3. The God of Spinoza

“We can survive death to the extent that we have already let go of our singular solitary selves… Immortality, for Spinoza, is impersonal. I survive my necessary death to the extent that I have ceased identifying with the mere thing that I am, and identify with the whole intricate web I have assimilated into knowing…” 1

I was introduced to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza by Einstein’s famous statement that he only believed in “Spinoza’s God.”  He said this in response to a rabbi’s demand that he clarify his stand regarding God about whom he had been ambiguous.   Einstein famously telegraphed back to him, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

As a physicist in training at the time I read this, I took it for granted that I probably believed in “Spinoza’s God” too. If the truth be told, however, the issue of God was not really of much interest to me at the time and neither was Spinoza.

I was the product of a mixed marriage – my father was a Sephardic Jew and my mother, an Ashkenazi Jew. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Turkey, and his first language was Ladino, the Spanish of the 15th century Jews, who banished from Spain in 1492. His parents were religious but he was not. My mother’s parents came from Eastern Europe, that area of Russia where the boundaries were always shifting and anti Semitism and pogrums were the law of the land. They were religious Jews in the traditonal sense, but they didn’t seem to pass on much more than Yiddish and traditions to my mother. I did receive a Jewish education, including Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed in the Reform tradition. I confess that I was not deeply moved by any of it. The main recollection of my Bar Mitzvah is of the rabbi explaining to the congregation about the Sephardic branch of Judaism. It was supposed to make our family feel more included but, for me, it had the opposite effect. I felt like this description was meant to reassure my Long Island congregation that, indeed, despite my Italian sounding name, I was actually Jewish. It should be noted here that the Sephardim that immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like my father’s family, were a small minority in proportion to the German and Eastern European majority. They were generally uneducated and and impoverished, quite different from the Portuguese Sephardic community of Spinoza.  

I mention this autobiographical material because of its probable relevance to my interest with Spinoza. He was a of Portugusese Sephardic Marano descent. At some level, I am still seeking my place in Judaism and the path of Spinoza resonates for me.

Spinoza’s family had been forced to convert to Christianity and secretly practiced Judaism. By the time of Spinoza’s birth, the family had emigrated to Amsterdam and were there able to openly practice Judaism. They were successful and educated international businessmen. However, Baruch was ex–communicated by the Amsterdam Portuguese Sephardic Jewish community in July, 1656 at the age of 23. It is not entirely clear on what grounds he was ex-communicated because he had not written anything by that time, but subsequent writings by and about him make it clear what were the most likely reasons. His ex communication was one of the most severe ever issued. It included his utter damnation by the community for eternity and forbad anyone in the Jewish community to have any contact with him.

Baruch, who later changed his name to Benedictus (both mean “Blessed” but the former is Hebrew and the latter, Latin), was a scholar of the Torah but he looked at it as an historical document, not as the revelation of God. He rejected the notion of divine revelation and ultimately rejected the whole biblical story as a creation of humans. While he recognized the wisdom to be found there, he considered the notion of an interventional God, one who created this world and was deeply involved in the activities of human life as “superstition”. He rejected the anthropomorphic vision of God as portrayed in the Bible. He said, “I believe that a triangle, if it could speak, would say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that the divine nature is eminently circular; and thus would every one ascribe his own attributes to God.”

Over 50 years separate the time and when I first heard of Spinoza and the present when I re-discovered him. In the interim I was establishing a relationship with God that is hard to pin down. It has not been based on belief, but on experience. While this may sound pretentious to some, I can’t really describe it in any other way. The various experiences include an awareness of my own cosmic insignificance and the fact that I will someday die. This fact became especially clear when I had a cardiac arrest in the course of having a heart attack and had what is known as a “near death experience”. My experience as a physician has brought me into daily, almost constant contact with death. The deaths of parents, relatives and loved ones affect one the most.  I once was listening to a terrific online video conference which was put together by the “new atheists”. If I remember correctly, Sam Harris was one of the presenters and he presented data regarding the beliefs in God of scientists. The data showed a very low proportion of scientists believe in God, except for physicians. This, he explained away by their closeness to death. I never quite understood his reasoning. For me, death and the awareness of death is one of the primary experiences of being human. It would seem that closeness to this reality should give more, not less credence to the opinions of physicians: reality is more than just quantifiable measurables and it is possible to be awed by the mystery of reality without lapsing into wishful speculation.

