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Ross Douthat is bothered – more than bothered – by Avatar’s pantheism. If one
were looking at an attack on Pagan sensibilities, Douthat’s column would be a
good place to start. Beliefnet’s
own Rod Dreher of “Crunchy Con” fame uses it to jump on pantheism as well. I offer one response to these in
my mind ridiculous attacks.
Douthat writes in the New York Times
“The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response.
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why
does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence.
Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies
that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James
Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty,
brutish and short.
exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel
rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re
beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who
yearn for immortality.”
start with the problem of evil. As
Douthat states it, the problem is actually far more serious to his monopolistic transcendental monotheism than it is to pantheism. Karl Rove-like, he takes one of our strengths and tries to
make it a weakness, one of his religion’s greatest weaknesses and tries to make
it a strength.
you have a deity defined largely by his power, and his claim that he also
happens to be good, the problem of evil is all but insurmountable. This is the reason many Christians have
become agnostics or atheists. Bart
Ehrman the noted religious scholar and Biblical expert was able to handle his
discovery that the Bible was in no way literally true. But Ehrman finally lost his faith over
the issue of evil.
problem of evil is far more tractable from a pantheistic perspective. First it removes us from center stage.
We two leggeds are one part of the glorious reality that is this beautiful
world. We may or may not play a
central role in the drama of life, but the world was not created as our little
cupcake to consume as we see fit.
(If it were, as folks like Douthat seem to think, evil again becomes a
problem. Why create such a world
unless you are a very bad designer? Or a sadist?)
what if it is a world of creativity?
And what if the basic division into duality, which makes creativity
possible, also necessitates ignorance on the part of partial beings? Creativity requires ignorance, because only then can we bring into existence what has never existed before. Life begins simply by
reproducing, trying to survive, generating wondrous beauty along the way. Natural “evil” is of this sort: the
eating and being eaten that Gary Snyder, my favorite Buddhist with a Pagan
soul, observes we are all part of the same potlatch, giving when our time comes
as others have given that we ourselves might exist. This is not evil.
comes into existence when malevolent intent arises. How does this arise?
I would argue also out of ignorance. Malevolence can arise out of its absence. To take a simple example, how many of us have thought dark
thoughts at someone we know based on our misunderstanding of what they
did? Suppose we had acted on those
thoughts, and sometimes we do. What we did would seem
to that person to be evidence we are evilly disposed towards them. They then lash out, and we are
confirmed in our own assumption that they acted evilly. And so it goes.
arises from ignorance.
why pay the price of ignorance and evil?
Because duality makes it possible for love and beauty to come into
existence And perhaps, just
perhaps, there is a slow movement from ignorance to love in this unfolding of
life. Aldo Leopold, whom I think
is our greatest thinker on nature, and possibly our greatest pantheistic
thinker, once observed
one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The
Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who
shot the last [Passenger] pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who
clubbed the last auck thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our
pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly
have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar
Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”