Thinking the Divine III: The Diversity of Humanity, Research Time, 06/11/2014

Continued from last post . . . The more I read of Spinoza, the more I understand his having been perceived for so long as an apostate. It wasn’t just his rejection by the politically powerful of his own era, the violence he faced in his own life from a monarchist government that he tried and failed to overthrow with the De Witt brothers. It wasn’t really until the late 19th century that an accusation of sympathizing with Spinoza lost its power to ruin a career or a reputation. The posthumous controversy surrounding Gotthold Lessing’s belief in Spinozist ideas is probably the most prominent example in history.

One reason for the long-running hostility to Spinoza lies in his attitude to truth about the divine. He was called a pantheist, but while the term ‘pantheism’ literally describes God as being everything, pantheism retains something of a personalized God that exists in all things, while Spinoza is describing reality itself as inherently divine.

While this is his conception of God in both the Ethics and the TTP, it isn’t religious, but philosophical. Religion is a separate domain whose purpose is to guide people along the best path for them to a life of virtue and justice. Because people are all individually very different to the point of idiosyncrasy, a religious pathway that would guide one person effectively would be laughable, nonsensical, offensive, or just plain dull to another. So there can be as may religious faiths as there are people, each finding their own take on the tradition(s) that speak to them best. It is a deeply pious reason for religious diversity.

This is another point that was universally controversial from Spinoza’s own life for centuries later, that the diversity of religious faith is legitimate. In the West of Spinoza’s era, Christianity had long been seen as the literally true articulation of the nature of God, the only religious truth. People murdered each other over their divergent theological interpretations even within Christianity. If you were not a Christian, you were regarded as either a heathen or a human devil, or sometimes not even human at all.

Bill O'Reilly: spokesman for the persecuted.
This is a matter of controversy for the modern era as well. I’m not just talking about the radical Islamic movements who have become such a factor in the ongoing Middle Eastern war, although that’s the most obvious example. I recently saw a conversation on Facebook that a friend of mine in Texas had started about the attitude among powerful Christian communities and organizations that Christians are being systematically persecuted in the United States. 

Materially speaking, they aren’t at all. But conservative Christians genuinely feel that having to use generic, secular terms for the December holiday season or having to acknowledge the legitimacy of Chanukah and other religious celebrations threatens their way of life. And they deeply believe that public tolerance, and even acceptance, of lifestyles they consider sinful like homosexuality is an assault on them.

As the society of the United States becomes more openly pluralist, and secular language becomes the default mode of discussion in that pluralist context, what a conservative Christian could once accept as the obvious truth is revealed as a perspectival belief generated through historical cultural processes. Humility as a culture is necessary to deal peacefully with growing cultural and religious diversity in your community. 

None of that humility was happening in the Holland of Spinoza’s time, and it wouldn’t start happening in Europe for centuries. And recent anti-Semitic violence, turning what would have been legitimate protests at the military policies of an allied state into hideous racist assaults against ordinary Jewish people who had nothing to do with the government of Israel, indicates that the Christian-descended populations of Europe aren't as humble as they have come to think they are.

So in the context of a civil war, as well as a culture of religious polarization, and the fact that the Amsterdam Jewish community had only just fled persecution and expulsion in Portugal to resettle in a place with just persecution, combined to create a political climate where Spinoza’s scathing critiques of established religious beliefs in the name of pluralism (as well as his contention that the mitzvot of Jewish orthodoxy were morally unnecessary) resulted in it being less trouble to cut ties with a known agitator against the authoritarian monarchist government.

Jewish religion isn’t interested in proselytization, and isn’t even all that big on conversion. The basic idea is that the Jewish path is right for people of that lineage and who arrive at a Jewish relationship with the divine on their own power, but other people are better suited to other paths. Messages of religious diversity and pluralism inherently help minority cultures like the Jews. But while reason itself may be universal, the world isn’t always ready to hear those messages. The world of Spinoza, and the Jewish community that rejected him as more trouble than he was worth, certainly wasn’t.

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