CultureWatch

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Pantheism and Biblical Christianity

Jan 9, 2010

In the famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo there is the memorable scene of the creator God extending his finger to the outstretched hand of the newly formed Adam. The imagery makes clear that Adam is a creation of God, not an extension of him. Creator and creation are distinct.

That is the clear understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview. In contrast to Eastern religions, where God is seen as everything (pantheism), or in everything (panentheism), the biblical teaching is that there is an eternal, personal and infinite God who is not to be confused with his creation.

For millennia the West was based on the monotheistic religions which viewed creation as the finite result of an infinite God, while the East has been shaped by monism (the belief that all is one) and pantheism. But recently these two opposing worldviews have experienced a massive crossover.

There are various reasons why East and West have lost their distinctive differences, and become so entwined. I here wish to focus on just one area. Western popular culture and the entertainment industry have done much to promote the pantheistic worldview and New Age spirituality.

Whether it be popular films such as the Star Wars series, or bestselling New Age tomes such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, on all sides the West is being inundated with Eastern thinking and New Age concepts.

The most recent – and most spectacular – example of this is the runaway hit film, Avatar. It is a classic example of the pantheistic worldview, dressed up to suit modern Western tastes. It is thus quite a part of the New Age revolution which has conquered so much of the West over the past few decades.

Part of the reason why the New Age appeals so much to Westerners is that it offers the Eastern religious system but without much of its more demanding religious and ethical emphases. People are free to choose in the New Age spirituality what they like, and little or no demands are made on them.

Many of the people today who tinker with the East are really just imbibing in the New Age smorgasbord. They pick and choose those aspects which they like, and leave those which they don’t. It is all very Western really, fitting our consumerist lifestyle. Thus Eastern thoughts and concepts have very much become a part of Western life.

And films like Avatar are in many ways just a reflection of this. Instead of a creator God who stands outside of us, and places expectations and demands upon us, in the new Easternised spiritualities of the West, people are free to call the shots and determine what is right and wrong, true and false.

Indeed, they get to be God. That is the real attraction of the New Age worldview. Instead of a transcendent God with whom we must do business, and bow to, we in fact are all a part of the divine already. We just need to realise that we are already God, that we are already divine.

And sadly, many Christians have bought into this explicitly non-Christian worldview as well. Many Christians seem to think they can simultaneously hold to Christianity while dabbling in New Age beliefs and practices. I have spoken to many such persons.

Indeed, how many Christians would have gone to a film like Avatar and left it all agog, without even being aware of how in so many ways it is promoting a decidedly non-biblical point of view. Of course many people have warned about how this new paganism is creeping into the churches.

Peter Jones of Westminster Seminary, for example, has written numerous volumes on these dangers. Readers should consult The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An Old Heresy for the New Age (P&R, 1992); Spirit Wars: Pagan Revival in Christian America (WinePress, 1997); Pagans in the Pews (Regal, 2001); and Capturing the Pagan Mind (Broadman & Holman, 2003).

Earlier C.S. Lewis had warned about the dangers of pantheistic thinking. In the 1950s he had penned these words: “I freely admit that, believing both, I have stressed the transcendence of God more than His immanence. I thought, and I think, that the present situation demands this. I see around me no danger of Deism but much of an immoral, naive and sentimental pantheism. I have often found that it was in fact the chief obstacle to conversion.”

Indeed, it is biblical Christianity which provides the right mix between divine transcendence and divine immanence. God is wholly other and separate from us (his transcendence) and yet he chose to become one with us in the incarnation, and he dwells with those who seek to follow him (his immanence).

There is no possibility in the biblical worldview of confusing who we are and who God is. Indeed, just today I read a great line in the third and final volume of John Goldingay’s magisterial Old Testament Theology. He says this: “The difference between God and us is that God never thinks he is us”.

Exactly so. But the tendency amongst so many Westerners influenced by pantheism, Eastern thought and the New Age movement is to think we are God. That type of thinking runs counter to the entire biblical belief system. We are doubly alienated from God: first, by creation, and secondly, by sin. The first renders us finite; the second renders us fallen.

Both these obstacles must be overcome, and we cannot do the overcoming ourselves. It is God who has taken the initiative here, becoming incarnate so that we might become (in the right sense of the word) partakers of the divine nature. And of course to get right with God, we must come to him on his terms, not our own.

