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Transcendental Hogwash

Or, How Transcendentalism and Panentheism are theological notions unworthy of contemporary Pagans.

The view I take in these matters is Pantheist, which simply stated is the intuition that All is God (from Pan = All, Theos = God), for whatever value of ‘God’ you care to apply. Many Pagans today hold to some variation on this perceptive. The Pantheist view makes ideas like Transcendentalism and Panentheism logically untenable, and they have some further consequences for Pagans that make it worthwhile to remove them from our thinking.

Transcendentalism (as a theological notion, not the related 19th century literary movement) is the idea that the Divine or the Creator of the Cosmos is separate from the Cosmos, usually imagined as outside of it. The classic form of this familiar to westerners is Yahweh creating and ruling over the Cosmos. Traditional Christian and Jewish teaching expresses their transcendentalism by declaring that the creation or Cosmos is not God but His creature. The Divine is separate from the Cosmos, or at least bigger (but see below). In some forms is so entirely separate that God is termed “Wholly Other” (Karl Barth), or in some Gnostic forms utterly distant and unknowable.

Panentheism is a social problem. Pantheism can be very attractive to some transcendentalists. The issue for the Christians that propounded the doctrine was that God, in the theology of the day (early 19th c.), had gotten so alienated from the world that this idea was necessary to bring Him back in. So this new term, Panentheism, was coined to reconcile Christian monotheistic transcendentalism with the ancient idea of pantheism by Karl Krause in 1828. Out of this was produced a kluge of an idea that attracted some of the best minds the world has produced like Spinoza and Hartshorne. Even Neoplatonists get accused of this notion, unfairly. The idea is to have God present both in the world and outside of it. The ‘en’ in the word alludes to this idea, which breaks down as “All in God”, i.e., God is bigger than the world. But, there is a problem. . .

The logical problem depends on your rigor with the term ‘All’. If you don’t really mean it, Transcendentalism and Panentheism can creep in. If ‘All’ means ‘All’ that is, ‘everything without exception’, the formulation ‘All + 1’ is meaningless. Either ‘All’ is not all so that you can add ‘1’ to it, or ‘All’ is all and then the ‘1’ you were trying to add is already part of the ‘All’ and so the addition itself is meaningless. This is an example of the logical fallacy called ‘misplaced concreteness’ where an abstraction is reified into an object that can be misused. This is an artifact of our linguistic ability that we can form syntactically correct sentences which are semantically void. In our case, the idea of the ‘All’ is being concretized such that one can form the sentence that God is the All plus More, in other words, quite meaningless.

The other way folks try to do Panentheism is by restricting the ‘All’ to the physical universe, then God is seen as the physical universe plus everything else. This is a lack of rigor in the other direction by reducing the scope of the All to something less than all. It is also the rough equivalent of saying that only the hardware is the computer while we know that without the software and electricity it is just a box with dirty silicon and wires. This will not do. . .

Transcendentalism has a different problem. That which is truly transcendent with respect to a given entity is wholly separate from that entity. It has no impact, no control, no relationship with the entity, save its transcendence. The entity would not and could not know about the transcendental whatever, because it is transcendent. The transcendent has no bearing on what it is transcendent to. This is much kin to the technical definition of Universe as the sum of all that is knowable. If we know it, it has to be part of our Universe, however complicated that makes our Universe. Thus we can see that a truly transcendent God would be unknowable and have no relationship to our world, and logically He could not even be the Creator. Awkward. . .

When we look at notions of Panentheism and Transcendentalism we have to suspect that really the core motivations here are mammalian, that the proponents are demanding that their Big Guy rules over All like a ‘Father’, kind or abusive, depending on how you see that. This is of course quite appropriate to the triumphalist and hegemonic character of Christianity. Clearly, on a logical basis alone these are ideas Pagans should avoid. But then, there are the consequences. . .

If the Divine is something Other (Transcendentalism) or More (Panentheism) than the world it can lead us into the sometimes quite subtle attitude that there is something that is not God. Or, stated positively, the desk, the chair, the computer, me, you, my shit, your shit, the planet, the stars, are all entirely God. God does not dwell in them in some ineffable manner (often called immanence). Rather, they are all God manifest as that thing (sometimes referred to as immediacy). The moment we step away from the fundamental proposition of Pantheism that ‘All is God’ we step upon a slippery slope that begins to devalue some portion of reality.

Mind you, this does not remove the responsibility for proper discrimination. As a friend of mine put it, “I know the difference between shit and cream, and I know which I want in my coffee.” Everything has its place and some things taste better than others. The right application is just skillful means.

In Indic culture this ‘hard Pantheism’ is at times articulated through the metaphor of taste with the idea of ‘ekarasa’, meaning ‘one taste’, sometimes expressed as ‘all same taste’. This is a profound commitment to treat all phenomenon as being of the same value, cutting through the poisons of aversion, attraction, and indifference. Some of its practices include the contemplation of and exposure to the noxious in order to root out aversion. It is a challenging spiritual path, but one that produces a deep, unmediated experience of the sacred in all of life. Some Pagan paths have adopted kin approaches to the same end. The result is the experience that all is holy.

A problem with this sometimes subtle distinction shows up in some forms of how Pagans describe ours as a  ‘earth-centered’ or ‘nature’ religion. I wouldn’t: it is too small. But that discussion will have to wait until next time.

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Tagged in: Paganism theology
Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 10 April 2013

    Thanks! That was quite interesting and thought-provoking.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Friday, 12 April 2013

    I don't think you can dismiss panentheism by reducing it to the logical fallacy you described. I'm not as smart as Spinoza or Hartshorne, but this is how I would explain it: "God" includes everything: actual and potential. God includes the actualized world, but is "larger" than that world because it includes what is potential. Take an acorn. God includes the acorn, but also the tree that is a latent possibility within the acorn. Or take the seasons. Right now it is spring where I live, but all the other seasons are latent within the world. Right now only spring "exists", but the cycle of the seasons is a reality which transcends the present season.

    This is a transcendence which is located "in the depths of immanence in the world", a transcendence which is found in

    "the primordial unity, the 'unbroken cycle,' the Life Force beyond sexual differentiation. This basic reality is ontologically deeper that the polarity of forces that generate all the creatures in the world. It is their source and the context in within which they exist."

    (John Cooper, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, p. 235).

    In Starhawk's words:

    “The Goddess is the Encircler, the Ground of Being; the God is That-Which-Is-Brought-Forth [...] She is the earth; He is the grain. She is the all encompassing sky; He is the sun, her fireball. She is the Wheel; He is the traveler. He is the sacrifice of life to death that life may go on. She is the Mother and Destroyer; He is all that is born and is destroyed.”

    He is the dancer and She is the Dance. This vision of God/dess I think preserves both the immanence (sameness) and transcendence (otherness) of divinity.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Friday, 12 April 2013

    Addendum: This is Whitehead and Hartshorne's view too. They describe a God in "dipolar" terms, having two natures: eternal and temporal, changeless and changing, transcendent and immanent, potential and actual. These two "poles" relate in a dialectical fashion.

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