Some people today state that they are ‘spiritual’ though not religious in the conventional sense. One might read the above quote and state that Spinoza was a Pantheist. He presented a form of rational Pantheism and his philosophy in responding to life’s difficulties shared similarities with the Stoics enduring pain or hardship without showing feeling or complaining.
Atheists have tried to claim him as one of their own and Bertrand Russell said, “Spinoza is the most noble and lovable of the great philosophers.”[ii] However, Spinoza was intolerant of that view since he feared it would result in immorality and tyranny.[iii] Spinoza was greatly concerned with ethics and the purpose or function of good religion was to produce moral conduct.[iv] The deists (those advocating that there is a God on the basis of reason and nature only) therefore have a stronger claim, hence Einstein said that he believed in ‘Spinoza’s God’.
With such a complex and eclectic philosophy how is it possible to define Spinoza’s philosophy or understand his thoughts? Sometimes it is easier to understand what something is by deducing what it is not. Spinoza was not an Atheist in the strict sense of the meaning, and he certainly did not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His ancestors fled Spain following the Inquisition of 1492 to Holland which was a place enabling much more freedom of thought. Although he had a Jewish education and was influenced by Maimonides and had some knowledge of the Kabbala, he was expelled from the synagogue aged twenty-four. This was not surprising since his views on monotheism opposed the Shema. In addition his liberal theology and views concerning the authorship of the Torah were akin to that of the higher critics that gained popularity, a couple of centuries later.[v]
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
The first verse in the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), precludes any form of pantheism. The word for ‘created’ (bara), is used only of God and is something that is only ascribed to Him. We do not really create anything since we merely use existing materials to make things. The God of the Bible created everything. His creation is emphasised as ‘good’ pointing towards His moral virtues (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 20, 25, 31) and this was before the fall. The Lord God walked in the garden and personally interacted with Adam and Eve.
Spinoza believed that God was in everything and the best way to understand God was through reason. Through reasoning Spinoza thought it was possible to acquire a divine eternal perspective.[vi] Nonetheless in Spinoza’s mindset, God was impersonal. If God is impersonal then how can one define morality and why should morality be an entity? Yet Isaiah wrote about how God’s ways and thoughts are so much deeper than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9) and Jeremiah spoke of God desiring that we should know Him, and His ways (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Moses wrote of a God who is true and just (Deuteronomy 32:4). Pantheists sometimes fail to admit their multi-faceted limitations. How can the reason of a finite being understand the infinite without divine revelation?
The Sadducees, in contrast to the Pharisees denied the resurrection, (like Spinoza) and asked Jesus a question about seven brothers, the first of whom was married, had no children, and left his wife to his brother and so forth and asked about the resurrection and whose wife she would be? Jesus explained that in the resurrection they are not given in marriage “but concerning the resurrection said have you not read what was spoken to you by God saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32-33).”
Spinoza was correct in recognising that we need God. The problem with Spinoza’s philosophy is firstly his starting point in that humans can by reason understand God. He thinks God is impersonal, yet the design and beauty of the universe reveal the opposite since great knowledge and complicated artistry is evidently employed continuously. Original and stunning sunsets appear daily. Put another way, why would an impersonal infinite entity create order and beauty? To understand the entirety of God’s purposes we would need to be His intellectual equal which is preposterous since when we consider our limitations, we realise the more we know, the more we do not know.
The God who is Near, Personal, Good, Creator and Redeemer
The God of the Bible has not only revealed Himself but has done so personally. Spinoza responded to life’s hardships through stoicism and who could blame him if God is impersonal, and God does not care? The most one can hope to do is to take trials on the chin and try not to get bitter, since complaining will not improve misfortune.
When Paul addressed the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), he explained who God is, what God did that was so crucial for everyone who has ever lived, what He is like and established an objective framework of morality. God made the world and everything in it and is not far from each one of us. We are not God, but we are made in His image which means that we have real worth and value. God ordained a Man (Yeshua the Messiah), who rose from the dead (he died to make atonement for our sin which separates us from God) and has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness. God commands everyone, everywhere to repent, that is to turn to Him and trust in Him.
[ii] Bertrand Russell History of Western Philosophy (Routledge, 1995, London), p552
[iii] Michael A. Rosenthal Why Spinoza is Intolerant of Atheists: God and the Limits of Early Modern Liberalism https://phil.washington.edu/research/essays-articles-and-book-chapters/why-spinoza-intolerant-atheists-god-and-limits-early
[iv] George Smith Freethought and Freedom: Spinoza on the Bible https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/freethought-freedom-spinoza-bible
[v] Russell, 552
[vi] Western Philosophy Baruch Spinoza https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/baruch-spinoza/