Tocqueville’s observation is the unencumbered democratic “I” is too isolated and disoriented to be sustainable. Thinking and acting in freedom depend on social content—on even dogmatic premises—that one can’t provide for oneself. It’s not enough to know what I know all alone: I’m not nothing, but beyond that I can give no content to who I am. Genuine consciousness, if course, “knowing with” others, and I can’t give myself any content—any point of view—all by myself. From a democratic view, the good news might be that nobody is better than me. But the corresponding bad news is that I’m no better than anyone else: I have no right—no authoritative point of view—to oppose myself as a thinker or moral agent to the sea of indistinguishable free persons who surround me.
So, the excessively or unrealistically unrelational view of the free person in Descartes and Locke unintentionally produces self-surrender to various impersonal forces. That includes passive deference to public opinion. If I trust your personal authority, then my deference or privileging is undemocratic. Democratic deference is when we both are too apathetic to resist being determined by opinion that comes from no personal in particular. We also readily defer to the allegedly impersonal or objective authority of science—to those who say “studies show” instead of “I think.” We’re too willing to listen to experts who say that the “I” or person is a dogmatic illusion, that we’re all determined by our natures the way the other animals are. That ambiguously good news, we can hope, can free us from all our personal anxiety, which will turn out to have had a chemical or environmental—and so not an existential or theological—foundation. Tocqueville adds that we also too readily defer to the impersonal processes we call History and technology.
The theology that corresponds to the self-surrender of the unrealistic unrelational “I,” Tocqueville observes, is pantheism. Douthat does well, with the example of the pop theologian Karen Armstrong, in showing that the aggressive part of pantheism is the denial that God is personal. He errs by thinking of pantheistic mysticism as a Christian heresy. Our pantheists take one step beyond the Lockean Deists. The idea that God and each of us is both personal and unrelational is dismissed as both incredible and too hard to bear. The democratic deconstruction of personal privileging or identification is completed on behalf of both equality and the abolition of anxious alienation. So, Armstrong explains that the fundamental experience of the Trinitarian God isn’t personal at all, and that the mystical God absorbs himself (or herself) in some undifferentiated way to creation as a whole. The distinction between Creator and creation—and so the one between creature made in God’s image and the rest of creation—disappears. There’s nothing left of Christianity, because “the God within” can’t be distinguished from the impersonal divinity that envelops us all.
God, for our pantheists, is experienced in some vaguely mystical way as the absence of personal reality, as the losing of oneself in some kind of divine oceanic whole. As Tocqueville predicted, the idea of unity—or the unreality of one’s own distinctive individuality—becomes the emotional obsession. Pantheism is what follows Protestant theology that has become too individualistic or Deistic, which is why the sophisticated “natural rights” New England Protestantism of the founding generation was followed by Transcendentalism. It’s also why liberal Protestantism in our time is morphing into a kind of world or cosmic or “nature” religion that seems like a kind of undisciplined Buddhism. For sophisticated Americans, unlike real Buddhists or real Socratics, self-surrender is or is supposed to be easy. Getting over one’s alienated self becomes one form of therapeutic self-help among many being offered in a time that increasingly privileges, as Douthat, using Philip Rieff, reminds us, therapy over truth. The same folks who defer to pantheistic mysticism are also the ones deferring to public opinion or sophisticated fashion and various scientific experts. Pantheism, public opinion, and pop scientific materialism (or “new atheism”) understand ME to be nothing more than one of an infinite number of specks in a homogeneous whole.
Pantheism is an extreme form of what Tocqueville calls individualism, the emotional withdrawal into oneself that corresponds to the intellectual self-sufficiency claimed by the American Cartesian. Individualism, according to Tocqueville, is an apathetic emotional calculation that corresponds to the Lockean/Cartesian intellectual judgment that love and hate are more trouble than their worth, turn persons into suckers, and don’t correspond to the truth we can actually see with our own eyes. The virtue of individualism is indifference to any personal reality outside of oneself. Individualism is meant to facilitate self-assertion and to resist any form of self-surrender, but eventually the emptiness of indifference attempts to take out the emptiness that is one’s own isolated self.
