Theological Notes: A promising time for pantheism

IN THE 19th century, it really seemed that pantheism - the belief that there is no God other than the universe and nature - might sweep all before it.

Many of the greatest 19th- century writers and thinkers in the English- and German-speaking worlds were pantheists, at least for part of their lives. Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley were indisputably so; Coleridge flirted with pantheism for a time; Tennyson and Wilde wrote pantheist poems. Hegel and Schelling espoused pantheism; Goethe had a life-long love affair. Over the Atlantic Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman were all pantheists.

It is easy to see why. Pantheism required (and still requires) no belief in improbable doctrines or impossible events, no submission to religious authorities, no mortification of the flesh. It offered the perfect theology for the romantic feeling of oneness with nature, while at the same time providing an optimistic and creative outlook for the human future and embracing the advance of scientific knowledge.

Yet it remained a philosophy rather than a religion. It inspired and informed individual attitudes and actions, but never reached a position where it could create a serious challenge to established religion.

The only serious attempt to create an organised movement came in 1906, when the distinguished German biologist Ernst Haeckel founded the Monist League. At its peak the league had perhaps 6,000 members. But Haeckel contaminated its religious aims with his eugenic politics. It was dissolved in 1933.

The grim 20th century proved infertile ground for pantheism. Totalitarian ideologies brooked no opposition. Two world wars and two revolutions in Russia and China created hecatombs of dead and refugees.

Inclusive ideologies were discredited by association. Existentialism and post- modernism questioned whether any objective truth was attainable - choose whatever belief or religion suits you, it makes no difference.

A few eminent but lonely spirits kept the pantheist torch burning: D.H. Lawrence, Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robinson Jeffers. But it was not till the flowering Sixties and the growth of environmental awareness from the Seventies on that pantheism once again came to the fore.

Flower power celebrated the body, while the Green movement gave nature a pre-eminence perhaps even higher than the Romantics. It was not just a question of conserving nature: there was a depth of feeling that could only be called religious. Deep ecologists like George Sessions openly acknowledged the pantheistic basis of concern for nature.

In the sphere of religion, pantheistic eastern faiths like Zen, Hua-Yen and Taoism have begun to flourish. Pagans and Wiccans assert their pantheism. Within Christianity, reformers stress the immanence of God rather than his transcendence. Science, meanwhile, is showing us more and more of the magnificence and mystery of the universe and the power of self-organisation and evolution to create order.

We may be witnessing a new pantheist resurgence, and organised pantheist movements have begun to emerge again. Founded 25 years ago, the Universal Pantheist Society has no central credo, with a brief to unite all the diverse types of pantheist under one banner. The UPS has remained tiny: the broad-brush approach was probably a source of weakness rather than strength.

Last month the World Pantheist Movement was founded with a naturalistic credo, based on reverence of the physical universe and nature, oriented towards environmentalism and respect for human and non-human rights. Only time will tell, but the new millennium does look promising for pantheism.

Dr Paul Harrison is President of the World Pantheist Movement [http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/index.htm] and author of 'Ele-ments of Pantheism' (Element Books, 27 May, pounds 5.99)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Guru Careers: HR Administrator / Training Coordinator

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: An HR Administrator / Training Coordinator is requi...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash