The Architecture Of Whatever Is

Spinoza’s Religion by Clare Carlisle (Princeton University Press, 2021)

This new interpretation of Spinoza, the persecuted 17th century advocate of scientific thinking, constructs an alternative to religious faith that goes beyond negative atheism. Clare Carlisle draws from his philosophy a concept of living “in God.” It suggests, in her words, “the possibility of an immediate, non-dualist awareness of being-in-God, which perhaps resembles the kind of awareness that can arise during meditation or contemplation.” 

The implicit reference to Eastern practices is consistent with their current popularity and the associated attitude that cuts down fundamental “dualist” theology. It is, to simplify, the rising opposition to living “under God,” which I would like to discuss before getting to Spinoza.

Clare Carlisle

Carlisle is British but her publisher is, appropriately, American. Even secular U. S. politicians today proudly end their speeches with “God Bless America!” The obligatory repetition reduces the motto (with music by Irving Berlin) to a meaningless cliché. And those who go further, advocating a nation exclusively and totally devoted to the Judeo-Christian God, even to the point of denying science, provoke opposition —  often in the form of atheistic satire.  A quote from the comic repertoire of the late George Carlin keeps popping up:

“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.”

The First Amendment declares  freedom of religion and prohibits government establishment of religion. This separation of church and state never restrained U.S. presidents from expressing religious sentiments, but in 1954 Congress enacted and President Eisenhower signed a joint resolution that went beyond sentiment. It gave a new religious meaning to the  Pledge of Allegiance, written by a minister for recitation by school children on flag day in 1892. The original version, adopted in the national Flag Code in 1942, said: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

The resolution inserted “under God” between “Nation” and “indivisible.”  In a brief but carefully composed signing statement Eisenhower said it proclaimed “the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.” Like Washington and Grant, he had been elected essentially because he was the commanding general who won a historic war. Whole armies had served under them, and under God has a similar connotation: supreme commander.  Most U.S. presidents (31 according to Wiki) have had military service in their resumés.

Eisenhower’s statement continued, “In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future,”  suggesting perhaps that our God was a transcendent God. It concluded: “We shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” It was an era of the communist scare and cold war. Eisenhower, as is affirmed by the historian Frances Fitzgerald,  was obsessed with the idea that America’s success was because of its Christian culture. Two years later he signed a resolution engraving “In God We Trust” on currency.

Theological-political culture has changed in the nearly 70 years. Russian communism is dead. The evangelical tradition in America has been occluded by fraud and sexual hypocrisy among a few televangelists. The Catholic church is paying enormously for protecting pedophile priests.  “Non-dualist”  has become a useful, though apophatic, theological term. And despite Vietnam, protests against military aggression “With God On Our Side” continue in some places. 

Or ought to. Consider this:  the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a buddy of Vladimir Putin since their KGB days, supports his genocidal war against Ukraine. The Economist in April 2022 wrote: “Patriarch Kirill is a staunch ally of Mr Putin. In 2012, he described his presidency as a ‘miracle of God,’ It has certainly benefited the church. On Mr Putin’s watch, Russia has passed laws that restrict the rights of rival religious groups, retrieved religious artifacts that were sold off under communism, and built thousands of churches. All that has bolstered the power that church leaders have to influence large swathes of the population.” 

Theological politics is endemic in the United States. In 2013, while researching my family background, I attended a Sunday service at a rural Baptist church. The scripture for the day was Psalm 51, a confession of sin and a plea to be cleansed by God. The minister digressed, praising a campaign against homosexual marriage and teaching of gayness to children “by a guy named Putin.” He went on: “I don’t know who he is, but if he comes here I’ll vote for him.” The message was prophetic. 

American evangelists justified the election of Donald Trump, with 80 per cent of the evangelical vote, as an act of God. Benjamin Netanyahu compared him with Cyrus, the non-believer who conquered Babylon and brought the Judean leaders home to restore the temple at Jerusalem.

The Trump insurrection violated the Pledge, which unlike the federal oath of office is voluntary. Most states require teachers to lead the Pledge but the Supreme Court has said they cannot require students join in. The court has avoided ruling whether “under God” is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. 

SEPARATION OF FAITH AND PHILOSOPY

Spinoza’s philosophy is contained in two completed books — Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise. The Ethics is a brick wall of definitions followed by axioms, propositions, corollaries and explanations called “scholia.”

The first chapter, “Of God,” is metaphysics. God is the one and only “Substance” — an old philosophical term for “that which underlies phenomena, the permanent substratum of things (OED).” The divine Substance has infinite possible attributes, of which we can apprehend only two: thought and extension. These are sort of like mind and matter except extension does not equal matter. Space too is extended. 

A key proposition in the second Ethics chapter, “Of Nature And The Origin Of The Mind,” is: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as order and connection of things.” It might be limited to causation, a fundamental exercise of science, but it also might be a parallelism that explains how Thought and Extension seem to interact. They are not two realities. They are different projections of the same underlying reality.

