This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) is the forgotten founding father of modernism, a philosopher who put forth and practiced methods and principles as essential to the Enlightenment as those of Bacon or Descartes, Hobbes or Locke, Kant or Hume. On the one hand, he was a man of courage and conviction who resisted the prejudices of his day and who advocated for clear, logical thinking and rational, ethical living; on the other hand, he was a skeptic who rejected the religion, the sacred literature, and the God of his Jewish ancestors.
Spinoza was born and raised in the Netherlands, the son of Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Portugal. Thanks to the real, if limited, religious freedom afforded by the Dutch, Spinoza’s parents were able to provide him with a diverse education that included not only biblical Hebrew and Jewish theology but Latin and medieval Scholastic philosophy as well. Whereas this liberal education caused many of Spinoza’s peers and those of his father to embrace their community as a way of preventing contamination and assimilation, Spinoza’s studies had exactly the opposite effect on him.
As he grew, Spinoza began to question the Jewish beliefs and practices in which he had been raised. Eventually, his synagogue, scandalized by his heretical teachings and fearing that those teachings would lead to civil strife and provoke interference from the Dutch Christian majority, excommunicated Spinoza, cutting him off from all fellowship with his Jewish brothers and sisters. Spinoza was able to find some assistance from freethinking Christians in Amsterdam, but not before his books were censored by Jews and Christians alike!
Spinoza’s God. Although I cannot help but applaud Spinoza for fighting so heartily, and at great cost to himself, for freedom of speech and religion, I sincerely wish he had not used that freedom to undermine the foundations of both Judaism and Christianity. Two centuries before “higher” critics such as David Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Ernest Renan deconstructed the authority of Scripture and its status as the inspired Word of God,1 Spinoza already had subjected the Torah to the criteria of reason and logic — by which he meant throwing out, or dehistoricizing and allegorizing, all accounts that included the miraculous or that relied on direct revelation from God. To the chagrin of the Jewish community,
Spinoza’s debunking of the Old Testament included a complete rejection of the Jews as the Chosen People through whom God would accomplish the redemption of the world. Spinoza’s rejection of a key historical event in the salvation history of Jews and Christians — namely, that God specially called and set apart Abraham and his descendants as a people holy to Himself — is indicative of his demythologizing approach to the Bible. But it also reveals a deeper and more troubling aspect of his philosophy. Though Spinoza writes constantly about God, his God has nothing whatsoever to do with the God revealed in the Bible. Spinoza’s God is utterly impersonal and could not have chosen the Jewish people (or any people, for that matter), for he is not a God who chooses. Spinoza’s God possesses neither wants nor desires and harbors no preferences. He does not like or dislike, reward or punish, notice or ignore. True, Spinoza believed, the Bible speaks often of God loving or hating, choosing or rejecting, but that is only because the biblical writers projected their own human personality onto God. God transcends all emotion, all will, and all purpose.
The God Spinoza describes in his central, most defining work, Ethics, is simply and completely synonymous with nature. Like Aristotle before him, Spinoza believed both God and the universe are eternal; however, unlike Aristotle, Spinoza stripped God of all intentionality and initiative. The God of Spinoza’s Ethics lacks the unmoved prime mover and first cause status afforded him by Aristotle; he is even less personal and purposive than the watchmaker God of such eighteenth-century deists as Thomas Paine (see his Age of Reason) who kick-started the cosmos and then let it run on its own.
Spinoza’s God neither created the universe nor has any type of existence apart from it. Rather than establish and set in motion the laws of nature, he is identical with those laws. Spinoza was a determinist — there is no escaping from the impersonal laws that govern the universe — but his God is part and parcel of that materialistic-deterministic structure. He does not stand above or outside nature directing its course or the course of the human animals that share the planet. All happens out of necessity in Spinoza’s cosmos, and God is part of that necessity, rather than being the director of it.
Matter and Mind. Given what I have written thus far, it would seem that theistic philosophers, past and present, would distance themselves from Spinoza. That is not always the case. Though Spinoza, like Hume (1711–1776) after him, cuts the supernatural ground out from under Judaism and Christianity, positing a naturalistic world of material causes and effects in which God plays no role, both Spinoza and Hume write with a kind of mathematical clarity of thought that can be quite compelling. Though their systems leave no room for the active, covenant God of the Bible, they have a suffocating certainty and a coherence to them that promises to account for everything.
There is another and more important reason why Spinoza has gained advocates among theistic philosophers: he appears to offer an escape from the dualism of Descartes (1596–1650). Whereas Descartes tended to drive a wedge between body and soul, causing the body to become nothing more than animated meat, Spinoza, whose Ethics was written in part as a critique of Descartes, argued that body and soul — or, to be more accurate, body and mind — are one.
Christians must not be fooled by Spinoza’s project. In no way does Spinoza offer a biblical, incarnational view of man that treats us as enfleshed souls who will one day be clothed in resurrection bodies like that of the risen Christ. By making body and mind one, what Spinoza really does is eliminate the mind. Just as, in equating nature with God, Spinoza causes God to be overwhelmed by and submerged into nature, so, in equating body with mind, he causes the mind to become just another (material) part of our physical body. Spinoza may seem to be joining matter and mind, but all he does is reduce the mind to an epiphenomenon — a mental state regarded as a byproduct — of brain activity.