Today’s theological truth is that is that sophisticated Americans tend to oscillate incoherently between Deistic personalism—or feverish concern for one’s own “autonomy”—and completely impersonal pantheism. The incoherence concerns whether the person that is ME actually exists. Pantheism is, as the scientist claims, sexed-up atheism insofar as it’s the theology that corresponds to the science’s deterministic or neo-Darwinian or neuroscientific discovery of the unreality of particular persons, including the Creator. Pantheism is the theology that gives us solace by according divinity to our experiences of personal insignificance. These days, pantheism rarely defines a whole way of life (which is what any true theology should do, and does do for a real Socratic or a real Buddhist), but it’s a kind of stress relief from the competitive marketplace that is so much of most successful lives.
Tocqueville encourages all lovers of the true greatness of human individuality should rally against pantheism. Certainly pantheistic mysticism as we experience it today is contemptible. As Douthat points out, it lacks the toughness of real atheism or even Lockean Deism in facing up to the scientific discovery of the random indifference of nature to personal existence or to the anxious existential experience of being for a contingent moment between two abysses. So our pantheists retain the vaguely comforting view that somehow God and nature still care for each of us, and so we need not worry about our ultimate fate. Pantheism fuels environmentalism insofar as it suggests the divinity that is nature encompasses us all, and so it’s a mistake to struggle against nature on behalf of ourselves. The virtues that correspond to our pantheism are the opposite of aggressiveness or being erotic, such as niceness. They are the virtues that keep us from committing hate crimes or the sin of bullying. They are the virtues that support emotionally safe sex—sex detached from the hard realities of personal birth and personal death.
The pantheistic virtues don’t depend on thought or real personal sacrifice or loving, active concern for the unfortunate. The virtues most conspicuously unsupported by post-Christian pantheism are, in fact, courage, charity, and what the anticommunist dissidents Havel and Solzhenitsyn called living in the truth. Tocqueville says that religion is the indispensable American counterculture insofar as it teaches that we have souls and so high and immortal personal destinies and relational moral to duties to each of us we share in common. From a Christian view, pantheism is worthless or worse as an antidote to Deism. It’s not a counterweight but an intensification of the heretical denial of a personal, relational God. It isn’t personal or relational at all.
Thank God, pantheism is destined to remain a failed self-program that provides sophisticated Americans nothing more than momentary stress relieve in the form of self-indulgent spiritual reveries. No free person really believes, deep down, that the characteristic claims of the pantheistic lullaby are true. My DNA might live on beyond me in the form of a tree. But I know all too well that tree won’t be me, even if it’s a sacred tree. Pantheism or Western Buddhism or some other form of vague and fluffy spirituality isn’t going to free me from the anxious struggle against the nature that’s out to kill me. That’s why we Americans have invented the seeming oxymoron power yoga. We’re reminded by the genuinely subversive HBO series Girls that emotionally safe sex is the failed project of persons who can’t help but remain free and relational.
Pantheism fails to negate our faith in the contingent and temporary but quite real existence of the free person. Our liberal theorists—in defense of human rights—have become non-foundationalists. They say that there’s no “foundational” standard that trumps our devotion to the life and liberty of persons alive these days, and there’s no need to explain why. All we know for sure is that not believing in human rights—in personal freedom—has intolerable moral consequences. Our theorists often come darn close to admitting that we have no choice but to privilege, quite arbitrarily or merely pragmatically, one part of Christian faith while jettisoning the others. Our Supreme Court has written, in defending the free choice of a woman not to be chained to the imperatives of being a biological female, of the mystery of personal identity and self-definition. That sounds way existential at first, but it’s also the faith of Lockean Deism.
Douthat has engaged in spirited debates over whether our devotion to human rights depends on Christian faith. His opponents can’t believe that such a reasonable and humane devotion depends on believing in ridiculous doctrines such as personal immortality, the resurrection, and the Trinity that we’re used, after all, to justify despotism in the past. Both Douthat and his opponents don’t quite see that the very idea of human rights depend on personal freedom from dependence on both nature and personal authority. It depends on a selective view of what’s true about traditional or orthodox Christianity.
Orthodox Christians should be hopeful about our current heretical situation. The reason for the rise of pantheism as a failing self-help program is in the intellectual and emotional burden of the isolated and contingent experience of the free, unrelational individual. The idea that reality is personal to be both credible and sustainable has to be reconciled with the idea that to be personal is to be relational. It even needs to be reconciled with the idea that logos itself is personal and relational and so erotic and creative. As far as we know the rational opening to the truth about all being appears only in persons experiencing the joy of knowing with each other. According to our present philosopher-pope, we’re stuck with revisiting anew the discovery and articulation of the personal logos by the early church fathers. We’re stuck with thinking about the personal truth embodied in the mystery of the Trinity.