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Pantheism

Date: 
2002
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2002-GT-6

I. Ancient Philosophical Thought and Christian Theology: A Short Historical Account. 1. Archaic Eastern Conceptions and the Buddhist Perspective. 2. Greek Thought and the Distinction of Beings in Being. 3. Plotinian Pantheism. 4. Creation out of Nothing: God Participates Being to Creatures. - II. Some Pantheistic Perspectives in the Renaissance and the Modern Age, and their Relation to Scientific Thought. 1. Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno. 2. Baruch Spinoza. 3. The “Absolute” Space of Isaac Newton. - III. The Presence of Pantheistic Traits in Some Views of Nature in Contemporary Science 1. The Gnosis of Princeton and Cosmic Neo-Vitalism. 2. The Cosmic Code and Immanent Evolution towards the Emergence of Consciousness. 3. The Proposal of Panentheism. - IV. The Need for a Distinction between Creator and Creatures, and the Harmony of Nature.

The word “pantheism” comes from two Greek words: pân, which means “all” and théos, which means “god.” Hence it is used to classify doctrines according to which all that is, is God, or which identify God and the world in various ways. J. Fay was the first to use the term “pantheism,” in his work entitled Defensio religionis (1709). In an effort to defend theism, he criticized the theoretical positions of J. Toland, who in the work, Socinianism Truly Stated (1705), defined himself as a “pantheist,” and who also later entitled his last work, Pantheisticon (1720).

The doctrine of pantheism, however, is much older than its name. Due to this long history, one must distinguish its various expressions throughout the ages. The first meaning of pantheism refers to “transcendental pantheism,” i.e., the very general idea that the world is a mere manifestation of God. This form of pantheism sees the divine only deep within things, and in particular in the soul. As a result, the creature becomes God only insofar as it liberates itself from the material shell of sensibility. This view dates all the way back to the Vedanta doctrines of India and found its highest expression in western Neo-platonism. The second meaning of pantheism is “atheistic” or “immanent pantheism,” or monism (see the article Atheism). It considers the divine as a “vital energy” animating the world from within, and thus has naturalistic and materialistic consequences. Finally, pantheism also assumes the meaning of a “transcendental-immanent pantheism,” according to which God not only reveals himself, but also realizes himself in all things. Such is the pantheism of Spinoza, for example, and that which, in diverse forms, is of interest to various idealistic currents of the modern age.

Here, the classical roots of pantheism will be introduced first, followed by a number of illustrative examples from the Renaissance and Modern Age. Next, I will indicate those conceptions of nature, implicitly favored by contemporary scientific thought or at times explicitly conveyed by it, that seem to maintain a certain relation with the pantheistic vision. Finally, the perspectives of Christian Revelation and of the Magisterium of the Church will be briefly outlined.

I. Ancient Philosophical Thought and Christian Theology: A Short Historical Account

1. Archaic Eastern Conceptions and the Buddhist Perspective. It is possible to see in many Eastern religions and philosophies the original seed that gave rise to the pantheistic vision of the universe. Indeed, in many of these systems of thought, the idea of a personal God does not exist: God is understood as the sole existing reality and the world as nothing other than an appearance, an image, that in the end must be reabsorbed in some way. This idea is clear in the ancient religion of the Veda, which developed in India between the 15th and 9th centuries B.C., though the entire Vedic period was much more extended. Our knowledge of this religion comes to us from the Rig-Veda (Veda in Sanskrit means “knowledge”), a collection of ten poetic books. The Hindu religion, which derives from the Rig-Veda, cannot exactly be defined as a polytheistic religion, even less as a religion in the more literal sense of the word. In the Hindu or Vedic form of religiosity, the believer, although fully accepting and firmly believing in the existence of a supreme and unique Deity, chooses to venerate one of the Deity’s particular aspects or his energy or perhaps one of his beneficial manifestations (cf. Poli and Rizzi, 1997, p. 85). In fact, in the Vedic religion, God comes to be identified with a natural object such as the sun, the luminous sky, or the rain. These divine beings have the function of protecting their devotees, but never assume anthropomorphic features. As a result of this, the Vedic-Hindu divinities never arrive at the mythical form, plastic and concrete, of the gods of ancient Greece.

From the Hinduism of the Veda, two diverse currents broke away, which could be considered its heresies: Jainism and Buddhism. Buddhism arose in India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., and then, thanks to its missionaries, was diffused throughout the entire Orient. For Buddha, observation of the world reveals that everything is a perpetual “flowing”: our consciousness only bears witness to us of the flowing of rapidly changing sensations, emotions, and concepts. Having thus denied the existence of the individual soul, the Buddha (whose name means “illuminated”) holds that it is not possible to know anything other than this perpetual becoming, beyond which it is impossible to find an immutable deity. For Buddhism, reality is reduced to a harmonic correspondence of objective and subjective elements, thus laying the foundations of an “a-cosmic pantheism,” which will be developed by some of its specific schools. This type of pantheism affirms that nothing exists “in itself,” but only inasmuch as it is correlated to others. Being alone is conceptual only: every being exists in relation to another. Individuality and singularity are erroneous assumptions. All things are nothing outside the absolute identity, which is “void,” the inexpressible, the non-conceptual (cf. Puech, 1970-1972). Does such a concept of Buddhism necessarily lead to a “negation” of the world? It is difficult to respond to this question. However, from an empirical point of view, the world is just as it appears, and beyond this veil of appearances there is the unknown and the unknowable, the void.

Buddhism, on account of its specific structure, is not a religion that may be codified in precise rules. Consequently, a considerable number of Buddhistic schools have formed, practically one for each country where it implanted itself. Interesting for our purposes here is Zen Buddhism, which originated in China and developed in Japan after the 12th century. In fact, not a small number of contemporary scientists seem to intend to refer to it in the construction of their systems and for some of their ideas about natural phenomena (emblematic is the work of F. Capra, The Tao of Physics. An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, 1975). Zen means “meditation” and its practice is an exercise that attempts to liberate the “fundamental principle” present in each of us from the impure “ballast” of the passions. The liberation of this principle can come about either through a more profound study of the sacred writings of Buddhism or by means of ascetic or esoteric practices. According to Watts (1959), Zen Buddhism became quite popular in American culture in the 1950’s thanks to its philosophical ideas, which inserted themselves perfectly into the climate of philosophical relativism and utilitarian pragmatism.

