Panentheistic Humanism

Translation: Estrella García Zamora.

Sometimes, after searching for long, you can’t find what you’re looking for. Then you must create something for yourself: a place where you can live, be it physical, intellectual or spiritual. Maybe for some this place is the right one while for others is a banal endeavour. But, at the end of the day, it’s a place of one’s own.

With this essay, I’m trying to explain my own philosophical and spiritual framework, the mental place I inhabit and that some readers may want to share.

I apologise in advance for such temerity to philosophers, psychologists, theologists and those who teach spiritual traditions. I’m just a poet trying to explain his ideas with coherence. Nonetheless, I’ll keep the same honesty here as when I write my poems.

My philosophical framework is a type of Panentheistic Humanism with three main sources:

  • From the Western Philosophical canon, Baruch Spinoza.
  • Christopaganism, a new tradition within Neopaganism that includes both Christian and Pagan traditions and practices.
  • Transpersonal Psychology, especially Carl Jung and Ken Wilber have been my lighthouse in this vast ocean.

Now that I’ve talked about my sources, I’ll describe what types of humanism and panentheism I prefer. Later I’ll talk about the two branches in Transpersonal psychology that had influenced me the most. In the main part of the essay, I propose a life project inspired by these ideas. Finally, I’ll finish with a brief conclusion.

HUMANISM

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humanism as:

1: devotion to the humanities: literary culture.

b: the revival of classical letters, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance.

2: devotion to human welfare: HUMANITARIANISM.

3: a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centred on human interests or values.  specially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.

I myself subscribe to all these meanings, as the way I understand humanism is as a meta-discipline that can incorporate all the human values that are contained not only in the field popularly known as “Artes and Letras” (in Spanish, “Arts and Humanities”), but also in the social sciences, hard sciences and even spirituality. That’s the only way I disagree with definition 3, with all due respect to those who defend this interpretation.

Historically, humanism has had more philosophical rather than spiritual disposition, but it is precisely that freedom to investigate different schools of thought that we can find a way to the spiritual. Luckily, God in humanism doesn’t have to be seen as the usual theistic and patriarchal deity that some more fundamentalist interpretations of the religions of the book have so well promoted.

On the other hand, I think humanism must incorporate science too, but serving our needs and values as humans. Thus, science can never be neo-liberal technoscience, since this one   sets the need of an elite above the real needs of most of humanity, which is just the opposite of any sort of humanist ethic.

In fact, it is through humanism that the dialogue between science and spirituality can happen  to enrich both mutually while growing at the same time.

PANENTHEISM

The Merriam-Webster dictionary very succinctly defines panentheism as:

the doctrine that God includes the world as a part though not the whole of his being

It is interesting to quote Wikipedia’s article on panentheism:

(meaning “all-in-God”, from the Greek πᾶν pân, “all”, ἐν en, “in” and Θεός Theós, “God”) is the belief that the divine pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe and also extends beyond space and time. The term was coined by the German philosopher Karl Krause in 1828 to distinguish the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) about the relation of God and the universe from the supposed pantheism of Baruch Spinoza. Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical, panentheism maintains an ontological distinction between the divine and the non-divine and the significance of both.

This interpretation of the divine has had many different manifestations since its creation. 

Some have said that Baruch Spinoza’s conception of God makes more sense within panentheism rather that classic pantheism. For the rationalist philosopher God and nature are one and the same. The immanent part of God would correspond to our universe with its “tangible” attributes, that is Thought and Extension. The transcendental part of God would consist of those other “intangible” attributes that are out of reach of our human mind and  senses. 

An example of panentheism from a religious point of view can be found in Celtic Christianity. This type of Christopaganism considers that Creation is a theophany of the Christian God. The creation emanates from Him while also being a part of Him. Thus, Creation is sacred too, and must be worshipped as such. Once again we have a God with a transcendental dimension, the Source of Creation; and an immanent dimension, the Created.

The list of panentheistic incarnations is ample and present in philosophical and religious traditions as respectable as Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Taoism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Gnosticism, Judaism, Islam, and of course, Krausism, the German doctrine that advocates for idealism and inspired many of the great Spanish intellectuals and scientists of the Twentieth century. 

I include within my philosophical world-view the panentheistic interpretations developed by Baruch Spinoza and Celtic Christians because of an intellectual and emotional affinity I feel about the first and the second, respectively. However, I still respect all other iterations of this idea.

