Thursday, 26 June 2008

How Pantheism Changed My Prayer Life

posted by Rhiannon

I was going to start this post with a quick summary of the life, times, and views of Spinoza, but then I found this YouTube video which does a much better job that I could:

(If for some reason you can't watch it right now, don't worry; I'm going to summarize the key bits of philosophy anyway. If you want his biography, you can try the Wikipedia entry, or the Stanford entry.)

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsberg's YouTube video does a good job of explaining Spinoza's context and reactions from the Jewish community, but he doesn't go into much detail about Spinoza's actual views on God. How is it that he has been considered an atheist and a mystic?

Well, he was a pantheist. That's a piece of academic jargon which probably doesn't help you much: even the analysis, 'pan', covering everything, and 'theist', believer in God, doesn't give you the word's usual meaning. Spinozan pantheism (there are other kinds but we won't worry about that now) is based on a belief that 'God' and 'Nature' are the same thing. Thus, God exists, but isn't quite God as the Bible sees him (it's life, Jim, but not as we know it).

For Spinoza, 'God or nature' is one substance—one thing which can be understood through itself. He borrowed the term 'substance' from Descartes, who had written only a few years before, but who had always stopped short of really analysing religious beliefs. In Descartes, the potential exists for many substances, but Spinoza said that it didn't make sense: if no two substances can share attributes, and God—being perfect, and all-powerful—has all possible attributes, then there can be nothing but God.

At this point, sensible people tend to say, “But there is! Look, here's a tree, that's not God. Here's me, I'm not God.”

This is a good point, but what the Spinozan says in response is: “You may not know it, but everything in the universe is God. It exists, but the only thing which can exist is God, therefore everything is God. Not God as you think of Him—not a being with plans for His Creation, indeed not a Creator at all, because Creation and Creator would be separate while God and Nature are one.”

This sort of thing could upset a Jewish community, especially if propounded by someone who was supposed to be one of their own. Although Spinoza had some Christian education, he also dealt with very deeply Jewish topics, such as the nation of Israel as God's chosen people. (He sees that, incidentally, as simply a historical matter: what people call 'God's will' is simply the result of material, historical forces. I'll stop here before I reach the Marxism.)

On the other hand, pantheism was very attractive to later writers, especially the 'Romantics', who liked the idea of God-as-everything, and called Spinoza "God-intoxicated".

The question I want to address, though, is a bit more personal: what does all this philosophy have to do with my prayer life?

When I first read Spinoza, I went, 'I like this guy. I can agree with this stuff.' I was writing an essay on whether or not he was really an atheist, so I was thinking about this material quite deeply. (If you're wondering, I concluded that you had to call him an atheist if your concept of theism was a standard Abrahamic one, but he was more than that really.) That was fine, until it was time for Meeting for Worship.

Having decided that I was a pantheist, I sat down in the silence of Meeting, and tried to centre down, to be in closer contact with 'God' (scare-quotes to indicate the vast range of understandings possible). But my old ways of thinking about Deity—whether taken from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism etc.—seemed inadequate to this new pantheistic version. Paganism teaches that Deity can be found in the natural world, and some pagans even find it in towns and cities. Quakerism teaches that there is something of God in all people. Pantheism demands more. This is not just a God who is closer to you than your jugular vein, nor an impersonal basis for all consciousness which will be rejoined when you become truly aware.

This is a Deity which is not just here, now, but is the here and now.

I'm still working on that one. It makes sense to me. The trouble is, I slip too easily back into my old ways. I say 'He' or 'She' as if Deity/Nature had gender, and I use names as if Deity/Nature had many personalities. I don't think that's a wrong thing to do: the metaphors and analogies thus created, and many more besides, can be a great help. The mistake is to forget that they are nothing but metaphors and analogies, something which tends to happen when we always use the same ones.

Whether or not you agree with Spinoza, I think there's a real value in understanding such a radical religious position. I'm a philosophy student, and so I tend to change my position every time I read something good—during term time, that can be up to five times a week. However, I like to think that each change is an improvement, and that some ideas stick with me where others slip away. Spinoza's ideas have now been with me for a year since I first read him, and I still agree with much of it.

1 comment:

Os said...

Hi. Thanks for reminding us of how Quakerly Spinoza was. I didn't have much success reading his work or about him until finding a book I hope you'll look at: Matthew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World" New York: W. W. Norton.
Enjoy! Os