2. Greek Thought and the Distinction of Beings in Being. The context that gave rise to certain forms of pantheism in ancient Greece was quite different. The Greek epic, which experienced its golden age during the early centuries of the first millennium before Christ and which found in Homer its greatest poet, gave the gods a personal character, unlike the primitive mythologies in which the divinity was essentially tied to natural phenomena. Anthropomorphized by the Greek epic, the gods were more accessible to the existential necessities of human beings, thus favoring the development of a cult civico-religious in character. Beside the Homeric epic, Hesiod’s Theogonies reconstruct the history of the gods before Zeus, going back even to the very origin of the various divine figures. For Hesiod, all the gods take their form, after various separations and successive generations, from an original Cháos, a word meaning above all the immensity of space, the immeasurable, the unlimited. In Greek thought, cháos acquired such a broad meaning as to be able easily to approach the philosophical meaning of the “All,” therefore also bringing to mind a certain idea of pantheism. Theogony slowly lays the foundation for a successive cosmogony, furnishing a series of archaic elements for the speculation about the origin of all things, some of which remain  found in the natural philosophy of the Ionian thinkers, for example, Empedocles, who will ultimately hold the interaction of two cosmic forces, love and hate, responsible for the formation of all things.

Greek philosophical thought arose in response to a question that is simultaneously “physical” and “religious” and that inquires into totality and multiplicity: what is the origin of all things (Gr. pánta)? And, immediately thereafter: from what are all things made? The solution given by the pre-Socratic thinkers in their search for a “unifying principle” (arché) will not be exempt from pantheistic currents. These thinkers tended to state that there is “one sole substance” at the origin of everything, whether it was the water of Thales, the unlimited (ápeiron) of Anaximander, or the fire of Heraclitus. Certainly, a distinction between the particular beings and Being as such is not missing, as in Parmenides and in Heraclitus, but Being is never taken as “something different” than individual entities, but is rather their very substance. For example, already for Thales, the observation that all bodies were substantially of water ended in the assertion that all things were actually “full of gods.” For Parmenides, nature (physis) is Being itself, the All: beyond the All not a thing exists, because the All is being, and beyond being there is nothing. Although the possibility of thinking of “something else” is not excluded by the thinkers prior to Parmenides nor by the great texts of Eastern wisdom even as they speak of the All and the Totality of things, this was no longer possible after Parmenides. In Parmenidean philosophy, through the use of logic one arrives at the being of All by shaking off all particular beings, which become only appearances. Not knowing how to explain their relation to reality as Being, particular beings end up losing their individuality and autonomy.

Plato and Aristotle will pave the way to secure the separation and consistency of particular beings. Affirming the transcendence of the “Forms” or “Ideas” with respect to the material world, and the transcendence of the Good with respect to the Ideas themselves, Plato emphasizes that particular beings are becoming and changeable, whereas the Forms are immutable and eternal. At the summit of all the Ideas, the Idea of the Good —significantly also called the One— acts upon the unlimited and chaotic multiplicity as a limiting and determining principle. While Parmenides and his followers claim that Being is simultaneously both the Divine that dominates the things and the totality of the things governed, Plato holds instead that there exists a certain separation between the Divine and the things. Thanks to the work of the Demiurge, the primal matter is reduced to order (gr. kósmos) and organized in a space (gr. chóra) that becomes a kind of depository, notwithstanding the fact that matter was pre-existent to such an ordering action. But even in Plato, the world forged and diversified by the Demiurge does not cease to be a “great living organism” endowed with its soul (cf. Timeaus, 30b; also cf. Philebus, 30a-c).

A second way to attribute individual consistency and cohesion to things comes from Aristotle. He derived his result, thanks above all to the principle of the “analogy of being” and to the distinction between the divine way of being (which is a pure act without any trace of potentiality) and the way of being of particular realities (which instead are a composition of act and potency). Each being possesses a proper “essence” and a proper “metaphysical nature,” which guarantee its autonomy and independence and are intrinsic principles of the specificity of its being and operation. Since the beings that manifest themselves to our experience are generally beings subject to becoming, Aristotle asks himself the metaphysical question par excellence: whether beyond them there exist immutable and eternal beings. To this question, both the books of the Physics and of the Metaphysics will give a positive response, to the point of concluding that an Immutable Being must exist, whose supreme life is the knowledge of himself. In other words, God and the world are not the same thing, but from the world one can arrive at knowledge of God.

Thus, a dualistic gnoseological vision of reality is sketched out, in which one recognizes a “sensible” part and an “intelligible” one. The distinction, emblematically laid out in the “second sailing” undertaken by Plato when he broke with the preceding philosophical tradition (cf. Phaedo, 99d-101d), is of interest to Aristotle as well. For Aristotle, the intelligibility of reality is reached by lifting oneself above sensible nature, although this intelligibility does not belong, as Plato proposed, to the world of ideas, but is inherent to the essence of things. Despite this differentiation, pantheistic tendencies will persist in Greek thought, either through the reduction of the immateriality of the intellect or the divine life to the nature of matter itself (materialistic pantheism), or through the spiritualization of the world and its re-absorption in the sphere of the divine (panpsychist pantheism).

3. Plotinian Pantheism. Beyond the pantheism of a materialistic bent professed by the stoic philosophers (see the article Materialism), who held that the divinity consisted of very fine matter animating the great organism of the cosmos (considered to be the “body” of God), it was the “emanatistic pantheism” of Plotinus (205-270), the greatest proponent of the so-called Neo-platonism, that in an age already Christian would exercise the greatest influence on later thought. The main elements of Plotinian pantheism are the derivation of the world from the One as a necessary emanation and expansion of the substance of the One’s own being, and the role of the Soul, the third hypostasis of the Plotinian Divinity. This cosmic soul of the world vivifies and binds in harmonic “sympathy” all the things of the universe, preserving them from matter’s tendency to disperse and dissolve. The tight correspondence between the cosmic soul and the human soul, and the proportional relations between macrocosm and microcosm deriving therefrom, will furnish the elements for many animistic and vitalistic ideas that, passing through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, will reach all the way to the Age of Romanticism.

Plotinus held that, if matter were totally independent from God, and thus coeternal and co-existent with Him, then something would be lacking to God and one would fall into a clear contradiction. God would no longer be pure act as Aristotle understood him to be, but only “being in potential” and therefore not immutable, but becoming (cf. Enneads, III, 7,5). Since, for motives stemming from an ontological foundation, one cannot deny the existence of an immutable being, it is then necessary that God be the “producer” of matter in some way. If then the substance of the world was not co-eternal and co-original with the Divine as Plato and Aristotle held, for whom the one could not exist without the other, it was necessary that matter was produced by God, which according to Plotinus would happen by “emanation.”

