Pantheology and Christianity
A Response to Ed Feser on DBH's You Are Gods
David Bentley Hart does not need me to defend him against the seemingly belligerent ignorance of Ed Feser, but it is perhaps the case that the pantheology of Christianity’s ancient Jewish and pagan intellectual climate can always use an extra avenger. To be clear for what follows, it is not the case, as Feser has bemoaned on Twitter, that he misunderstands Hart simply because he is a Thomist. It is instead that he misunderstands Hart because he is not trained in those things that Hart is trained in—philology, literature, history, Near Eastern antiquities, classics, biblical studies, New Testament, Early Christian studies, patristics, ancient philosophy and theology, generalized religion, etc.—and therefore does not have the instinct to contextualize Thomas himself in a wider flow of intellectual history beyond vague gesturing towards Aristotle and Augustine. If Feser suffers from any intellectual shortcoming it is the inability to step back from his chosen model with the critical vantage that an interdisciplinary approach affords: he seems unaware or unwilling to see that his commitment to Thomism is not, in itself, a justification for the habitual Thomistic reading of data about Early Christianity over against other such readings. Appeals to the model alone are tautological and insufficient; is the model itself that is in question, and wanting.
This is most obvious when one considers Feser’s specific complaints against Hart’s most recent book, You Are Gods, as an example of “Post-Christian Pantheism.” In the course of two paragraphs in his review, Feser accuses Hart of Stoicism, Hegelianism, and Spinozism with breathtaking speed. Never mind that Stoicism was the most popular philosophy and physics of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods in which Christianity arose, and its assumptions concerning natural philosophy spill across the New Testament in various ways, including in the ways the New Testament describes God;1 never mind that Hegel himself denied that his system was a pantheism, accusing “Those who speak of pantheism [of being] wanting in the simplest categories of thought” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion);2 never mind that to describe Spinoza as a pantheist, at least if this means to fully collapse God and creation into one another, is to fundamentally misread him.3 Feser’s notion of “pantheism” has not bothered to interact with any of the contemporary scholarship or serious speculative philosophical and theological work that has something to do with the topic, like Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies (whose terminology I will henceforth use in place of “pantheism” or “panentheism,” terms which are differences of perspective rather than kind and which are therefore less useful then talking about trying to construct an “account” of “God” as “the all”). Feser, in other words, does not know what he is talking about when he talks about pantheism, and does not realize that what he is attacking has a much longer pedigree in Christianity than he realizes (or could, given his training and his narrowly Thomistic vision).
I will principally deal with Feser’s misrepresentation of Christianity’s hospitality to pantheological interests and tendencies, since that is where I think the limitations of his academic training and method are most obvious, and simultaneously where the rubber meets the road on the question itself of God’s relationship to the world in Christian perspective. It should suffice simply to observe that many Jews writing in Greek in antiquity of whom we are aware—including the translator of Ben Sirach, who straightforwardly says that God “is the All” in LXX Sir 43:27, Paul, from the Stoic hotspot of Tarsus, and Philo, in Alexandria, contemporaries who never met or interacted as far as we have any reason to think—were profoundly influenced, just like the rest of the Mediterranean world, by the Stoic vision of the universe and of the role the divine played in it. The Stoics were corporealists, for whom the primary, active corpus was God—interchangeable with pneuma, the fine, subtle substance of hot, dry, fiery air, and also coextensive with logos, that is, as the principle which gave things intelligibility and form—and the secondary, passive corpus was matter. God was ubiquitous in the Stoic cosmos as the immanent, indwelling principle of life and intelligibility, and so all things brimmed with life to some degree, from the lowest consistency and unity to the highest (in the form of the kosmic god itself). The Stoics did not understand themselves as opposed to Plato, with his Demiurge beyond matter and the eternal world of the forms which he contemplates in the Timaeus: rather, it appears that Zeno of Citium himself may have been influenced by Polemo’s pantheistic reading of the Timaeus already in the 4th century BCE, and so the Stoics emerged in the Hellenistic period contra Epicureans and Skeptics as defenders of divine providence (pronoia) and the philosophical possibility of human deification (in the form of the sage and astral ascent of one’s pneuma, tensed into a psyche in the mortal body, to the cosmic pneuma). The direct successors of Plato at the time were beholden to Skepticism, and this would not change until Antiochos of Ascalon’s reformation of the Academy to a more dogmatic philosophy that contemporary scholars often describe as “Middle Platonism”; Peripatetics were simply not a very powerful force in ancient philosophy until later, when Aristotle’s insights would be increasingly integrated into the Plotinian and post-Plotinian systems that contemporary scholars usually call (originally with something of a pejorative tone) “Neoplatonism.” But more significantly, Middle and Neoplatonism absorbed Stoic physics and ethics into themselves, albeit modifying them by a genuine, thoroughgoing transcendentalism which the Stoics themselves did not affirm; Stoicism died out as a separate school in antiquity, but it won several of the intellectual battles it sought to fight through its very assimilation into the eclectic kind of Platonism that dominated late antiquity. Stoic pneuma is an obvious antecedent to the Middle and Neoplatonic World Soul, distinguishable in some versions of the system from Soul generally conceived; and the Stoic assessment of pneuma as divine stands behind both the New Testament’s use of the word as well as the later Christian arguments for the idea that the pneuma is a distinct divine hypostasis intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the one God.
