Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


Spinoza’s TPT Upholds Compassion as the Means to Salvation
September 6, 2016, 10:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have recently read Spinoza’s 1670 book Theologico-Political Treatise (TPT) for the third time. I would like to share my increasing excitement with others in a little series of blog posts.

Reading the TPT’s early chapters you get the feelingthat Spinoza is Bart Ehrman 340 years earlier. The first chapters of the TPT find faults in the bible’s prophets, who spoke in a slanted manner, more fault in the first writers who slanted the messages again, faults with the subsequent copyists who slanted it again for new generations, and even evil intentions in the final compiling committees who slanted it again to bolster their own sects against opposing sects of the same religions. So far, all Ehrman.

But unlike Ehrman, Spinoza has another, hopeful message, one he is far more passionate to tell:

after all this mangling, the bible’s core message still shines through!

God always communicated the same essential simple message: Love Others As Yourself, Spinoza says. By Love, Spinoza means not the emotion of love in one’s thoughts, but actual works of service to others. Spinoza includes in God’s injunction both charity (do works that serve others) and justice (make efforts to protect others’ needs and rights). As yourself, means you do for others, as fervently and frequently as you do for yourself. Spinoza claims that all the prophets who spoke God’s wishes, including Jesus and the apostles, were speaking versions of this one simple command.

spinoza-public-domain-unknown-source

Spinoza – public domain – unknown source

Yes, Spinoza says, the prophets slanted the message according to their own perspectives of life. They slanted the message according to what they thought would change the current population. That is a good thing, not a bad thing, Spinoza claims. It serves those who are listening to the prophet speak.

This is why one prophet will say God is Love and will Reward you if you Do Charity and Justic, and another will say God is Angry and will Take Revenge if you Don’t. God never told the prophets He is angry, that He will punish or reward. Those parts were all the prophets’ ideas. But this slanting doesn’t make the bible flawed, Spinoza says. It shows that the message was always communicated in ways that (prophets believed) would change these listeners on this day. Some generations needed to imagine a rewarding God while other generations needed to imagine a vengeful God, in order to be willing or compelled to be more charitable and just. Later when humans were recopying the documents, they would again slant the messages to what they felt would be most effective with the new generation. And again when the councils codified the books of the bible once for all, these councils again slanted the meanings to be what they felt most effective or would benefit their own sect against competing sects.

Still, the slanting of the message by every prophet, every copyist, and every council is not evidence that the bible lost God’s message or is entirely fictitious (or whatever Ehrman is trying to prove), but evidence that that the bible maintains God’s simple message across thousands of years and thousands of communications, regardless of how it is retold to each generation:

  1. do compassionate service to others.
  2. behave justly to others.

The ten commandments follow from these two. Jesus’ three additional “love commandments” and beatitudes were fuller expressions of these two, Spinoza adds in the TPT.

Besides proving that God’s Word (be charitable, be just) remains intact in the bible, Spinoza claims that nothing else in the bible is worth believing. When the bible says God has hands and feet, don’t believe it, Spinoza says. That was just one way that one prophet used to inspire awe in a particular crowd. Nothing in the bible is worth believing, Spinoza says, except the key message, that God commands humans to love others as self. All the rest of the bible is simply either various prophet’s methods of getting this message across, or history of the people who attempted to follow God’s orders. The fact you can’t believe anything else in the bible is not bad news, but good, Spinoza claims. It means you don’t have to worry you didn’t understand the bible. The bible is extremely simple to understand because it comes down to be charitable to others, be just to others. The simplicity of the message means the bible is impervious to misunderstanding, Spinoza says.

Does the bible teach us what God Is? No, Spinoza says. The bible, or shall we say prophecy, which is God speaking orally through humans, was intended by God only to give the simplest message that would work for all people, that would lead all people out of the danger of being lost in life’s troubles. The simple message in 1) and 2) is the path to salvation, being saved from misery and despair, being elevated to the quality of life we are capable of experiencing. How and why do the two things lead people from misery to salvation? The bible was not intended to explain the how and why. What kind of being is God? The prophets didn’t ever attempt to explain that accurately. The purpose of the prophetic utterances of God’s Word was to give the simplest possible message that all people could understand, not to explain complex concepts to scholars and theologians. Any indications that God is large or small, angry or vengeful, that he leaves one place and enters another, are fabricated by prophets in order to have a convincing effect on the ones in hearing distance of their speeches. The bible contains no theology. If God had intended to describe His nature, the hows and whys of theology through simple illiterate prophets, the bible would be incomprehensible. This is why God chose to keep the message simple, to reveal only through prophets the simple, understandable orders, be charitable, be just.

God is depicted by prophets as only two things consistently: God is charitable. God is just. Spinoza believed God is many more things. In fact, God so vast, with so many attributes that finite humans could never conceive of even a portion of God’s attributes. God’s demonstration of these two things, and only two, serves two purposes. The first is to demonstrate the simplicity of two things that humans are capable of emulating. More of God’s attributes, would only confuse many people and so God deliberately kept the message, and the demonstrations simple. You won’t find any theology in the bible, Spinoza claims. If you think you found theology in the bible, you are reading into it things that were not originally intended, Spinoza repeats.

The second reason God kept his demonstration to two things was because these two things He had already previously written in their hearts, Spinoza says. When people heard the prophets orally speaking about God’s two qualities, the people would be able to verify the truth of charity and justice, because they would feel their hearts vibrating with the same.

