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.)

Doxological Theology Part II: Idol and Icon

Of course, as the trained theologian will not fail to note, to address praise to this God is no mean feat. As Jean-Luc Marion highlights, the conflict between idol and icon is always “a conflict between two phenomenologies.” [1] As such, it is a conflict not between two competing objects with competing referents who otherwise are (have their Being) in the same way, but one between different ways in which these objects may be. That even objects which reference the ‘correct’ God may be idols, and the fluidity with which objects may traverse the divide between idol and icon both suggest this distinction. Rather, what is at stake is two distinct “modes of apprehension [or reception] of the divine in visibility.” [2]

For Marion, the basic form of the idol is not that of illusion or forgery. It is not properly illusory because it consists rather in the recognition of precisely that which cannot help but be seen; the idol stabilizes (grasps) that which captures the gaze, so that it can become a point of reference, given for the gaze’s use. It is not properly a forgery because the fabrication only enters the status of idol in the later, determinative, moment when it presents as “that which will fill a gaze.” [3] “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze—which means that the idol with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” [4] The gaze stops upon some thing (the idol), and the idol re-presents that stopping point—the gaze’s own aim. Thus, the privileged metaphor for Marion is the invisible mirror; what the idol presents to the gaze is the gaze in its own intention, but it shows this in a way that masks over—renders invisable—its own operation. [5]

The icon, on the other hand, phenomenally inverts the operation of the idol. The icon is not determined by the gaze, but “provokes” it towards a vision unaccountable within its own aim. [6] In the icon, Paul’s formula rendering Jesus the “icon of the invisible God” becomes paradigmatic; the icon does not present the visible as a means of discerning between visible and invisible, offering an image for the grasp of the gaze. [7] Instead, the icon presents the invisible precisely as invisible; as that which confronts the gaze without becoming an object for the gaze’s determination. The privileged reference here is a face; because the gaze and aim that determine the icon as icon are not those that belong to the one who apprehends the icon, but to the icon itself as presentation of the invisible, the one who apprehends finds in the icon not a thing but an aim alien to herself, by which she is confronted. Thus, while the idol’s reflexive origin admits a fixed point of return, the icon can be submitted to no measure, no aesthetic, but only to its own apocalyptic, abyssal “infinite excessivess.” [8]

What is important here for the student of theology learning to pray and praise with Dionysius is the idol/icon analytic when applied to the conceptual names of God. How are we to address our praise to true God rather than idol?

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Note the resemblance of the invisible/invisable distinction here to Althusser’s formulation of the ideological interpellation of the subject as subject.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 20-21.

Inadequacy and the theological task

The task of theology is ultimately the task of speaking about God after God. Attempting to do so is wrought with difficulties. Readers of this blog will find other, more eloquent posts detailing the problem of theological speech; human contingency and “violent” metaphysical systems are some of the endless curveballs sent our way today. In response to these difficulties, at least one natural response is to lament and adandon theological speech altogether.

Further, the immensity of the theological task is always rendered heavily on those who seek to pursue the discipline. I (hope I) am not alone in feeling woefully deficient in “doing” theology. Graduate school daily reminds me that the more I learn, the more I learn I do not know anything. Pressure is mounting to position myself for post-graduate work. Peers seem to grasp the specifics of medieval and modern thinkers much better than I.

In his magisterial book Barth’s Earlier Theology John Webster notes Barth’s utter lack of confidence in his intellectual ability as he taught through Zwingli’s theology at Münster,

 The pressure was rendered more acute by Barth’s sense of intellectual inadequacy: in another circular letter in late January of the next year [1923], he speaks with dismay of his lack of scholarly agility, his unsatisfactory knowledge of Latin and his poor memory.[1]

Despite his difficulty early on, Barth is widely acknowledged as the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Obviously he developed as a thinker, and perhaps he was undercutting what a first-rate mind he really had. But as I read Webster’s description certain thoughts I have been wrestling through crystallized. True theological speech is one that flows from an always already acknowledged understand of our inability to do so. But in this inability we find ourselves able. We speak because God has and continues to speak to us. We speak imperfectly as those encountered by the Word of God. The command of God encounters us and reaffirms out creatureliness by redefining it in relational terms, providing us with material means of proclamation: “Man has the character of responsibility… man is, and is human, as he performs this act of responsibility, offering himself as the response to the word of God, and conducting, shaping and expressing himself as an answer to it.”[2] Obedience “is the precise creaturely counterpart of the grace of God.”[3]

We speak because the Word has spoken. This does not make the task easy. An ever-changing world requires various modes of witness to the one God. The jury is still out on just what the next dominant expression of doctrine will look like. I take solace in imperfect proclamation of the Word, something always both possessed and unable to be possessed by the church, the divine Subject and Object we continually bear witness to in inadequate yet faithful ways.

[1] John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 174, 175

[3] CD, III/2, 207

Barth and God-talk


“This alone –– note, God’s Word alone –– is the answer that possesses genuine transcendence and thus has the power to solve the riddle of immanence…We must give this answer, but this very answer we cannot give.”[1]

In his essay “The Word of God as the Task of Theology,” Karl Barth attempts to put forth the task of the theologian. The task that is both the theologians plight and promise.[2] This task, the theologians plight and promise, is both the necessary and impossible task of speaking of God––the question of God. [3] For Barth, the question of God arises from human existence. This question comes to be from the human realization that her entire life stands in the shadow of death. Thus, this question that gives rise to the theologians task, the question of God, is the negativity of human existence.[4] “For [she herself], the human, is the question. Therefore the answer must be the question.”[5] It is out of this negativity of human existence that, for Barth, both the question and answer of the task of theology surfaces.[6] However, this task is an impossibility, according to Barth. The answer to this question, to the “human riddle”, is the Word of God; it is the event of God doing something new. It is the event that cannot be comprehended; it can only be revealed as the impossible becomes possible, as God becomes human.[7] Nevertheless, this question, which rises up in the need of the human, moves one to “ought” to speak of God. However, this ought does not imply can.[8] For Barth, “to speak of God would mean to speak that word which can only come from God [herself]: the Word, God becomes [human].”[9] It is only as God reveals Godself that the Word may be spoken. Where God enters into the negativity of our existence with Her fullness, it is only there that speaking of God may occur.[10] We humans cannot speak of God, but because God has become human, we may speak of God. However, we are to do so in a way where the answer is never dissolved into the question, nor vice versa; rather we are to speak “along this narrow ridge”[11] of answer and question, of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Thus we are to speak of the Word of God, “the living truth”, in awareness of the “unavoidable absence of this living truth”[12] in all our sayings. The task of the theologian is to say that which cannot be said, to speak of God. And in faith, the “plight is also the promise”. For in faith, “it might be possible that the Word –– the Word of God that we will never speak –– has taken our weakness and perversion, so that our word becomes capable of the Word of God precisely in its weakness and perversion.”[13] The question is the answer because we have faith that in the negativity of our existence, God, in God’s fullness, will speak the Word of God.

[1]  Barth, Karl. Word of God and Theology: “The Word of God as the Task of Theology, 1922,” 185-186.

[2] “Our plight is also our promise.” Ibid., 196

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Ibid., 177-8.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] For Barth, this question comes out of humanity’s cry for salvation. “The human does not cry for solutions, but for salvation; not for something human again, but for God as the Savior of his humanity.” Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 184.

[8] “…even in the precise moment of the divine calling and equipping, we still cannot speak of God.” Ibid., 185.

[9] Ibid., 185.

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid., 194.

[13] Ibid., 197.