God and philosopher reconciled I: Deus Sive Natura

To know anything at all about the life of Baruch Spinoza is to know he didn’t have a good time with religious authorities. He managed to get himself evicted from the Jewish community at the age of 23 and spent the rest of his life playing hide-and-seek with the Christian religious authorities in Holland. They knew what he was up to with his philosophy “forged in hell,” but Spinoza went to considerable lengths to keep himself unassailable.

When Spinoza published his book favoring the separation of church and state, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in 1670 in Amsterdam, the title page of the book said it was written by some guy named Henricus Künraht (in actuality, an alchemist who had died 65 years earlier) and published in Hamburg, Germany. He and his publisher went through this trouble to throw Dutch censors off their trail. It didn’t exactly work. Everyone knew it was Spinoza, as by now his scandalous reputation as a rabble-rousing atheist (by the 1670 definition) preceded him. By 1673, it had been banned in the Netherlands.

Spinoza also created a sort of logo for himself, too, that reinforced the need to be discreet. He worse a ring that bore the symbol of a rose surrounded by his initials, BDS (for Baruch or Benedictus de Spinoza) with the Latin word “Caute, or “caution,” beneath it. He also signed his letters with “caute.” It’s almost like he’s both trying to draw in followers and hold them at arm’s length, as the beauty of a rose of attracts but its thorns ward people away. “Caution,” he reminds his friends in letters peppered with coded speech and vague allusions, as he knows that the words on his pages could land both writer and receiver in court.

Some 350 years on, it seems like a lot of that fuss could have been avoided if people had bothered to look at what Spinoza and his philosophy had in common with religious faiths rather than their points of difference. Because, sure, Spinoza did call stories of miracles nothing more than superstition, and he did propose a distinct line between church and state. But if you look at things a certain way, there’s a lot of agreement between Spinoza’s ideas, those of the church — and even modern-day science.

Deus Sive Natura

Take, for instance, the thing that caused Spinoza much of his trouble: the matter of whether he believed in a god or not. If you take Spinoza at his word, the idea would be ridiculous. The word “god” is liberally scattered across the pages of “Ethics,” but the problem is this. Spinoza’s god is not the same sort of god found in the churches or synagogues of Holland in his day. It was an impersonal, unreachable and even un-omnipotent god.

What is Spinoza’s god? In a word: everything. I’ll try to sum up Spinoza’s rational basis for God, which is a rather tough slog, so bear with me. First, start with the definition of “substance” as “a thing that needs nothing else to exist.” Everything must have a cause — you have your parents, a star is created by a nebula, a flood is caused by a storm. But this “substance,” which relies on nothing else, must therefore have been its own cause. Spinoza identifies this substance as God itself:

As God is a being absolutely infinite, of whom no attribute that expresses the essence of substance can be denied (by Defin. 6), and he necessarily exists (by Prop. 11) ; if any substance besides God were granted it would have to be explained by some attribute of God, and thus two substances with the same attribute would exist, which (by Prop. 5) is absurd ; therefore, besides God no substance can be granted, or consequently, be conceived. If it could be conceived, it would necessarily have to be conceived as existent ; but this (by the first part of this proof) is absurd. Therefore, besides God no substance can be granted or conceived. Q.E.D.

This God is infinite. It contains infinite matter, infinite substance. As it is infinite, that necessarily means no other entity could contain any substance/matter (remember, God already has it all). Spinoza therefore reasons that you, I, the cat next to me, the tree outside and the quasar a couple light years away are all the same substance — we’re just different modes of that substance.

He goes on to identify God not only with substance, but in the preface to Part IV, with nature: ” For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists.” In a letter to a friend, he does specify that he doesn’t mean that God is nature in a physical sense, though exactly what that means is still a bit fuzzy. Does he mean to say that a tree isn’t God in the sense that people might worship a tree? Or does he mean to say that God is found in the laws of nature but not in matter? To be honest, I can’t pretend to give an answer.

To sum up: God is identified as the one substance, which is the only thing that is its own cause. God can also be called nature – which is not necessarily to say “god is the sunset.” God is infinite, which means that everything else is a part of God. 

The Creator and the Created

While Spinoza doesn’t shy away from God talk one bit, it’s easy to see why religious authorities in the Western world wouldn’t recognize his God as any kind of theology they knew. It still sounds strange to modern ears that are used to hearing about a personified god and a heaven located somewhere in the clouds.

