Dualist Pantheism, a Great Fit for Unitarian Universalism

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This was composed for a speech given to the First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
in Arlington, Texas, on October 26, 2014


 Introduction

 Unitarian Universalism serves a rather unique role as far as religions go. Unlike many religions, which involve very specific doctrines, Unitarian Universalism has established itself as a religion of religions, a sort of umbrella faith, which embraces the beliefs of all others. Rather than declaring one view to be better than the rest, and choosing sides, Unitarian Universalists make an attempt to accept and combine the interests of all involved participants. Christians, Hindus, Atheists, Pagans are oftentimes accepted into the same congregation, while they may sponsor programs or committees representing their own interests. They all, no matter their creed, come together in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This mixture of autonomy and shared spheres of concern is quite virtuous, providing for the needs and concerns of all, both as individuals and as collectivities. While individuals and groups are free to pursue their own ends to some extent, they are always striving for a greater harmony among them, and an approximation of shared ends. Unitarian Universalists promote “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” and “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Indeed, Unitarian Universalism is founded on the principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” This comes about through the “right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within [UU] congregations, and in society at large.” The goal, of course, is to create “world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” with a deep “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This is wonderful.

Unitarian Universalism is a grand attempt to unite the varying and oftentimes contrary approaches to spirituality. It is unfortunate that many do not see, or understand, the need for such a welcoming congregation. Many are convinced that there is no benefit to be found in respecting the beliefs of others, feeling that their own beliefs cover all necessary grounds of truth, and that other creeds or spiritual views are wrong. In many ways, such a system of belief is built into the religions of today. What if a creed, a more specific doctrine, could be established, which affirms all other creeds, in the manner that Unitarian Universalism affirms all religions?

While Unitarian Universalism affirms religions of varying types, and considers six sources for its principles—direct experience, workers for justice, world religions, Judeo-Christianity, humanism, and pagan traditions— the six sources may at times have a hard time coming together in anything more than a larger congregation of mutually tolerant, but not affirming, viewpoints. The committees and groups stay separate. While this may be necessary to a large extent, and the autonomy of individuals should certainly be respected, this does speak to the need for a force on the more personal scale to set into place the principles of unity that the UU promotes. In other words, Unitarian Universalism does wonderfully at creating a large umbrella, or a “big tent,” but— while this is necessary while folks lack agreement on the specifics— lack of agreement is ultimately a problem that must be resolved. If this problem is to be fixed, it is not to be resolved by force, but by reason, and the uncovering of shared values.

The UU principle of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” must be upheld. If dualist pantheism is to be held as a personal creed within Unitarian Universalism, which reflects UU principles on the level of epistemology and ontology, it must not be forced, but freely agreed upon. It must hold weight, and have a “pull” for it to work. It is my view that dualist pantheism offers such a creed. As Unitarian Universalism offers a religion of religions, dualist pantheism offers a creed of creeds, which may fit into the larger umbrella of Unitarian Universalism. Imagine if, alongside pagan covens, Bible discussion groups, and humanist meetings, there was a committee or a program which explored the systemic interactions between the faiths, and which affirmed, as the Unitarian Universalist congregation as a whole does, that all of them have an element of truth. Imagine a specific faith— as specific as Christianity, humanism, or paganism— which affirms the larger Unitarian Universalist principles, and which establishes a creed as specific as Christianity, humanism, or paganism, but as open as the Unitarian Universalist congregation is on the scale of religion. Dualist pantheism is a metaphysical, theological, epistemological, and ontological approach which offers just this.

 What is Dualist Pantheism?

Pantheism is a theological perspective which understands God and the Universe, or Nature, to be the same thing. Pantheists believe that God is existence. The view suggests that the Universe is self-determined and free, while its components, the mental and physical “modes” of existence, are determined by the totality of the whole. Pantheists ascribe the Universe characteristics of God, such as omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience. Pantheists hold religious esteem and reverence for Nature. Baruch Spinoza, who helped to spark the Enlightenment, and who is considered by many to be the father of modern pantheism, suggests in his book, Ethics, that

Besides God [or Nature] no substance can be granted or conceived. […] Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.[…] God acts solely by the laws of his own nature, and is not constrained by anyone.[…] Things could not have been brought into being by God in any manner or in any order different from that which has in fact obtained. […] Whatsoever we conceive to be in the power of God, necessarily exists.

