The Biblical Critic – Spinoza

 Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677)

Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677)

Spinoza was a 17th Century Dutch philosopher who tried to reframe our understanding of religion, away from mere superstition, towards something more rationality based. To his critics he was a contemptible atheist, but Spinoza himself said that he was a polemicist, a defender of God; but not the God of superstitious everyday folk, but rather the impersonal God, the God who can be equated with nature, life, the universe, reason, everything. The life force which flows through everything, and infuses everything. “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God”, because God is everything. He cannot be a him or a her, or an it. He cannot therefore be a personal God. He cannot be understood as a being in any sense which talks to us, telling us how to be in this world, because that would suggest he is external from us and this world. If God is in everything, and is everything, the best way to learn about God and the nature of God is not to read the Bible or ancient writers or study theology, but rather to study our world, understand how life and the universe work - studying psychology, philosophy, and science, in order that we can acquire that broader perspective I have spoken about in the past, in order that we can see our world, not merely as players in the world, having the world done to us, but as it were having the top down perspective, the God’s eye perspective. In this way, we are not merely in a constant tug of war with the world, but we can understand the whole thing in motion, and act in the world from that broader, more considered, vantage point. Take prayer as a good example. The traditional religious model is that we believe in God, and then attempt to change God’s mind in our favour, or in favour of someone we know. Bring prosperity to the poor, good health to the sick, kindness and peace to the angry and warring. For Spinoza, the whole premise behind this idea is flawed. For Spinoza, we should not be seeking to change God, because God is everything and therefore cannot be changed in the mercantile fashion. Rather we should seek to understand ourselves in relationship to the world and God. This is how I think of prayer within this context: when we enter into prayer or reflection in this Unitarian community, we are not petitioning God for the world to change, but affirming the change we can be in the world. We pray for peace, so that we can be peacemakers. We pray for the poor, that we can be champions of the poor. We pray for the distressed and paining, that we might be a healing presence in the world.

 William Ellery Channing (1780 - 1842)

William Ellery Channing (1780 - 1842)

As far as I can tell, William Ellery Channing never actually read Spinoza, but they emerged out of a very similar school of thought, Spinoza being an early figure of the Enlightenment, and Channing kindling that same flame in the United States. Spinoza, in my mind, was totally a Unitarian, he just didn’t use that word. Channing, as we heard from our reading, and Spinoza, were both very much wrapped up in questions concerning how we might read and understand the Bible in a more rational way. How can one read the Bible in a serious way, while not taking it literally? Of course, we know that a serious reading of the Bible begins when you stop taking it literally, but for those of Spinoza’s day this was not at all obvious – making his perspective a very controversial one. How does one reconcile reason with faith? Take Spinoza’s treatment of miracles in the Bible. We can think of miracles in a number of different ways. Often we soften the language of miracles to mean something which is just improbable, or really really good, like the miracle of birth. But strictly speaking, a miracle requires the laws of the nature to be altered in some way by an external other, and as Spinoza did not believe in a God external to creation, he did not believe miracles could happen in this narrow sense. So, starting from this premise, Spinoza is left having to explain why there are so many apparent miracles in the Bible. What are we to make of them?

First of all, Spinoza simply explains that part of this comes down to the way people talked in the first century and prior. The Jews being ‘Godly’ frame their understanding of the world through God. If they desire to have something, they would say God put that in their hearts; if they make money, they would say God gave it to them; if they think something, they say God told them. Drawing the line in the Bible between where God is (allegedly) intervening in human affairs, and where that language is just being used, in near impossible. One will find the same thing today in Christian charismatic circles. Whether someone being healed (for example) has a scientific explanation is irrelevant. God language is nonetheless used to frame the circumstances. Whether it could be explained takes second place to the incident being a vehicle to glorify God. Hence why, in such a context, questions are often seen as counterproductive, as within this framework they seem to detract from the simple proclamation of God’s greatness and glory. Why complicate things by asking such questions? A further explanation is that people in the first century and prior may have perceived something as a miracle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a miracle. An event that appears to contravene the laws nature may in fact simply be a natural event whose cause is not yet understood. An example of this might be the miracle of the sun’s rebirth each day in the East. Indeed, as such, when we read about miracles the question should be turned around entirely. The veracity of a miracle is an irrelevant question, because we simply don’t live in a world in which the laws of nature can be contravened in this way, and as such all that matters is the subjective significance of the perceived miracle to the individual or individuals in question, or more importantly the function said miracle plays within the broader narrative. A good example of this is when Jesus dies on the cross. The Gospel of Matthew says,  “At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This is presented as a miraculous occurrence. But what is the significance of this miracle to the broader narrative? The Temple was where God was understood to preside, but not simply in the Temple, but within a special part of the Temple: The Holy of Holies, an area in which people were not permitted to go, covered over by this great curtain, and behind the curtain - the very dwelling place of God. The tearing of the Temple curtain is a symbolic representation of God no longer being present within a geographical location - in Israel, or in the Temple - because God is now, the Kingdom of God is now, within us. And this spiritual or theological truth is more important, infinitely more important, than whether there was someone there in the Temple at the time of Jesus’ death, recording said miracle for posterity.

Dramatic representation of the Temple curtain tearing. 

Part of Spinoza’s critique is levelled not at gullible superstitious people in the Bible, and not even at the gullible superstitious people of the 17th Century, but rather at those religious leaders who for their own gain exploit such incredulity for their own ends, for power and for money, keeping people shackled to their own ignorance. People should ultimately be educated, as it is ultimately through pure reason, according to Spinoza, that we arrive at the simple truth: Love God, Love your neighbour. For, “True virtue is life under the direction of reason.” Religion then is compatible with a free, reason based society, according to Spinoza, as long as religion does not act to curtail the human spirit, as religion is sadly so often guilty of doing. Ultimately then Spinoza is arguing for freedom of individual religious conscience. And doesn’t that sound very Unitarian? Unitarians affirm the individual responsibility to search for truth and meaning. Like Spinoza, Unitarians place faith in the power and the possibilities of the open mind. Like Spinoza, we seek virtue and joy in this world rather than waiting for it in the next. And like Spinoza, we Unitarians find holiness in the dignity and worth of all humankind, and in nature, and seek to do all that we can to understand and to live in harmony with the underlying unity of all existence. That is the vision that we are called to make real this day and every day.

Amen.