Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Spinoza

The name Spinoza kept coming up in my readings and I love philosophy, so when James Carroll devoted a chapter to him in Constantine’s Sword, I paid attention. I'm surprised by the similarity between his ideas and trends in spiritual thinking today.

Baruch or Benedict Spinoza was Jewish by birth but branded an atheist, anti-religionist, materialist, and pantheist. He was banned and banished, investigated by the Spanish Inquisition, and excommunicated by an Amsterdam synagogue. He endured abuse from the other side too, as his Jewishness was targeted by non-Jews, a common sport during his lifetime (1632-1677).

He was actually intensely aware of God, a saintly man of whom someone wrote, “one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived." He continues to influence discourse about spiritual matters.

Spinoza (1632-1677) synthesized science with the philosophies and corrected Cartesian dualism.
René Descartes (1596-1650) was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the physical brain, which produces the kind of intelligence that computers can replicate. His distinction highlighted the mind-body problem that still occupies us today, but it didn’t show how mind and body interact.

Descartes’ Spirit-Matter distinction had the good effect of separating church from state, but it also produced Deism, with its image of the mechanistic clockmaker God who has nothing to do with the world’s affairs. Spirit was relegated to the SUPER natural—separated from the world. The severe separation of God from physical creation, in Carroll’s words, divided “rational from emotional, individual from community, scientific from artistic, pragmatic from moral.”

To counter dualism, we can think of the All or the Absolute, what we call God, as transcending "ordinary, physical reality while at the same time being the most natural reality, not some supernatural, extra-natural, un-natural, external-to-reality being we have to be told to believe in.” I put this in quotes because it’s what I argued in my guest post for ddjango (an assumed name).

Now I find that Spinoza's philosophy predated my thought way back in the 17th century. He thought of God as the dynamic principle of order immanent within nature. He identified God with Nature, seeing them as two names for the same reality:
Nothing exists save the one substance—the self-contained, self-sustaining, and self-explanatory system which constitutes the world.
This reminds me of Andre Comte-Sponville’s words in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality:
Being? Nature? Becoming? . . . Everyone is free to choose their own vocabulary . . . This is what has traditionally been called the absolute or the unconditioned, that which depends on nothing but itself and exists independently of all relations, conditions and points of view.
The translation of this French atheist’s Little Book came out in 2007. He and Spinoza are two European philosophers separated in time but close in thought, and both echoing the theme of Eastern thought—all things exist in interdependence.

If God is in all, we don’t need religions to mediate God, do we? So Spinoza was considered anti-religion. But he didn’t oppose religions or disrespect them. He did advocate for seeing them, like everything else, sub specie aeternitatis or from the point of view of eternity. In other words, no particular human thought or religion is supreme; there’s always another way of looking at things. He advocated equality of religious sects, another idea ahead of its time.

Whenever I write something this philosophical, I’m afraid that some of my readers get glazed eyes and quit trying to penetrate the abstractions. Let me know if philosophy does that to you.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! This, by far, is your best entry, Jeanette. Perhaps it's because of the thinkers you quote that I yet haven't read. Though the material is not new, I want to run to the bookstore. Thanks.
Connie

dad said...

I love philosophy. I just glaze my eyes over while I'm trying to process. For some of us, it takes awhile.
I think(oh,boy)that God is not a subject. If I was God, and we can all thank God I'm not, and I was hanging around, I would ask "why are you fussing so much over me."
I suppose the answer is that so many folks are trying to achieve fame, fortune or power.

Jeanette said...

Thank you for your comments