At the summit of the Plotinian system, there is the One that wishes and determines itself to be exactly as it is. Perfectly simple and infinite, the One transcends every separation, containing in itself all things and therefore able to bring them into existence. Hence in the Plotinian One, there exist two activities: one that consists in positing its own essence, and one that brings about the emanation of all things from the One. The processes of this emanation lead in the first place to the formation of the Noûs or the Intellect, from which, also by emanation, comes the Soul. This third hypostasis after the One and the Intellect is the last reality of the incorporeal world proceeding from the One, and in its turn is the generator of matter, or rather of the first reality of the corporeal world. Matter is a simple receptacle in which the forms and beings of the world transform themselves and deteriorate. In the Plotinian idea, matter is the last stage of the emanative process from the One, the product of the One’s total emptying out and therefore of its maximum privation. But by identifying the One with the Good, matter is seen as privation, as something negative, although without going so far as to identify it with evil, as happens in the radical dualism of the gnostics. In giving origin to the world, however, the One of Plotinus doesn’t “turn towards what it produces”: the world does not arise from a free act (and therefore neither is it loved as such); rather it is produced out of necessity of the superabundance of the same One, just as it belongs to the nature of light to diffuse itself and illuminate all things. Although the world comes about after the generation of Intellect and the Soul, it is in continuity with the sphere of the Divine and it is part of its substance.

4. Creation Out of Nothing: God Participates Being to Creatures. Although the pantheism of the ancient world is also representative of a philosophical journey, in the first place it expresses a religious idea, the core of which, especially in the Eastern matrix, is that the sacredness of nature is seen as divinity. Opposed to such a perspective is the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” by the One God, present in the sacred texts of the Hebrew tradition and which the Christian religion enriched in the following centuries with a specific philosophical-theological depth. One of the first systematic approaches appeared in the first centuries of the Christian era due to the critique of gnosticism. In a dialogue with Platonic philosophy, Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 120-185) traces out a quick sketch: “All things God has made out of things that were not [...]. But Plato and those of his school acknowledge indeed that God is uncreated, and the Father and Maker of all things; but then they maintain that matter as well as God is uncreated, and aver that it is coeval with God. But if God is uncreated and matter is uncreated, God is no longer, according to the Platonists, the Creator of all things, nor, so far as their opinions hold, is the monarchy of God established. And further, as God, because He is uncreated, is also unalterable; so if matter, too, were uncreated, it also would be unalterable, and equal to God; for that which is created is mutable and alterable, but that which is uncreated is immutable and unalterable. And what great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from some one, makes of it what he pleases. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases.” (Ad Autolicum, I, 4, and II, 4). The doctrine of creation out of nothing —and therefore of the clear separation between God and the world— also appears in other Christian authors: Origen, Athanasius, Hippolytus of Rome, and, in explicit tracts, in the Shepherd of Hermas, a work of the 2nd century: “You must believe that there is one sole God that created and brought to completion everything and who made from nothing that which exists.” (Mandata, I,1).

Thanks above all to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), creation out of nothing and the metaphysical irreducibility between God and the world are formulated upon rigorous philosophical foundations, especially in the context of the problem of the nature of time. Our rational soul bears witness to the perception we have of “passing” and of “remaining” (cf. Confessiones, XI, 20). But what holds for our soul must hold also for the whole cosmos, which must therefore be understood in temporal terms. Creation can only be conceived by us a succession of temporal events. The world, affirms St. Augustine, was created with time and not in time (cf. Confessiones, XII, 29,40; De civitate Dei, XI, 6), proof of an ontological separation between God and creation. The Eternal God, Being and the Supreme Good (cf. De natura boni, 19; De Trinitate, VIII, 3,4) is contrasted to the temporal things created by Him, and therefore fully distinct from them. Given his Neo-platonic formation, Augustine presupposes that creatures participate in Being and the Good by means of creation.  He keeps a necessary distance from the Neo-platonic doctrine of emanation, however, and does not hold that such participation takes place as a necessary “flowing out,” as if God could not exist without a created world. His criticism of the pantheistic vision of those who worship nature, holding her to be the soul or the body of God, is explicit; after having upbraided those who worship the Soul or the Intellect, considered by the Neo-platonists to be the first creatures of God or the various elements of creation, above all the celestial bodies, Augustine adds: “But those think themselves most religious who worship the whole created universe, that is, the world with all that is in it, and the life which inspires and animates it, which some believe to be corporal, other incorporeal. The whole of this together they think to be one great God, of whom all things are parts. They have not known the author and maker of the universe. So they abandon themselves to idols, and, forsaking the works of God, they are immersed in the works of their own hands, all of them visible things.” (St. Augustine, De vera religione, 37, 68).

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) sustained the same anti-dualistic and anti-pantheistic line. In his thought, the Augustinian doctrine and the Aristotelian reflection flow together. For Aquinas, God is the “Being” simply-speaking, i.e., Being simpliciter, “He who exists for Himself,” but is also one who communicates and gives himself to the world. Creating everything, God communicates himself and his own Being with sovereign liberty. Created beings are essentially different from their Creator, but they are similar to him in a certain sense, given that they participate —each according to its own level of existence— in the being they receive by God. Aquinas will explain this thought many times in light of the doctrine of “participation of being” (cf. Summa theologiae, I, qq. 44-45). The creature participates in the being that God possesses in fullness, taking part in it without being a part of it. If one predicates of God the being of everything, it is not because he is the essential constituent of everything but because he is the root cause of whatever exists. Concerning the well-known idea that God is present in all things by power, presence, and essence, Thomas will specify that “God is in all things by His essence, in as much He is present to all as the cause of their being,” adding that “God is said to be in all things by essence, not indeed by the essence of the things themselves, as if He were of their essence; but by His own essence, because His substance is present to all things as the cause of their being.” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 8, a. 3; cf. In I Sent., d. 8, q. 1, a.2). Thanks to his doctrine of the absolute simplicity of God, Thomas cuts every form of pantheism off at the roots, refuting in particular those forms present in the teachings of other philosophers of the same epoch, as, for example, in the materialism of David of Dinant (cf. Summa theologiae, I, q. 3, aa. 6-7 and a. 8, ad 3um), which will later inspire in part the pantheism of Giordano Bruno.