It is clear enough to virtually all contemporary biblical scholars that pneuma has a Stoic valence for Paul, an observation that in no way threatens the fact that Paul primarily self-identifies as a Jew for whom his primary textual resources for talking about pneuma in a religious setting are Jewish Scriptures that do not reflect quite so philosophically on pneuma as Stoic physicists like Cleanthes or Posidonius did. The pneuma of God and Christ, who became life-creating pneuma (1 Cor 15:45), is received into the physical body and transforms the recipient from a sarkic or psychic being into a pneumatic one, who is not from the kosmos (3:3). This is Paul’s understanding of the mechanics of what he elsewhere talks about as adoption, becoming “sons of God” in and through participation in Christ, by faith (e.g., Rom 10:9), baptism (6:1-11), and eucharist (1 Cor 10-11). And it is part of a grander cosmic narrative, Paul thinks, in which eventually, all creation, sharing in the pneuma that comes from God and Christ, will confess and submit to Jesus as Lord and messianic conqueror of the universe, including the rebellious celestial powers, and in which process the dead will be raised to pneumatic glory, “each in their own order” and according to the different glories their merits have earned; Christ will then in turn submit to God the Father, who will become “all in all” (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 15:20-28). That phrase, “all in all,” is probably a reference to Aratus’ Phaenomena I.5, in which Aratus claims that “everything is full of Zeus”; and the memory that Paul utilized the pagan philosophy of Stoic thinkers like Aratus may well stand behind the Lukan Paul’s quotation of Epimenides and Aratus on the Areopagus in the post-Pauline Book of Acts, that in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, Paul has taken Stoic physics to be a descriptor of the final rung of his apocalyptic eschatology, the denouement of creaturely existence in the divine pleroma and the overflowing realization of God’s infinity in the finite world.
Greek Fathers, among some of whose principal writers apokatastasis was often an explicit or implicit primary theme, take Paul’s point in describing a created world that is so full of God as to be qualitatively indistinct from God even if by nature the finite is not obliterated by the infinite. “In you, the One, all things abide,” writes St. Gregory Nazianzen, “and all things endlessly run to you / who are the end of all. / And you are the One, and All, and none of them—being not one thing, not all things” (Hymn I.1.29).4 This is the heart of the patristic dictum Deus fit homo ut homo fieret deus itself (represented, e.g., in Gregory’s 29th Oration), of which Hart’s monograph serves as an explication: it is possible neither for God to become human nor for the human to become God without God either ceasing to be God or the human ceasing to be human unless what it is to be God in some sense already includes what it is to be human and unless what it is to be human can already at least potentially participate in what it is to be God. More explicitly, there are patristic writers who articulate a thoroughgoing pantheology: Pseudo-Dionysios is clear that God is the Being of all beings, in whom all things subsist as his theophany (e.g., Divine Names V.4), whence perhaps Maximos’ clear teaching that the Logos always and everywhere seeks to realize the mystery of his incarnation (Amb. 7.22), such that, as my friend Jordan has argued in his forthcoming book5 and as we have talked about at length, in Maximos’ view, creation is incarnation and therefore is also deification, such that creation only exists as God in the mode of that which is not God by nature becoming God by grace in and through Christ. And therefore, too, John Scotus Eriugena says that God is “all things that are and are not” (Exp. 4.67).6
The point is not here to provide a comprehensive list of sources (though such would be a worthy project), but rather just to say that Feser’s discomfort with “pantheism”—distinct from “panentheism” only at a very superficial distance, truthfully, but connotatively unhelpful and therefore not as preferable as “pantheology”—is indicative of his own lack of awareness of the intellectual history of trying to provide an account of the relationship between God and everything. But it also shows his unwillingness to follow some of his own convictions through to their logical conclusions, because the thoroughgoing classical monotheism that Feser argues for in, say, Five Proofs for the Existence of God (a book for which, all of my distaste for Feser’s work aside, I have profound praise) is not other than a nondualism, chastely observed. If God is infinite, then the world cannot be a secondary principle alongside God, since this would condition God as finite (God is not the world); and if the infinite God is also Oneness itself, then there can be no other self-existent metaphysical principle beyond him (such as “the World”). The World can only really exist in and as God in a creaturely mode, and this existence itself is only possible if God in his own infinity already exists in a plurality of modes, as the unoriginate but generative abyss of being and consciousness, the generated and adoring reflection, and the intimate bond of knowledge and love binding the first together. The World exists as enfolded in the potentiality for finite manifestation of the love of Father, Son, and Spirit, in God’s acts of self-knowing and self-loving by which he knows and loves forth into being all the infinite possibilities of what he, the Infinite, is capable of giving rise to, the logoi within the Logos, the paradigms and persons of the Divine Wisdom, emanated into the Creaturely Wisdom of the plastic world, ever seeking its sophianic consummation in union with its archetype. If Christianity is not finally a pantheology of some sort, then God’s creation and reconciliation of all things in and through Christ by the power of the Spirit is only a sort of advanced demiurgy, in which a divine being succeeds in exerting brute force of will over a preexistent material universe the control of which he could theoretically use. Admittedly, this is closer to home to the mythological background of many biblical texts; but there is a reason that both later biblical literature and early Christian patristic theology, like then-contemporary Judaism, consciously chose to allegorize and philosophize this mythological material, not to the exclusion of a possible plurality of gods, monsters, and indeterminate ends for creation, but to ensure that Jews and Christians worshiped God, not merely a god.
