Musings on Spinoza and God, Part 2: Spinoza's God, Anthropomorphism, and Process Theology

In my last post we confronted Spinoza's view of God, his Deus sive Natura (God, or Nature) formulation. Recall, Spinoza believed that God was not a transcendent being over and above nature. Rather, God IS Nature. As Spinoza claims: "Whatever is, is God."

What Spinoza does is de-anthropomorphize God. God isn't a person nor does God have a personality. God doesn't have likes or dislikes. God does not love or hate. God does not judge us. As Spinoza claims in his Ethics:

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

Thus, if we understand God properly, we don't seek a "relationship" with him. We don't try to avoid his wrath or curry his favor. Again, as quoted in the last post, Spinoza says:

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

As noted, Spinoza de-anthropomorphizes God. Matthew Stewart suggests that Spinoza does this not for metaphysical or theological reasons but for moral and political reasons. That is, Spinoza wanted to displace the theocrats of his day, those who were using God or speaking for God for sociopolitical reasons. These people were using notions of God's "personality" as a means of social control.

This tendency is still with us. All sorts of things are prohibited because someone knows that God is "offended" by a particular activity. Further, notions of "heaven" and "hell" are held over people, using God's emotions (e.g., "God is angry") to shape the behavior of people. For example, I'm sure you've seen this God Speak's billboard:

Which is really just a delightful sentiment. Simply charming. Well, here's a billboard that is very Spinoza-esqe which nicely captures his project in response to theocrats:

The point being that I appreciate the goals of Spinoza's project. If, strictly speaking, God hates no one or loves no one, then we could avoid these irritating billboards. So, I appreciate the attempt.

However, Spinoza's God borders on no God at all (there's a long-standing scholarly debate if Spinoza's God implies atheism or not). As Heidegger said of Spinoza's God: "man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god."

But might we not accomplish part of Spinoza's goal by moving in the opposite direction? That is, rather that de-anthropmorphize God might we not make him more anthropomorphic?

If we make this move we adopt process theological notions, where God is viewed as less coercive and more relational. Where God doesn't command as much as be a companion. And where God is less identified with power and more with empowerment.

What I'm suggesting is that Spinoza's project of disentangling God from power might be accomplished by moving in the opposite direction of his project. Rather than de-antropomorthpizing we are more anthropomorphic, where God learns, regrets, makes "mistakes," and grows alongside his creation. Suffering with creation and rejoicing with creation. And all along, God works alongside and within creation to fulfill his ultimate purposes. (On a side note, I don't think the Incarnation makes any deep sense if God did not fundamentally learn something from the experience.)

Because it seems to me that the God of most Christian churches is a tweener. Too Greek and too Hebrew. Too transcendent to be of any real comfort. Of course, many try to make the tweener God work. He loves us, dearly, but he's also a pretty harsh judge who will, apparently, send MOST of humanity to hell. The tweener God is supposed to be both lovable and relational while at the same time being a demanding Cosmic Judge. In my Sunday School class people call this a "mystery" and they like to quote C.S.Lewis ("Aslan is not a tame lion."). But the word "mystery" is often theospeak for "I'm embracing a long-cherished but muddled idea." So, although some people seem to make this tweener God work, I've never been able to.

So in the end I'm a Spinozist in intent, but going in the opposite direction. Given the problems with the tweener God some movement is called for. Spinoza goes one way and I go the other.

But I think we end up in the same place.

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9 thoughts on “Musings on Spinoza and God, Part 2: Spinoza's God, Anthropomorphism, and Process Theology”

  1. I appreciate this reflection on Spinoza's God. We want a perfectly transcendent God, who knows all and can do all, and yet we also want a God who is responsive and relational. Although I'm still not a Process theologian, I find that I'm more and more attracted by it. Thanks for pushing the envelope here.

  2. i'm going to put up my own bilboard that says:

    "I wish southern baptists would stop putting words in my mouth."

    just a thought,

  3. Bob,
    I might be pushing the envelope too far. My interests here are more pragmatic than metaphysical. That is, I'm interested in situating God in a place where His followers are more relational and humble than condemnatory and proud.

    This is not to say that pragmatics should trump theology, it's just reflection that there is a two-way street between belief and behavior and, as psychologist, I tend to come at belief through behavior (which is a reversal of the typical direction).


  4. I really like the looks of your blog. Just ran into you at Matthew of Liberal Jesus. As to "I didn't write this" by "God," LOL. It's a short way of stating what I just did at LJ.

    What you outline here as Spinoza's God reminds me a lot of the God of Christian mysticism. So although such a God is less personal in the sense of not being construed as having human personality, I'd say that such a God is very much a God with whom people can experience a relationship. A profound one, and one that develops over time.

  5. Coming at this from a Mennonite perspective, I find myself thinking of the last chapter of J.H. Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. Yoder bases his argument for pacifism and against theocracy heavily on God's sovereignty, and the idea that God assures things will work out and therefore we have no need to control or fight with each other. That squares with my own feeling that much violence and oppression comes not from overmuch certitude and belief that God is on your side (as seems popular to believe these days) but from uncertainty and fear. If Christians really believed that Jesus conquered sin and death, would they ever need to take up arms to beat the dead horse?

    So much as I like a lot of your other posts, I feel like disempowering God this way would be counterproductive. If God is humanlike and fallible, how assured can we be that he'll take care of things? How much will we feel we'll have to "help" him? I also note that pagans believed in fallible gods, and Marxists don't believe in gods at all, and yet this didn't stop either group from oppressing people. I think the problem is that even if you detach God from power, power will still be there, it will just be godless power.

  6. Hi Paul,
    I do think a mystical type of feeling is possible for Spinoza's God. I think Einstein felt this (see my comment to Pecs in the prior post). But I don't know about a relationship.

    Hi cammassia,
    I also love Yoder's work. His Politics of Jesus is just amazing.

    I'm sympathetic to your concerns. I have them myself. This post was very much one of my "experiments." Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination makes a very similar point to the one you make. That is, we need to have God as Sovereign (A King above all kings) to leverage over against the Powers of the Age.

    My concerns are this: God's kingship in the OT look very different than Jesus' demonstration of kenosis (e.g., washing feet). Process theologians deal with this disjoint by positing relational and developmental notions to God. This isn't meant to weaken God or His power. He retains those in spades. But it does posit that God is approaching humanity in fresh ways, ways that open up because God actually learns something in the Incarnation.

  7. God learns? That would certainly imply that he doesn't know the future. Yikes, what can of worms that is. Prayer? Prophecy? God's will? What's left of God, exactly?

  8. Pecs,
    Are you familiar with the openness view of God? Check out the books "The God Who Risks" and "God of the Possible." The point being that lots of Christians don't think God knows the future.

  9. I am familiar with this view, and in fact, find myself more or less in this camp more often than not. I just think it is a difficult pill for most Christians to swallow. To me, a God who doesn't know the future would seem more distant, less involved with humanity than we often make him out to be. But I guess I should read those books...

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