II. Some Pantheistic Perspectives in the Renaissance and the Modern Age, and their Relations to Scientific Thought

As a theory about nature, pantheism is principally tied to Neo-platonic thought. In an historic era, such as the Renaissance, that saw the rediscovery of this philosophical current, there was in fact also a rebirth of pantheism. In the naturalistic-scientific context of the Renaissance, the study of natural phenomena did not yet enjoy an autonomous and rigorous method, and pantheistic thought manifested itself in the tendency to conceive God as the “universal animation of nature.” Two authors stand out from the others in this new current: Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella. The thinkers of the Renaissance saw nature as a living organism, whose parts are reciprocally dependent upon one another, as a succession of phenomena that move toward their proper end, impelled by some interior principle. This idea shapes all the philosophy of nature of the 16th century after Agrippa of Nettesheim (cf. De occulta philosophia, 1510), who held that one can think of the universe only if it is endowed with an independent soul. The revival of this idea of anima mundi, which will prepare the way for the establishment of a new concept of nature, will also be the gateway for new forms of pantheism.

1. Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno. In the line of this progression stands the thought of Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), whose philosophy was inspired by the physics of Bernard Telesio (1509-1588) even if he ultimately distanced himself from it. The suggestion of a singular empathetic relation between human beings and the world emerges already in Campanella’s philosophy of knowledge. He holds that the sole way of knowing is a kind “direct contact” with all things. Our ability to comprehend and understand reality is realized in a “sensible” way, through sapere (to know, to taste): the subject of this act makes his own the “flavor” of things, “tasting” or “savoring” them. The idea of sensible knowledge here is not that of empiricism, which remains extrinsic in character; it is, rather, “a kind of intrinsic operation, a participation in the thing and in that innermost part of the thing, which is the same expressive process of God, the acting of the divine, the Being which conforms with Power and Love. It is not a seeing or a glancing, reproducing images, but a penetrating of the vital process of all, in short, a tasting of the sweetness of universal life.” (E. Garin, L’Umanesimo italiano, Bari 1965, p. 249). Consistently, Campanella affirms that everything possesses a “sensibility” and is subject of a certain knowledge, even if confused, of itself and of the external world, which permits it to love other beings and to remain in harmony with them through a universal empathy. Advocate of a characteristic magical animism, Campanella holds that the world is sustained above and beyond this sensibility of individual things by its own proper Soul, an instrument by which God directs all operations (cf. De sensu rerum et magia, II, 32). The task of this Soul of the world is precisely to determine the agreement, the concord, among all things and to dispose them towards a single end. Even if he views the world in a pantheistic perspective, Campanella doesn’t wish thus to deny a final cause: he actually assigns it primacy over all others. As paradoxical as it might seem, the system of Campanella was intended to remain theological and to seek in nature a demonstration of the presence and action of God.

The pantheistic position of the philosophy of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is quite complex. His scheme is similar to that of Plotinus, acknowledging a universal Intellect, but understood from a totally immanent standpoint; a Soul of the world, which gives form to everything; and Matter, which acts as a receptacle for these forms. The Aristotelian philosophy of composition from matter and form, and of potency and act having been supplanted according to the sensibility of the late 1500’s and the harbingers of what will slowly become “the new physics,” it is  precisely the notion of “form” that Bruno tries to re-read in a new light. In Bruno’s thought, the forms more and more resemble vital principles, changeable and changing, while matter is no longer seen as the element that is indeterminate and that limits, but rather as a “living potentiality.” According to Bruno, the finite being cannot simultaneously be all that it is in its nature and its essence, but since it has within itself the force and the seed of all its future forms, it is in this respect “infinite.” Ascribing the “capacity of infinity” to every finite being, Bruno intends to propose a new philosophical conception of matter, which would no longer receive its form from without, but rather from an innate and interior force. It is not the form that embraces and constrains matter, rather it is matter itself that expands and develops itself in ever new forms. Matter therefore is not solely a relation between potency and act, but a living “seed” that develops itself in all things. The true reality owes nothing, says Bruno, to any of the forms in particular; it owes nothing to anything. It simply is of an essence to unify in itself the unlimited multiplicity of all measures, all figures, and all dimensions. This concept of reality is the overthrowing of the Aristotelian concept of “individual substance,” bond by limitations of space and time, a substance that cannot encompass within itself the totality of the possible manifestations of being (cf. De immenso et innumerabilibus, Book VIII).

Indeed, the pantheistic vision of Bruno is most evident in his theory regarding the relationship between infinity and finitude. For Bruno, the infinity of the effect, i.e., of the universe, derives from the infinity of the First Cause. The world, indeed an infinity of worlds, all proceed ab aeterno from God. The universe is one, infinite, and immobile; its life is the divine life, because in all its parts, it is an effusion of God’s life. God and the universe are not “infinite in the same way,” inasmuch as God is all-infinite and totally infinite (i.e., He is totally present in every part of the infinite whole as its cause), while the universe is all-infinite but not totally infinite (because it is not wholly present in each of its infinite parts). However, nothing impedes the finite from being able to incorporate into itself what is proper to the infinite: the attributes of Bruno’s universe end up coinciding with those of Parmenidean Being to the point that they are confounded with the attributes of God.

In addition, the pantheism of Bruno manifests a gnoseological motivation. While in Galileo, it is the universality of the language of mathematics to which the whole universe is subject without any limitation, in Bruno it is the universality of substance, whose unity and eternity are not apprehended by the senses, but by the Intellect. This process is not synonymous with abstraction or immateriality, however, because intelligibility no longer belongs principally to act or form, since form and matter are simply two aspects of the same substance, nature.

2. The Pantheism of Spinoza. Baruc Spinoza (1632-1677) sought to restore the unity of being that had been shattered by René Descartes. By pursuing an extreme synthesis between metaphysical-theological thought and geometric-scientific thought, Spinoza set up a single “substance” in opposition to the “three substances” of the French philosopher, the res cogitans, the res extensa, and the res divina (the last being God as the foundation of knowledge). The res cogitans and the res extensa are two of the infinite “attributes” of the unique substance that, in Spinoza, indicates no other reality than God himself. Although ideas and things present themselves as singular concrete realities, they are instead “modes” of this substance, such that its universal character grounds their intelligibility. Nothing can exist outside of God except as a “mode” or “attribute” of God. God becomes the “source and the reality of all reality;” He alone is that unity (in the Neo-platonic sense) capable of guaranteeing all multiplicity (cf. Ethica, Book I).