Pantheists believe that everything is perfect as it exists, but also understand that the present includes the potential of the future. One’s self, including one’s physical and mental components, are apparati of a perfection which surrounds and permeates us, which both includes and excludes us. Pantheists understand everything, as it exists, to necessarily exist.

We also understand God, or the Universe, to be eternal and infinite. This means that the Universe is unbounded, having nothing outside of itself, and that all points in space and time exist simultaneously. In other words, God is “the thing in itself,” and this thing exists past, present, and future, and in all locations in space, all at once. There is nothing outside of God, and no portion of God ever ceases to exist, even when we cease to have access to it.[1]

Dualist pantheism affirms empirical science and rational spirituality simultaneously, and reconciles the forces of realism and idealism as interactions of attributes rooted in the past and future. While not a true dualism—instead, suggesting that God is the only substance which exists— dualist pantheism is a variety of attribute- or property-dualism. Dualist pantheists embrace body and spirit as attributes, properties, or modes of an underlying substance, which is associated with God, perfection, freedom, and absolute existence. Spinoza suggests that “Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing,” and the corollary, “[Physical] extension is an attribute of God, or God is an [physically] extended thing.” In a similar vein, the great theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, made use of a dichotomy between body and spirit, while maintaining that the two were connected by way of evolution. De Charin suggests that,

In the system of creative union, it becomes impossible to continue crudely to contrast spirit and matter. For those who have understood the law of spiritualisation by union, there are no longer two compartments in the universe, the spiritual and the physical. There are only two directions along one and the same road.

Dualist Pantheism as Henotheism

While dualist pantheism is a form of natural monotheism, it may at times take the more general form of henotheism, wherein Nature is understood to be the supreme deity, while other smaller or demi-deities may also exist as metaphors, archetypes, or ethereal forms within. While this may suggest substance dualism to some, dualist pantheism grounds matter as an attribute fixed in the past, while spirit holds properties of the future. In other words, spirit is that which composes the world yet-to-be, and matter is that which composes the world as it has been. Material experiences can be measured and remembered, but spiritual inperiences must be conceptualized and anticipated. This being so, one may understand deities as having a material form in the future, while mortals are grounded in the past. The two are not to be separated one from the other in any hard sense, however.

Archetypes, as studies by Carl Jung suggest, drive behavior, and in the search for being, we attempt to unite ourselves to these archetypes. We aspire to fill the role of archetype ourselves, or to work toward sharing their traits—to be the hero, or a caregiver, perhaps—, to achieve our most virtuous form. According to dualist pantheism, the gods are the mental images of excellence, of value, of substantial being. Though we cannot touch them, they exist, though in a different sense. This is true of all future possibilities. The carpenter has no need to touch cabinetry before it is crafted in order to believe in its future form, in order to be guided toward its physical outcome. Neither does the individual have to empirically measure virtue in order to know the direction in which they should proceed with their life. Nor must they see a god before they can decide what behaviors behoove a deity, or to understand what actions most allow for deification or, more simply, recognition by and admiration of others.

Jesus Christ is of the most famous archetypes. Daily, masses strive to live the way we are told that Jesus lived, to forgive and forget, to help others. People the world over strive to live the life of Jesus. Though they oftentimes fail, the very attempt leads a large portion of believers to live more altruistically, to consider the needs of others, and to live according to the golden rule. The great theologian, pantheist, and process philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, promoted the idea of the “Cosmic Christ,” which grounds the Jesus-principle as the final outcome of the Universe, which he calls “the Omega Point.” The process of approaching the Omega Point— which one can think of in scientific terms as a return to the singularity the Universe existed in before the Big Bang— de Chardin refers to as a process of “creative union.” In many ways, this can also be associated with Aristotle’s telos and eudemonia, which can be understood as finality and well-being.

The Power of Faith

Astrong conviction can often be felt as part of a religious or mystical experience, or just as part of one’s everyday intuition. These convictions, when we allow them, will attach themselves to archetypes which we feel represent them. Convictions toward love and peace, for instance, may attach themselves to a religious archetype such as Jesus Christ.

While dualist pantheists affirm science, especially as it relates to material phenomena, we also affirm the power of myth, the direction that ideals provide to action, and the strength that faith provides. A good myth can provide a common cultural direction, and faith can provide grounds for the willpower to work. William James suggests, in regard to the power of practical faith, that

 A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say tbat faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the ‘lowest kind of immorality ‘ into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!

