Sometimes when I’m in my synagogue, I like to imagine little Bento Spinoza back when he was in his own. He would have stood beside his father in the Talmud Torah esnoga as the ark opened and the scrolls of Torah were removed. He would have been among his community during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which I recently observed with my own congregation.
I imagine young Spinoza as his congregation rose for “Avinu, Malkeinu,” a special bit of liturgy said on holidays. “Avinu, malkeinu …” each line begins, “our father, our king.” It’s a long composition, so here’s just a sample:
Our Father, our King, hear our prayer,
Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You.
Our Father, our King, have mercy upon us and upon our children.
Our Father, our King, keep far from our country pestilence, war, and famine.
Our Father, our King, cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth.
Our Father, our King, inscribe us for blessing in the book of life.
Our Father, our King, grant unto us a year of happiness.
When set to music, it’s especially poignant. Though musical settings change over time and vary from one rite to another, this is the one I love. Feel free to let this beautiful melody play in the background as you read on. You know, for atmosphere.
Jews pray the “Avinu, Malkeinu,” beseeching G-d to forgive them for all their shortcomings in the past year, and to protect them in the year to come. My father, my king — in an unpredictable and violent world rife with fear and grief, keep us safe.
It’s imagery is powerful. It’s emotion, visceral. Spinoza heard these words. Would have prayed them himself. And then, he decided that they described exactly the sort of G-d he did not believe in.
The most distant father of all
It’s not that Spinoza thought G-d was spiteful or vengeful toward mankind. He didn’t even think G-d was cool and aloof. He simply reasoned that G-d didn’t get involved in human affairs because that would be impossible.
In my last post in this series, I did my level best to describe how Spinoza arrived at the conclusion that the entire universe was an ordered system of cause-and-effect. In this universe, there is just one primal substance that has the ability to act as its own cause (think of it as a kind of kick starter, perhaps), and it is known, quite literally, as either G-d or nature.
This substance/G-d/nature is different from the rest of us (who are known as modes) in some other ways, too. It’s infinite and eternal; we are not. But in other ways, it’s similar. Since G-d is the same as nature, it can’t be above the laws of nature. It must obey the same rules the rest of us do.
Yes, G-d/nature was able to get the universe going. Something had to. But having done so, everything that followed does so in a still-unfolding chain of events that was and still is unavoidable. That includes things involving G-d/nature itself.
This got a lot of people hot under the clerical collar back in the 1600s. And like a still unfolding chain of events, still does today.
G-d works in mysterious ways
So what is Spinoza’s G-d up to, anyway? What’s G-d good for, if not meddling about in the affairs of mankind? If G-d’s not going to help me on my upcoming statistics test, what the heck do I need a G-d for, anyhow?
And that’s just it, really. Spinoza threw out the very idea of a personal G-d, the kind of G-d that been around in Western religion since about forever. If G-d is nothing more than the sum total of nature, remote and unmovable and deaf to our prayers, it would be a short step for people to conclude that there was no use, then worshipping such a G-d.
Spinoza kinda said as much. You will find mentions of G-d liberally smattered across the pages of his works. He argues strongly for the existence of G-d. He offers reasoned defenses for why G-d should be the way he describes. But you won’t find a single word of support for organized religion. Which, you know, isn’t surprising for a guy whose defining moment came at the age of 23, when he was ejected not only from his synagogue, but from his whole community as well. The writ of cherem against him was a total shunning announced by Rabbi Issac Aboab da Fonesca that prohibited even his own family from communicating with him in person or by letter.
Religion, according to Spinoza, is little more than a tool used by the powerful to keep people under their control. Scripture isn’t the “word of G-d” as G-d doesn’t have a body (cannot be anthropomorphized) much less speak words. Prophets weren’t divinely inspired, though they were people of great imagination — though that isn’t the same thing as “wise.” Miracles were nothing more than misunderstood natural phenomena, and religious rituals are really just superstition.
But that doesn’t mean that religion is a complete waste, either. There are some parts of scripture and doctrinal teachings that touch on universal truths. “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor” is an example. “Every person should embrace those (teachings) that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen in him love of justice,” Spinoza wrote in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
It’s just that you don’t need a preacher, minister, rabbi or imam to find those truths. And that was deeply unsettling to the preachers, ministers, rabbis … I don’t know that there were any imams around the Netherlands in that day, but if there were, they probably would have been upset, too.
Let us pray
So what, then, would Spinoza have us do? He’s adamant that he wants people to accept that there is one single substance, one G-d, one nature. But then he turns around and tells us it’s pointless to pray or worship it. People could be forgiven for feeling like this was a nasty bit of bait-and-switch.
First, Spinoza asserts that prayer that seeks favors from G-d is futile. Beautiful as the “Avinu, Malkeinu” may be, it holds no value for him. It’s a prayer that seeks to move G-d’s heart and change G-d’s mind, and first of all, G-d has no heart or mind. And even if G-d did, they could not be changed. All the outcomes have already been determined and prayer cannot change them.
Spinoza says that prayer that is merely devotion to G-d is … fine, if unrequited love is your thing. Because again, in Spinoza’s system, G-d is nature, impersonal, and not capable of returning love. So that love will never be reflected back to you. If you’re OK with that, then fine.
But there actually is something Spinoza does recommend we do in relation to G-d, and it’s this: to come to understand G-d, which means also to understand nature. So this means to understand as much as you can about how people work, about how science works, about philosophy and art and everything else in the universe (of course, you’ll never know it all, but the more you understand, the closer you get).
Ideally, Spinoza believes that as you come to understand the universe and how all things are intrinsically and necessarily connected by chains of cause-and-effect, your way of experiencing both your own life and the universe around you changes. You experience less fear and anxiety because you realize that events are beyond your control. Your anger and even hatred toward others dissipates because you understand that even if you detest what they may have done, they could have done nothing else. You come to understand yourself better as well, and are able to let go of feelings of shame and guilt you harbor toward yourself.
And when you are doing these things, Spinoza says, what you are actually doing is knowing G-d. It’s just not the warm and fuzzy G-d you might have learned about in Sunday school. But on the other hand, this G-d is not going to punish you in the world to be for enjoying a bit of bacon or a little premarital merry-making, either.
So there’s that. And I’ll unpack that a bit more in the next post in the series.