Here The Ethics bears the unfortunate term Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. But Spinoza’s Nature is not all birds and flowers. It cannot be known by simple phenomena or images drawn from random experience. It begs higher forms of knowledge.

Personal note: I love what’s left of nature, whether seen by snorkeling along a rare healthy coral reef, or watching a documentary on peculiarly evolved endangered creatures or backpacking on a high wilderness trail or lying back under a true dark sky looking up at stars and planets. The poet Coleridge was a Spinozist, and I imagine Kubla Kahn’s pleasure dome that appeared to him in a dream was the classical starry dome of heaven.  So if you describe this reverence as pantheism, no problem.

Spinoza’s Nature has two sublime aspects. Natura naturata is the world of things (“actual entities” in the philosophy of Whitehead). Natura naturans is the immanent power of God, or “process.” Its self creation is continuous, not like the Aristotelian “final cause,” based on the simile of the wood carver who gets an idea and carves it. (Alan Watts, a Zen Buddhist, said Western children ask, “Who made me?” but Asian children ask, “Who makes me grow?”)

The Treatise is more accessible. The treatise is taught as a general indictment of religions, which he characterized as superstitious, enslaving and so overweighted with cultural ceremony and pomp that reasonable doubt is blocked.

 At the outset of the Treatise he states his theme: “The great secret of monarchic rule, and its whole interest, is to keep men deceived and to cloak in the specious name of religion the fear by which they must be checked, so that they will fight for slavery as they would for salvation.”

His purpose, in his words, “is to separate faith from philosophy” because  “philosophy has no end in view save truth” while faith “looks for nothing but obedience and piety.” 

First he had to set aside sacred literature and its miraculous stories of divine intervention. Spinoza maintained that miracles are impossible. But he did not disdain the prophets of the Jewish bible in which he had thorough training before he was banished from his synagogue. The prophets of the Old Testament had the holy spirit and “an exceptional constancy of heart,” he wrote. They excelled in imagination. Their revelations through images (Ezekiel’s wheel, Elijah’s chariot) “might be true or imaginary.”

Moses by contrast may have used “skillful means” (to use a Buddhist term) to enforce his laws. As Leo Strauss, a German immigrant scholar, put it, “when saying that Moses ‘believed or at least wished to teach’ that God is zealous or angry, he makes explicit what Maimonides had implied when intimating that belief in God’s anger is required, not for man’s ultimate perfection, but for the good ordering of civil society.” (Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher who asserted that God is non-corporeal.)

Spinoza said, “Moses did not seek to convince the Jews by reason, but bound them by covenant.” Reason is the next step up from imaginary stories, but “an intellectual knowledge of God,” as Spinoza put it, “has no bearings whatever on true rules of conduct, on faith, or on revealed religion.” His third and ultimate level of knowledge is direct intuition. And Jesus had it.

“Inasmuch as God revealed Himself to Christ, or to Christ’s mind immediately, and not as to the prophets through words and symbols, we must needs suppose that Christ perceived truly what was revealed, in other words, he understood it, for a matter is understood when it is perceived simply by the mind without words or symbols.”  

Again, as Moses claimed to receive laws “by heavenly voice,” Jesus “communicated with God mind to mind.” He “taught things as eternal truths and did not prescribe them a laws.” 

Like the Old Testament, “The doctrine of the Gospels enjoins nothing but simple faith, namely to believe in God and to honor him, which is the same thing as to obey Him.”

A CHALLENGE TO THEOLOGIANS

Bertrand Russell once proposed three kinds of philosophies for popular consumption. There were, in his words, “philosophies of feeling, inspired by the love of happiness, theoretical philosophies, inspired by the love of knowledge, and practical philosophies, inspired by the love of action.”

Spinoza would be in the middle group if the dominant opinion that he was either an atheist or pantheist were accurate. But it is not. Without shading Clare Carlisle’s brilliance, I will say she belongs in the first group. Her 2002 Cambridge doctorate was on Kierkegaard, the Danish moralist at the roots of Existentialism, and she wrote a 2019 book about him called Philosopher of the Heart. A 20-year professor of philosophy at King’s College in London, she has written six books and is a frequent journalistic contributor.

In the introduction to Spinoza’s Religion Carlisle says, “Theologians, accepting philosophers’ judgement that Spinoza is a pantheist or atheist usually assume that he simply rejects their conception of God, and do not expect The Ethics to reward close reading. I wish to challenge all these assumptions, and show how philosophy and theology are intertwined in Spinoza’s metaphysics and ethics.”

Carlisle maintains that in interpreting Spinoza, particularly through The Ethics, “We have to take a middle path between rationalism and mysticism.” She presents a letter by Spinoza to open her case that he was neither atheist nor pantheist. A Calvinist Christian and provincial governor in the liberal Dutch republic had said that “to avoid being faulted for superstition” Spinoza had “cast off all religion.” Spinoza’s defensive response:

“Has someone who maintains that God must be recognized as the highest good, and should be freely loved as such, cast off all religion? Is someone who holds that our greatest happiness and freedom consist only in this irreligious?”

