Pantheism differs from the systems of belief constituting the main religions of the world in being comparatively free from any limits of period, climate, or race. For while what we roughly call the Egyptian Religion, the Vedic Religion, the Greek Religion, Buddhism, and others of similar fame have been necessarily local and temporary, Pantheism has been, for the most part, a dimly discerned background, an esoteric significance of many or all religions, rather than a “denomination” by itself. The best illustration of this characteristic of Pantheism is the catholicity of its great prophet Spinoza. For he felt so little antagonism to any Christian sect, that he never urged any member of a church to leave it, but rather encouraged his humbler friends, who sought his advice, to make full use of such spiritual privileges as they appreciated most. He could not, indeed, content himself with the fragmentary forms of any sectarian creed. But in the few writings which he made some effort to adapt to the popular understanding, he seems to think it possible that the faith of Pantheism might some day leaven all religions alike. I shall endeavour briefly to sketch the story of that faith, and to suggest its significance for the future. But first we must know what it means.
Pantheism, then, being a term derived from two Greek words signifying “all” and “God,” suggests to a certain extent its own meaning. Thus, if Atheism be taken to mean a denial of the being of God, Pantheism is its extreme opposite; because Pantheism declares that there is nothing but God. This, however, needs explanation. For no Pantheist has ever held that everything is God, any more than a teacher of physiology, in enforcing on his students the unity of the human organism, would insist that every toe and finger is the man. But such a teacher, at least in these days, would almost certainly warn his pupils against the notion that the man can be really divided into limbs, or organs, or faculties, or even into soul and body. Indeed, he might without affectation adopt the language of a much controverted creed, so far as to pronounce that “the reasonable soul and flesh is one man”— “one altogether.” In this view, the man is the unity of all organs and faculties. But it does not in the least follow that any of these organs or faculties, or even a selection of them, is the man.
If I apply this analogy to an explanation of the above definition of Pantheism as the theory that there is nothing but God, it must not be supposed that I regard the parallelism as perfect. In fact, one purpose of the following exposition will be to show why and where all such analogies fail. For Pantheism does not regard man, or any organism, as a true unity. In the view of Pantheism the only real unity is God. But without any inconsistency I may avail myself of common impressions to correct a common mis-impression. Thus, those who hold that the reasonable soul and flesh is one man— one altogether— but at the same time deny that the toe or the finger, or the stomach or the heart, is the man, are bound in consistency to recognise that if Pantheism affirms God to be All in All, it does not follow that Pantheism must hold a man, or a tree, or a tiger to be God.
Excluding, then, such an apparently plausible, but really fallacious inversion of the Pantheistic view of the Universe, I repeat that the latter is the precise opposite of Atheism. So far from tolerating any doubt as to the being of God, it denies that there is anything else. For all objects of sense and thought, including individual consciousness, whether directly observed in ourselves, or inferred as existing in others, are, according to Pantheism, only facets of an infinite Unity, which is “altogether one” in a sense inapplicable to anything else. Because that Unity is not merely the aggregate of all the finite objects which we observe or infer, but is a living whole, expressing itself in infinite variety. Of that infinite variety our gleams of consciousness are infinitesimal parts, but not parts in a sense involving any real division. The questions raised by such a view of the Universe, many of them unanswerable— as is also the case with questions raised by every other view of the Universe— will be considered further on. All that I am trying to secure in these preliminary observations is a general idea of the Pantheistic view of the Universe as distinguished from that of Polytheism, Monotheism, or Atheism.
Of course, there have been different forms of Pantheism, as there have been also various phases of Monotheism; and in the brief historical review which will follow this introductory explanation of the name, I shall note at least the most important of those forms. But any which fail to conform, to the general definition here given, will not be recognised as Pantheism at all, though they may be worth some attention as approximations thereto. For any view of the Universe, allowing the existence of anything outside the divine Unity, denies that God is All in All, and, therefore, is obviously not Pantheism. Whether we should recognise as true Pantheism any theory involving the evolution of a finite world or worlds out of the divine substance at some definite epoch or epochs, may be a debatable question, provided that the eternity and inviolability of the divine oneness is absolutely guarded in thought. Yet I will anticipate so far as to say that, in my view, the question must be negatived. At any rate, we must exclude all creeds which tolerate the idea of a creation in the popular sense of the word, or of a final catastrophe. True, the individual objects, great or small, from a galaxy to a moth, which have to us apparently a separate existence, have all been evolved out of preceding modes of being, by a process which seems to us to involve a beginning, and to ensure an end. But in the view of Pantheism, properly so-called, the transference of such a process to the whole Universe is the result of an illusion suggested by false analogy. For the processes called evolution, though everywhere operative, affect, each of them, only parts of the infinite whole of things; and experience cannot possibly afford any justification for supposing that they affect the Universe itself. Thus, the matter or energy of which we think we consist, was in existence, every atom of it, and every element of force, before we were born, and will survive our apparent death. And the same thing, at least on the Pantheistic view, is true of every other mode of apparently separate or finite existence. Therefore no birth of a new nebula ever added a grain of matter or an impulse of new energy to the Universe. And the final decease of our solar system, if such an event be in prospect, cannot make any difference whatever to the infinite balance of forces, of which, speaking in anthropomorphic and inadequate language, we suppose the Eternal All to consist.
But before passing on to the promised historical review, it is, perhaps, necessary to refer again to a remark previously made, that Pantheism may be considered either from the point of view of philosophy, or from that of religion. Not that the two points of view are mutually exclusive. But, as a matter of fact, Pantheism as a religion is, with certain exceptions among Indian saints and later Neoplatonists, almost entirely a modern development, of which Spinoza was the first distinct and devout teacher. For this statement justification will be given hereafter. Meantime, to deprecate adverse prejudice, I may suggest that a careful study of the most ancient forms of Pantheism seems to show that they were purely philosophical; an endeavour to reach in thought the ultimate reality which polytheism travestied, and which the senses disguised. But little or no attempt was made to substitute the contemplation of the Eternal for the worship of mediator divinities. Thus, in the same spirit in which Socrates ordered the sacrifice of a cock to Aesculapius for his recovery from the disease of mortal life, philosophical Pantheists, whether Egyptian or Greek, or even Indian, satisfied their religious instincts by hearty communion with the popular worship of traditional gods. Or, if it is thought that the mediaeval mystics were religious Pantheists, a closer examination of their devout utterances will show that, though they approximated to Pantheism, and even used language such as, if interpreted logically, must have implied it, yet they carefully reserved articles of the ecclesiastical creed, entirely inconsistent with the fundamental position that there is nothing but God. Indeed, their favourite comparison of creature life to the ray of a candle is not really a Pantheistic conception; because to the true Pantheist the creature is not an emanation external to God, but a finite mode of infinite Being. Still the mystics did much to prepare the devout for an acceptance of Spinoza’s teaching. And although so amazing a transfiguration of religion rather dazzled than convinced the world at first; nay, though it must be acknowledged that one, and perhaps more of Spinoza’s fundamental conceptions have increasingly repelled rather than attracted religious people, yet it can hardly be disputed that he gave an impulse to contemplative religion, of which the effect is only now beginning to be fully realised.