is not the voice in the whirlwind, god is the whirlwind.”

Both pantheism and panentheism are compatible with any God-believing system: After all, panentheism simply says that the Creator is present one way or another in all of His Creation. Is not the poet present in every poem she wrote, the composer in every glorious music, and the artist in every painted canvas? We may not always think consciously of the poet, the composer, and the painter: but who can deny their presence in what we experience from their created work?

But one may ask, how can the poet actually be the poem, the symphony actually be the composer or the sculpture the sculptor?  This does seem impossible with human beings. But not with God, if we choose not to accept a personal (anthropomorphic) God.

In so far as theism generally attributes to God immanence  and omnipresence, it also has a pantheistic aspect.  However, pantheism can be non-theistic when it concerns itself only with manifested Nature, and is indifferent to what may be behind it all, as when the pantheistic Taoist said: “Do not let man destroy Nature. Do not let cleverness destroy the natural order.” Indeed, many modern pantheists are not so much interested in the theology of pantheism as in its relevance to life and living. They see the Divine in the microcosm and in the Milky Way, and are struck by the majesty of the universe, of course. But more importantly, they revere rivers and rain-forests, whales and woodpeckers and such, not so much as manifestations of an unfathomable God, but as His precious products that must be preserved and protected. Saving the biosphere is, to them, more important than building churches and synagogues, singing psalms and bhajans, or repeatedly proclaiming that God is great.

There may be a grain of truth in suspicions to the effect that pantheism is atheism in a theistic garb, materialism with mystical mantras, and paganism  picturesquely painted. Yet, pantheism can also serve as bridge between traditional theism and science-based materialism.  It is prompted by the recognition that our existence depends on the laws, constraints, and parameters of Nature (Grace of God). It sees Divinity in the order, beauty, and grandeur of the world. In the face of Mystery it experiences humility. If anything is sacred, pantheism says, Nature is sacred for there is no loftier manifestation of Cosmic splendor. As Dante put it, La natura è l’arte di Dio:  Nature is the art of God.

January 8, 2010

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

Categories Religion3 Comments

3 thoughts on “What Is the Difference Between Pantheism and Panentheism?”

  1. This is very interesting and also brings to mind the distinction between panentheism and another, perhaps less explored, 18th century coinage, which is pandeism. Now of course pandeism is really just a branch or perhaps a permutation of pantheism, a pantheism organized on deistic principles and supposing not only that God is the creation, but that God was God before there was a creation and chose to design it before becoming it. So pandeists seek to plug what they see as a hole in pantheism, the lack of purpose, with deism – and at the same time seek to plug the hole they see in deism, the lack of motivation for a creation which then appears abandoned, by saying God has not abandoned creation at for God has instead become it.

    1. Paul Harrison’s slender volume “Elements of Pantheism” is perhaps the best book I can recommend on the subject.
      V. V. Raman

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