Charles S. Milligan

b.1918 

By Gary Suttle






Minister, professor, and pantheist Charles Stuart Milligan speaks with equal aplomb from a pulpit or a lectern. The octogenarian has addressed thousands of listeners over the years. Dr. Milligan's advanced degrees in both theology and philosophy enrich his presentations, as well as his writings, notably on the subject of Pantheism.

Born in Sterling, Colorado, the son of three generations of Presbyterian ministers, Milligan graduated from the University of Denver with a double major (music plus philosophy and religion). Following seminary, he became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He served as an Interim Minister to over 20 congregations in Colorado, and also served parishes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Milligan went on to earn a Th.D degree in philosophical theology from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy from Harvard University. He pursued post-doctoral study abroad at universities in Israel, Switzerland, and Mexico, and at the University of Illinois and Columbia University. He taught as an instructor and associate professor at Tufts University for six years before joining the faculty at the Iliff School of Theology, where he taught ethics, comparative religion, and philosophy for thirty years. The academician edited Iliff Review, a philosophical quarterly, for three decades. He has published over 30 articles in professional journals, and some 200 book reviews.

His interest in ecology, peace, and human rights issues spurred extensive community activism, from moderating radio and television programs, to chairing the Colorado Sane Nuclear Committee and the Colorado Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Equally committed, his second wife Nancy long participated in the United Nations Association and other progressive movements. Milligan has four children from his first marriage and also grandchildren and great grandchildren. The 85 year old professor emeritus currently teaches a course on Middle Eastern Religions at the University College of the University of Denver.

"I was a pantheist before I knew there was such a thing," recalls Milligan. His Pantheism arose from three sources:

(1) "A youthful love of nature and a sense of this is where I 'feel' I belong, a sort of Wordsworthian feeling..." augmented by many memorable Boy Scout activities.

(2) "Being emotionally conditioned toward religion and the feelings of reverence," thanks to his family's clerical background, which encouraged "a reverent, but not pietistic" home environment. "Later of course I was thrilled by Spinoza's pantheism and nature poets."

(3) "I had become gradually quite dissatisfied with personal theism and anything remotely resembling a human-like deity who has special pets and bestows favors and all of that. This was not a faith crisis, more like a gradual boredom."

Milligan first referred to himself as a pantheist in his early 20s and used the term later in his 664 page Th.D. dissertation on theories of purposeful design in natural phenomena. "I called my position dynamic pantheism, to distinguish it from Plotinian or Hegelian types of pantheism."  In the late 1940s, he spelled out his pantheism in a dissertation which examined the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Dr. Milligan's insightful expression of pantheism has long conveyed the religion to a wider audience. "I have found church people often genuinely interested," says Milligan. A number of them respond by saying "That's what I have believed for years--I didn't know the name for it."  J. Edward Barrett, a former mainstream minister, "rejoiced most" in a theological conference paper by Milligan: "His plausible and devout pantheism had the character of self evident truth for me..." Harold Wood, Jr., a founder of the Universal Pantheist Society, praised Milligan's outlook and concluded "We look forward to hearing more from this new brand of theologians."

Inspiring newcomers, heartening adherents, and lifting liberal theology to new heights, Charles S. Milligan stands on the dais as a prime voice for contemporary Pantheism.


The following excerpts from Professor Milligan's writings, placed in a topical format, elucidate his view of pantheism. (Initials in parentheses key references at the end of the article)

Definition of Pantheism

Pantheism is the view that the whole of reality is God. There are divergent pantheistic conceptions of God since people hold diverse views as to what reality is or is like. I use the qualifying term naturalistic ...Reality, naturalistically perceived, consists of pervasively interrelated entities of many modes and varieties...there is no bifurcation of reality, but one comprehensive realm of all that is, has been, and potentially might be. (ECR)

Since the earth is the part of the universe where we live, it is where God is most real and understandable to us. The earth is not a person, but it is alive. It is ever birthing. It is beautiful and majestic, a veritable infinity teeming with experience, phenomena, species, perils, disasters, fantastic patternings and relationships discernible by science and re-organized by artist's into movement, color, sound, and story. All this. (PV)

Pantheism is a theism, not in the sense of Personal Theism, Absolute Idealism or Gnosticism, but in the sense that it beholds reality in a worshipful as well as analytic mood, and expresses that in gratitude and devotion. (PM)

