Baruch Spinoza: Pantheism
What is God?
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To many Jews, pantheism is pretty much synonymous with atheism, or with what is perhaps even worse - idolatry. They hear the word pantheism and they think of tree worship or earth worship. In a sense they are correct. But in another sense, ironically, nothing could be further from the truth. While they have a point in asserting that pantheism, which means that ‘everything is god’ is almost synonymous with nature worship, they usually fail to make the fine distinction that nature worship itself is neither idolatrous nor atheistic. It may not fit in so well with the Biblical or rabbinic images of God, but then again neither are the philosophical or mystical images such perfect fits. Pantheism is really an offshoot of mysticism. At one point in history it probably was pagan earth worship, but when paganism fell into disrepute, pantheism lingered around waiting for another belief system to latch onto.
It happens that mysticism was the ideal alias for pantheism. Both express the belief that all of creation is permeated by God. Jewish mysticism does this through the Kabbalistic ideas of Tzimtzum and the Sefirot, but the bottom line is that God’s essence is found in everything. Pantheism skips all the preliminaries and just goes straight to the point – God is present in everything. Everything reveals the presence of God. God is everything. Everything is God. Nature is God. God is Nature.
This is really the difference between pantheism and atheism, or the less extreme term, naturalism. Naturalism elevates natural law to supreme status without resorting to any mention of God, while pantheism sees all of nature as a manifestation of God. It’s simply a matter of whether or not we choose to use the ‘G-word’. Pantheism itself is really a subset of a lesser known theology called panentheism, which we have briefly mentioned in the context of the Kabbalistic system of Moshe Cordovero. In panentheism (everything is within God), God is not identified with nature but both encompasses nature and permeates it.
Baruch Spinoza of Holland is considered by many to be the founder of modern pantheism. His belief could not be included in the Judaism of his time so his community excommunicated him. The best statement of Spinoza’s pantheism is found in a work called ‘Political-Theological Treatise’, published in 1670. The following is from Chapter 6, entitled ‘Of Miracles’:
(19)‘ Nothing, then, comes to pass in Nature in contravention to her universal laws, nay, everything agrees with them and follows from them, for whatsoever comes to pass, comes to pass by the will and eternal decree of God. That is, as we have just pointed out, whatever comes to pass, comes to pass according to laws and rules which involve eternal necessity and truth. Nature, therefore, always observes laws and rules which involve eternal necessity and truth, although they may not all be known to us, and therefore she keeps a fixed and immutable order.’
(20) ‘Nor is there any sound reason for limiting the power and efficacy of Nature, and asserting that her laws are fit for certain purposes, but not for all. For as the efficacy and power of Nature are the very efficacy and power of God, and as the laws and rules of Nature are the decrees of God, it is in every way to be believed that the power of Nature is infinite, and that her laws are broad enough to embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect. The only alternative is to assert that God has created Nature so weak, and has ordained for her laws so barren, that He is repeatedly compelled to come afresh to her aid if He wishes that she should be preserved, and that things should happen as He desires: a conclusion, in my opinion, very far removed from reason.’
Those quotes come from the middle of a section dealing with miracles. Spinoza is unequivocal in his negative opinion concerning miracles. He simply doesn’t believe that they happen or ever happened, regardless of what it might say in the Bible. His position on miracles is based on his idea that nature and God are identical. Nature doesn’t merely mean the rocks and the dirt and all the physical stuff, but the inner workings of nature – the natural and metaphysical laws that determine what happens in nature. His major point in this entire section is that God is known through nature because God is identical with nature. Anything supernatural, like a miracle, would actually be contrary to God’s essence since it is going beyond what God is. Consequently, miracles do not reveal anything great or wonderful about God. On the contrary, they actually take away from our knowledge of God.
There are two essential steps in Spinoza’s logic. Each of the paragraphs quoted above contains a step. The first step is that the laws of nature are eternal and immutable. These laws have to be the way they are because they are dictated by God: ‘For whatsoever comes to pass, comes to pass by the will and eternal decree of God’. This paragraph alone does not equate nature with God, but it does establish the laws of nature as absolute and divinely ordained.
