A small gift I picked up at Kenny's New Year's Eve party, which I will pass on to you: an essay from the New York Times that reminds me what is possible with popular writing on philosophy.
Ross Douthat's essay analyzes James Cameron's latest blockbuster "Avatar" and finds it is one more Hollywood tribute to pantheism, along with the likes of "Dances with Wolves", "The Lion King", and "Star Wars". That's obvious enough; the American audience is familiar by now with ham-fisted eco-fables that glorify Nature and those who commune with it. (I would throw in "Princess Mononoke", too, but Joe Morgenstern beat me to the punch.)
But Douthat moved beyond the obvious, to make a spot-on analysis of why American movies have been so taken with pantheism: ambivalence about technology, and the need for a more immediate (and less inconvenient) sense of divinity. And, even better still, he provides as terse, eloquent, and devastating a critique of pantheism as you'll ever find in 190 words.
How could they possibly allow this much wisdom in a newspaper? And in the Times, no less?
And that's just the content. On a process level, check out the dude's bibliography. My enduring respect goes to anyone who can cite five movies, two gurus, a Pew Forum report, a historian, four philosophers, and a scientist (not to mention the casual allusions to Christian theology)inside of 800 words, and not even break his conversational tone. That's what Augie would call "Plato to NATO" -- a well-read person bringing the full weight of their intellect to a conversation, even if it is just about a pop sci-fi movie.
I continue to despair of writing anything remarkable, but for different reasons than before. Once upon a time it felt like people like me, or Kenny Felder, or Augie Turak were all alone in the cultural landscape. The volume of the cultural noise has gone way up in the last decade, but amidst the ocean of drivel there is more sensible thinking to be found than ever before.
So, here's to a new year, a new decade, and the ongoing hope that wisdom is possible, if not easy.
I sure did love that article. For what it's worth, here are what I see as some of the key appeals of pantheism.
1. It elevates ecological virtues ("reduce, reuse, recycle") to the status of holy commandments, while not making any other inconvenient demands (don't eat pork, pray facing Mecca, no sex outside of marriage, etc).
2. It's completely egalitarian, or at least, non-exclusive.
3. Nobody kills anybody over it.
4. It doesn't require hard thinking. At the same time, it doesn't require you to take any huge leaps of faith either.
Overall, I'm not a fan. But I do think it provides a much-needed "God imminent" to balance the "God transcendent" who has dominated religious discussion for the past few millenia.
Yeah, I find pantheism to be insufficient. I would disagree with you about the "nobody kills anybody over it" -- wasn't it part of the basis for the Na'vi to fight the forces of industrialism? Lot of killing going on there . . .
The problem with pantheism is that it provides an enormous blank page on which people can project all kinds of things that aren't really there. Once you personify Nature, you start imagining that Nature "wants" this and "hates" that . . . when in fact "Nature" is an abstraction that doesn't want anything at all. Douthat correctly points out that Nature is not a blissful Eden in which all creatures live in harmony, but rather a ferocious, ruthless competition for survival.
Georg, your comment and Douthat's writing here reminded me of Werner Herzog's reflections on nature in the documentary "Burden of Dreams" (1982). Herzog respects and even stands in awe of nature but sees it as neither redemptive nor Eden-like....instead, he understands it to be the playing ground for a "ferocious, ruthless competition for survival."
Personally, I see it as both...and neither. "Nature" and the "Universe" stand outside any supposed notion of cruel, loving, evil, or good that we humans project onto it. In fact, we all experience it to be all of these things at different times. As with the contradictory interpretations we encounter of holy scriptures, these intellectual perspectives seem to arise because "we do not see things as they are; we see them as we are." (~Anais Nin) Life simply *is*....but I understand how this is an "agonized position" to stand in.
My own answer to "The question [of] whether Nature actually deserves a religious response" is yes, absolutely. While I think there is room for considerable debate concerning what constitutes an appropriate and apposite "religious response," what I mean by "response" here would be better characterized as "recognition"--a recognition of the presence of Divinity that often occurs for me when in nature. I feel no need to assert whether it is most accurate to describe this divine presence as being in, or outside of, or part of, or comprising all of Nature...only that there is something about the "natural" world that most definitely facilitates my experience of the spiritual. (And yes, this has just as much to do with me as it does with "Nature")
Last week I read a most intriguing article about the reactions that people have had to seeing Avatar. It's worth checking out if you have not done so already: http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html
In addition to pantheism, I find panentheism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism) to be another interesting belief system. It does a slightly better job of bridging the "God imminent" and "God transcendent" that Kenny is referring to.