A Reply to Ross Douthat’s Preoccupation with Pantheism
In his latest New York Times column, Ross Douthat isn’t happy that “Avatar” is yet another high-tech cinematic tribute to pantheism, which he calls “Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”
He casts this position in contrast with Christian belief and concludes that pantheism can only offer “an escape downward” for humanity, while Christianity offers “an escape upward.” If pantheism is winning the day not just in Hollywood, but—if a recent Pew survey is correct—all across America, Douthat thinks we’re left with a “deeply tragic” position.
I’ll not quibble with Douthat’s definition of pantheism (which he calls “a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world”)—but the conclusions he reaches are really much ado about nothing, and, in the end, constitute little more than an ideological argument.
First, I agree with him that elements of pantheism have been angel dusted into movies for decades. He draws a line from “Avatar” back through a list of films (including “Dances with Wolves”, “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”) to George Lucas’ enormously lucrative “mystical force” and the six mega hits it permeated. The line would stream through hundreds of movies if anyone had the time to name them all. Pantheism in various configurations has clearly made good business sense for film makers.
But, if we take the most well-known of Hollywood’s pantheism spinners, George Lucas (or James Cameron if you prefer), and put him in broader historical context, we’ll see that there’s really nothing new going on here. Lucas’ formula is not unlike that used by many successful proselytizers for centuries, including the itinerant St. Paul of Tarsus.
Paul focused his energies on building a belief matrix around the age-old story of the dying and rising God. In the belief-rich environment of Hellenistic Greece, Paul found ample ways to weave together religious traditions to make his message palatable to a larger audience. It’s no stretch to say that if not for Paul’s energy and penchant for synergy, modern-day Christianity would never have happened.
Ironically, it’s also likely due to Paul that Christianity itself embodies certain pantheistic sensibilities. Paul popularized the notion that God is in us and in everything around us. He famously told the Athenians, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” The crowd he was addressing knew that he was quoting the Greek poet, Aratus, who had been influenced by the Stoic Cleanthes–a pantheist. The notion of a “Holy Spirit” working in and through everyone and everything also has a strong pantheistic resonance.
To be clear, Paul was not what we’d now call a “new age pantheist.” Far from it. But he did integrate certain elements of the pantheism of the time into his message, and those elements have roots in a historic conception of pantheism that predated him by thousands of years. In the Old Testament, these elements crop up in curious ways, such as in the story of the Hebrew diviner, Balaam, who is spoken to by a divinely inspired donkey. God chose to address Moses at Sinai in the form of a bramble bush (the “burning bush”). And God acted through a whale to teach the prophet Jonah a lesson.
But in other cases it’s clear that the God of the Old Testament detests nature. In the most famous talking animal episode of the Old Testament, God curses the defiant serpent of the Garden of Eden by saying, “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (All snakes since then have been cursed thusly, just like all people since Adam were cursed due to his transgressions; the logic of Genesis is unequivocally cruel and final.)
The point is Paul had quite a job on his hands. At times addressing Greek audiences accustomed to neo-Platonist and Stoic flavors of pantheism, and at times addressing Jewish audiences encumbered by a belief in a God at odds with his creation—it’s little wonder that he moved around a lot. Throw into the mix a medley of other groups with beliefs ranging from Mithraism to Baalism to every cult under the sun, and Paul makes George Lucas look like a garbage man.
Of course, Paul’s motivation was not money, as is Hollywood’s. But whatever the motivation, the point remains the same: people have been loading pantheism into a stew of conflicting beliefs for eons. Nothing that has happened in Hollywood, now or ever, is new in this regard. In the same light, the recent Pew report about the beliefs of Americans is hardly shocking—belief mixology is older than dirt.
So what’s the real argument Douthat is making? In my opinion, it’s chiefly ideological. He says that Americans find a number of qualities appealing in pantheism and have substituted them for the tenets of good old fashioned monotheism. He adds,
The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and a piping-hot apocalypse.
Calling this a stretch is generous, and it says a lot about where Douthat is coming from and what he’s trying to tell us. If you are concerned about the environment and think that we humans can make changes in our lives to prevent global warming (which presupposes that you believe in global warming), then according to Douthat you’re part of the “cult of Nature.”
How is it that he’s somehow managed to miss the entirely pragmatic and scientifically grounded reasons for environmental concern? I doubt very much that he has. But they don’t fit well with the edifice he’s trying to build, which correlates environmentalism with new age pantheism, and thus positions environmentalism as a belief at odds with Judeo-Christian belief—the apparent cultural core for the writer. This linkage allows him to call Alexis de Tocqueville to the stand as predicting that pantheism would eventually seduce “democratic man.” And as every good ideologue knows, once Tocqueville is invoked, only fools dare dispute.
If we accepted Douthat’s myopic argument, we’d have to ignore quite a lot. A century of scientific advancement, for example, that provides an adequate framework for taking decisive environmental action and needs no pantheistic crutch to lean on. We’d also have to ignore immense swathes of history littered with examples of pantheism and countless other beliefs intertwined like giant rubber band balls rolling through time.
And we’d have to ignore perhaps the most basic fact of all—that traditional theism and new age pantheism are but two belief options available to citizens of what philosopher Karl Popper called the open society. For some they might be inextricably linked, but for most they are not. Trying to place us along a contrived belief continuum–or downward curve, depending on your perspective—is reductionism of an especially shallow kind.
Paraphrasing one intellectually irascible poet, and pantheist of a sort, who didn’t honor such contrivances: “We are large, we contain multitudes.” Amen to that.