For all his talk of God and mind, Spinoza does not acknowledge the existence of anything outside of nature. Everything that happens, whether to our body or to our mind, is a result of material (efficient) causes. Through sufficient analysis, one can often discern the chain of material causes that led to an action — but that chain cannot be traced back to a final cause or to a purposeful end (what Aristotle called a telos). Even if a chain can be linked to God, it does not thereby constitute a final cause, for God, Spinoza asserts interminably, is nature, and nature knows no telos. Just as Richard Dawkins and his fellow Darwinians continually remind us that the wonderful design we see in nature and ourselves is only the appearance of design, so Spinoza constantly reminds us that to invoke God is to invoke a natural, not supernatural, explanation.
In Spinoza’s universe, man finally lacks free will, but then so does God! Mind no more controls body than God controls nature, for all four are controlled by the laws of nature and by material chains of causation. We think we are free, but that is an illusion that rests on our ignorance of the causal chains that determine all.
Such are Spinoza’s philosophical musings in the Ethics, and yet, despite the inherent determinism of his system, Spinoza devotes Part V of his treatise to detailing practical methods by which one can lead a virtuous, ethical life. Though he rejects both Plato’s belief that absolutes (Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Justice) exist and Aristotle’s belief that all things possess an essential telos that determines their proper purpose and end, Spinoza nevertheless retains a central truth that Plato and Aristotle alike learned from Socrates: that philosophy must be both theoretical and practical. That is why Part V, despite constituting only 15 percent of the total work, marks the climax of Spinoza’s thought, the point at which speculation gives way to ethics.
Cognitive Catharsis. I would suggest that believing Christians should approach Ethics V in the same way they should approach postmodernism — as a system of thought able to teach us helpful skills and methods as long as we remember that most of the presuppositions on which those skills and methods rest are antithetical to Christianity. Like the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius), Spinoza offers practical advice for living a good life of freedom and control, for achieving earthly happiness, and for escaping the fear of death. But he does so in a way that makes him a forerunner of Freudian psychotherapy, behaviorism, and cognitive science.
For Spinoza, happiness and freedom cannot be attained until we gain control over our emotions and passions. The way we do so is not through spiritual disciplines but by understanding the material chains of causation and association that produced the emotions. Once we gain clear and distinct ideas about our emotions (through self-knowledge and introspection), we can move on to achieve catharsis — emotional release — and enlightenment.
Emotions, Spinoza explains, bind us when they are passive — that is, when we are ignorant as to their true causes. Only by achieving a correct understanding of the cause/effect relationship between what we experience and what we feel can we render our emotions active and gain control over them. It is that correct knowledge that then allows us to make new and more accurate associations between our emotions and external objects. Indeed, Spinoza, anticipating by over three-hundred years modern understandings of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), argues that most of our bad associations are initiated by a traumatic experience that overwhelms our emotions and fixates them on one object rather than many.
Agreeing, in part, with Aristotle and Aquinas, Spinoza presents virtue as a habit that constitutes its own reward. Blessedness, Spinoza argues, is not the reward of virtue but is virtue itself. We have it within us to train our mind to live by a code and overcome false associations based on trauma, but the process takes discipline and a willingness to love the eternal, immutable God rather than the fleeting, unstable things of the world.
By God, of course, Spinoza does not mean the God of the Bible; he does not even mean the Form of the god that the Platonic philosopher seeks to contemplate in the beatific vision. God, as always, is nature, not a Creator to whom we are accountable or a divine standard against which we can measure and recognize our own depravity. Spinoza advocates a life of contemplation but not the “Search me, O Lord” contemplation of the Psalmist through which our sins and our anxieties are revealed, confessed, and forgiven.
Still, there is an element of Spinoza’s ethical program that Christians would do well to heed. Though he works hard to maintain an objective tone throughout his Ethics, Spinoza’s frustration finds a voice when he skewers religious hypocrites for doing good deeds not for the sake of goodness but so they can bribe God and win heavenly rewards. Too many religious people, Spinoza complains, are good and virtuous only out of fear of hell. If they knew there was no afterlife, they would most likely live lives of hedonism. We should, asserts Spinoza, check our lusts, but not out of fear of hell or of God’s wrath; our motivation, instead, should be to gain a true knowledge of God and virtue based on clear, distinct ideas.
But to what final end do we pursue this? Although Spinoza recognizes no mind apart from body and no God apart from nature, he yet ends his Ethics by treating the mind as being eternal in a way that the body is not. Spinoza makes it clear that life-after-death in the religious sense is a fantasy, that once the body dies, all memory and imagination die with it. And yet, he makes it equally clear that the mind does participate in the eternity of God, that, in fact, the more the mind contemplates God while it is in the body, the more it will share in that eternity. How can this be?
Though Spinoza does not say so specifically, I would suggest that he envisions something like the Buddhist One Soul, an emptying of the individual mind into that sentient but impersonal universe which is, at once, nature and God. Like many atheists today, Spinoza, while refusing to be held accountable to an all-holy, all-powerful God, nevertheless stands in awe before the mystery of human consciousness.
For he, like all God’s creatures, has had eternity written in his heart.
Louis Markos is professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, and he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His eighteen books include Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments against God (Harvest House, 2018) and Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2010).
- Strauss (1808–1874), a German Protestant theologian, and Renan (1823–1892), a French expert in Semitic languages, used modern historical techniques to strip away the Jesus of faith in order to find the authentic “historical” Jesus lurking beneath. Both scholars wrote books titled The Life of Jesus that popularized their ideas across Europe and America. Feuerbach (1804–1872), a German philosopher and anthropologist, used similar methods to strip Christianity of its rational content, transforming it into a religion of feeling.