Imagine it’s eight thousand years ago and a shaggy man is standing on a box shouting about God. Things shouted that resonate what is written in the heart, awaken the heart. Things shouted that do not resonate, fall to the side without much effect. When prophets adequately spoke God’s Word–serve and protect others with the same effort you serve and protect yourself–this resonated what was already written upon their hearts, so a sort of glow occurred in that group of hearers. A halo effect. The prophet was revered, and what he had said was written down.

I’d like to make a side point here about Dr. Bart Ehrman’s work. I love Dr. Ehrman. I have listened to all his early tapes and his voice soothes me with its reasonable though passionate critiques. I think he has been very careful and I can find fault with not one thing he has ever said or written. However, it appears his only intention is to destroy, and not to fill in the space with something better. He never tells us, is there anything in the bible worth salvaging? Is there any message that is consistent, contextually credible, multiply attested and different from what sectarians would have fabricated? He won’t say. Does Ehrman even believe in God? Or at least some cosmic principle of compassion? Or at least some purpose or meaning to life on this planet? Anything that could be considered hope or salvation from life’s miseries? He won’t say. Spinoza gave the same bad news Ehrman gives, (centuries earlier) but Spinoza does it to give what he feels is an even greater gift to humanity; the two things that cannot be tainted. How is Ehrman’s work received? Does it help humanity? Or does it divide us? I have read books and reviews of Ehrman’s work. The reactions to his work may be worse for humanity than the truthful things he writes. Not that I am advocating he stop sharing his useful messages. But I wonder, is there time for Dr. Ehrman to somehow fix the divisiveness he has exacerbated? But back to Spinoza.

Oh yes. Spinoza was passionately reminding us that each of us has written upon our hearts. Spinoza says the Word of God is nothing but the two things: be compassionate, be just to others. Spinoza says the Holy Spirit is nothing but the feeling you get when you are doing the two things. This explains why, when we hear about the two things, or see it happen in the news, in events we witness, when we hear it in stories or see it in movies, we feel.. exalted. Our hearts melt. We love those we had hated. We know there is something there. It resonates deeply with a part of us—maybe this is the soul.

Spinoza includes both the old and new testament when he describes the mutilation done by copyists, scribes and councils. He includes both the old and new when he shares the good news that the bible still contains the essence of God’s simple commands. Oddly, though Spinoza was raised Jewish, and began training as a Rabbi, he seems to hold Jesus as a clearer conduit of God’s word, than he holds the earlier prophets. Still, in a further oddity, Spinoza never converted to Christianity, even though he had several close friends who were Quakers who said he’d be a great Quaker. As an adult he didn’t go to any church, but on Sunday afternoons he would ask his friends kindly what they heard in the sermon that day. While he had good reasons to hate organized religion (after all, he was excommunicated from the Jewish faith and actually cursed with damnation in a written decree), still he cared for people deeply and wanted them to have the consolation that the bible and religion provided them, the means to salvation through the simplest method that Religion advocates: by behaving with loving service to others. What was Spinoza’s belief? He clearly believed God exists, and has influence in all beings. To explain Spinoza’s beliefs further we’d need to talk about his other work, the Ethics, which I may do another day. Suffice to say Spinoza was more concerned with the effects of our thoughts, more than the belief that is held. Does the belief lead to charitable actions and protecting others’ needs and rights? Then that belief is fine even if inaccurate, he said. On the other hand, accurate beliefs, followed by harmful actions to others, is not fine. Not at all fine, to him.

What’s political about the theologico-political treatise? Spinoza spends the vast majority of the book on religion and finally makes a few political statements at the end that I will summarize.

Since the prophets of the old testament, and the apostles of the new, used many different approaches to persuade people to be more just and charitable, we, today, must be tolerant of other people’s ways of becoming more just and charitable. That means religious tolerance. If a group of people believe they are inspired to be more just and charitable through stringent food preparation, let them do it that way. In fact, support them. Make it easier for them to get the ingredients, implements and space they need for their special food preparation. If a different group feel they are better inspired to be more just and charitable by imagining the end is near, let them do it that way. Support them!

Problems only arise when I insist you must become just and charitable in the same way I choose to be more just and charitable. This insisting takes the form of political force, shunning, and brute force, or violence. How sadly ironic it would be, to be unjust and uncharitable to others in order to force them adopt your way of being just and charitable! Finally Spinoza tells us, the bible itself, old and new, demonstrates a thousand different ways of getting the same effects of charity and justice—who are we to narrow down to only one of these ways to the exclusion of others?

Spinoza’s TPT was an early influence on the idea that an ideal government would hold religion and science in different categories, two realms that do not bear upon each other. This influenced what was later called separation of church and state. The TPT also suggested that each person should have the right, defended by the ideal government, to think what he likes, and speak what he thinks, which influenced the ideas of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. [It is not well known that many of the founding fathers of the United States had read Spinoza and some had copies of his books in their libraries. In fact, what the founding fathers called “Deism,” largely matches Spinoza’s writings about God. Unfortunately even current books on the Founding Fathers’ Deism, do not take into account this strong influence of Spinoza. Einstein also said, when asked his beliefs, that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”] Now, these rights to religious freedom, in Spinoza’s reasoning, derive from the fact that all religions encourage people to be more compassionate and more just to others. Would a particular person or religion lose its political right to tolerance, if it demonstrated harm and injustice to others? Spinoza didn’t write his answer to this. Is the right only natural, while the person or group is supporting others’ right to the same?

In part two of this series on Spinoza’s TPT I ask the question, what would Spinoza say about Pastafarians? What about people who don’t care whether God exists or not like Unitarian Universalists? What about people who clearly state God does not exist? Should tolerance also be extended to these people? Would Spinoza Allow Atheists in the Ideal State? Tune in next time.

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