The desire to allow any other form of becoming is the desire to imagine another God (cf. Ethica, I, 33). From this perspective, the philosophy of nature becomes identical to metaphysics. The famous equation of Spinoza of Deus sive natura (God, or nature) finds here its perfect setting. Contingency having been denied, nature assumes the character of “divine necessity,” a key element to Spinoza’s entire system. Such necessity in nature does not regard the infinite sum of all singular things, but rather the necessity binding one to another. God is the substance with all its infinite attributes; the world is the sum total of all the modes, finite and infinite, of the being of the substance (that is, ultimately, of God). Thus, in this universe there is no room for contingency: all becomes a necessary consequence of the necessity of God. However, the pantheism of Spinoza will acknowledge a distinction, at least a weak one, between God and the world: if the first has free necessity, the second possesses a determined necessity; if the first is the subject of infinite attributes, the second is the expression of these within the infinite modes of being of the substance; if the first is natura naturans, the second is natura naturata. However, this distinction is not a metaphysical detachment: nature is an effect present in the cause and contained within it, according to the principle that “all is in God.”

If Spinoza’s thought is more inclined to “divinize matter” due to its Cartesian point of reference and a certain dialogue with scientific thought, the pantheism deriving from the German idealism of Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling finds itself in a historic and romantic ambience and proceeds instead to “divinize form” as the mode of being par excellence. Spinoza remains one of the philosophers most often cited by scientists, although he is often known only shallowly by them. Among others, Albert Einstein has left us explicit references to the God of Spinoza (cf. The World as I see it, 1935).

3. The “absolute” space of Isaac Newton. The concept of the relation between God and nature proposed by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) has been interpreted in various ways, oscillating between a judgment of deism and one of pantheism. When he explicitly deals with the problem of God, especially in his works, Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis and Opticks, the English scientist speaks more often of a God who orders and organizes than of a God who creates. Often calling Him the “Lord of all” (Gr. Pantocrator), Newton, in an effort to explain the meaning of this attribute, affirms that God-Lord is a relative term that makes reference to a servile subjection. “Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants.” Newton continues, “The word God usually signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God […]. He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity; he governs all things, and knows all thing that are or can be done. He is not Eternity or Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration or Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is every where present; and by existing always and every where, he constitutes Duration and Space.” (I. Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. by A. Motte [London: Dawsons, 1968], pp. 389-390). The God of Newton appears distinct from His creation, which He sustains and justifies without being identified with it.

Setting aside the problem of what type of theism is represented in Newton’s thought and what conformity there is between his notion of God and the biblical image of God presented by Revelation, one needs to keep in mind that several authors have sensed a certain kind of pantheism in Newton’s idea of “absolute space”: the space of Newtonian physics is then understood as an “attribute” or an “extension” of God (cf. Jammer, 1969). In this interpretation, absolute space and time would ultimately be the “sensorium of God” (God's omnipresence in space through his Spirit) thus establishing an equivalence between what is absolute and the divine. Nevertheless, as Max Jammer specifies, it seems that Newton was aware how he could easily be misunderstood and placed among the pantheists of his times, who were identified with the atheists by orthodox circles. Besides, Newton used the word “sensorium” merely to make a comparison, and he did not identify space as an organ of God.

Moreover and to be precise, the absolute space of Newton is not the mere extension proposed by Descartes, who identified it with bodies. Newton’s space is something distinct from matter, and its principal function is to explain the attraction of bodies at a distance. In a letter to Richard Bentley (1692), Newton recognizes that “gravity must be caused by an agent which acts constantly in accord with determined laws,” but at the same time he does not know exactly what it is, preferring to leave “to the judgment of my readers to establish if this agent is either material or immaterial.” One can also hold that the God of Newton “occupies the space of the world” to ensure that in it the laws of physics are accomplished in an absolute way; but God’s presence in space —the notion of “field” being yet unknown— seems mainly to serve the function of justifying the transmission of an action at a distance, as was the case with gravitation.

III. The Presence of Pantheistic Traits in Some Views of Nature in Contemporary Science

In regard to various concepts of nature, philosophy and the sciences have exerted reciprocal influences on each other. Scientific discoveries have many times been stimulated philosophical thought, as in the cases of heliocentrism, the discovery of the quantum nature of radiation, the theories of special and general relativity, and the uncertainty principle. But in its turn, philosophy has furnished scientific discourse with conceptual categories and systematic outlines. In general, this second implication is verified more easily in those fields of science where rapid theoretical developments and less dependence upon observations leave greater space for speculation. Hence, rather than search for the direct influences of philosophical pantheism upon scientific formulations, it appears more appropriate to consider those “visions of nature” expressed in some scientific speculations that seem to be debtors, in an implicit and indirect way, to certain philosophical ideas about the Absolute and its relation to the world.

The two classical directions taken by philosophical pantheism throughout history —the spiritualistic or panpsychist one, in which nature is seen as a great spirit that animates reality (anima mundi), and the materialistic one, in which nature is identified with matter and ends up manifesting the same attributes of the Absolute or divine— are also present in certain concepts of nature diffused by contemporary science. I would suggest three major fields in which such pantheistic traits seem to emerge: the cosmic neo-vitalism (to which belong the program of the “Gnosis of Princeton” and other forms of “mysticism of physics”), the idea of a “cosmic code” as an answer to the question of the intelligibility of reality, and, finally, some interpretations of the Anthropic principle. The first can be traced back to a spiritualistic perspective, while the second and third are more in tune with the materialistic perspective. A further example of interaction between philosophical and scientific views is the idea, supported by some scientists, of the world as “all in God,” with the corresponding involvement of God himself in the world, a vision at times described as “panentheism.”

1. The Gnosis of Princeton and Cosmic Neo-Vitalism. Today, a number of scientists are searching for new interpretations of reality following two intuitions above all: a) to overcome systems of logic that are considered typical of a “western” culture, generally based upon the principles of identity and of non-contradiction, upon dialectic opposition and the irreducibility of the contraries; new logical systems are thus invoked, often derived from oriental philosophies and more open to the composition of contraries, to the transformation of identity, and to the possibility of new syntheses; b) to favor relation and interaction as the keys for understanding the properties of the individual, which in reality ultimately cease to be the properties of the individual and become solely the properties of the whole, whose global logic (or even “life”) determines the behavior and the meaning of the parts. Having been developed in a bizarre and creative way starting from the theory of games and then the theory of paradoxes, these forms of thought —called by the end of the 1960’s “The Gnosis of Princeton” or even “The New Gnosis” by their adversaries at Princeton and Pasadena— found a first application in the field of quantum mechanics. With an attitude fluctuating between reserve and secrecy, they rapidly expanded into the fields of biology and cosmology, generating criticism on the part of “official” science (cf. Ruyer, 1974).

