Philosophy & Religion

Logical Impossibility of Divine Cause of the Universe--Prof. Smith
Creationism examined
Intelligent Design dressed in science
Reply to the science dressing




Monroe C. Beardsley, Swathmore College

Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, Temple University         (JK’s Ethics Professor, 1968)


From Philosophically Thinking:  An introduction

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965



A second important division among monotheistic religions is to be found in the way God is conceived to be related to the rest of reality. The main distinction here is between the view that God is simply identical with the whole of reality and the view that there is a part of reality that is not identical with God. The second view you will probably find the more familiar, since this is in the main streams of Jewish and Christian thought: God is separate from the world of nature, which he created, and which, though dependent on God and subject to his will, is not itself God or any part of him. This is a dualistic view, for it divides reality into two parts,

God and the world.


The belief that God is identical with the whole of reality has been called "pantheism," and we shall adopt this name for it. Unfortunately the term has not always been used with a clear meaning. The most serious confusion here arises from the fact that the statement "God is reality" can be interpreted in two different ways. Some thinkers have said that God is just reality itself, or that God is the universe, meaning by this that they were redefining the word "God" to mean simply "the universe." Such thinkers, of course, are not theists at all, by our definition. But in the more important sense, the statement "God is reality" refers to the kind of god we have defined—the sole or supreme supernatural being which has a mental life and is superior to man—and asserts that this being is identical with reality, that nothing is real which is separate from God. It is this belief which we call "pantheism."


Now if God is all of reality, what becomes of finite things? Here pantheism has taken two main forms. On the one hand, there is the view that the ordinary finite things that we seem to know around us are related to God as parts of his total nature. On this view, finite entities—stones, flowers, dogs, and human beings themselves—are not wholly unreal. They are "less real" than God but, as parts of him, they have some degree of reality. This idea—that we exist as parts of God's mind—seems very strange when one first encounters it (and to many thinkers it has continued to seem strange even after they became quite familiar with it). The con­ception of reality as an all-inclusive mind or spirit was first worked out by the German philosophers Schelling and Hegel, in the metaphysical position known as "absolute idealism." Many followers of Hegel developed their own versions of his general point of view, one of the most interesting for our purposes being that of the American philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce held the view that his conception of God, according to which God remains personal and the experience of each of us exists quite literally as a part of God's experience, enabled him to give a more satisfactory explanation of the suffering and sin in the world than could be given by the traditional Christian theory of a god who is not identical with the universe but who created the universe.


The second form of pantheism is found most prominently in Hinduism, which teaches that finite things, as long as they are regarded as distinct and separate from each other, are simply not real at all. Whereas in the pantheism of a thinker like Royce, human selves retain their individuality and their differences from each other, remaining distinct as separate parts of God, Brahman is conceived to be a unity in which all differences are swallowed up. The world of our common experience, which seems to be made up of a vast number of different objects and people as distinct individual entities, is an illusion. Only when we reach the point of enlighten­ment, of being able to know the underlying unity beneath the apparent diversity, do we see what reality truly is. This underlying unity, of course, is the non-personal being Brahman, and everything, insofar as it is real at all, is Brahman. The Upanishads are full of poetic expressions of this form of pantheistic belief, and more abstract philosophical statements may be found there as well. Let us look at a few typical passages:


The rivers in the east flow eastward, the rivers in the west flow westward, and all enter into the sea. From sea to sea they pass, the clouds lifting them to the sky as vapor and sending them down as rain. And as these rivers, when they are united with the sea, do not know whether they are this or that river, likewise all those creatures that I have named, when they have come back from Brahman, know not whence they came.15


As long as there is duality, one sees the other, one hears the other, one smells the other, one speaks to the other, one thinks of the other, one knows the other; but when for the illumined soul the all is dissolved in the Self, who is there to be seen by whom, who is there to be smelt by whom, who is there to be heard by whom, who is there to be spoken to by whom, who is there to be known by whom?18


This denial of reality to the world of distinct finite entities has sometimes been called "acosmism." If it seems surprising or even shocking to say that the cosmos is an illusion, you should nevertheless try to understand the idea as well as you can before judging it. Although by far its most signifi­cant development has been in Hinduism, acosmism is by no means absent from Western religious thought, where it appears in the writings of certain mystics. We quote three striking expressions of this belief as it arises in a mystic state:


All creatures are absolutely nothing. I do not say that they are small or anything else, but that they are absolutely nothing.17


When the soul is in God, her progress is infinite, seeing is that of God himself. Having become one with God, it can see nothing but God; having lost all separateness, self-possession and distinction, the soul no longer exists; it no longer acts, but God acts, and it is the instrument.18


His veil, that is phenomenal existence, is but the concealment of His existence in his Oneness, without any attribute.19


It is interesting to note that many Western mystics speak of the individual soul as unreal, as absorbed into God during the mystic state, but not as necessarily unreal at other tunes. The acosmism of Hindu thought is thus more extreme, for (hi the Vedanta form, at least) the individual soul has no reality at all apart from Brahman. It is also noteworthy that Western mystics often retain their belief that God is a person, whereas Hinduism, as we have seen, denies this.


It is usual to say that pantheism, in identifying God with reality, regards God as wholly immanent in the world; whereas hi the orthodox position of the leading Western religions, God is considered to be transcendent (as well as immanent)—that is to say, other than, apart from, and independent of the world. In the traditional Christian view, for example, God creates the physical universe out of nothing, and so he exists before it does, though after it is created he is omnipresent in it. These terms have at times been used rather loosely; still, they are convenient, and we shall adopt them. The non-pantheistic form of monotheism we shall call by the somewhat awkward but accurate name "transcendent theism." Let us bear in mind the fact that, within transcendent theism, there has been considerable difference of opinion as to just how close the relation between God and the world is. We have at one extreme the position of eighteenth-century deism, the view that God created the world and established its laws, but then had little or no further relationship with it. God, in the thinking of the deists, was almost wholly transcendent. The more usual Christian conception of God, of course, is that of a Being who stands in a close, continuing relation to the world of his creation and particularly to human beings, whom he regards as his children. Here God is partly immanent and partly transcendent. It is this conception of God which is sometimes called "theism" in the narrow sense of this word, and which was referred to on page 45 above.


In this chapter, we have had two chief aims. The first was to provide some distinctions and some basic terms that will be useful in the philosophical examination of certain religious beliefs. The second was to point up the variety of answers that human beings have given when they have asked one of the basic religious questions. An increased awareness of the number of possible alternative answers to fundamental questions is one of the best fruits of philosophic study—especially if it leads to a sympathetic understanding of unfamiliar views and a willingness to look into them for new truth.


15  Chandogya, op. cit., p.69

16 Brihadaranyaka, op. cit., p. 89; cf. Svetasvatara, p. 127.

17 I. Tauler, quoted in Douglas C. Macintosh, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper & Row, 1940), p. 21. is Madame Guyon, ibid., p. 26. 19 Ibn al-Arabi, a Moslem mystic, quoted in W. T. Stace, op. cit., p. 26.

8. Pantheism      57



Professor Elizabeth Beardsley is one of those people whose humanism polishes her lectures and makes her loved.  Her husband, Monroe, noted for Aesthetics, also worked on Philosophically Thinking.  It is not possible to know where credits lie, but only that this is the best of introductory philosophy textbooks. 


Only a few of the great works remain in print after half a century, and their book is not counted among those few.