Employing an architectural metaphor, Carlisle says a “weight bearing column” of The Ethics is: “Whatever is, is in God and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” She says, “the little word ‘in’ plunges us into the deep end of Spinoza’s metaphysics.”

That is, the principle of “Being-in-God” is “the fundamental tenet of Spinoza’s thought,” she says, clarifying that this does not mean containment in space. The proposition is about “being,” a difficult philosophical term. Carlisle admits that: “perhaps we get closer to the truth of being-in-God through silence.”

But Carlisle did the search and found Deus sive natura only twice in The Ethics. Spinoza himself said in a letter: “Some people think the Theological Political Treatise rests on the assumption that God is one and the same as Nature (by which they understand a certain mass, or corporeal matter.) This is a complete mistake.”  

Again, he said in an Ethics footnote, “By Nature here I do not understand only matter and its affections, but in addition to matter, infinite other things.” Important in that infinity is potentia, the power “by which singular things preserve their being,” in Spinoza’s words. Carlisle says power and being are “almost equivalent.”

Spinoza in the introduction of the Treatise, said, “All things are made through the power of God. Because the power of nature is nothing but the power of God itself it is certain that insofar as we are ignorant of natural causes, we do not understand God’s power.” And again in the first chapter: “Nature herself is the power of God under another name, and our ignorance of the power of God is coextensive with our ignorance of nature.”

We cannot escape Nature. Spinoza was not, however, like the 17th century determinists, influenced by the absolute laws of mechanics, Carlise says. In this sense, free will — the Stoic idea that we can control Nature by pure will power — is “inadequate,” like the belief in miracles. Carlisle put it this way, although relegated the comment to a footnote:

“Spinoza did insist that human beings, like everything else, are subject to the laws of nature — so much so, however, that he refused to carve out a separate domain for spontaneous action, or free will. He argued that our thoughts, our emotions, our moral activity and our philosophical work are as much a part of nature as our embodied life.” 

Still, Spinoza said, “The more we know natural things, the greater and more perfect is the knowledge of God we acquire,” implying freedom to improve understanding.

In this connection, another architectonic Carlisle metaphor is light. Architects think about windows and exposure. Enlightenment is a condition of thought, of the human mind. Carlisle does a sort of research game, weighing Spinoza’s logical propositions according to how many times each is repeated.

Ideas are reinforced by repetition. Carlisle sees Spinoza’s use of Euclidean demonstration in The Ethics as a literary device, then, because whenever an argument refers back to a proposition, that’s a repetition. Religious ritual is repetitive for the same reason, but she says: 

“There is no reason to think that he wished to prevent anyone from following religious rituals which link things to God in ways that were chiefly devotional or contemplative. . . for example, by giving thanks to God for a shared meal, by regularly repeating the prayer Jesus taught his followers, or by laying out a prayer mat five times daily.”

Still, The Ethics explicitly refutes “the doctrine of a separate and anthropomorphic God,” Carlisle says. But that does not negate the joy of having another sort of Deity. 

This Acquiescentia in ourself  “is the highest thing we can hope for,” Spinoza said in a proposition in the last Ethics chapter, called “Of Human Bondage.” Carlisle comments, “Traditionally, theologians had described a deep human desire to rest in God — and idea powerfully expressed by Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, among others.”

There was a change in religion in Spinoza’s time from inward to outward experience. As one historian put it, ”Religion was vested in creeds rather than in the hearts of the faithful.” Spinoza objected, Carlisle notes. Hearts were being “torn by affects contrary to our nature.” The primary psychological teaching of Spinoza was how to avoid the various “passions” through knowledge. “We have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.” 

Spinoza criticized a contemporary philosopher (Bacon) for assuming that the human intellect is quiet and cannot rest.  On the contrary, Carlisle says, “A mind at rest in knowledge of God” is blessedness, the highest human good.  

To me, this acquiescence is like the Zen virtue “equanimity,” which comes after the steps of loving kindness, compassion, and joy in the enlightenment of others. In Zen, I believe, enlightenment can come suddenly without a perceivable external cause. It is something that happens suddenly in the mind, and we know we do not control our stream of consciousness without meditative experience in paying strict attention to it.

The God of the edited Pledge is transcendent. The God of Spinoza is immanent. Spinoza makes more sense.

So now, when I next stand for the Pledge I will use that “little word” Carlisle speaks of and say “in God” where others say  under God.”  And if I am a free journalist — which I used to be — among particularly aggressive pharisaic pietists, I just might see how they like:  “In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn/ A stately pleasure dome decree:/ Where Alf, the sacred river ran. . . .” It has nearly the same meter. 

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About ljcalloway

I am a writer. I love the Rocky Mountain West. For more than 50 years my primary residence has been in the upper basin of the Rio Grande.