While William James is describing a more materially immediate example of faith-in-action, his example of the faith needed to get past robbers on a train speaks to a principle which underlies spiritual experience. By creating archetypes, people have often compelled themselves to believe in outcomes that couldn’t occur without the faith to motivate such behavior. By clinging onto heroes, mythical and existing in some circumstances, one can direct their own behavior toward similar conclusions. These kinds of myths have facilitated the growth of civilization. The first governments, after all, were theocracies.

Having faith is not the same thing as having unrealistic or demonstrably false beliefs, though the two may overlap. We may understand a pragmatic faith to be valid logic which guides us under the conditions of lacking sound evidence. There are many times in life when we must make decisions without knowing about a situation. We must do guesswork. It is best if this guesswork follows logical principles, rather than resolving itself as a shot in the dark. Taking from the perennial knowledge of Aristotle, we should not stray too far in excess or deficiency of anything, faith included. Faith which proves to be in excess may lead one to foolhardiness, while its deficiency may cause cowardice. These are vices. Courage, like all virtue, is found at the mean, somewhere in the middle. We must have enough faith to have the courage to carry on, without dissolving into cowardice, but we should not have an overabundance, which could drive us toward foolhardiness.

 Direct Experience

While spiritualists, dualist pantheists affirm empirical science, matter, and the physical components of the brain. Material objects may be understood from outside. They can be seen and felt. Our sensory organs, or instruments we create, can measure them to some extent. Subjective mental events, however, cannot be fully understood from the outside by others. It is for this reason that the great pragmatist, William James, respected mysticism and other Varieties of Religious Experience, which titles his collection of essays and lectures on the matter. William James says,

The subject of [mysticism] immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

[…] Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

Emotions cannot be seen or felt from the outside, and none of our instruments can get past the “hard problem” of explaining direct-experience. David Chalmers, an important philosopher of mind, has made quite the career out of describing the “hard problem” of consciousness. According to David Chalmers,

The easy problems of consciousness include the following: How can a human subject discriminate sensory stimuli and react to them appropriately? How does the brain integrate information from many different sources and use this information to control behavior? How is it that subjects can verbalize their internal states? Although all these questions are associated with consciousness, they all concern the objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. Consequently, we have every reason to expect that continued work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience will answer them. The hard problem, in contrast, is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspect of thought and perception: the way things feel for the subject. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations, such as that of vivid blue. Or think of the ineffable sound of a distant oboe, the agony of an intense pain, the sparkle of happiness or the meditative quality of a moment lost in thought. All are part of what I am calling consciousness. It is these phenomena that pose the real mystery of the mind.

To illustrate the distinction, consider a thought experiment devised by the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson. Suppose that Mary, a neuroscientist in the twenty-third century, is the world’s leading expert on the brain processes responsible for color vision. But Mary has lived her whole life in a black-and-white room and has never seen any other colors. She knows everything there is to know about physical processes in the brain — its biology, structure and function. This understanding enables her to grasp everything there is to know about the easy problems: how the brain discriminates stimuli, integrates information and produces verbal reports. From her knowledge of color vision, she knows the way color names correspond with wavelengths on the light spectrum. But there is still something crucial about color vision that Mary does not know: what it is like to experience a color such as red. It follows that there are facts about conscious experience that cannot be deduced from physical facts about the functioning of the brain.

David Chalmers calls the element of experience itself “qualia.” Qualia is the direct feeling often related to sensory information, but separate from the external object creating or facilitating the experience (including one’s own brain cells, which may correlate to experiences, but are not the experience itself). Limitations of understanding or having direct connection to others’ experiences suggest that qualia makes perfect communication, for the time being, impossible. Anytime one has to step outside of direct experience, one loses perfect information. Henri Bergson, an important process philosopher of the early 20th century, describes, in his “Introduction to Metaphysics,” the importance of direct experience. He says,

 Were all the photographs of a town, taken from all possible points of view, to go on indefinitely completing one another, they would never be equivalent to the solid town in which we walk about. Were all the translations of a poem into all possible languages to add together their various shades of meaning and, correcting each other by a kind of mutual retouching, to give a more and more faithful image of the poem they translate, they would yet never succeed in rendering the inner meaning of the original. A representation taken from a certain point of view, a translation made with certain symbols, will always remain imperfect in comparison with the object of which a view has been taken, which the symbols seek to express. But the absolute, which is the object and not its representation, the original and not its translation, is perfect, by being perfectly what it is.

