For years now, I’ve been preoccupied with Spinoza’s religious thought. This hasn’t been the case simply in my role as an academic philosopher who spends time writing, teaching, and giving talks about Spinoza. More importantly, I often think of myself as a Spinozian religionist—a believer, so to speak, in the religiously loaded sense of that word. Of course, there are no Spinozian churches of which to be a member, no Spinozian sacraments or Sunday bake sales. Nor, arguably, should there be: Spinoza didn’t think religion is fundamentally a matter of institutional affiliation or ritual. So, my ‘conversion’ has simply consisted in the onset of a private conviction: not simply that Spinoza ought to be taken seriously as a religious thinker, but that there’s something essentially correct in his vision of the religious life.
By itself, this doesn’t communicate much to most people. I have a very vivid memory of my first exposure to Spinoza as an undergrad philosophy major at UCLA. I heard my esteemed teacher John Carriero give a lecture on part I of Spinoza’s most famous work, the Ethics, and thought: “Okay, so what Spinoza thinks is that there’s only one thing, and it’s God. What does that even mean?!” I was confused and irritated, and the thicket of the Ethics—organized like a series of mathematical proofs abounding with recondite medieval terminology—only made it worse. So, I dutifully wrote the assigned paper, clueless to what the arguments I explicated were really saying, and breathed a sigh of relief when I finished and so could put Spinoza out of my mind.
I suspect that even many seasoned readers of philosophy have had similar experiences with Spinoza. They know he thought that God is Nature, the world as a whole, and…a bunch of other things involving notions like substance, mode, and attribute that hardly anyone uses anymore. Of course, the fact that Spinoza employs the word “God” might suggest to them that his views are meant to have some sort of religious significance. However, they don’t know what this is, and haven’t ever given the question any thought. Perhaps this is in part for the simple reason that they haven’t heard or read Spinoza spoken of as a religious thinker in particular. Perhaps it’s in part because they either flee to the hills at the first sign of any earnest religious talk; or else are already confirmed partisans in religious matters—in other words, because they’re secularists on the one hand, or traditional religionists on the other.
What’s remarkable about Spinoza’s sensibilities is that they fly in the face of what people in both camps usually presuppose about religion. He does indeed have many views typical of secularists. He rejects belief in the supernatural—and in a personal God in particular—as mere superstition. Such beliefs, he thinks, are not merely false and confused, but also pernicious: tools for the cultivation of craven submissiveness. Because of this, he’s a champion of reason against superstition, and of freedom against authoritarian power.
Upon hearing such things, I imagine many secularists will nod in approval, and many traditional religionists will be put on the defensive. But then, the surprising twist. Spinoza says these things to them with one breath, but with the next endorses what is arguably the central doctrine of the Abrahamic religions: that the best kind of life is one grounded in the love of God. In all likelihood, this will have people on both sides scratching their heads. It will seem, that is, as if he’d suddenly switched sides on them. And this is precisely because the common assumption is that religion just is a certain commitment to notions of the supernatural or transcendent.
The first element of Spinoza’s distinctiveness lies in his rejection of this assumption. One slogan for Spinozian religion would be: Nature is enough. The religious life Spinoza imagines doesn’t require us to turn to fantasies of the supernatural or transcendent for solace. Quite the contrary: it requires us to take solace—more than solace, joy—in the condition that usually terrifies us into fleeing toward such fantasies in the first place: our finitude.
To be finite in Spinoza’s sense is simply to be utterly dependent on and vulnerable to the world around us—what he calls God. This, for him, is the fundamental insight behind the traditional Abrahamic notion that we are creatures of God.
Now, philosophers have sometimes used the word “finitude” to designate an element of what makes human beings special—something that sets us off in some elite categorial way from most other things in the world around us. And, traditional religionists have often thought that we’re creatures of God in some special sense—unique among all things in being made in God’s ‘image and likeness’ somehow.
In contrast, for Spinoza, our finitude is what puts us on a par with everything in the world around us. We’re brought into being as the kinds of things we are by natural forces. These forces determine all of what we do and what happens to us throughout our existence; and, they bring about our destruction. Just like rock, the tree, and the salamander, we’re utterly dependent, vulnerable beings.
As many have noticed, in thinking that we’re finite in this sense, Spinoza embraces a naturalistic view about human beings. However, for him, such naturalism isn’t merely the correct description of things. Rather, naturalism is, for him, a theme in ethics.
When philosophers talk about so-called naturalistic theories in ethics, they usually mean a certain kind of metaphysical account of ethically significant phenomena: for example, an account of human freedom, moral obligation, or value that’s consistent with, if not grounded in, the deliverances of the sciences. And indeed, Spinoza is an ethical naturalist in this sense.
However, this isn’t the point. That is, for Spinoza, embracing a naturalistic worldview—in particular, about ourselves—is itself necessary for leading the best kind of life. And, this isn’t simply because it will help us avoid the self-stultifying confusions of superstition. Rather, it’s because only through such an embrace can we achieve the greatest joy—joy not despite but in our inescapable dependence and vulnerability.
He calls this joy blessedness (Latin: beatitudo, beatitude) and the love of God. In doing so, he also embraces a form of religion that is naturalistic in the present sense. Again, though, this description could be misleading. Philosophers who advocate for religion from a naturalist viewpoint often do so in a defensive mode. That is, they treat naturalism as a potential threat to religion. Then, they attempt to diffuse this threat—by arguing, for example, that religion and science have distinct domains, and so need not be seen as stepping on each other’s toes. They achieve, at best, a precarious ceasefire.
Such peace, however, is just as anathemic to Spinozian religion as the war it suspends. Spinoza doesn’t see a naturalistic view of ourselves as a possible obstacle to embracing religion. Rather, he takes religious inspiration from it. He sees an indifferent world in which we are insignificant—simply locations through which natural history passes—and rejoices in it.
We might be tempted to think of what he calls the love of God as something like awe at the sublime, then. However, instead of being something we feel in a passing moment while gazing from atop a mountain, or listening to Carl Sagan (“billions and billions of stars”); Spinozian love of God is the dominating mood in which we lead our lives. There is, Spinoza thinks, a vivid experience we can have of our own finitude—seeing ourselves as made up of flows and eddies in the sea of being, as it were—that grants us, not merely some scattered moments of detached internal contentment, but rather the capacity to nourish ourselves on our interconnectedness with the world at large: to take up and resonate with the flows and eddies that shape us.
Much more must be said, of course, to make Spinoza’s view clear, and to articulate what speaks in favor of living in the way he recommends. And, the initial hurdles for any attempt to do so are considerable. The reflex of both secularists and traditional religionists alike will be to dismiss Spinoza out of hand: the former, because they suspect that religion is nothing more than a poison of which we’d do best to rid ourselves; the latter, because his view will seem to them like a perverse sort of blasphemy—irreligiousness masquerading behind a semblance of piety. Nevertheless, what I aim for in this blog is to make just such an attempt.
My preoccupation with Spinoza’s picture has come to suffuse, not just the way I think about philosophy and religion; but also the way I approach literature, film, and music, and my aspirations as a writer of fiction. Monomaniacally, perhaps, I see Spinozian currents everywhere I look, including ones that run through many unexpected locales. So, I won’t just be writing in the mode of an academic philosopher. Rather, I’ll address Spinozian themes I’ve found in all of these areas.
Correspondence is one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) modes of conversation. And, these are matters of deeply personal, existential importance to me. Thus, I’m pressing forward in the hope that others will occasionally read what I write and share their reactions–so that I can learn from them, but also perhaps find some kindred spirits among them.