The fundamental thesis of the New Gnosis is similar to that of all gnostic systems: the world is dominated by the Spirit, to which matter is counterposed; but according to the Gnostics of Princeton, the Spirit doesn’t find opposition in matter, inasmuch as it is seen instead as the Spirit’s creature. Material bodies are seen as the “by-product” of the Spirit, they are the “stuff” that allows the Spirit, united in all the parts of the cosmos, to be contained. The universe is formed neither of material entities, nor of energies, but rather of “domains of consciousness.” The universe consists of the “forms conscious of themselves” and of the interactions that establish themselves between these forms, thanks to their mutual information. The true pieces of information would be those present in the “interior consciousness” of every being. Scientific observation gathers solely the “reverse side” of this information, i.e., its bodily and material dimension, but not its “right side,” represented by the spiritual and relational dimension. The New Gnosis intends to overcome this conceptual barrier, in which conventional science remains ensnared, to gain access to the innermost, relational dimension of the object, but to accomplish this goal, it is necessary to recognize that every object observed has its own life and its own consciousness. Some entities, such as human beings and animals, would be able to communicate this consciousness of theirs, this hidden “right side,” while other beings would not, although they also possess their own innermost dimension, their proper “right side.” Except for artificial entities and entities that appear by chance, individual elements and even the individual elementary particles possess a conscious dimension. The real world is generated by all these infinite processes and relations; ignoring them would result in not knowing the world in its profundity, because one would be ignoring the “soul.”

The vision of a cosmic neo-vitalism, which one may encounter well beyond the confines of the “Gnostics of Princeton,” thus becomes more and more distinct: self-regulation, coordination, and homoeostasis of complex material systems such as the Earth are now seen as manifestations of a true life (cf. Lovelock, 2000).  Not only would the various material elements and the biosphere have their own life, but the whole universe would definitely possess the personality of a living being, capable of constructing its own history (cf. Smolin, 1997). According to some authors, the progressive and irreversible growth of information in the world assumes the role of a Soul or of a cosmic Spirit, to whom is entrusted the task not only of regulating the processes of matter (by transcending it or at least by uncoupling itself from matter), but also of guiding the entire evolution of the universe towards immortality (cf. Tipler, 1994).

It is difficult to formulate a comprehensive and pondered judgment about such visions of nature due to the heterogeneity (and at times the naïveté) of the different proposals. There is another factor not to be undervalued: these proposals arise from an exigency of a “post-modern” surmounting of some forms of “modern” rationality, as reductionism and materialism, understood today to be inadequate. But the search for new philosophical paradigms is not devoid of a certain ambiguity. Some authors indicate that the greater importance given to the “creative” evolution of complex systems is the necessary overcoming of a theistic vision that will finally free us from the idea of a God who rules the fortunes of the world (cf. Smolin, 1997); yet others hold it to be in accord with the existence of purpose in the universe, and therefore with the idea of a Creator (cf. Davies 1987 and 1992). Rather than judging between these two positions, it is much easier to point out the fact that evident connections exist between many neo-vitalistic concepts and some characteristic elements of the New Age, of which the “Gnosis of Princeton” almost appears to be a faithful application in the scientific field. There is also an implicit relationship among hermetism, Renaissance vitalism (see above, II.1) and modern ideas of emergence or creativity in nature. These paradigms appear and disappear in various forms in scientific reflections, perhaps to demonstrate that they contain meaningful insights, which modern positivistic rationality had thought to be able to elude in modes perhaps overly-simplistic. Nonetheless, it must be said that the overcoming of reductionism and other analytical methodologies in favor of new visions of nature characterized by a synthetic and holistic approach, one more attentive to the relational properties and to the synthesis and harmony of the whole, ought not to lead to a refutation of a “foundational logic” or of a “first philosophy” that ultimately unites both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. These two traditions should not be seen in an antagonistic way; otherwise philosophy itself would suffer a dangerous loss of identity, as would, in the ultimate analysis, the universal communicability of scientific thought.

2. The Cosmic Code and Immanent Evolution towards the Emergence of Consciousness. Besides those who speak of a cosmic Soul, various contemporary authors refer to a cosmic “mind.” Here there is a restructuring that unknowingly follows closely the role of the two Plotinian hypostases generated by the One (see above, I.3) and that, also unknowingly, maintains a constant bond with the two classical ways of seeing the divine in the world: as Intellect and as Spirit. The reference to a “cosmic mind” or even to a “cosmic code” is usually presented in the context of the question about the intelligibility and rationality of the laws of nature, the question about the reason for the harmony among the various parts of the universe and, finally, the discussion about the delicate coordination (“fine-tuning”) among the many parameters and numerical constants that determine the structure and evolution of the cosmos.

If on the scientific level such observation is completely licit and finds its place within a Pythagorean tradition, one associated with every mathematical reading of nature that sees the world as an expression of harmony and order (gr. kósmos), on the philosophical level and from a realistic perspective, it can follow two diverse approaches. (Observe, by the way, that from an idealistic perspective the idea of cosmic order would be described as solely an apparent order, something imposed by the mental categories of the subject.) The first realist philosophical approach is to hold that such rationality is a reflection on the objective level of the world and its phenomena of an ordering Intelligence that, transcending the universe, possesses it and unfolds the entire cosmic project. Even if subjected to diverse developments —one can indeed arrive and stop at a kind of God, typical to deism, who is both architect and impersonal, or one can remain open to the Revelation of a God who is the source for the order, but also personal and salvific— such a perspective points towards something beyond the universe itself. In other words, the observation of the hallmarks of intelligence in the world leads us to ask for their cause.

The second approach, although it also recognizes the existence of an order and of a delicate fine-tuning in the structure of the world, does not think it necessary to invoke some Intelligence that transcends the universe, but understands these simply as the self-expression of a necessary and immanent law embedded within the very conditions of the existence of the world as such. The universe is nothing more than its laws or its “project”: if there is any reference to a notion of God or of the divine, this notion ends up being identified with the laws of nature, which in their turn are identified with the universe itself. The mind of God is substantially the mind of the universe. In this case, the cosmic Intellect in nothing but the modern expression for a materialistic pantheism in which there is the theoretical possibility of recognizing a kind of lógos, but which in practical terms belongs to matter itself. Thus, the weak separation between matter and spirit, or between matter and reason, to which the idea of a cosmic code seems to lead, now completely disappears into the rule of a strict materialistic monism.

