It was almost ten o'clock last night when I peeled myself off the couch to head out with a group of friends to go see Avatar in IMAX 3D. I feel too old for this, I thought. And yet, it was the very defiance of this thought that compelled me to go. Stumbling up to my room some three and half hours later, my head was spinning from the stunning images and breathtaking pseudo-cinematography. As a fun, lose-yourself-in-a-movie experience, Avatar is hard to rival...and, in that sense, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But with the spiritual leader lady channeling the Life Spirit of all living things while the community chanted, the movie provoked some thoughts about the popularity of Pantheism that I thought would make a good discussion. To be clear: this isn't about slamming Avatar or accusing Hollywood of pagan religious propaganda. I'm not asking for a boycott of the movie nor am suggesting any insidious demonic plot at work. I am simply using this movie as a cultural touchpoint, a springboard for a larger discussion on the rise of Pantheism among popular thought. And since I've just been reading C. S. Lewis' book Miracles, which addresses Pantheism quite precisely in Chapter 11 (all Lewis quotes in this article are from Chapter 11), I thought I'd take a stab at summarizing a few of his points as fodder for the conversation.
What Is Pantheism?
Simply stated, pantheism is the belief that God is "a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow" (Lewis).
How are Pantheism and Christianity Similar and Different?
On God being present everywhere:
Both Pantheism and Christianity believe that God is present everywhere, but they mean two different things. The Pantheist claims that God is diffused in all things and not an entity on Its own. As a result, Pantheists would say that the Life Spirit is not simply in a tree; the tree is part of Its essence. A Christian, however, would say that "God is totally present at every point in space and time, and locally present in none" (Lewis). He is "in" creation the way an artist is "in" his own painting: His nature, tastes, values, attributes can be seen in His creation, but He himself is not it any more than da Vinci is the Mona Lisa.
On being dependent on God and intimately related and connected to Him:
Both Pantheism and Christianity believe that we are all dependent on God and related to Him. Pantheism says this is because we are part of God. Christianity asserts that the way we are dependent and related to God is defined in terms of "Maker and made", Creator and creature. Once again, the Mona Lisa as a piece of art was totally dependent on da Vinci for its conception and creation. And it will forever be connected to da Vinci. Yet only a fool would mistake a painting for the person who painted it.
On good and evil:
Here is where the most serious dilemma for the Pantheist begins: If God is a great spiritual force that pervades and animates all things, then God "must be equally present in what we call evil and what we call good" (Lewis). The Pantheist has lost the grounds to condemn Hitler and praise Gandhi. He cannot decry sex slavery or the abuse of greedy capitalists. Why? Because if the Life Spirit pervades all, then It is in the mud as much as It is in the marble. It is equally present in rapists and scientists, teachers and murderers. If a Pantheist is going to distinguish between good and evil, he is left to words like "preference" or "public opinion".
Christianity insists that creation speaks of God and declares His glory. Man and woman, the crown of creation, are made in God's image. Hence our capacity for good, for love, comes from this imago dei. Yet creation is flawed because of mankind's sin. Nothing works as originally designed. The earth shudders and quakes, the waters rise and swell with devastating power, men and women are now bent toward evil and selfishness. So, a Christian would say that God is "not present in matter as He is present in man [humanity], not present in all men as He is in some [ie., those who have been remade, born again], not present in any other man as in Jesus" (Lewis).
Moreover, God, in Jesus, has entered into our suffering, walked in our broken world. And He took all our wretchedness and brokenness upon Himself, died on a wooden cross, and rose again on the third day so that we now we have hope; we have new life. And one day, God will do for the universe what He has done for Christ: He will raise it up from its dying state. This is the power of the resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Why Might Pantheism Be Making a Comeback?
The false assumption that Pantheism is "evolved religion"
Of course, this assumption is itself based on an underlying assumption that the final state of something is the most refined state, that what is new is better, that what is modern is more civilized or true. But the assumption that Pantheism is new is quite mistaken. In fact, it "may be the most primitive of all religions" (Lewis). It is seen in the orenda of the savage tribe. It is seen in early India. Interestingly, the only philosophies or religions to have broken free of Pantheistic thought are Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity (Lewis).
The freedom from a Supreme Diving Being
Pantheism is appealing because the "Pantheist's God does nothing [and] demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you" (Lewis). Ultimately, Christianity is uncomfortable because it presents you with a God who is King, a God who means to pursue you out of love for you, one who knows that you ultimate happiness will only ever be in total surrender to Him.