It’s impossible, of course, to give one definitive notion of what God is in a religious context. The Jewish perspective will differ from the Christian or Muslim one, not to mention the Hindu, Buddhist or other perspective. And don’t get me started on the two Jews, three opinions tradition. But I can offer a few examples that both compliment and contrast with Spinoza’s ideas — and that often comes down to how closely a creator is synonymous with its creation.

Many modern, mainstream Protestant faiths make a strong distinction between God and God’s creation. Take, for example, this from the Institute for Creation Research (I’m just the messenger, folks): “Scientists at ICR hold to the presupposition that the ‘uncaused First Cause’ is the Creator who exists outside of the physical creation He made.” (Emphasis mine.) Unfortunately for Spinoza, however, this is the predominate view that held sway in his place and time.

But don’t for a minute think that all religions have held the same idea in all places and all times.

Other Christian denominations, including many Christian Unitarian-Universalists, believe that the infinite God makes it impossible for people to be separated from God permanently. This idea, that creation exists within God but is not God itself, is known as panentheism. It also exists in some form in Jewish and Islamic mysticism, the Christian Eastern Orthodox church and Sikhism, among others.

Brahma is the creator God of Hinduism. “All is Brahma,” according to the Vedas, the sacred text of Hinduism.

Then there are pantheistic systems that see God as actually indivisible from what God creates. Here, God is the universe, and the universe is God. There’s no separation between the two; or, perhaps, the universe is a manifestation of the divine. Several sects and practices of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, are pantheistic. In fact, a well-known quote from the Vedas that “Everything is Brahman,” where Brahman is understood to be the highest reality that exists in every living being. Pantheism is also a principle of many indigenous faith traditions as well as modern spiritual practices.

So, while religious interpretations of the divine that distinguish between the creator and the created may be the rule in Western society, don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the norm everywhere. In many places, the universe is seen as an embodiment of God, or as contained within God. Elsewhere, God is seen as being indistinguishable from the universe itself.

Some of these concepts of God do tract quite nicely with Spinoza’s philosophy. If “Ethics” had been published in Hyderabad instead of Holland, it might not have raised an eyebrow. Perhaps it would have been embraced by an audience who would have immediately recognized a new verse to a hymn they had already been singing.

Imagine There’s No Heaven

Science can play with with Spinoza, too. Of course, “God” isn’t the providence of science. Spinoza’s dogged reliance on geometric proofs aside, science is the realm of what can be measured and observed, while religion is the domain of faith in what can’t been seen at all. Even so, Spinoza’s thoughts on substance and modes lend themselves almost poetically to scientific ideas. Just drop the word “God” and you’re almost there.

This isn’t even the universe. It’s just a teeny-tiny corner of it.

Rather than a “God” that is infinite, substitute the word “universe.” Instead of “mode,” think “matter.” Spinoza’s work would loosely translate as: There is but one universe (substance or God) that is infinite. All that exists inside that universe is made of matter (modes). This universe began with a Big Bang (had no other cause but itself). This universe could also be called Nature.

Or, as Carl Sagan called it as my family gathered around the television on Sunday nights, “star stuff.”

This, to my atheistic family, was spirituality. And to be honest, I still feel its pull. Instead of being created by a God, whether an impersonal and distant God or one who intervenes in human affairs, science tells us that mankind is the evident yet improbable result of billions of years of immense physical forces, miniscule chemical reactions in our DNA, whose origin we still don’t understand, and thousands of years of human striving to learn and achieve. What could be more spiritual than that?

I want to be clear here. I’m not saying that the religious worldview is the same as the scientific worldview and Spinoza managed to unite them both. That’s not only wrong, it would be insulting to absolutely everyone involved and would minimize everything wonderful about both science and faith. It would be papering over a myriad of differences that deserve to be understood and appreciated. As someone who grew up without any particular faith, I’ve always been fascinated by belief systems, and I see them as an intrinsic part of being human — even when that faith is in science.

I am suggesting, though, that mankind has been far too successful at dwelling on differences. We’re incredibly good at finding points of disagreement and using that as grounds for arguments, strife and even war. Just ask Spinoza — he knew it all too well.

Instead of insisting that we are all exactly alike or using our differences to split people into different camps, what if we celebrated the places where our margins blur together? I’m suggesting that these similarities can give us a basis to understand each other where before we might have only seen how we were strangers.

In the next few posts, I’ll go a bit deeper into thoughts about matter and time from the perspectives of Spinoza, religion and science to see how well they fit together — or don’t.

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