I’m getting really close to finishing my posts on Spinoza. I’ve never taken longer with a subject, and this is partly my fault, and partly Spinoza’s fault– for being so full of interesting philosophical and religious propositions. Today I want to round-out my posts on Spinoza and religion. It’s a bit of catch-all. Please see the previous posts for more in-depth reviews.
Let us be clear: Spinoza does NOT take the Bible seriously– or at least, not literally. He believes that human Reason is not something one should even attempt to apply to Holy Writ. “I do not understand Holy Scripture,” he tells Blyenbergh in January 1665, “although I have devoted quite a number of years to its study.”
For Spinoza, the commandments and stories contained within the Bible are not really true, but are told for the benefit of the unenlightened. Scripture, Spinoza tells Blyenbergh in January 1665, is “particularly adapted to the needs of the common people,” […] “for the common people are incapable of understanding higher things.”
The aim of the stories in the Bible is not truth, but obedience. Therefore, “the prophets made up a whole parable depicting God as a king and lawgiver,” and they adjusted their words “to the framework of this parable rather than to truth.” That is why the way to Salvation is represented Biblically as “laws” associated with “reward and punishment.”
Of course, Spinoza cunningly redefines “Salvation” to mean –not the eternal life a man achieves in some gold-paved paradise filled with virgins– but as the emotional state a man comes to when he has “the love of himself.” “The Good worship God,” says Spinoza, not to get past the Pearly Gates and into Heaven, but to “become more perfect.”
Unlike the common herd, says Spinoza, Philosophers “have risen to a level beyond Law” and “pursue Virtue not as a Law but because they love it as something very precious.”
Spinoza contends that if there is something in the Bible that contradicts some known and “indisputable proof”– then, well, something is wrong somewhere. Spinoza being Spinoza, refrains from saying outright that Scripture would then be guilty of a lie, but what he does dare say is this: “Truth is not at odds with Truth”– let the implications fall where they may.
Spinoza will not, of course, say that Jesus was a false prophet, but I give him credit for at least daring to state, and to state quite explicitly, that Christ is NOT part of the Godhead, and that people speak “absurdly” when they say that “God took upon himself Human nature.” Writing to Oldenburg in December 1675, Spinoza says that believers in the Trinity “seem to me to speak no less absurdly than one who might tell me that a circle has taken on the nature of a square.”
Spinoza can accept Christ symbolically, and even describes him as the “wisdom of God,” but God in the flesh?– he ain’t buyin’ it.
Spinoza, master of spin, performs his typical maneuver here when he speaks of Christ: he states something that sounds close to orthodoxy– until one realizes that Spinoza has redefined the terms… About Christ, he tells Oldenburg that Christ can be thought of as “the eternal son of God”– but quickly redefines “Son Of God” as “God’s eternal Wisdom which has manifested itself in all things and chiefly in the human mind.” He then twists back around, finishing, but “most of all in Christ Jesus.”
Spinoza interprets the story of Christ’s resurrection in much the same way that he interprets the Bible: not-necessarily-true stories related for the benefit of humankind. He tells Oldenburg that the claimed resurrection could only have been “of a spiritual kind” that “was revealed to the faithful according to their understanding.” In other words, if the faithful could come closest to understanding the eternal nature of the personification of God’s Wisdom by seeing a dead man come back to life– than that’s what they imagined they saw.
Spinoza does NOT believe in the persistence of the individual soul after death. Writing to Hugh Boxel in September 1674, he compares the continued existence of a soul without a body to the continued existence of memory or sight without the body. Not… very… likely.
Spinoza believes that, since nothing we do pleases or displeases God, we should not oppose the religious rites practiced by others. Also, he finds it perfectly acceptable that a magistrate would decide the official religion of his realm.
Spinoza contends that even those outside the “true” religion can still be saved– as long as they act in “the spirit of Christ.”
We all have a divine law inscribed in our minds, believes Spinoza, and that law instructs us to love God– who Spinoza then redefines as the “Highest Good.” We should not worry about these bible stories concerning divinely bestowed rewards or punishments– but should enjoy practicing virtue for virtue’s sake.
“I have taken ‘miracles’ and ‘ignorance’ as equivalents,” Spinoza writes Oldenburg in December 1675, maintaining that those who try to prove God’s existence by pointing to so-called miracles are “seeking to prove the obscure through the more obscure.”
God, says Spinoza, pays no heed to prayers whatsoever.
I add only this: I pray that my next post will be my last on the letters of Spinoza.
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Other Posts on SPINOZA from Hammering Shield: