Ex-Dominican priest Matthew Fox, guru of the popular and esoteric New Age religion, is a pantheist. He identifies the world with God and God with the world. He emphasizes God's immanence and ignores God's transcendence.
Pantheists maintain that everything which exists is part of God. You and I are sparks of the divine fire, little droplets of divinity. But so are the deer, the dog, the dolphin; the rat, the worm, the maggot; the tree, the weed, the flower; the sun, the moon, the galaxy; the rock, the stone, the grain of sand.
For pantheists, the universe is ultimate, infinite and divine, and "nature" exists on its own, in and of itself. Some environmentalists are caught up in pantheism, worshipping "Mother Nature," exhibiting reverence for the Greek earth goddess "Gaia" or the Egyptian goddess "Isis."
Prominent figures like actress and cult dabbler Shirley MacLaine, scholar Joseph Campbell, luminary of the TV series "The Power of Myths," Carl Rogers, founding father of Humanistic Psychology and others attracted to far-out eastern cults have contributed to the growing regard, if not credibility, of pantheism.
American Catholicism has not remained unaffected. New Age ideas, expressed in Matthew Fox's "creation spirituality," have crept into books, lectures, and church conferences. Fox urges followers to transfer to the cosmos, as he interprets it, the devotion they once directed toward Jesus Christ.
Atheists can be called pantheists. This world is all they acknowledge, love or worship, and so it becomes, in a very real sense, their God. Atheists differ from other pantheists only in denying a spiritual aspect to the universe.
The forms of pantheism are almost limitless. A fantastic variety exists within Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age pseudo-religion. Mormons, pagans, and polytheists are pantheists. Their many Gods are limited and their universe is ultimate. For the pantheist, God is all and all is God. He is not a special and distinct being.
St. Thomas Aquinas supplies the answer to pantheism. The Angelic Doctor taught that God is in all things: 1. by His power (i.e. all is subject to Him; 2. by His presence (all things are open to His knowledge); 3. by His essence (as the cause of their being); 4. In a special way, in rational beings who love Him, by His grace. (S.Th.1,Q.8,A.3)
Note: God is in all things by His essence, but He is not of their essence.
Ultimately, there are only two options about the nature of God: monotheism or pantheism. All other teachings are versions of one or the other.
Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God, one divine Being. God is eternal (has no beginning and no end and never changes). God is almighty and made the world, which did not exist before God made it. God is present and acts in the world. But God is not part of the world, and the world is not part of God.
St. Francis of Assisi could sing of the beauty of creation that reflects God. Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei. The Poverello preached to the birds, spoke of the sun as his brother, the moon as his sister. He praised the virtue of brother wind, of sister water, brother fire and mother earth, but he never identified God with the world He created.
The forms of monotheism, e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other sects, are limited. Monotheists disagree about this or that divine attribute. The main disagreement, however, is about the identity of the one, true God. Christian Trinitarianism is totally and absolutely unique. Only Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, the three persons in one Divine Being. Only Christians know who God is.
The difference between monotheism and pantheism is total. Words with a pantheistic slant ought to be stricken from a Christian's vocabulary. To emphasize the world's relation to the Creator, Christians and other monotheists should make a point of referring to the universe by the term "creation."
At times, believers in the one true God become bedazzled by preachers, teachers, and authors who blur the distinction between God and His creation. In 1986, the Vatican warned against the New Age movement in a report dealing with sects and cults.
The religious fervor manifested in the works of sincere advocates of pantheism attracts the pietistic and unwary Christian. In many cases, however, side show barkers of New Age mystical stew aim their message directly at the naïve, the rebellious and the trendy. Cognoscenti describe New Age religion as "a combination of Doonesbury cartoon theology and Shirley MacLaine spirituality."
Distinctions between forms of monotheism can be quite profound. Catholicism is a unique form of monotheism, not only in knowing the one true God, the Holy Trinity, but also in knowing the love and grace of God in the God-man Jesus Christ, and in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church He founded. Indeed, among all Christian churches, the Catholic Church, alone, possesses the fullness of the Gospel message, as the encyclical Dominus Jesus points out so well.
Christ Jesus gives supernatural comfort to His followers by assuring them that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. For the present, however, the ancient heresy of pantheism has acquired new life in the widely publicized writings of militant atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Old heresies never die.
(Father Lennon is a resident of St. Thomas Aquinas Priory, Providence College.)
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