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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  1. Great post, Matt. The only question at the moment is this: What would Spinoza (and/or yourself) say is the relation between the "moral truth" of a religion and ontological statements? It seems to me that a Spinozistic spirituality promotes justice and charity because it makes true ontological statements. We are actually interconnected, and realizing that, we will act better towards each other. Camus and Sartre (at least the early Sartre; I'm not familiar with his later stuff) miss key ontological points, while orthodox Christianity adds in false ontological claims. Therefore, they make moral mistakes.

  2. Hi Michael.

    I have to agree that Spinoza supports justice and charity because they flow from true ontological statements. And I think that's the only way one could support them. I would also agree that Spinoza thinks that traditional religions (Sartre and the gang too) error in making false ontological claims. It seems, however, that he believes that Biblical Religions, at least at their best, teach the same moral truths as the true philosophy discovers; and this despite their false ontologies. I presume that he thinks that some false ideas can lead to the right morals, while others cannot.

    Personally I think he is wrong about this. Let's take traditional Christianity for example. The Traditional Christian claims that God is our Father and we are all His children. As children of the same God we are obligated to be just and charitable for each other. Now, I don't believe that God is really a person-like being who relates to us in this anthropomorphic way. I do believe however, that the anthropomorphic imagery, at its best, can and does convey the truth that we are all one, and we are all equal before the divine. Spinoza could say this too, albeit less anthropomorphically. So the Spinozist use more abstract language that I find likely to be closer to the objective truth, while the traditional Christian takes an anthropomorphic metaphor too literally. But both understand the important truth of our unity and the divine ground of it. That's the ontological truth that grounds the same moral truths.

  3. Loved the blog entry and shared it to a spirituality group on Facebook I belong to. Thanks.

  4. Loved the blog and shared it with friends of mine of Facebook. Thanks.

  5. I beg to differ. Of all of the great Western philosophers, if there is one who is often associated with spirituality, it is Spinoza!


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