TRANSPERSONAL PSYCHOLOGY

Wikipedia defines Transpersonal, or Spiritual Psychology as:

a subfield or school of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. The transpersonal is defined as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos”. It has also been defined as “development beyond conventional, personal or individual levels”.

Issues considered in transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, self beyond the ego, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance, spiritual crises, spiritual evolution, religious conversion, altered states of consciousness, spiritual practices, and other sublime and/or unusually expanded experiences of living. The discipline attempts to describe and integrate spiritual experience within modern psychological theory and to formulate new theory to encompass such experience.

One of the main proponents of this field is the controversial Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. His detractors have often called him “esoteric” and “occultist”. His attitude towards the rise of Nazism was unethical and for many it completely invalidates his oeuvre. Nonetheless, some of his discoveries have become part of the usual vocabulary when talking about Psychology, such as the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the Shadow, and the theory of Synchronicity. Jung defended that all reality is one being that includes mental aspects as well as the material. Mind and matter would be part of the same continuum and the apparent separation is merely an illusion. He called this theory the Unus Mundus, which I consider indirectly connected to the panentheistic ideas I have talked in the previous section.

One the most interesting transpersonal psychologists still active today is Ken Wilber. He is a controversial author too for a variety of reasons. The most prominent reason is because he began as an intellectual who opened many productive dialogues between science and religion, and the West and the East, but ended up as a spiritual guru. It is hard for me to be neutral about Wilber, since he’s been so fundamental in the development of my world-view, while feeling uncomfortable about his last changes. Nonetheless, his work until Integral Spirituality is in my opinion completely recommendable.

Wilber has developed his own subfield within transpersonal psychology, which he called Integral Theory. This Integral Theory is based on a theory he called AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels), with which he tries to establish a map for the entire reality as we know it, including all its objective, subjective and intersubjective aspects. Wilber has an evolutive idea of humanity and defends that we are in what he calls the Atman Project, which includes all the ways to find our spiritual path, whether correct or incorrect. We human beings would have, according to his theory, two ways of evolving: the structures, visions of the world that progress to become inclusive and compassionate; and the states, which are the distinctive phenomenological realities that we experience and that go from the ordinary awake state to the spiritual self-realization. 

Although I must admit that these two philosophers’ legacies aren’t often compatible and that one’s theories tend to contradict the other’s or reach completely different conclusions, some of us find interesting tools studying their works and so I admire the intellectual bravery of both philosophers.

Traditionally, Psychology and Psychiatry consider the field of Transpersonal Psychology as an unclear terrain. In fact, many who can be accused of being scientistic consider that most extraordinary states of consciousness are simply pathological. In my opinion, Transpersonal Psychology is a valid bridge between science and spirituality, but I advice cautiousness when investigating it. 

A LIFE PROJECT

Now that I’ve explained the components of my philosophical framework, I’m going to develop a life project or program based on them. There are five points I consider essential  to develop this Panentheistic Humanism: 

  1. Nurturing your knowledge of the humanities.

As defined, humanism can be the study of disciplines focused on human society and culture. The way I’ve engaged with this has always being through the promotion of essay reading and writing, as well as narrative and poetry. I also practice the minor art of directing role-playing games, which I enjoy immensely. You can see these are all artistic expressions, if you apply a bit of expertise to them.

2. A radical defence of democracy.

I take Baruch Spinoza as my intellectual model, he who was a humble, honest man with a compromise with the truth as a philosophy and science until the end of his life. Spinoza developed his own philosophical system that challenged different religious traditions of his time and that keep inspiring many contemporary readers. He also defended the republic, religious tolerance, and freedom of consciousness. 

In these dark times of political extremism and constant attacks on human rights, we need a radical defence of democracy. Spinoza’s fight against authoritarian regimes is still an example for any humanism now.

3. Green awareness.

Celtic Christian panentheism is a good model of religious metaphysics that includes the environment as a sacred aspect of life. Nature is for the Celtic Christians an immanent aspect of the Christian God, as deserving of respect as its transcendental aspect. Humans would be a part of nature and not its owners.

Christopaganism has been a great discovery for me. The book ChristoPaganism: An Inclusive Path by Joyce and River Higginbotham is a wonderful introduction to this new spiritual tradition, a combination of Christian and Pagan beliefs and practices. This book will make you question some of the beliefs that are usually ingrained during childhood and to develop a mature spirituality. The christopagan communities begin to proliferate online, and are usually open to listening without judging.

