Musings on Spinoza and God, Part 1: Spinoza's God and Theocracy

It is about time I blogged a little about Spinoza.

Discovering Spinoza (and a little background on him):

Actually, dispite the blog appearance, I've only recently studied Spinoza. I grabbed his quote for the blog subtitle before I really studied him as a philosopher. I liked the quote because it captured so well themes in this blog. But about the time I used this quote, my good friend Paul Morris brought up Spinzoa in some on-campus discussions. I decided then to study Spinoza more intensively. I started with two good recent books, Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World and Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. I then went on to read Steven Nadler's biography Spinoza: A Life . After all this, I felt ready to understand and read Spinoza's two great works, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and The Ethics.

The more I studied Spinoza the more transfixed I became. He's a compelling figure. Here, in no particular order, are things about him I find riveting:

1. He was considered to be one of the most dangerous heretics of his time. He was repeatedly denounced for being an atheist. And yet, this was the same man who is also known as the "God-intoxicated man."

2. In 1656, while in his twenties, Spinoza was issued a blistering writ of cherem (excommunication) from his Jewish community in Amsterdam (a picture of the cherem is above). The cherem stated that Spinoza was to be "banned, cut off, cursed, and anathematized" for his "evil opinions" and "abominable heresies." Such excommunications were powerful social tools to enforce social and religious order. Few people could both walk away from and exist without their lifelong network of family, friends, and work associations (Spinoza was a merchant at the time). But, amazingly, after the cherem Spinoza just walked away. With very little fuss or regret. And he never looked back. But neither did he rush to adopt the majority religion--Christianity--of his host country. He simply and boldly stood apart. And he maintained this independent stance for his entire life.

3. A handful of philosophers are not only considered to be great thinkers but also people who LIVED their philosophy. Socrates and Wittgenstein are in this group. And so is Spinoza. After his excommunication, everyone agreed that the "atheist Jew" lived like a saint: Simply, modestly, humbly (well, interpersonally humble, his ideas were bold and aggressive). To this day, Spinoza inspires those seeking a model for a "secular saint" or the route to virtue via the path of reason.

4. Spinoza's political writings, founding documents for the American and French Revolutions, were way ahead of their time. And, thus, very dangerous. Many of Spinoza's radical friends (supports of enlightened, liberal democracies) were killed during his lifetime. On one occasion, Spinoza's landlord had to physically lock him in his room so that he would not go out and confront angry mobs in the city. This life of danger caused Spinoza to adopt a seal on all his correspondence. It is the seal I display and describe in the sidebar.

Musings on Spinoza's God and Theocracy:

Spinoza is not for everyone. His view of God is startling. Simplifying his famous Deus sive Natura (God, or Nature) greatly, Spinoza believed that God is not a transcendent being over and above nature. Rather, God IS Nature. God is, simply, everything. As Spinoza says early in The Ethics: "Whatever is, is God."

What this means is that God isn't a person. Nor does God have a "personality." Thus, God doesn't have likes or dislikes as typically understood. It follows then that God doesn't judge or evaluate nature. Why? Well, because God is nature.

This leads to some startling statements in The Ethics. Two I've been musing over are:

Strictly speaking, God loves no one and hates no one.

He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return.

These are really interesting sentiments. Initially, I just thought that Spinoza was being descriptive about his view of God. I didn't see what he was driving at, the reason why he viewed God in these terms. But Matthew Stewart suggests that this view of God was being used by Spinoza to accomplish something moral and political that is lost us in our modern context. Specifically, in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus Spinoza is attempting to dismantle theocracy: the use of God to support decrepit power structures or the use of God to socially control the polis by scare tactics ("You'll go to hell if you do that."). That is, according to Matthew Stewart, Spinoza created this view of God to accomplish something political and moral. Spinoza wanted to decisively disentangle God from the State. To quote Stewart:

In Spinoza's adamant rejection of the anthropomorphic conception of God we may glimpse a very deep link between his meta-physics and his politics. According to the political analysis first laid out in the Tractatus, the orthodox idea of God is one of the mainstays of tyranny. The [political] theologians, Spinoza suggests, promote the belief in a fearsome, judgmental, and punishing God in order to extract obedience from the superstitious masses. A people living under Spinoza's God, on the other hand, could easily dispense with theocratic oppression...

Spinoza's concept of divinity is so clearly drawn as the antithesis of the theocratic one, in fact, that the question naturally arises whether he invented his new God in order to save himself or in order to destroy the reigning political order. Inasmuch as Spinoza's God is easier to understand in the negative--that is, in terms of what it is not: a personal, providential, creator deity--than in the positive--what it is--then to that extent his political commitments would seem to be prior to his philosophy. That is, his metaphysics would be intelligible principally as the expression of his political project, to overthrow theocracy.

With this perspective in hand, I suddenly warmed to Spinoza's project if not his God. Given our current situation in America, Spinoza's concerns about theocracy seem remarkably relevant and timely. Further, I'm very, very tired of religious people telling me what God does or does not like. What God loves and what God hates. What God approves of or disapproves of. I'm not a Spinozist, but I can't tell you how many times a day I want to say to religious people, "You know, strictly speaking, God loves no one and hates no one." Further, I grow very tired of a religious life motivated by pleasing God. So much of religious life seems to be about managing the psychology of God. And again, although I'm not a Spinozist, I often want to say, "You know, if you really loved God you wouldn't spend so much time trying to get him to love you in return."

Because, when you think about it, those twin moves ("God hates X" and "I must do X so God will be pleased with me") sets up most of the religious dysfunction and violence in the world.

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6 thoughts on “Musings on Spinoza and God, Part 1: Spinoza's God and Theocracy”

  1. I would say that most of my physical scientist colleagues agree with this notion of God, if not in so many words. When we talk about Nature it is always with a capital 'N.' It is respected and revered as a supreme power, and inspires its students to study and action.

  2. Cool. I've never heard that. Funny that everyone seems to think he was a Christian.

  3. Retired UTenn prof, David Dungan, wrote a book a few years ago titled: A History of the Synoptic Problem. It is an excellent survey and good reading with quite of bit of early christian history in it that is not well known nor recounted in other books addressing this topic. I was with him up to the middle of the book where he dedicates a chapter to Spinoza and his life. Whereas some things I've read recently blame our modern religious and philosophical problems on Descartes, he blames Spinoza for this. For Dungan, the modernist approach to the Bible traces to Spinoza. It was clear to me that Dungan had some ire for him. But as I read it, I could not but admire Spinoza and couldn't perceive how he was deserving of a negative view. Guess that's my enlightenment bias coming out again.

  4. Steve,
    I think Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is probably more devastating to orthodox readings of Scripture than anything Descartes ever wrote. But, like you, I have a warm spot for those Enlightenment thinkers. I have a copy of the Jefferson Bible in my office.

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