Something similar takes place in regard to the possible interpretations of the Anthropic principle. The scientific data demonstrating that the delicate conditions for the existence of the cosmos as it is are also the same that allow it to be suitable for life, can be understood philosophically in two different ways. They could be taken as “consonant” with the idea that there exists an original project for the world, a project that is also distinct from the world, whose final purpose is the creation of the necessary conditions to allow intelligent observers to appear in the universe. On the other hand, the same data could be interpreted to demonstrate that cosmic and biological evolution has within itself a fully immanent “code” (similar to DNA in its own significance for the development of a living organism), the program of which consists in structuring the universe by leading it to the appearance of intelligent (human) beings, so that the universe might finally arrive at being “conscious of itself.” In the first case, the universe would have been made for humans, in the second, humans for the universe... In this second case, we stand before a new pantheistic vision of a materialistic nature: consciousness —particularly that of human beings— would be the necessary and sufficient end result of the evolution of matter, and, from the moment of the appearance of intelligence, matter would come to be totally permeated and encompassed by it.

From a conceptual point of view, I would suggest that the affirmation of a materialistic pantheism bound to the presence of a cosmic mind or code presents an inherent contradiction: it dissolves the question about the cause of the intelligibility of reality, i.e. the very question that gave rise to our reflection on the existence of such a mind or of a code. Intelligibility becomes the simple fruit of evolution and no longer the possibility to rise above it by posing problems and asking questions. In addition, there exist arguments confirming the fact that the intelligibility of nature is difficult to ascribe to the laws of natural selection or of cosmic evolution. The issue shows a certain astonishing analogy with the irreducibility of the relationship between mind and body.

Concerning the second interpretation of the Anthropic principle, which says that the appearance of human beings is the necessary product of a deterministic self-expression of the universe, one needs to keep in mind that the scientific observations that are the foundation for the reflections about the “fine-tuning” between the universe and life regard necessary but not sufficient conditions: to allow life to flourish, it is necessary that the universe is just as it is, but being just as it is, is not sufficient to bring about in a deterministic way the existence and flourishing of life, the originating causes of which are, at least up until this moment, still unknown.

3. The Proposal of Panentheism. The ontological and dynamic consistency that scientific thought tends to grant to nature in its relationship with its possible Creator leads at times to the hypothesis of a kind of “feed-back” of nature to God. One thus arrives at the idea of a more active role for the world, and therefore of a certain “active polarity” between God and the world, postulating a participation of God in the dynamic of nature and its processes. In broad strokes, one may say this leads to seeing the world as a “part of God,” more precisely as a “whole within God,” thus giving rise to the term “panentheism.” This idea, probably already present in the philosophy of Heraclitus (550 ca. - 480 ca.) and later favored by the thought of Spinoza (see above, II.2), by the idealism of G. Hegel (1770-1831), and by the cosmic evolution of H. Spencer (1820-1903), was implicitly revived recently in some forms of thought inspired by A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947) and his philosophy of process.

Panentheism sees the world as inserted into the nature of God, into his being and his life. God maintains a certain priority over the world, as the whole does over its parts, but he can’t avoid depending upon it to a certain degree. The divine perfections and the other divine attributes “grow” together with the world; God needs “to take into account” the properties, the potentialities, and the processes of the world if he wishes to bring to fulfillment not only his creative project, but also that which is lacking to his own fulfillment. The idea of creation from nothing and the sovereignty of God over all things certainly become obscured here, and God’s relationship to the universe resembles more that of a pilot commanding a ship in a storm than that of a transcendent Creator. God’s creativity would then depend on the world’s creativity and emergence, whose future developments and results would be unknown to God himself. Panentheism does not deny the personal nature of God nor human freedom (a freedom participated in some way by the whole universe), but the theological understanding of the perfection of God’s freedom is nonetheless profoundly modified. Favorable to a revision of the philosophical idea of the immutability of God, panentheism does not have the theological tools necessary to address or redirect the implications of this idea for the mystery of the Incarnation (or for some kind of theologia crucis within it) or for the biblical meaning of such notions as divine mercy and fidelity. Instead, it seeks an easy solution on the merely physical level, one attractive for the role of protagonist played by the evolution of the cosmos and by its laws, but damaging to the image of God and ultimately also to the right understanding of the reality itself of the universe. If the legitimate desire to grant nature its own autonomy and allow it to participate in some way in the divine attributes is carried out in disregard of any metaphysics of being (the entire “dynamic” significance of which the proponents of panentheism often ignore) and without affirming a true creation ex nihilo, this way of thinking leads to the idea of a world that “grows together with God,” and ends up sooner or later replacing Him.

IV. The Need for a Distinction between Creator and Creatures, and the Harmony of Nature

By affirming a substantial, and therefore metaphysical, separation between God and the world, Judeo-Christian Revelation does not take away the sacredness of nature. That is, there exists much room for a “sacred” vision of nature, though not a “religion of nature.” Nature is not the ultimate source of its sacredness, because it is only a reflection of the holiness and beauty of God. In many texts of Genesis, one reads how God blesses his creation (cf. Gen 1:22-28; 8:17; 9:1 etc.), a creation many times recognized as a “good thing,” seen also as “beautiful,” a creation which the original sin of human beings has in part disfigured by distorting its primal harmony, but which the salvation worked by Jesus Christ will recapitulate and reconcile in a new salvific economy. The created world is called to participate in this economy, the first fruits of which are now present and at hand in the historic and meta-temporal event of His resurrection from the dead (cf. Rm 8:19-22).

As has already been seen, the separation between the God of Israel and the world, and His complete ontological diversity expressed in the doctrine of creation from nothing (see above, I.4), do not prevent the created world from being similar to God, nor God from being present in His creatures. Here there is a true “philosophical novelty” thanks to the biblical significance of the notions of “immanence” and “transcendence,” which are richer than those used by philosophical thought. Among Christian thinkers, Thomas Aquinas developed a metaphysics capable of taking advantage of the mutual immanence and transcendence of God, especially in the formulation of the doctrine of participation and of the “intensity” of the act of being (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, qq. 44-47). The theological perspective of the relationship between God and the world was summed up by John Paul II in one of his catecheses on creation: “As Creator, God is in a certain sense ‘outside’ of created being and what is created is ‘outside’ of God. At the same time the creature fully and completely owes to God its own existence (its being what it is), because the creature has its origin fully and completely from the power of God. Through this creative power (omnipotence) God is in the creature and the creature is in him. However, this divine immanence in no way diminishes God's transcendence in regard to everything to which he gives existence.” (John Paul II, General Audience, January 15, 1986, n. 6)