Feser should be able to get that, but it is here that his Thomistic commitments and methods blind him to the obvious, which is that the question at hand is not what has been said in the past (as though a dogmatic appeal to authority would settle something) but how to reconcile unsolved questions in the formal and final causality of deification itself, for which his own tradition has limited resources due to certain intellectual decisions Thomas and his later successors opted for. He would have a less difficult time grasping the metaphysical status of the world, frankly, as a Scotist, not because Thomas is really blind to the fact that God is the very Being of the world, but because Thomists are so committed to the treatment of Thomas as though he were the sole reliable channel of ancient philosophy—an interesting choice given that he could neither read Greek nor had access to much of the Greek patristic tradition in Latin translation—that they cannot usually see past their reified categories (“Stoicism,” etc.) to the reality of the ancient philosophical landscape and how it shapes Christian texts. And so while Hart insists repeatedly in this and other monographs that he does not really care about the direction of Catholic theology, this is of course a raging debate within Catholicism, about how postconciliar theology can and must be done, what it means to retain Thomas as a touchstone in Catholic thinking (which I am not against per se), and how critical inquiry relates to dogma. I also wonder how Feser interacts with members of his own church and of the Catholic theological guild, like, say, Francis X. Clooney, SJ, who have committed their lives to exactly the kind of syntheses that make Feser so uncomfortable. Is it really likely to be the case, in Feser’s mind, that they just “don’t get” Catholicism, or the truth of Catholic doctrine?
Again, this is not for Feser, whom I’m unlikely to convince, and it’s not to defend Hart (who doesn’t need it and likely wouldn’t receive it well, I suspect, if it were framed in that way). My goal is rather to stress to the interested observer on either side of the issue that there is a methodological necessity to doing historical theology before one does speculative theology, and not allowing one’s methods in either to overwhelm the other. Feser seems unable or unwilling to put the New Testament and early Christians squarely in their own intellectual environment, for if he were, he would realize that Christianity certainly has its own pantheology; and he seems unwilling or unable to follow speculatively the syllogistic chain that, well-represented by Thomas himself both in method and content, would lead him to affirmation of pantheology as a metaphysically necessary conclusion of the classical theism he has elsewhere championed. But I’m unsurprised, I guess: this is a man who, for all the clamoring sometimes lobbied Hart’s way about his perceived lack of pastoral concern for people’s spiritual health (a bit exaggerated, though he himself has admitted that it’s not really his thing), seems to be incapable of praising Hart’s strengths, has argued (sometimes in print) for the idea that animals have no afterlife, for the liceity of capital punishment,7 and for eternal hell, and, perhaps most damnably in the intellectual sense, has apparently no capacity to entertain with charity and interest an argument that he disagrees with. There seem to be emerging two basic ways of doing theology: theology rooted in narratives of fear and decline, skewing as closely as possible to the past in terror at what the present and future might presage; and theology that looks to the past for a different reason entirely, as a guide and a partner, but not a dictator, for the future. I wonder with honest ignorance how much longer the former way of doing things will continue to obstruct.
See Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Thomas Rasimus, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, and Ismo Dunderberg, Stoicism in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2010); and this article I wrote last year, summarizing a paper I delivered in college, which links to more scholarship.
I want to be lucidly clear here: I know almost nothing about Hegel—I don’t yet read German, and I’ve never read Hegel, either in the original or in translation—and so I have no stake in Hart’s recent post against Hegel’s system, other than perhaps to observe that my friend Jordan is much more positive about the whole thing, and therefore that my own ignorance enables peace with both one of my most important teachers as well as with my drinking buddy.
See Clare Carlisle, Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
The translation is John McGuckin’s. John McGuckin, trans., Saint Gregory Nazianzen: Selected Poems (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986).
Preorder Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022).
I will not link his book on the subject, for fear of encouraging someone that dislikes the article to buy it.