As a young man, growing up in the sixties, I had a number of powerful mystical experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, including LSD and mescaline. The dissolution of “consensus reality” always included a scary period where the acute awareness of death transformed all of my perceptions and ended up leaving me with profound gratitude of being alive and profound love of life. It led to a visceral sense of finiteness and the unanswerable existential questions that this implies.

In 1973, I entered a spiritual path, Cafh, which eschewed such experiences and drugs and reoriented my life to integrating spirituality into daily life: nothing very glamorous or complicated actually. The emphasis has been on the transformation of daily life into spiritual life using a method that involves daily meditation exercises, weekly meetings which include teachings that one tries to put into practice, regular retreats and so on. Mystical experience is just a side effect of this path. They come and they go but they are as much a help as a hindrance. The following, from one of the teachings, gives a bit of the orientation of Cafh:

“The world is not outside ourselves; we are the world. There is no basis for thinking that our relationship with God can be better than our interpersonal relationships. It is impossible that the mysticism we could experience is of a different nature than the relationship we have with humankind, which we are part of.”

With respect to God, the path that Cafh opens for individuals is experential and open ended. Many individuals don’t even use the word, so loaded as it is. A postulate (unproven assumption) of Cafh states the following:

“The fundamental principle of the universe God transcends our present understanding.”

I suppose that it is modesty of this statement that appeals to me. It does not deny anyone’s God. It just says that our human understanding, at present, is insufficient for anyone to make absolute claims. It is open ended and this open endedness and emphasis on understanding is a link to Spinoza, for Spinoza puts high value on reflection and understanding. He is skeptical about the usual, default states of consciousness that we mostly operate within.

Of course, the other side of this postulate is its implicit rejection of claims of absolute knowledge. Such claims, based on revelations from the past (and sometimes the present) often have become dogmas and beliefs which have led to some of the bloodiest human conflicts and divisivenes in the human race. Spinoza was very forthright in his rejection of the biblical conception of God, anthropomorphic and a force beyond nature. This is the kernel of his ex communication by the Jews and abhorence by the Christians. He called this superstition and was unsparing in his criticism. My guess is that even today, the mention of his name in many, many quarters would stimulate similar reactions.

The quote at the beginning of this essay, by Rebecca Goldstein in her book, Betraying Spinoza really launched my renewed interest in him. The way she describes how he viewed immortality is the way most of me thinks about it. It is a scientific view, I would say. I don’t know if it any more true than all the other ways one could think of death but it is what satisfies my rational mind the most. I can’t reject other views, including those that include an afterlife for the soul. My own near death experience could be seen to support such a view and this experience was as real and powerful as any I have had in life. However, the scientist in me knows that it was a NEAR death experience.

“Apart from God, no substance can exist or be conceived.” —B. Spinoza. Ethics, Part 1, Proposition 14

The view that God includes everthing we possibly perceive through our senses and everything we can possibly think, feel and imagine with our minds seems true to me. That we are all parts of the this entity, God is an experience I can affirm. While I am mostly unaware of the sacredness of life and all its constituents, during those times when my consciousness has shifted a bit, this is the perception. It is not always a pleasant perception but it seems overwhelmingly obvious and it makes all the other usual distinctions trivial and petty. It seems to me that this perception is what Spinoza describes when he starts out The Ethics by claiming that there is only One Substance, and we perceive that substance through the attribute of thought and the attribute of extension, where extension refers to the material world. His mystical insight, in my opinion, is that these are just different ways of perceiving the “one substance”, God. For me, he is no atheist, he a mystic trying to express his understanding in a rational language. Maybe I am wrong, that is the lens through which I see him.

  1. Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza, page 69.