Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spinozoan Spirituality

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." ~ Albert Einstein

The 17th century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza is not usually regarded as a spiritual or religious thinker.  On the surface this fact is odd. Spinoza writes of "God" so frequently that the romantic poet Novalis dubbed him "that God intoxicated man." But Spinoza's God is not the divine lawgiver and potentate of traditional western theism. 

For Spinoza God is the infinite and eternal substance of which all finite things are but temporary expressions. His God is not person-like, not a law-giver nor a judge of human actions. Furthermore, his God did not create a world out of free will. For Spinoza the world is nothing more than the totality of all of God's necessary self-expressions. In fact, Spinoza goes so far as to identify God with nature itself - at least with nature understood as the active and creative power that is "reality as a whole", though not simply with the total collection of things in the world. Because of this, many have claimed that Spinoza's non-personal and absolutely non-supernatural God is really no God at all. This deity surely could never inspire us to dance, pray, love, or die for it.

And yet, there is much in Spinoza's writing to suggest that he is filled with a profound personal piety and deep spirituality toward his God. In part five his masterpiece the Ethics Spinoza argues that the ultimate fulfillment of human life is the love of God. This love fills the mind with peace, calm, and serenity. The greatest joy we can know comes from knowing God and loving God.

Commentators as diverse as the Catholic Father Copplestone and the atheist Steven Nadler have claimed that we can't take Spinoza's words too seriously here. All he really means, they argue, is that we should have an awe and appreciation of the rationality and order of nature. Spinoza, so they say, means by love "nothing more" than the joy that comes from understanding the natural world; he is not speaking about a personal relationship with a heavenly Father. 

They are right of course. Spinoza does think of loving God solely in terms of understanding and appreciating the workings of the natural world. He says as much, "He who clearly ... understands himself an his emotions loves God, and so much more in proportion as he more understands himself and his emotions." (E5P15) I must confess, however, that I fail to see why this disqualifies Spinoza's thought as spiritual.

It is certainly true that Spinoza's God is not the God of popular level Judaism and Christianity. It is also true, therefore, that Spinoza's understanding of "spirituality" cannot mean love for a person-like supernatural being who can love me back in the same fashion (indeed, Spinoza specifically says that God cannot love me in any human fashion (EVP18-P19)). But are we really going to insist that spirituality and even religion must be restricted to a relationship with a supernatural and person-like being? If so, then I fear we will have to qualify a great many Buddhists, Taoists, and even many Western mystics from our definition.

Spinoza is spiritual in the sense that Carl Sagan understood that term. In Sagan's words:
When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.
Albert Einstein expressed much the same sentiment when he claimed that: 
"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of  human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."
This captures Spinoza's attitude perfectly. Awe, humility, reverence and deep appreciation. These are the only conceivable feelings in one who has grasped the order, unity, and sheer rationality of reality itself. Furthermore, when we understand that we are are one with reality, a finite and temporary expression of that infinite and eternal power and process, we cannot help but rejoice in that. If such emotions are not spiritual, if such attitudes are not religious, then I have no idea whatsoever what they are. 

Appreciation of reality as a whole, joy in understanding our place in and unity with it, humble love for the power and awesome order of it: this is the heart of Spinozoan Spirituality. But it is not the whole of it.

In his Theological-Political Treatise Spinoza carefully argues that the truths of traditional religions are not ontological or historical, but moral. Religion is true to the extent, and only to the extent, that it teaches justice and charity. A religion that encourages a society where all are treated fairly, where everyone has a decent standard of living, and every person shows compassion to those in need is a true religion. A religion that teaches and preaches the opposite of these is a false one. 

For traditional Judaism and Christianity this moral imperative derives from being children of God. We love each other as God loves us. Spinoza would not put it that way. For him justice and charity arises out of recognition of the deep unity and interconnection of all things as expressions of one and the same underlying infinite and eternal power. Furthermore, it is our powerful connection to one another, our being "like each other" that compels us to be good to one another. 

This connection with each other, this connection with reality, this moral imperative to care for one another and treat each other with justice, charity, and compassion is the expression of true religion in actions, just as awe, humility, reverence, and joy are the expressions of true religion regarding that infinite and eternal ground of being. In both these senses, Spinoza is a deeply spiritual and truly religious man.

In our time when the conventional forms of our religions no longer satisfy many, perhaps the spirituality of Spinoza can speak to us. The alternative to traditional Western spirituality and religion need not be the secular atheism of Camus and Sartre. Unlike such emotionally unfulfilling  existentialism, Spinoza's brand of naturalism has a great deal to offer us. 

Samuel Beckett would have us believe that we are waiting for a Godot who will never arrive, searching for a meaning that simply is not there. Baruch Spinoza claims, on the other hand, that Godot is not what we thought, and meaning is not where we thought it was. We don't need to accept the tedium and meaninglessness of godless and horrid existence. On the contrary, we need to reconsider what God, meaning, and existence are.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

A Den of Thieves - The Real Meaning of Jesus in the Temple

In the schedule of Holy Week, Monday is the day that Jesus "Cleansed the Temple." For those who don't quite recall the details of that event, here is the incident as described by the earliest gospel Mark:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers. (11: 15-17)
There is a long-standing, but misleading, tradition that sees Jesus as acting out of anger. On this view, he is angry that commerce is defiling the Holy Temple. Scholarship has largely discredited this common misreading of Jesus' action in the Temple. 

Rather than throwing a "temple tantrum," Jesus is acting out a deliberate demonstration against the temple and its authorities. The commerce performed by the merchants was necessary in order to keep up the sacrifices. You had to change impure Greek and Roman coinage for pure Temple coins. This was a legitimate and proper function for Temple sacrifice. The temple could not work without these merchants. 

In other words, by tossing over the tables of the money changers and prohibiting entrance to the temple (this would have had no real effect, given the temple's size. It is a symbolic protest), Jesus is symbolically destroying the Temple. His actions indicate that it's function is invalid. Jesus, acting in the name of the God of Israel, declares by his deeds that the temple and the authorities running it are null and void. They do not speak for God. They do not have legitmate status in the God of Israel's eyes.

But why would Jesus do this?

The Temple authorities were the native ruling elites who made a fortune by cooperating with Roman rule and power. As such, they profited by helping Rome exploit and demean the Jewish peasantry. In particular, Roman commericial agriculture robbed many Jewish peasants of their land, and pushed far too many people to the margins of society and beyond. Roman rule defied the Torah's notion of land ownership, and the distributive justice of the Jewish God. 

For many Jewish peasants, the Priests and the Temple, no longer represented the Jewish God of justice, but rather his opposite, the gentile overlords who harmed the great majority of Jewish Peasants.

So in the name of the Jewish God of liberty and justice, Jesus condemns the Temple and its leaderships. He declares that far from speaking for the God of Israel, they speak against him; as do their Roman masters.

The meaning of Jesus' Temple actions was not lost on the Temple leaders, nor on Pilate. They quickly arrested him and crucified him. They got the message and promptly tried to destroy the messenger.

It is clear to me that those of us who follow Jesus today must do as he did. We must stand against the power structures in our own society that, like the Roman Empire of old, exploit the masses of the population in order to benefit the wealth and power of a narrow few

For me that means we need to involve ourselves in Occupy Wall Street. This, in the United States today, is the true democratic movement (or at least has the potential to be) of our times. The 99% movement identifies the real problem, Plutocracy and Corporate power, calls it out, and seeks to find solutions to it. 

Let's do as Jesus did: let's toss the money lenders from the Temple and condemn the "den of thieves" for the crooks they are.

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