The Ethical Incoherence of Pantheism

Luke Wayne

It is a popular notion in world religions that the universe is actually just one divine thing. Though it appears that you, I, dogs, trees, and rocks are all distinct entities, there is, in fact, only one thing, an impersonal god that encompasses everything that is. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, it is believed that the heavens, the earth, and everything in them are all just manifestations of Brahman, the eternal, impersonal, divine essence and the only being that truly exists. Notions such as this are called pantheism, and are utterly antithetical to the biblical teaching that God is personal, entirely distinct from creation, and brought the universe into existence from nothing.

Pantheists frequently believe that their view represents a superior ethical foundation to Christian theism or any other worldview. They suppose that, if everyone and everything is divine and sacred, then people obviously must treat each other and everything else with dignity and respect. While pantheism must deny any objective moral law, authoritative divine commandments, ultimate justice, and future judgment or consolation, pantheists feel that the emotional weight of realizing we are one with everything else and that all things are divine is an even greater motivation for goodness and virtue. While this may sound like wisdom to many who take it only on the level of feelings and gut reactions, rationally considered the opposite turns out to be true. Pantheism undermines the possibility of any meaningful moral standard.

Moral Incoherence

If I say that everything is equally divine and sacred because everything is one, the implications are not necessarily so benevolent to my fellow man. I am supposedly one with every living thing, great and small. Can I, then, make a distinction between the microbe or parasite and the sick child they are living within? Each bacteria is as much a manifestation of the divine as you or I. Who am I to slay thousands or even millions of sacred lives to save only one dying infant? I am one with the parasite every bit as much as I am one with the child. A lion slays an antelope or the antelope escapes and starves the lion. Things appear to kill, and things appear to die. All of it is just the universe being the universe. All is one. How can I make any distinction in order to deliver one thing from another?

The problem, however, goes even deeper. If pantheism is true, then whatever anyone says, does, or thinks is actually said, done, or thought by "God" and is just as divine as any other set of actions or motivations. Theft is as divine as giving. Murder is as holy as rescue. To infect is as godly as to cure. To rape is as sacred as to respectfully court. The divine nature does all things alike. You can't look at other people as separate persons with distinct motivations doing individual things. You can't hold them to a standard outside themselves. There can be no such standard. All is one. You are no more sacred than they are. Your thoughts and perspectives cannot be more authoritative or godly than theirs. The two of you are not separate people or things. Your actions and their actions are both just the universe being the universe.

The Pantheist says, "If the universe is divine, then everything is sacred." Sacred to whom? If there is nothing else but one thing, who is there to hold it sacred? If it is merely the universe that holds itself sacred, what does "sacred" even mean? What else is there besides sacred? What standard can there be to say that treating the universe one way is treating it sacredly and treating it another way is somehow sacrilegious? How is one particular action or frame of mind "recognizing the universe as sacred" and another not? If the universe holds itself sacred, then all my thoughts are automatically sacred, for they are part of that one universal essence. There can be no distinctions.

Such a teaching is not a motivation to think or do differently. If anything, it is an excuse to remain exactly as I am and keep doing just what I am doing. The Pantheist may say that I have to "see all things as sacred," but base thoughts are as divine as lofty ones. I am not a distinct person who is accountable for how well or poorly I hold the rest of the universe sacred, nor is there a divine law outside myself to tell me how sacred objects ought to be treated. Once again, I am just a manifestation of the universe being the universe.

Many pantheist's knee-jerk reaction is to say that such talk is wrong-headed, but that response is not rooted in the logic of pantheism. No one can be wrong-headed if we don't have distinct, individual heads. If we are all one thing, then all of our actions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are simply manifestations of the sacred being of God. They are all divine. It is only by making distinctions, by saying that some things are not sacred and not divine, that you can even begin to use the ideas of "sacred" and "divine" to establish any kind of moral direction or ethical standard.

Redemptive Failure

We also have to go a step further. How do we deal with our guilt and shame? When we do that which is immoral, we are objectively guilty (whether we feel that way or not). When we recognize our guilt, we have a proper sense of shame in response. On pantheism, how do we find objective atonement for our guilt and personal freedom from our shame? This is a significant issue for anyone wanting to assert pantheism as a basis for morality.

The most obvious solution is to propose some form of absurd moral nihilism. There is no distinct you and no actual other people or objects upon which to act. Therefore, you have never done any real actions nor harmed any real other beings. Further, there is no standard outside yourself by which you can be measured, so the concept of objective guilt cannot exist because nothing can be immoral. Since you cannot be guilty, you have nothing for which to be ashamed. Your shame is an illusion of which you simply need to let go. In other words, you deny morality altogether and claim that there is no such thing as guilt and no need for any shame ever. This, of course, doesn't make pantheism the basis of morality. It makes it the basis for the denial of morality. Such an approach is a concession that pantheism can offer no concrete ethical absolutes or objective morality.

Some will claim that it is our realization that the universe is one and that everything is sacred that itself absolves our guilt and frees us from our shame, but this is really just a clever repackaging of the same moral denial. On Pantheism, I don't become one with the universe; I am already one with the universe. My realization of it is merely a matter of perspective. It does not objectively change anything. If my oneness with the universe eliminates guilt, then guilt is not possible since the divine essence is all that exists and everything is always one with the universe.  I am "absolved from my guilt" only by the experiential realization that there is no distinct me to be guilty. I am "free from my shame" because I no longer think of myself as a distinct human being who committed personal actions but rather see the universe as one whole without distinctions. All of this, of course, means that I was never really guilty or ashamed to begin with. Behind the positive words and happy feelings, this really just brings us back to a denial of real morality.

Denial is not a solution to genuine guilt or shame. We need forgiveness. An impersonal, universal essence cannot forgive our sins, both because impersonal substances can't forgive and because we are that essence and so the essence committed the sins and is guilty of them. All we can do on pantheism is undermine morality by denying that there is anything for which to be guilty or ashamed. Only in the gospel of Jesus Christ do we find forgiveness, justice, atonement, pardon, and healing. We can have these things precisely because there is a real, personal, sovereign God who is distinct from us. Morality is rooted in His nature and His commands. He, therefore, upholds justice and bestows mercy. I can love God and my neighbor, not because everything is one and there is no distinct God or neighbor to love, but rather because I am not God or my neighbor and can therefore humbly put both before myself. In a pantheistic world, morality cannot exist. Love and mercy are impossible. Justice is an illusion at best. Only on the Christian worldview is there an adequate foundation for all of these things.