The oneness of God

Classical pantheisms generally emphasized the oneness of God in a monolithic, homogenous sense of uniformity. Neo-pantheism regards the oneness of things (God) as an interrelated multiplicity and diversity. This is a concept of oneness which conforms nicely with the nature of eco-systems as well as healthy communities of individuals and of nation-states. (ERC)

There is nothing intrinsically good in proclaiming that God is one. If that means you must accept my version of God or be my enemy, as it so often has, it leads to unmitigated evil. But if oneness means integrity, if it means flowing harmony enriched with dissonance, drama intensified with all manner of sub-plots, yet which nevertheless hangs together, it becomes challenging to attempt to conceive God or nature as one. (PV)

'God' terminology

In my lexicon these terms are interchangeable: God, cosmos, world, nature, universe, omnitudo realitatis. (ERC)

...the word "God" is not a required term for my religious philosophy. I have known too many people who have been alienated from religions of the establishment, and would not be caught dead using the word "God," but who were devout in their attitudes and lifestyle, to believe that use of the term is essential. For myself, I find it very difficult to express what I think and how I feel without indulging in God-talk. I know that the term God invites misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but then so do words like nature, universe, and religion. (PV)

The word "God" is a religious term. That is, it has connotations of reverence, honored heritage, an ecclesia or gathering in which the word has depth of feeling and meaning, and it is associated with a sense of the sacred or awesome. The word does not designate such feelings, but a reality which evokes such responses. (PV)

The existence of God

The classical proofs for the existence of God are now widely rejected. In their place are contorted arguments justifying the language by ignoring the plain question. When God is identified with the whole of reality there is no doubt of God's realness if anything at all exists. The advantage of pantheism is that inquiry focuses on what the nature of God is, as object of religious devotion. (ERC)

...a God that exists is superior to any God that exists only in somebody's understanding. If God is taken to be the fullness of all reality, including all its richness, regularities, subtleties, massiveness, and minute intricacies, there is no problem in proving the existence of such a god, unless you deny that anything is real. (PV)

The gender of God

The question of God's gender is meaningless in pantheism. As well one might ask, is music male or female? Mountains? Gravitation? Light? Nature is neither male nor female. It is not androgynous, but it engenders creatures of gender. (ERC)

Individualizing the divine

It is not easy to relate to the universe at large (or to any concept of God which embraces the entire universe). Generally we respond to this forest, that rock formation, these waves breaking on the shore or those birds zooming down to catch field mice--not friendship in general, but this friend. In a similar way we select particular strands of reality which tie in with our interests at a particular time and we regard such a strand with appreciative reverence. (ERC)

In all religions it is commonplace to have special symbols which signify particular meaning, memories, values, events, hopes, commitment, or sanctifying empowerment. These may be individuals or mythic heroes/heroines who are associated with the embodiment of the quality cherished, or they may be shrines, anniversaries, places. Most people, I think have such symbols. As long as we are aware that these are idols or icons (i.e., of our selection and anointment), we do not worship them literally, but we do feel a special affection and affinity for them. They are not god or the deity, but divinities in my usage. For all the strictures against such a line of thought in Protestantism, in actual practice they have their functional equivalent of saints as well as shrines, including such as Hildegard of Bingen, Luther, Knox, Wesley, Lincoln, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. They were, after all, embodiments of nature who lent nobility to the human story and who inspire the ones who beatify their memory... What is important is to recognize that with human powers and limitations--and no special supernatural endowments--they brought nature to a very special fulfillment. (PV)

We need empowering figures and ennobling symbols and places of special meaning...I would stress the fact than any pantheism needs symbols which are accessible, particular, vivid, and intimate. (PV)

Pantheist worship

It is strange that pantheism should so often be dismissed on the grounds that it does not provide a god that can be worshipped, that is, does not inspire worship or is not worthy of worship. It is strange in view of the fact that so much of humanity's worship has been inspired by nature, directed to nature, while so many of the places of pilgrimage and special devotion have been awesome natural phenomena. Indeed, so strong has the tendency been toward worship of nature that Judaism and Christianity have spent a lot of energy in opposing it. (ERC)

Asking "why bother with worship of all reality itself?" is like asking "Why read poetry?" or "Why bother with music or comedy?" These things are characteristic of primitive societies or non-literate peoples rather universally. My hunch is that worship with its ritual (socially sanctioned patterns of behavior), mythic poetry, song, and hilarity correspond to basic human and social needs. For me, the word tribal is not pejorative, but insightful in disclosing important aspects of our social nature. (PV)

The real problem is not whether worship should be continued, but whether it can be so enacted and enjoyed, without self-consciousness, as to be authentic, adequate, and meaningful for those who no longer can subscribe to supernaturalism and anthropomorphism. (PV)

A shorthand definition of neo-pantheism, although very simplistic and requiring refinement and explication, would be that it is the worship of nature. "Though we speak much, we cannot reach the end, and the sum of our words is, God is the all." [Sirach 43:27] (ERC)

Pantheist prayer

The question invariably arises, "How can you pray to an impersonal God?" The appropriate response consists of several steps.

