Monday, April 8, 2013


On the grand old question of God, I take my position as a Pantheist.  There are lots of flavors of Pantheism and thus lots of ways the word might get defined, but ignoring all the subtleties, Pantheism can be defined as the belief that the Universe and God are one and the same.

The philosopher Schopenhauer made the rather obvious complaint that if the two words “God” and “Universe” (for which I will use the word “Nature”) are one and the same, why have two words, why not just use the one word Nature?

When that question was first posed to me, I answered that “Nature is the sensible aspect of God, and God is the un-sensible aspect of Nature.”  I was rather pleased with this answer, though I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by it at the time.  

The statement, of course, is fundamentally ambiguous.  Each undefined term is defined in relation to the other undefined term – Noah Webster would not be pleased!  Yet, the ambiguity is one of the things I like about the statement.  The term “God” refers to something beyond category, beyond analog, and thus beyond understanding.  Words by their very nature put limits on that to which they refer – the word “God” attempts to bound the boundless.  God is mystery, God is ambiguity.  Any attempt to define God should be mysterious and ambiguous, and thus I find the ambiguity of my statement to its credit.

What do I mean that “Nature is the sensible aspect of God”?  Nature is the empirical world.  It can be sensed by our five senses or by tools through which we enhance the power of our senses, like radio telescopes or x-rays.  That is the direct meaning of “sensible,” but I also intend the other meaning of sensible – Nature behaves lawfully (at least at the aggregate level).

What do I mean by “God is the un-sensible aspect of Nature”?  The word “God” refers to what is not available to our senses.  At the cosmological level, God is what happened before the Big Bang.  God is how the parameters of Nature got fine-tuned; God is how a universe given to entropy (like a battery slowly but surely losing its charge) got charged up in the first place.  God is the mystery of the origin, a mystery that thoroughly penetrates the sensible world if we only keep ourselves open to it.*

God as the mystery of the cosmos is also un-sensible in the other sense.  Presumably space/time came into existence at the Big Bang.  All laws of nature are stated in relation to space and time.  At the singularity where space and time disappear, no law can be formulated, it is lawless, which is to say, utterly un-sensible. 

At the psychological level, God is the mystery of our sense of being.  I can sense another person’s body, but I cannot sense another person’s direct experience, just as others can sense my body, but not my experience.  My inner experience is simply un-sensible to another.  Most important to this idea of God as the un-sensible aspect of Nature, is that these two poles, the cosmological and the psychological, are integrally related; what relates the two is nothing less than the whole of sensible Nature.** 

To experience the inner as God, the deep unbounded mystery, is to approach the Kingdom of Heaven, and to know that it is within you.  To experience the inner as Nature is to wander like Adam and Eve in the world of good and evil, the world of oppositions and the conflict of oppositions.  Some people say that in the Biblical tale of Genesis, there were two trees – the tree of life and the tree of good and evil.  I suggest that there was only one tree that had two aspects like the two aspects of God/Nature.   

To know the Tree of Life is to live from the Kingdom of Heaven within; to know the Tree of Good and Evil is to inhabit Nature.  Pantheism thus offers something like a path to salvation, a path back to the mythical garden where the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil are one and the same.  To say the same thing from the perspective of Buddhism, Nirvana and Samsara are one and the same.  

* Often, when people argue for the absolute mystery of God, they do so only as a place holder; their intention is to exchange that idea of mystery for their own pet metaphysics.  This is the philosophical equivalent of “bait and switch.”  As I use “mystery” here, I don’t use it as a place holder for something else.  I just mean mystery – the mystery of the origin.  The Tao Te Ching, using the word “darkness” for mystery, states the whole idea presented here particularly well:  “Free from desire, you realize the mystery.  Caught in desire, you see the manifestations.  Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.  The source is called darkness.  Darkness within darkness.  The gateway to all understanding.”  (Mitchell Translation, chapter 1.)

** This notion has something in common with the idea, prominent in the Middle Ages, that God was "an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."  Nicholas of Cusa suggested that the center and the circumference were connected by Nature, which is even closer to the idea here.

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