Wednesday, December 03, 2008


So, imagine my joy when I sat down to read a Jewish Philosophy compendium that I recently purchased, and then found a chapter on Spinoza’s philosophy written by a man recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the subject. Quickly, though, my joy turned into disappointment when I sat down to read the chapter. “Spinoza’s God,” said the author, “is not some just wise, good, and providential being.” Fair enough so far. “[I]t is not a personal being whom one would thank or bless or to whom one would pray or go to seek comfort.” Actually, I think it’s possible to thank or bless Spinoza’s God, and I think it’s possible to seek comfort in that God as well. But I certainly understand the point – it’s a whole lot easier to seek comfort and praise an anthropomorphized God (i.e., an omnipotent force who created us out of love).

The author wasn’t finished. He went on it say of Spinoza’s God, the God I’ve loved for decades, “It is not a God that fosters a sense of awe and spiritual piety.” It was at that point that I could only shake my head. The expert was dead wrong. Awe and spiritual piety are precisely what Spinozism fosters. His philosophy sure fostered that sense in Goethe and Einstein.

I asked some friends in my Spinoza Society what they thought of the above comments, and some other, similar characterizations of Spinoza’s God (e.g., “’God’ is seen to refer to nothing but an impersonal, infinite, unique, uncaused causal source of everything else that exists”). To a person, everyone took exception to some of the comments, and especially the one about awe and spiritual piety. One response, however, stood out as the most compelling. It came from a fellow lover of Spinoza who possesses a degree in mathematical philosophy from Oxford. His point was succinct, but nevertheless profound. “This is why I prefer primary sources,” said my friend.

Indeed. It is nice to have the time and inclination to read primary sources. Even if you have to read them in translation, it’s often critical to understanding a text. There’s so much B.S. floating around these days that secondary sources have become about as reliable as a Ouija Board. Take it from a “blogger” like me – not only is talk dirt cheap; so is the written word.

I’m not invariably prepared to read primary sources. When writers don’t bother to make their prose clear, I don’t bother to read their stuff. Hegel? Forget about it. I’d rather read the graffiti on a bathroom stall. Since I left college, whenever I’ve felt the urge to learn about Hegel, I’ve gone to books written about his stuff by philosophers who value lucidity. My life is way too short to read Hegel’s convoluted sentences. I can enjoy chewing on an isolated statement like “The True is thus the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken; and because each, as soon as it detaches itself, dissolves immediately – the whirl is just as much transparent and simple repose.” But do I really want to read a whole book like that?

Fortunately, most great philosophers care more than Hegel about being readable. And when it comes to writers of religious literature, readability is de rigueur.

Take, for example, the Qu’ran. I spent most of Thanksgiving weekend reading it. And no, I still didn’t finish the tome. But I’m glad I made the effort. Some would tell you not to bother to do so unless you can read Arabic, but I think that’s poppycock. You can still get a lot out of reading an English translation – the spirit of the faith, for one thing. It’s particularly important to read that book these days, as so much misinformation about Islam is floating around cyberspace and the boob tube. Do yourself a favor: if you haven’t spent hours upon hours reading the Qu’ran, stop listening to all the “experts” who believe that the religion is inherently violent. That book seems to countenance a whole lot less violence than the Torah. Remember, my Jewish ancestors weren’t simply welcomed into the Promised Land with open arms. To conquer their new home, they had to rape, pillage, and destroy life and limb. Indiscriminately. And all with the blessings of the Divine.

I would rather you read the book for yourself than take my word for what it says. But if you’re asking … I’d say that the essence of the Muslim philosophy on violence can be summed up in a few Qu’ranic passages late in the second Surah: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. … Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2: 190-191, 193).

In the version I’ve been reading, the modern commentary interprets the above to mean precisely what I would have thought it meant: “War is permissible in self-defense, and under well-defined limits.” Clearly, flying planes into buildings to kill innocent people is not a matter of self defense. Nor is slaughtering random guests at an Indian hotel. But … there’s no question that the Muslim is commanded to fight those who actively oppress and persecute, and if that fighting leads to martyrdom, so be it.