Step one is to recognize that people do speak to objects which do not understand the language of the speaker: to babies, pets, a chair they have tripped over...

Step two is to consider that people do speak in inspirational ways to non-human objects which they find meaningful. I think of E.E. Cummings, "O Sweet spontaneous;"  Robert Penn Warren, "The Snake;" Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty" (where praise to God is the device, but the delight is obviously in dappled things)...

Thirdly, what about intensely emotional responses, as in mysticism? I use Somerset Maugham, an avowed agnostic, as an example:

"I have myself had on one occasion an experience that I could only describe in the words the mystics have used to describe their ecstasy. I was sitting in one of the deserted mosques near Cairo when suddenly I felt myself rapt as Ignatius of Loyola was rapt when he sat by the river at Manresa. I had an overwhelming sense of the power and import of the universe, and an intimate, a shattering sense of communion with it."

The fourth step is to recall that it is commonplace in religion to utilize forms of prayer which are non-verbal. Tibetan Buddhists blow the dung-chen horns as a high form of prayer; for Gandhi spinning was the highest form of prayer; for many, dancing has been prayer; bull roarers, drums, flutes, cigarettes, bathing have served as means of prayer.

Today may people have found forms of non-verbal behavior which for them restore the soul and renew a right spirit within them: knitting, weaving, gardening, tending house plants or pets, crafts, jogging, music, painting, quilting, pottery, silence, patterns of posture and breathing. Whether such habitual oblations are prayer or not depends on the meaning imputed to them by the individual. "In the handiwork of their craft is their prayer." [Sirach 38:34]

The fifth step in validating prayer and devotional discipline in a pantheistic faith orientation is to reflect on the nature of spiritually mature prayer. There are some modes of prayer which many--and not only pantheists--are glad to be quit of: self-centered prayer, trivial prayer, short-cut prayer (as substitute for work), pre-copernican cosmology prayer (the man up there), vindictive prayer, manipulative prayer. 

There are many provocative definitions of prayer which do not match at all the conventional forms of begging and bless this, bless that. For Brother Lawrence it was but one mode of the basic "practice of the presence of God." For Emerson, "Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. it is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul..." For a more prosaic definition, I define prayer as an expressive act whose purpose is to put one in touch with--or in harmony with--the divine and those resources which speak to one's condition with renewing and sustaining power...This expressive act may be by speech or bodily activity or deliberate stillness. (ERC)

The moral ambiguity of God

A major objection to pantheism is that its God is morally ambiguous, certainly not perfectly good from a human standpoint. The universe permits many kinds of terrible evils to occur. Of course that is true however God is perceived. (ERC)

Whatever concept you have of God, it is undeniable that the sun shines and the rain falls on (or drought befalls) the just and the unjust with sublime indifference.(PV)

...As John Stuart Mill observed, "the destroying agencies are a necessary part of the preserving agencies: the chemical compositions by which life is carried on could not take place without a parallel series of decompositions." (ERC)

It is only in part that nature is morally ambiguous. There are respects in which nature is plainly supportive of human life and values--that we are here speaks to that. (PV)

On the one hand there are certain ethical principles in nature in its non-human manifestations which are instructive for human survival and significance, such as cooperation, nurture of the young, consideration for future consequences, and the like. On the other hand, there are other ethical norms and concerns for which the ways of nature provide no sanction, such as justice, personal integrity, and compassion. (PM)

It strikes me as childish and perverse in our religious understanding and response to complain that the Cosmic Mother who has brought us to this point of increased responsibility for our own destiny is unworthy of wonder, love, and praise because she does not meet our every desire and serve also as our Moral Instructor. (PV)

It seems churlish to complain, rather than accept, that these are the terms on which existence is given. It is enough that nature provides conditions under which values emerge and the good can be brought into being. (ERC)

Humans role in creation

A particular problem for naturalistic pantheism is that you cannot derive a warrant for the criteria of human good from this concept of God. The Stoics thought we can, but they were mistaken. So the question put to pantheism is: Where is your authority for ethical norms, since it does not come from your God? (PV)