I’ve also been inspired by the book Christian Animism by Anglican priest and druid Shawn Sanford Beck. Somewhat closer to Christian orthodoxy, but also influenced by Druidism,  Shawn Sanford Beck develops a new understanding of the Christian faith in which nature is the main place to evolve the sacred. A dialogue between progressive Christianity and the Celtic Christianity, as well as Neopaganism, Buddhism, and other compatible esoteric traditions.

Thanks to this book, I discovered the female aspect of God within Christianity, called Sophia. Since then, I’ve investigated this sacred figure, and developed great sympathy for Her. Sophia is the symbol of the female aspect of the divine for many Christian traditions, including Gnosticism. It’s often been hidden by the Patriarchal tendency of official Christianity, but Sophia was actually present in many texts by visionary saints and alternative theologians. Possibly an equivalent of the Great Goddess in many Pagan religions of old, such as Isis or Demeter. There is also the Jewish Lilith, a demonised figure by the patriarchal order for her rebelliousness. Lilith represents the darkest and more hidden aspects of womanhood, but not the wickedness, as her wrath against injustice is seen as emblematic of that of women against their unfair treatment at the hands of a patriarchal system that has lasted centuries. And last, the most accessible variation of Sophia is the Virgin Mary so favoured by the Catholic Church. This figure is very compatible with the Christian orthodoxy, as her most important virtue is usually her passive acceptance of God’s will.

Sophia may be a maternal as well as panentheistic facet of God, transcendent but also immanent. Shawn Sanford Beck offers us a prayer he wrote where he describes these little known elements of God, titled “The Rune of Sophia”:

God is Love,  

and Her Body is All Creation. 

She is a Tree of Life  

Who Gathers Her Children in Love. 

Be it from a spiritual perspective, or political or ecological, the climate change and the many ecological disasters of the last decades makes a change on our perspective of the environment mandatory.

4. Social justice.

We can also learn from the Celtic Christian Panentheism that all humans, as part of nature, are also an immanent aspect of the Christian God, and thus as sacred as God.

Beyond theological interpretations, the words of Jesus of Nazareth along the New gospel are a call for social justice. Even though the powerful have appropriated this message for their own ends, his words are actually a defence of the poor, the sick, the foreigners, the disabled and in general the marginalised. When reading the Bible I’ve encountered few instances of Jesus supporting conservative points of view, and no support for the Social Darwinism that has become entrenched in official Christianity now-a-days. The verses that are so often quoted by conservative Christians as a weapon against many are usually mistranslated or simply cut from any context, specifically the very different cultures that the historical Jesus had to live and understand to get his message across. The dogmatic nature of official Christianity came afterwards.

As a humanist and sympathiser of Jesus of Nazareth, I think we should approach the biblical texts from a progressive point of view, so we have a spiritual foundation for a political activism that fights for social justice.

5. An Integral Life Practice

I place Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory within my philosophical world-view through what he calls the Integral Life Practice, a continuous exercise of all human faculties in a systematic way with the aim of developing as a person. Any Integral Life Practive has, at least, these characteristics:

  • Body: the practical aspect of physical exercise and healthy diets.
  • Shadow: the psychotherapeutic work.
  • Mind: intellectual education.
  • Spirit: meditative and contemplative practice.

His model is one of many proactively seeking personal development, but until now is the most complete I’ve encountered.

This year I’ve explored the meditative and contemplative aspects of my Integral Life Practice. I was involved wit a Zen group for many years, where I learnt the basics of the meditative practice. Currently, I meditate once a week with a Theravada Buddhist friend. I try to dedicate 40 minutes a day to what I called my “sacred time”: minutes of Christian prayer, half an hour of Buddhist meditation. For now I feel that this practice is the right one for me and I accomplish it happily and gratefully. I suppose that in the future I’ll dedicate even more time to this sacred time and daily.

CONCLUSION

Now that I’ve explained this Panentheistic Humanism, I want to reiterate that this is just the way I organise my ideas as a poet. My philosophical framework is syncretic, completely subjective, and some critics could call it a New Age philosophy.

It is not my intention to pretend I’m a philosopher, psychologist or theologian, much less a spiritual guru of any kind. What an enormous responsibility!

What I believe is that any person asking questions must try to answer them as ethically as possible. That is what I’ve been trying to do for years, and what I’ll sum up with my next words.

I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed this essay. If you’ve found any helpful idea here, all my time of research and study was absolutely worthy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

HUMANISM

PANENTHEISM

TRANSPERSONAL PSYCHOLOGY

A LIFE PROJECT