The Radical Amazement of Pantheism

By Gary Suttle

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!"

Abraham Heschel often spoke these words to begin an evening lecture. His audience stirred in puzzlement.  Then he noted Jewish theologian elaborated:

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just take place...the sun has gone down."

The demands and distractions of modern society often blur the marvels all around us, from the wondrous workings of Sun and Earth that sustain all life, to the very fact of human existence.

“We are infatuated with our great technological achievements,” said Heschel, “we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being.”

Religions seek to answer the riddle of “sheer being.”  “Why is there something, rather than nothing?"     Scholar Rudolf Otto described the plumbless puzzle as  the awe-evoking mysterium tremendum et fascinans  ( the tremendous and fascinating mystery of existence).  Each religion responds to the mystery  in its own way, based on adherents’ cultural history, holy texts, etc.  

Pantheists turn to the sciences, including cosmology and evolution.  For example, in his book, The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin surveys the findings from many fields to describe the remarkability of life.

Smolin assesses the required complex elements like carbon and oxygen, generated in stars over billions of years, along with  elemental particles like  neutrons and neutrinos, to  determine the  probability of creating life on Earth.   He  concludes that the chances of producing life as we know it are about 1 out of 10,229...the equivalent of purchasing a lottery ticket along with a billion other people and winning the first prize not once, but 26 times in a row!

Such findings elicit awe and gratitude to be a part of such a miraculous creation.  As poet and Pantheist Walt Whitman expressed it, “Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.”

Since Pantheists view the creation/god/ultimate reality as one in the same, they are constantly face to face with ‘god,’ which evokes unmitigated amazement!   They live in perpetual wonderment of Nature’s creative powers and manifestations...  its beauty and ugliness,  its joys and sorrows, its intelligibility and mystery.

William Blake’s famously observed, "If the door of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

The doors of perception for Pantheists open wide and clear, because they view every atom in the universe as saturated with the infinite, with divinity.  To hold such a constant awareness of the divine lies at the heart of the deepest religious feelings.

“To be aware of the moment,” says writer Fredrick Turner, “...and to know you are the enormous force of life.  The extent to which you can maintain that kind of awareness in your daily life, which is the most difficult of all existential exercises, is the extent to which you are really living...the religious impulse in its truest sense seems to me to be about that awareness of how extraordinary everything is.  Everything.”

Such awareness-- steeped in radical amazement-- lead Pantheists like William Wordsworth proclaim

“…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. “


Heschel, Abraham J. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism. New York: The Free Press, 1965.   

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea Of The Holy. John W. Harvey , Translator. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Smolin, Lee. The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Closing quote by the pantheistic poet Williams Wordsworth from Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey... (48-50).

Abraham Heschel was born in 1907 and died in 1972.


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Copyright © 2004 Gary Suttle