I raise this topic because, during the week since the so-called “Indian 9/11,” I’ve seen an uptick in the attempts to link Islam and the advocacy of terrorism. Even the sections I’ve culled out of the Qu’ran can be taken to advocate seemingly gratuitous violence depending upon how loosely the words are interpreted. For example, if those of us who live in America or India are somehow associated with our leaders, and those leaders are thought to be guilty of oppression or persecution, then we can be blamed as indirect perpetrators of capital crimes.

In theory, that makes sense. But again, only if you don’t read the Qu’ran. That books talks over and over again about the value of “personal responsibility” – I’m responsible for what I do, but not what my parents do, or my President does. Moreover, the book also admonishes us to “show patience, firmness and self-control.” (3: 17). Indeed, Muhammad was said to have avoided conflict as much as possible, and only fought when absolutely necessary to combat oppression.

“Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety.” It is a statement that could easily have been in the Torah or the Gospels. Instead, you’ll find it in Surah 5, verse 8. Muhammad, the man to whom it is attributed, is said to have been as gentle as Jesus. And in my own personal experience, the Muslims I know are indeed very gentle and respectful in their demeanor.

Am I advocating that we ignore the violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of Allah? Hell no. The terrorists are both crazy and formidable, and we must fight them proactively. Make no mistake about that. All that I am saying is that just as we would say that Jesus, if he were alive today, would decry “Islamic” terror, so would Muhammad. In fact, Muhammad wouldn’t simply turn the other cheek; the jihad he would fight would be against the terrorists. After all, they are fanatics, and Islam is opposed to fanaticism. “Allah loveth not those who trespass beyond bounds,” (2:55) says the Prophet of Islam. Check out the primary source and see for yourself.


Benedict S. said...

The God of the Koran is closer to Spinoza's God than is the Judeo-Christian diety. He is predictable. But the Koran is a behavioral guidebook, whereas the Ethics has little to say about how we should behave. We may, as you say, stand in awe of Spinoza's God, but that's up to us; it does not follow from Spinoza's thought that God wants to be held in awe. (In fact, Spinoza's God doesn't want anything.) In defining God in rational terms, Spinoza has simply shifted responsibility for ethical behavior onto us, removing God from the equation as a purposeful punisher-rewarder. We can continue to create comforter Gods if we want to, but if we wish to believe in a God the existence of which cannot be doubted, Spinoza's God is your baby.

Daniel Spiro said...

Benedict -- How would you respond to the following:

What people can doubt is the existence, or meaningfullness, of "unity" in reality. And if they doubt such unity -- or its meaningfulness -- than the use of the word "God," even as Spinoza uses it, will continue to fall flat for them.

Benedict S. said...

Yes, and I trust you refer to self-identifed atheists or agnostics. "God" is a word that our assorted cultures have laden with all manner of high-sounding nonsense. But when the view of God as One pushes through the crap, when we finally manage to experience the joy that can be obtained only by metaphysical certainty . . . ah, well, if it could be described in believable words, we would not still be having this conversation. Perhaps it just has to invude us, suddenly, something like being "born again." But even those words smack og nonsense.

Mary Lois said...

Unity is a less freighted word than "God," and perhaps a clearer one as it encompasses both an intellectual concept and a spiritual one, without at the same time invoking the demands of a deity.

This is where your intellectual friend goes off the rails in saying that Spinoza's god does not inspire piety. Submission, no, but simple piety born of infinite respect and respect for the infinite. This does not require falling on one's knees, but it can knock your socks off when you get it.

Daniel Spiro said...

One of the many reasons I like the word "God" instead of "unity" is because we need to unify those who believe and those who don't -- not in all respects, but in some -- and I think embracing the word "God" may be helpful in doing that. I only wish, however, that society would broaden its definition of God to accommodate perspectives more in keeping with modern science and philosophy.

I also wish that those who believe that God has revealed himself directly through certain books would stop allowing those beliefs to affect their willingness to give up land or otherwise concede what is necessary to live in peace. In fact, fundamentalism can be very dangerous even if it is practiced by non-violent people -- it still breeds an unwillingness to compromise in areas where compromises may be critical to us all.

Benedict S. said...

Well said, ML. You do got a way with a phrase!

And Daniel, I heartily agree that we ought to retain the word "God." The multitudes may see God only "through a glass darkly," but at least they see "him" in one form or another. So in sensing a divine nature of some sort, we the people have at least taken the first step toward a clearer view. Now if we can only purge the minds of the C. Hitchenses of the world of their Sartrean angst . . . .