Well, who is it that arrives at judgments as to what constitutes human good? It is human beings. (PV)

To regard ethical systems, with its principles, values, methodology, and policies, as a human construction, subject to review and amendment, is nothing against God and it is not to abandon ethical judgment to either the swamp or the jungle. It is to acknowledge our human responsibility, both for the glorious achievements and dismal failures. We gain nothing by foisting ethical authority off on God, particularly when we remember that the claim of divinely-ordained rules has included the slaying of witches, the institution of slavery, the condemnation of contraceptives, that a woman ought to wear a veil "because of the angels," and that no bastard may enter the assembly of the Lord. Far from being a disadvantage that pantheism cannot claim an ethical system given by god, it is an advantage in that it removes the frightful features of moral theocracy. When people think their policies are divinely ordained, there is no debate or reasoning with them. (ERC)

Is it not all too clear that the task of sorting out and systematizing ethical claims is a human task? Reality apart from us has not and will not produce that. We have something to contribute and it turns out that the text, "you are co-workers with God," has a deeper meaning than formerly realized. We are co-creators with God, admittedly in a small way--but a very precious way. Nature (for that matter, God, however conceived), composes no symphonies or sonnets, creates no cultures or literature, apart from us. The same can be said of governments, economic systems, omelets, mathematics, and games. Is it astonishing, then, that ethical systems--some pretty good, some not so good--are also human contrivances, and so are religions? (PV)

The earth is not complete. Humanity certainly is not complete. As Teilhard said, the human being "is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself." It is given to humanity to add justice and mercy to what nature hitherto has brought forth. Humanity is free to do this fairly well or to botch it horribly, but not free from the consequences of what our species does. (ERC)

Fundamentalism vs. pantheism

Whitehead said, "Religions commit suicide when they find their inspirations in their dogmas."
(However) ... in the last twenty years it as been fundamentalism --exactly the kind of religion which finds its inspiration it its dogmas--which has flourished in every religion in the world. Pantheism would not appeal to that mindset because it generally arises with people who are looking primarily at life and nature in their religious quest, rather than at books or books about books. As a rule, pantheistically-inclined people do not read of doctrines and then "apply" them; they have been beholding nature with wonder and delight and find themselves becoming pantheists or having heard of a pantheistic view, say that that is what they have felt all along. (ERC)

Pantheism and environmentalism

The crux of environmentalism is to take the practical long view rather than the short-run, impractical one for the sake of convenience or profit. The whole meaning of 'sustainable development' is avoidance of short range policies which destroy the possibility of continuing development. It comes down to caring about those who are to come after us. Anthropocentric religions have difficulty with this, because they regard nature as of value only for human development. (ERC)

In pantheism, ecological responsibility is central and obligatory. It requires a lifestyle and social activism on behalf of the environment. Added to the motivations which arise from sheer practicality there is the additional religious motivation that this caring about and caring for nature is necessary for our own self-respect and fulfillment as human beings. (ERC)

...the human species is one of earth's experiments among many, and it is largely up to us to see how it will turn out. (PM)

Responding to beauty

...something within us is responding sympathetically and automatically to something within the very nature of nature. Such resonance is normally unconscious but richly emotional. I do not mean to hint that there is anything supernatural about it; on the contrary, it is through and through natural. It is spiritual in the sense that it evokes a feeling of meaningfulness, but it is as much historical as psychological...the more we learn about our evolutionary past and the physiology of universal human responses, the more clearly we understand this resonance--and take joy in it. (CDA)

The best descriptive phrase I can think of comes from the Psalms: Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterfalls... Our beholding or attunement is "non-symbolic contemplation." What is surprising is the power of a vivid experience of beauty, the hold it has over us, the depth of feeling it awakens, the wonder, the joy, the realization that there is some sickness in us when, like Hamlet, it moves us not. We are resonating to the universe, its patternfulness, its rhythms, its colors, its wild creativity. (CDA)

The cosmic dimension of beauty

In Navajo religion, which permeates all of Navajo life, the central concept is HozRo, translated as 'beauty.' That is not a mistranslation, but an inadequate one. For 'beauty,' in the Navajo meaning, includes connotations of health, coordination, goodwill, wholeness, fecundity, joy, and life-enriching gratification... Thus when Navajos chant,

The World before me is restored in beauty,
The World behind me is restored in beauty,
The World below me is restored in beauty,
The World above me is restored in beauty.
All things around me are restored in beauty.
My voice is restored in beauty.
It is restored in beauty.