But for those who want to call the shots, who want to pretend they are already divine, the Christian answer will never do. Lewis again had all this rightly explained a half century ago. Writing in his classic 1947 volume, Miracles, he wrote that pantheism “is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind”.

Why so? It is so congenial to unregenerate man because it simply means “what man says about God, and not what God does about man”. In biblical Christianity God is sovereign and we are not. No wonder people prefer pantheism. As Peter Kreeft rightly noted,

“Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images-of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.”

Ever since our first parents fell, people have been looking for a way to get back to God, but on their own terms. The way of the cross is simply too hard and too demanding for many. But a worldview which tells us we are already God, well, that is something most people can readily sign up for.

But it is a false path to salvation. There is only one path whereby we can get right with God, and that path goes through a hill with a cross on it, and it goes through a person, Jesus Christ. The masses may marvel at the God-is-everything philosophy of a film like Avatar, but only those who have come to an end of themselves will realise that reunion with God is something that God decides and God lays out the specs for.

We either bow the knee to him and his designated means of becoming reunited with him, or we devise our own paths. But Jesus made it clear that there is only one path. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt 7:14).

Philosophies like the New Age, and films like Avatar readily appeal to us. They allow us the right to set the boundaries and determine the rules. They assume mankind is already alive and part of the divine. Biblical Christianity, by contrast, assumes that we are all spiritually dead and alienated from God. That is why Christ came – not to tell us we are already part of the divine, but to show us how to flee the wrath to come, and how to become who we were truly meant to be.

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13 Responses to Pantheism and Biblical Christianity

  • Mmm.. when you throw Word Faith’s idea of us being a “little god” (when we get saved), things get a bit muddled again. They would say what “we were truly meant to be” is indeed to be divine, with all the power, and the authority, that Jesus had and has – and even greater because Jesus has gone to the Father (John 14:12). But really it seems quite wrapped up in most of these ideas you’re talking about.

    Couple that with a bit of distaste for theology and you’ve got a winner! No wonder so many people are flocking to these churches today.

    Nathan Keen

  • Hi Bill
    I work for a Christian radio station. Someone had offered to sponsor a program on health and fitness. We were considering running the program when we were alerted to the website and podcasts of the lady in question. There we found an interview with a psychic promoting his book about mediums and spirit guides. When we advised her we were not using her program she became somewhat irate. She explained she produced two programs a New Age program for secular radio and a Christian one for Christian radio. How convenient, but I can tell you there was a lot of New Age cross over in the Christian program.
    Joshua challenged the people. “Chose this day who you will serve.” Many want a foot in both camps and can’t see the inconsistency.
    Des Morris

  • Hi Bill – I really liked the way you put this:

    We are doubly alienated from God: first, by creation, and secondly, by sin. The first renders us finite; the second renders us fallen. Both these obstacles must be overcome, and we cannot do the overcoming ourselves. It is God who has taken the initiative here.

    We are finite and fallen. When I do a bit of honest self-examination I’m always confronted with those two facts and no amount of effort ever gets me over those two hurdles. I’m so thankful our salvation is a gift from God when we trust in Jesus.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Chris Cullen

  • Thank you for a wonderful article. I saw the film Avatar and agree with you wholly on what it was portraying. What I found interesting is that the people I went with were oblivious to the hidden (or should I say “very obvious”) messages. It is saddening when I talk to Christians who have bought into this way of thinking. Unfortunately, it is becoming ever more prevalent.

    Wishing you and the fellow contributors to this site a happy new year.