Our inability to experience one another’s realities does not suggest that we should stop communicating with one another. Communication is the only means by which we may get any sense of information regarding another person’s direct experience. It does, however, suggest that even when another person’s experience, motivations, desires, etc. are communicated to us, they may not always make sense or appear rational to us. This is also true of our tastes and motivations. Our preferences of color, choice of patterns, sexual partners, etc. do not always make sense to other people, but we choose them because they best approximate our own preferences. We can try to explain our reasons to people, and they may even get across, but others will never directly feel our preferences, desires, or motivations. Objective phenomena may be proven true or false, but subjective phenomena, or preferences—being oriented as qualia rather than quanta— cannot. We should not force spiritual outlooks onto others, but, so long as a view can be found practical to some degree, we should allow the view to drive one’s life-experiment. William James remarks, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, that,

 […] sad experience makes me fear that some of you may still shrink from radically saying with me […] that we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will. I suspect, however, that if [you disagree], it is because you have got away from the abstract logical point of view altogether, and are thinking (perhaps without realizing it) of some particular religious hypothesis which for you is dead.

 As Above, So Below

Dualist pantheism, in its system of modes and attributes, reconciles opposite views regarding science and spirituality into holistic, integrated, and compatible working systems. Dualist pantheism recognizes the dual roles of realism and idealism, materialism and spiritualism, body and mind, empiricism and rationalism. Rather than seeing these views to be at odds with one another, dualist pantheists are concerned with how these forces interact to compose the reality around and within us. Rather than picking sides, dualist pantheists recognize, quite pragmatically, that people tend to believe things for a reason, and, even if that reason cannot be understood by everyone, it has to be factored into the equation of existence, because it very much informs one’s actions, which have very real outcomes. Beliefs and myths, like everything else in nature, evolve for a reason, and serve some sort of purpose. If a belief does not provide some sort of benefit to its holder— and especially if it leads toward detriment— it is swallowed up in the forces of natural selection. Beliefs come and go, as they are found useful and necessary, or not.

Dualist pantheism is not a religion, but a metaphysical and theological belief, a personal creed. Unitarian Universalism is a religion. As monotheism is provides the foundation for Christianity, I hope dualist pantheism to provide a complimentary system of theology to accompany religious movements such as Unitarian Universalism. While Unitarian Universalism unifies various religions under a common umbrella, dualist pantheism unifies various epistemologies and ontologies, or creeds, into one common creed, which affirms the beliefs of others. Christians, while believing in Jehovah, may participate in the Unitarian Universalist congregation under the conditions of toleration; pagans and humanists may do the same. By reconciling the debate between realism and idealism, and affirming the role of archetypes, dualist pantheism has the potential to join such a congregation while strongly affirming the other participants, and including their concerns and beliefs into its realm of study. While it does not suggest that the other groups should be dissolved, it does allow for a soft, or gray space, wherein hard boundaries can be let down, and ideas may flow between them. That is, dualist pantheism is permeable and inclusive, and does not distinguish itself from other beliefs, but embraces them.

There are many ways to define pantheism. The one provided thus far has been the view that God and the Universe, or Nature, are synonymous. A second, which I will now bring up, before closing, is the definition of pantheism as being accepting of, and embracing, all forms of theism. Pan means all, and theism is a belief in God. My view of dualist pantheism is accepting of both forms of pantheism, the view that all is God, and the view that all views of God are correct. In this case, the supreme God incorporates all of the rest. God is nature, or the Universe, but the Universe includes all of the other deities, which can be associated with archetypes in it. Because dualist pantheism provides a theology that affirms both immanent and transcendental views of God, and various other deities, and because it reconciles the debate between science and spirituality, by incorporating them both into a complimentary working whole, dualist pantheism provides a theology that is a great fit for Unitarian Universalism.

[1] In terms of modern physics, the understanding that all points in time exist infinitely is understood as a B-model of time. It is affirmed often by major thinkers, including string-theorist, Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe. This understanding of time seems to have originated with Parmenides of Elea, in his philosophy of eternalism. The eternalist view, that the Universe exists past, present, and future, is often understood to be describing a “frozen” or “block Universe.”

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