they mean a cosmic condition of health for which we have no word. Rather than coining a new word or trying to borrow HozRo, I suggest enriching the meaning of the term beauty in our own thought processes. For after all, all these things are indeed beautiful: peace, health, constructive coordination, harmonious relationships, wholesome environment, good attitudes, and kindness. It used to be that indigenous religions were thought of as slowly on their way toward fulfillment in 'high' monotheistic faith....The more we look at the 'high' religions today, the more we perceive that we have lost something extremely valuable, which indigenous people have every day. To recover awareness of the cosmic dimension of beauty might bring about a partial restoration. (CDA)

Religious pluralism

Religions are human developments like language and the arts, the response to our human relatedness, finitude, culture, and longings in a setting which evokes wonder, fear, amazement, joy, curiosity and other deep responses creating the urge, somehow, to express this with rite, story, symbols and communal enactment. (ERC)

It is no more to be wondered at that there are many religions than that there are many language systems. The so-called problems of pluralism dissolve. The competitive, proselytizing motive (disguised as "sharing") is eliminated. It makes no more sense to ask which religion is the true one than to ask which of the world's written languages is the true one. (PV)

Religion understood as a language also makes it quite possible to be a Christian or Jew or Buddhist or whatever with sincerity, if one so desires, provided that things that are intellectually dishonest or morally evil are rejected with candor. That I happen to use Christian forms and traditions to share and express my faith does not imply my acceptance of all the nonsense and cruelty of Christian history, any more than that I happen to speak English requires approval of things others have said and done through that language. (PV)

The language people happen to speak is much less important than what they say with that language, and whether it clarifies their thought and inspires their spirits. So it is, I say, with the religion they happen to have: What do they do with it? What does it do to them? (PV)

My purpose has been to present naturalistic pantheism as a legitimate and defensible religious philosophy...As for what particular religious language system or mythos that is to be expressed in, I have no interest in promoting any one brand, but a deep interest in the quality of people's devotion and gatherings. Pantheism is a viable option and can be a religious view of eloquence and rich meaning, and I rest my case with these words from Boethius: "I would to plaint strings set forth a song of how almighty Nature turns her guiding reins, telling with what laws her providence keeps safe this boundless universe, binding and tying each and all with cords that never shall be loosed." (PV)



References

Barrett, J. Edward. "A pilgrim's progress: From the Westminister Shorter Catechism to naturalistic pantheism." American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, Volume 23, Issue 2, May, 2002.

"Bibliography of the Writings of Charles S. Milligan." The Iliff Review, Volume XLV, Number 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 63-81.

Eidson, Marshall. "Charles S. Milligan, Biographical Sketch." Ira J. Taylor Library Archives, Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado.

Milligan, Charles S.  Personal Communication, March 27 and May 19, 2003.

Milligan, Charles S. A Guide to Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Denver: Criterion Press, 1971.

_____________. "The Cosmic Dimension of Aesthetics." Religion in a Pluralistic Age, Edited by Crosby, Donald A. and Hardwick, Charley D., Volume 7 in the series: American Liberal Religious Thought. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2001. [CDA]

_____________. "The Diverse types Of Mysticism." The Iliff Review, Volume XLV, Number 1, Winter 1988, pp. 63-76. Continues the discussion found in "Mysticism: An Analysis and Interpretation." The Iliff Review, Volume XLIV, Number 1, Winter 1987, pp. 37-61.

_____________. "The Eco-Religious Case for Naturalistic Pantheism." Religious Experience And Ecological Responsibility, Edited by Crosby, Donald A., and Hardwick, Charley, Volume 3 in the series: American Liberal Religious Thought. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1996. [ERC]

_____________. "The Pantheistic Motif in American Religious Thought." Religion and Philosophy in the United States of America, Volume 2. Peter Freese, Editor. Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1986. [PM]

_____________. "The Philosophical Venture--A Personal Account." Presentation to the Highlands Institute for American Religious Thought, July 26, 1989; Reprinted in The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, Volume 12, Numbers 2 and 3, May/September 1991. [PV]

The Charles S. Milligan Papers, Ira J. Taylor Library Archives, Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado. http://discuss.iliff.edu/archives/milligan/

Wood, Jr., Harold. Book Review: "Religious Experience and Ecological Responsibility," Edited by Donald A. Crosby and Charley D. Hardwick, Pantheist Vision, Vol. 17., No. 3, Autumnal Equinox, 1996.





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