    Frank Norros

  • Des Morris’s experience (of occultism/New Ageism edging its way into Christian things (books, worship, media, etc., etc.) – often unseen/unnoticed – is very true, and once you know about it, and look for it, you can see it everywhere. At my (Anglican) church the servers have taken to wearing ankh crosses round their necks. I wondered if the vicar knew his acolytes were visually presenting pagan symbols to the conregation; I wrote to him and asked about his feeings regarding this. I did not get a reply.
    John Thomas, UK

  • Des
    But will you be permitted to politely decline her offer to sponsor her program when the Act for “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st century”, or, the “Human Rights Act” are proclaimed by the Rudd government?
    Dunstan Hartley

  • Hello Bill,
    yes I’m thanking you for standing up and clearing up alot of these things people say and do. I have a dumb question, does “Freedom of Religion” mean we won’t be able to “politely decline”? as Dunstan is suggesting? Because if thats true, shouldnt I be praying this doesn’t happen and telling every one I know?
    Daniel Kempton

  • Thanks Daniel

    Yes there are various measures being proposed or already enacted which do provide real restrictions on religious freedom, especially the ability of Christians to freely and publicly proclaim the gospel. I have written up these various threats elsewhere on this site. See for example the Section on ‘Christianity, persecution’.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “We are doubly alienated from God: first, by creation, and secondly, by sin. The first renders us finite; the second renders us fallen. Both these obstacles must be overcome, and we cannot do the overcoming ourselves. It is God who has taken the initiative here.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t this actually pantheistic itself? If creation seperates us from God, rather than is the context for our relationship to God, than the goal would be to cease to be finite by becoming infinite in effect being made one with God is an annilation of our finitude not being perfected in our finitude. Sin not finitude seperates the believer from God… as Kierkegaard pointed out any attribution of sin to weakness (read finitude) is a lapse into pantheism.

    Ivan Taylor

  • Thanks Ivan

    No, we are not God on a whole number of levels, including ontologically. God had no beginning – we did. All of us, as created beings, will now live forever, in one of two eternal destinies. That however does not mean we lose our status as beings who remain distinct and different from an infinite and eternal God. That does not make us infinite, which only God is.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thank you very much for your thoughts. I found your site after a Google search on pantheism. I became interested in the topic after reading “Eternity In Their Hearts” by missionary Don Richardson. In this work, he references the 1871 anthropological 2-volume “Primitive Culture” by Edward B. Tylor, apparently a cornerstone tome that laid the groundwork for modern anthropology.

    I work from memory here, and it has been several months since reading Richardson’s book, but to summarize, Tylor’s theory stated that monotheism could only arise after establishment of specific types of social hierarchies. The first stage of primitive culture and religion = I think about a “soul” as I see myself reflected in a lake. Stage 2 = I think about other souls, as I see animals and trees. This leads to animism. Stage 3 = when a social structure of an aristocracy arises, people start to deify the elite, leading to polytheism (the gods are conceived as a sort of representation of what is seen in this earthly realm). Stage 4 = one person is exalted above the rest (perhaps in kingship), leading to monotheism. Basically his idea was that monotheism always comes after polytheism, after certain social structures arise. His theory was later refuted by one of his own disciples (Andrew Lang), who found in actual fieldwork that extremely primitive cultures without social hierarchy were essentially monotheistic, but often worshipped “lesser gods” (demons) – knowing they were not worshipping the one true God, but feeling they had lost the way to get to Him.

    After a confusing search for the origins of pantheism, I found several online articles claiming (and this is what I’m hoping to get your thoughts on) that pantheism is merely the personification of attributes of Deity, i.e. a goddess of Beauty, a goddess of Love, a god of War, etc. These articles therefore made it sound as if pantheism is really similar to every other religious thought system, it is merely another way to think about the attributes of God. Shoot, even Christianity might fall under that heading, then!

    Would appreciate your thoughts. Sorry for butchering Tylor.

    Kerisa Silverthorne, Michigan

  • Thanks Kerisa

    Yes I have the Richardson book and read it decades ago. So I would have to dig it out and revisit it. Will then get back to you.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Well done. I found your comments very illuminating. I like the terms you used, like Pantheism and etc.. and I found it very interesting that C.S. Lewis warned about the dangers of pantheistic belief way back when. Man has a rebelious streak that runs very deep.. which is the result of sin of course and that is why he wants to call the shots and think he can be in charge. Deception comes from satan of course and he is always busy trying to deceive any that will fall for his lies. I call to remembrance what Jesus words when He said… “take up the cross and follow me”… But it is in the taking up of the cross that one finds real freedom and true purpose… Thanks for your sharing…. I am trying to tell my friends what a joke the Echart Tolle books are.. but they do not want to hear it because Oprah said it was good…. like she of course would know.. cause she has a lot of money… anyway… I am out of here…

    Bill Knowles

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