- Paperback: 114 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 3rd edition (September 9, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1490494936
- ISBN-13: 978-1490494937
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.3 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 45 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,811 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Elements of Pantheism: A Spirituality of Nature and the Universe 3rd Edition
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About the Author
Dr Paul Harrison is the founder and president of the World Pantheist Movement and the creator of the Web’s two largest sites on pantheism. He is a laureate of the UN Environment Programme’s Global 500 award for his books on environment, population and development.
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Nevertheless, don't imagine that this is a scholar's book: with about 100 pages of text, it is just a simple introduction--but a good one, accessible to average readers.
In the first chapter, "What is Pantheism?" Harrison explains that pantheism is a religious reverence for nature or the universe, embracing science and affirming life. He contrasts it so several other "isms," such as atheism, panentheism, and so on.
He writes that "when Pantheists refer to the Universe as their god, what they really mean is that they feel the same profound sense of awe and reverence that other believers feel towards their gods. ... Although it does not tell us anything extra about the Universe itself, it expresses the powerful emotions that Pantheists towards the universe." This alludes to high scholarly discussion and criticism of pantheism, but Harrison makes the discussion no more complicated than that.
Chapters two and three sketch a history of pantheism from ancient times to the twentieth century. He finds pantheism in the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, in Mahayana Buddhism, especially the Hua-yen and Zen traditions, in Taoism (he quotes Chuang Tzu a few times in the book), in some pre-Soctratic philosophers, in the Stoics, Epicureans and Plotinus; he finds hints of it in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, but especially in the Kabbalah; hints again in the Koran, but especially in the Sufis (he cites Al Hallaj and Ibn Arabi); hints in the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas, and in a few heretics such as David of Dimant and Amalric of Bena, and also in Meister Eckhart. He regards Giordano Bruno as a post-Christian pantheist, and in this category he places John Toland, Spinoza, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, the English Romantic poets (at least for parts of their lives), the American Transcendentalists, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler. He even admits that Ernst Haeckel was a pantheist. For twentieth century pantheists, he includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Robinson Jeffers, D. H. Lawrence, and Einstein.
The reader need not be intimidated: his discussion of these figures takes only 21 pages! Unfortunately, you will not taste the flavor of those spiritualities, but you will at least realize that pantheism is a "perennial heresy," as Harrison cleverly put it.
He could have included many more examples. For instance the recommended reading, in the appendix, mentioned Jakob Boehme as well. I'd love to see a book that explored these figures and movements further, from a pantheist point of view.
Chapters four and five outline the "core beliefs" of pantheists: reverence of the universe and sacred nature. He writes, "All pantheists feel that the Universe is in some sense worthy of the deepest reverence." Also, "And they accept that the Universe is in important senses a unified whole of which all individual things are interdependent parts."
I have a small objection in these chapters. One reason he considers the universe to be unified is because it is causally interconnected. But that's wrong. The horizons of our own universe (from our perspective) haven't been causally connected for billions of years. And distant galaxies are falling off the apparent edge of the universe because the space between them and us is increasing faster than the speed of light. Events that happen in our galaxy today will never effect them.
But does it matter? I doubt it. The universe (multiverse?) is yet wonderful to behold. But we need to drop references to the interrelatedness of the cosmos: it is not an ecosystem.
He makes a few interesting points in these chapters. For instance, he quotes the pantheist Spinoza, "He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return," juxtaposed with Richard Dawkins saying that nature is "nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." It's simple enough to say that those statements mean the same thing, but Harrison explores it: Dawkins' terms "seem as little justified as blaming a rock for not feeling compassion."
I imagine Dawkins agrees; he was describing, not blaming. But Harrison knows that this will be a sensitive point for traditional theists and fluffy New Agers; so he explains, "Do you expect the forest to love you back? ... Does it make you love the forest any the less?" I, the choir, was impressed and persuaded, but Harrison went further, getting aggressive with theism: "The question why God would allow pain and evil to exist is one of the most difficult of all for theists to answer. Pantheists do not have to answer it."
His discussion of human significance could be a little better, I think. "And although our lives have no external purpose, we can give them the noble purpose of observing and understanding and loving the universe [strangely switching to a lower-case U here] and nature, and of preserving nature on our planet, and of creating societies where all humans can have dignity and the opportunity for fulfilment."
If I anticipated a cricital audience I would try harder than that. Instead, Harrison moves on to criticize traditional monotheism's account of our significance. I think his criticism is right. But there are spiritualities and philosophies besides pantheism and monotheism. So what he really needs to do is explore pantheist accounts of human significance in greater depth, and more compellingly.
His discussion of sacred nature also has a fatal flaw: it's too glossy. I agree that nature is beautiful to behold, but we have to admit with Tennyson that she is "red in tooth and claw."
Dawkins deserves to be quoted again: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands [thousands? he's underestimating! millions!] of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored." ("River of Life" 132-3.)
Nature may not love us; but indeed she loves none of her creatures.
Dening the violence of nature often includes denying the violence of human nature. But as ever, "Know thyself" means in part, "Face the awful truth." We are cut from the same cloth as the rest of nature.
A mature pantheist spirituality must acknowledge this explicitly, even if we choose to resist it. Whatever the results, we have to confront the beast within: its cage has a back door. A pantheism of denial is New Age kitsch, and it bites us when we're not looking.
Naive environmentalism is an example of the danger. He quotes a "1990 gathering of pscyhologists at Harvard" declaring, "If the self is expanded to include the natural world, behavior leading to the destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction."
At best, that is wishful thinking. The Bush and Saud families might approve, but the rest of us need more realism. I'm sure those pscyhologists strengthened their self-esteem, but they will never do anything for the Black Rhino or the Mountain Gorilla until they take a more realistic view of human motivation.
Until pantheism considers the dark side of human nature, and responds, it remains in this respect immature compared to traditional religions. This is important to me, but evidently not to Harrison.
The sixth chapter is on ethics; with conclusions basically similar to Secular Humanism. An in-depth exploration of morality is beyond the scope of an introduction to pantheism; and it would surely divide rather than unite its audience. I'd like to see it anyway, but Harrison is too wise to put it here.
The seventh chapter covered "celebration, meditation and mysticism." It wasn't bad; but again I wanted more.
Chapter Eight is on pantheist "controversies" such as whether some immaterial "spirit" exists, whether there is life after death, and so on. Clearly Harrison's sympathies (and mine) lie with the materialist skeptics, but he makes room for dualists and idealists.
The ninth chapter is about organized pantheism, and Harrison's optimism for its future.
There are some appendices as well: dates of the solstices and major meteor showers and so on; that information is also available on the website.
In all, the book is a fine introduction to pantheism, and I hope that this spirituality continues to flourish. I also hope that books with similar content but more depth appear in the coming years.
P.S. - I haven't read the third edition, but I originally wrote this review for the paper back edition, and the author asked me paste it here. Very flattering!