Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

I’d like to reflect on something that I picked up on in reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus a few weeks ago. Right from the beginning I was fascinated by the way in which Spinoza talks about God, consistently anthropomorphizing God in the standard way theology has done in order to speak of a personal God: i.e. “God said,” “God did,” “God demands,” etc.

The problem, of course, is that Spinoza doesn’t think that “God” is a personal God in any way. For Spinoza, as detailed in his Ethics, God is the totality of the universe. God is an infinite, necessary, self-subsisting, uncaused substance with two attributes, extension and thought. That isn’t to say that our physical world is God. Rather, by positing God as Nature, Spinoza means that God is the only substance that there is, and we (and every other physical thing) are modes of that substance. In other words, there are two sides to Nature: Natura naturans (naturing Nature) and Natura naturata (natured Nature.) God is the former, the sustaining activity that causes everything else. The physical world is the latter, sustained and produced by the former. Consequently, we also take part in the mind of God. Therefore, for Spinoza, knowledge of the natural world (what he calls natural knowledge in the TTP) is also, in his special sense, knowledge of God. The more one can stop seeing the world as individual, disconnected substances and events and begin being able to see that world is actually a unity, the more knowledge one is gaining of God.

This way of conceiving of God, though the argument is not worked out until the Ethics, frames Spinoza’s entire discussion of Judaism and Christianity in the TTP which, for me, gives rise to a really interesting phenomenon that I want to explore here briefly regarding Spinoza’s method in the TTP. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge at the outset that one of the likely reasons Spinoza uses the language that he does is his fear of the Dutch government. There’s no getting around the fact that Spinoza’s conception of God would have been (and was posthumously) seriously problematic for church authorities. So in one sense we could say that Spinoza is simply disguising his metaphysic in language that would be palatable to those authorities whom he rightly feared.

But on the other hand, I think I have to agree with Spinoza scholars who argue that Spinoza seems to be obsessed with the idea of God. It would be a mistake, then, to read Spinoza as merely prefiguring scientific material accounts of religion a la the New Atheists, in effect explaining away religion or pulling back the curtain, so to speak, in order to reveal what’s really happening–that behind religious language, ideas, and practice, there is a natural explanation. If that’s all Spinoza were doing, then why insist on retaining all of the religio-theological language? I don’t think fear of persecution is strong enough.

For example, in the first two chapters, Spinoza addresses the ideas of prophecy and prophets, concluding that there should be no sharp distinction between natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, since all true knowledge simply is knowledge of God. What the prophet brings is a particular imaginative power to knowledge, giving it its peculiar quality. The prophet, then, is someone who has this capacity, who is receptive to the way God “chooses to speak” to him. In other words, Spinoza is content to say that when someone like Joshua sees the sun stop in the sky, we shouldn’t criticize the account on the basis of our knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. Everyone in Joshua’s day, including Joshua, thought the opposite; hence, the sun stopping in the sky would make sense to them. Spinoza suggests that “God speaks” even through what seems like insanity to us today (e.g. the visions of Daniel.)

Note that this prophetic knowledge for Spinoza, even when based upon something that we today understand as scientifically erroneous, is still real knowledge. All real knowledge is knowledge of nature, and Spinoza’s claim is that prophetic knowledge really is natural knowledge. For this reason, it’s a mistake, I think, to read his account as strictly removing the special status from prophetic knowledge, viz. reducing the prophetic to the natural. Because of how Spinoza has defined God, all knowledge in his special sense is “revelatory.” That may be too far for some readers, but I think it’s fair to say that his understanding of the relationship between God and nature allows for that step. I think a better way to read Spinoza here is that instead of demoting or demystifying the prophetic, he’s heightened the status of natural knowledge. This puts Spinoza’s account in this odd place of reading as reductive but not actually being reductive. He is giving a natural account of the supernatural but writing as if supernatural language still retains some meaning and relevance.

The as if I think is what is most important in this text. Spinoza, the arch-atheist of the 18th and 19th centuries, is actually advocating for what he thinks is a politically viable religion such that religion is a necessary component of society. In other words, for all the talk about Spinoza’s God being non-personal, pantheistic, etc., he sure does speak very seriously as if God is not those things. E.g., Spinoza on what his new, politically viable faith requires in chapter 14:

Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible.

Just a few paragraphs later, he details seven tenets of this faith that include God’s existence, omnipresence (both uncontroversial Spinozist was of viewing God), God’s “supreme right and dominion over all,” worship and obedience to God consisting “solely in justice and charity, or love towards one’s neighbour,” etc.

Here, it seems to me that Spinoza is not making a case for how to regard religion (i.e. as a mistaken understanding of nature); rather, he’s making a case for how to regard the political religiously. To take it a step further (but maybe too far), this is a case for how one could and should regard reality religiously–or at least the experience of reality (though the latter is not Spinozist.)

To dial it back for a moment, I think it would be reaching too far to say that Spinoza intended the TTP to be anything more than a rendering of religion as a political theology that could be accepted “universally” and uncontroversially with the shadow of the religious wars of the 17th century looming in the background. But I’m interested in this idea of regarding as a methodology, as it has echoes both in Kant’s account of religion and in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century among neo-Kantians like Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

(I’m planning a post on Rickert for the not-too-distant future.)


2 thoughts on “Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

  1. Pingback: Dutch bird migration scientist wins Spinoza Prize | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Portuguese-Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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