The Christian universe is similar to its Creator not because it is a necessary emanation (Plotinus), nor because a Demiurge took its forms from the world of Ideas to later reproduce them in the world of nature (Plato). As opposed to the hypostases of Plotinus and the Demiurge of Plato, the Word and the Holy Spirit are not the “hinge” between the divine and the earthly, nor are they the first creatures of the One. The logic with which the Christian Trinity gives origin to the world resides totally in the liberty of its immanent life. Here the philosophical opposition between necessity and freedom is overcome in the mystery of a personal communion, of the free gift of three distinct Persons made possible by the necessary identity of the same divine nature. Having willed all things “in His Word and through His Word,” but also “for Love and with Love,” God gives origin to a world in which the logic of the Trinitarian processions acts as the exemplary causality, without any of the Divine Persons entering into “composition” with creatures. The processions of the divine Persons (generation and spiration) are seen by St. Thomas as the cause and reason (Lat. ratio) of the creation of creatures, or said more precisely: “The procession of the Persons in the unity of their essence is the cause of the procession of creatures in the diversity of their essence.” (Exitus Personarum in unitate essentiae est causa exitus creaturarum in essentiae diversitate) (In I Sent., d. 2, divisio textus; cf. ibidem, d. 14, q. 2, a. 2).

The fact that the universe is called to be completely renewed in Christ though the recapitulation the Son mysteriously brings about, or the fact that the Spirit continually vivifies creation, sanctifying it, is never expressed in Sacred Scripture in a way that would lead one to think of the world as the “body of God” or of the Spirit as its “soul.” The teaching of the Church has many times clarified the content of faith in regard to possible pantheistic misinterpretations. Thus the thesis, attributed to Peter Abelard (1079-1142), that the Holy Spirit was the soul of the world (cf. DH 722), was condemned; and likewise the theses, attributed to Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1327), that God created the world at the same time as the generation of the Son, and that the human soul possessed something uncreated and in common with the divine intellect (cf. DH 953, 977). A more organic and complete clarification regarding pantheism will come with the First Vatican Council (1870). Without making explicit reference to specific authors, the Council censured pantheistic visions of the emanatistic type (Plotinus), the substantial (Spinoza), the essential (Schelling), and the universal or indefinite (Hegel). The philosophical causes (ontological, psychological, and ethical) underlying these erroneous understandings of creation were also pointed out and denounced: to deny the distinction between Creator and creature, to deny the liberty of God, and to ignore the true end of creation itself (cf. DH 3024-3025).

Christianity is honestly concerned with the necessity, particularly urgent in more recent decades, to rediscover a better “harmony” between humankind and nature, for this belongs to the biblical message and to its tradition of thought. We certainly stand in front of a trend felt in many areas of contemporary culture, urged not only by the new scientific epistemologies, but also by the now inevitable worldwide context of social, economical, and technological politics. At the same time, Christianity stresses that such a concern ought not to turn itself into a cosmo-centered anxiety. Sacred Scripture recalls that humanity does not find its télos (i.e., its end)in the search for an harmony with nature: the quest for this necessary harmony, whether on the personal or societal level, does not provide responses to the great enigmas of human existence, nor does it furnish the ultimate answer about the role of the human being in the universe. Humanity and nature, even in their autonomy, both depend upon God. From a theological point of view, it must be added that nature alone “does not save;” and this is, perhaps, the greater difference between Christianity and the perspective of Buddhism or of those philosophies inspired by it. Nature can contribute to our salvation insofar as it leads us to God, that is, in the measure to which it shows us the existence of a Creator through aesthetic or rational appeal (natural revelation) and, therefore, only in the measure to which nature remains capable of referring to something beyond itself. In this sense, one could say that Christianity is not in much agreement with the idea of a Mother Nature, but holds rather to that of a Sister Nature, to whom we are bound because we see in her a common dependence upon the Creator (cf. John Paul II, General Audience, January 26, 2000). These insights have been present within the core of Christian message from the beginning and found in St. Francis of Assisi one of their best witnesses. If the Canticle of Creatures will call only the Earth “mother” and this in the precise context of the production of fruits necessary for sustenance, all other natural realities are seen with a “fraternal” eye, which recognizes them as participants in a common filiation from God: “May you be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially brother sun [...]. May you be praised, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars [...]. May you be praised, my Lord, for sister water [...]. May you be praised, my Lord, for brother fire...” (Laudato sii, mi’Signore, cum tucte le tue creature, specialmente messer lo frate sole [...]. Laudato sii, mi’Signore, per sora luna e le stelle [...]. Laudato sii, mi’Signore, per sora aqua [...]. Laudato sii, mi’Signore, per frate focu...).

The contemplation of nature and the search for the divine within it have a very important role in inter-religious dialogue. Christian theology is interested in developing a more mature and articulate reflection in this area, just as it is convinced that the true God can be known starting from the observation of nature. Judaism and Christianity, the Koran and Eastern religious traditions, philosophical thought and the natural religions, all encounter one another in the praise of God in creation (cf. John Paul II, General Audience, August 2, 2000). Christianity engages in this dialogue with what is specific to her: nature is the first stage of divine Revelation (cf. Fides et ratio, n. 19), creation is the work of the Trinity, the contemplation of the created world moves the believer to the praise of the One and Triune God without stopping at the idea of an anonymous and impersonal sacredness. It is the Holy Spirit, who is indeed the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, who orients such praise and contemplation, and who also guides the dialogue between Christian believers and believers of other religions starting from the common observation of nature. “In the light of the Christian faith, creation particularly calls to mind the Holy Spirit in the dynamism that marks the relations between things, within the macrocosm and the microcosm, and is apparent especially wherever life is born and develops. Because of this experience, even in cultures far removed from Christianity, the presence of God is perceived in a way as the ‘spirit’ which gives life to the world. Virgil’s words are famous in this regard: ‘spiritus intus alit’ – the spirit nourishes from within (Aeneid, VI, 726). The Christian knows well that this reference to the Spirit would be unacceptable if it meant a sort of ‘anima mundi’ taken in a pantheistic sense. However, while excluding this error, it remains true that every form of life, activity and love refers in the last analysis to that Spirit who, as Genesis tells us, ‘was moving over the face of the waters’ (Gn 1:2) at the dawn of creation.” (John Paul II, General Audience, August 2, 2000, n. 5).

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents

Leo I, DH 285; Innocent II, DH 722; John XXII, DH 953, 977; Pius IX, DH 2901; Vatican Council I, DH 3023-3025; Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge, 14.3.1937, EE 5, 1153; John Paul II: General Audience, 15.1.1986, n. 6; General Audience, 2.8.2000; Fides et ratio, 80.

Bibliography: 

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