The second paragraph contains the core of Spinoza’s pantheism. In this section, he elevates the laws of nature from being merely the result of decrees by God, to what is more like an extension of God. ‘For as the efficacy and power of Nature are the very efficacy and power of God, and as the laws and rules of Nature are the decrees of God, it is in every way to be believed that the power of Nature is infinite, and that her laws are broad enough to embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect.’ It would be difficult to find a more definitive statement of Spinoza’s pantheism than this. Nature is the power of God; nature’s laws are God’s decrees; nature’s power is as infinite as the Divine intellect. Nature’s laws encompass the whole of God’s mind.
Was Spinoza really a pantheist? It appears that Spinoza was not what we can call a ‘limited’ pantheist – one who believes that God is identical to the physical world. Some philosophers would like to say that such a belief puts him out of the camp of the pantheists and into the camp of the panentheists. However, such a jump is not necessarily warranted. Spinoza more likely was what we can call an ‘all-encompassing’ pantheist – namely, that he equated God with the entire system of natural processes, including such non-physical things as the process of thought, the emotions, the will, the hidden laws that determine all physical interactions, and the purely intellectual ideas that control mathematics.
Placing Spinoza in the middle between limited pantheism and panentheism allows us to form an image of the God who is the subject of such a belief. This image of God is one in which the entire nature of existence as we know it is identified as nothing other than God. There is nothing in all of existence, whether physical, metaphysical, emotional, or spiritual, that is not included in the domain of existence. The notion that 1+1=2, a notion that is intuitively obvious to all but nevertheless impossible to really pin down to the physical world, is included in this image of God. The emotion of love – a very real and powerful feeling that seems to go beyond mere physical limitations, is also included. The human will, an almost indefinable power that has no clear physical source, is also part of all-encompassing nature.
This image of God, whether Spinoza scholars or even Spinoza himself agree with it, is that God is existence. There is no other way to state it as clearly as that. All that we know about existence, all that we can conceive about existence, the past, the present, the future, time, space, matter, energy, thought and will – are all part of existence. The sum total of them all is nothing other than God.
Does this limit God to mere existence as opposed to the unlimited panentheist God or the various other religious images of God which do not necessarily have such limitations? You bet it does. But such a limitation need not be labeled a heresy. Existence is pretty all-encompassing. It isn’t all that clear that there is a need for God to extend beyond it. ‘God is existence’ is a solid image that does a great job of defining God. Maybe it isn’t as non-Jewish as it seems.
Perceiving the Image
God is existence. What are we to do with that image? How does one go about perceiving it? Is there a short-cut? No, and yes. No there is not a short-cut in the sense of the quick mental equivalent of the press of a button to getting in touch with existence and hence perceiving this image of God. If it was so simple it wouldn’t be an image of God. Gaining awareness of existence and its all-encompassing scope is the task of a lifetime. Each life experience adds to one’s awareness of existence. Each new insight, each emotional feeling, every thought, even every moment of time, is one more page in the personal book of existence.
But yes, there is a short-cut. One can simply take any one of those experiences or thoughts or emotions or moments and use it as a window into the whole of existence. One need not get the impossibly huge picture all at once. It is possible to gain a taste of the incredible ‘realness’ of existence by going inward into a snapshot of existence. Take a moment of time. Freeze that moment in your mind. Notice everything that is going on around you as you freeze that moment. Hear all the sounds, take in all the visions, the sensations of temperature, fragrance, and light. Take it further and notice the vibrancy of life that exists all around you – the chirping of birds or the buzz of insects. Notice the colors that are so easily ignored – the blues and the yellows, the dark and the light. Feel the pull of gravity and the inertia of movement. Expand your vision to include emotional sensations such as tension in the air, or joy, or energy, or lethargy. Intellectual things can be added such as the concept of numbers or the interconnectedness of all things. There is no end to where one can go with this little experiment. It is simply a matter of doing it.
God, according to this image, is all that and more. God is the stars out in the distant regions of the universe and God is the immaterial starlight as it travels from the star to your eyes. God is the impression that starlight makes on your mind and the memory it embeds. God is the joy or the wonder or the boredom that you may feel, as well as the physical explanation of what makes that starlight real. This same expansion applies to all aspects of existence, for they all equally share in the great reality of existence. In a sense this is an instant window to God, a short-cut. We all have the potential, but will we all take advantage of it?
The pantheist image is liberating in that it frees believers from the personality-driven images that are such an obstacle to non-religious people. However, it faces the obvious problem of being equated to nature. If God is just nature and nature can be explained by science, who needs God?
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