Spinoza, secularism and the challenge of evangelization

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During this Christmas holiday, I’ve been reading Anthony Gottlieb’s breezy and enjoyable history of modern philosophy, entitled The Dream of Enlightenment. Throughout his treatment of such figures as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Voltaire, Gottlieb reveals his own rather strong bias in favor of the rationalism and anti-supernaturalism advocated by these avatars of modern thought. Toward the end of his chapter on Spinoza, Gottlieb avers that what he calls “the religion of Spinozism” is more or less identical to the secularist worldview espoused by so many in the West today, including himself.

I found his summary extremely clarifying and indeed useful as a foil for what I take to be a properly religious view of things. Answering him point by point is a good exercise for anyone who would aspire to evangelize the culture today. First, he argues, “It [Spinoza’s view] insists that morality has nothing to do with the commands of a supremely powerful being, and that it does not require a priesthood … to sustain it.” Of course, some healthy de-mythologizing is in order: No serious religious person imagines that God is like an earthly potentate, sitting on a throne and barking out arbitrary commands. But serious religious people do indeed think that absolute moral norms — that is to say, laws prohibiting acts intrinsically wrong in themselves (slavery, the direct killing of the innocent, the sexual abuse of children, etc.) — must be grounded in something other than personal whim, social convention or biological evolution. They must, in fact, find their justification in the deepest structures of reality, which is another way of saying in the very being of God.

What about Gottlieb’s second observation regarding a priesthood? Well, I’m not going to make an argument here for the fullness of the Catholic liturgical life, but to speak of priesthood is roughly to speak of worship, and worship is none other than the formal and ritual ordering of one’s life to God. Thus, if God is indeed the ground for morality, then something like worship is in point of fact required for the cultivation and exercise of morality. According to the famous dictum of Will Herberg, morality severed from its religious source is like cut flowers placed in a vase. It will flourish for a short time, but without the enacted praise of God, it will fade quickly enough.

Gottlieb goes on: “[Spinoza’s philosophy] rejects the idea of a personal God who created, cares about and occasionally even tinkers with the world.” Spinoza did indeed eschew the notion of the personhood of God, identifying the deity, more or less, with nature as such — and this has made him agreeable to atheists, pantheists and worshippers of nature for the past several centuries. But does this finally make sense? A close analysis reveals that the universe, in every nook and cranny, is marked by contingency or dependency. Things don’t exist through themselves, but through the influence of a whole nexus of causes extrinsic to themselves. But those causes are themselves contingent upon further causes. If we want to give a sufficient reason why individual phenomena and things exist, we cannot go on endlessly appealing to conditioned causes. We must come, finally, to some reality that exists simply through the power of its own nature. And we recognize that this unconditioned being is the source of the being of everything outside of itself; we acknowledge, in a word, that it is the creator of the universe.

But is Spinoza at least correct in characterizing this uncaused cause as fundamentally impersonal? We must answer no, since that which is absolutely unconditioned remains incapable of being further actualized and hence is in possession of any and all perfections of being, very much including mind, will and freedom. “It” must be, therefore, a “he,” a person. Now, if we grant that the creator is a person, can we still agree with Spinoza (and modern secularism) that he doesn’t care for the world? No! To love is to will the good of the other. If existence is a good (and it surely is), and if the universe itself exists only through the will of the Creator (and it surely does), then the very being of the world from moment to moment is the fruit of the unconditioned reality’s love for the world.

Finally, Gottlieb argues that the Spinozan philosophy rejects the supernatural and “places its faith in knowledge and understanding, rather than in faith itself.” By “supernatural,” he probably means the superstitious belief in ghosts, goblins and such, but properly speaking, the supernatural is that which transcends the world of ordinary experience, of the visible and the measurable. Why should this be ruled peremptorily out of court? We’ve already shown that it is eminently reasonable to believe in God, who is undoubtedly supernatural. And isn’t it just a crude prejudice to claim that reality is limited to what we human beings can take in with our senses and measure with our puny instruments? In point of fact, Gottlieb gives away the game with his frank admission that secular rationalism “puts its faith” in reason, thereby hoisting itself on its own petard. Why is faith a bad thing until it is used to justify the limiting of the rational to the empirically verifiable?!

If you have time, do read Gottlieb’s history of modern philosophy. It will show you the ideas, prejudices and questionable assumptions that have trickled down into the minds of many people, especially the young, today. And it will help thereby to prepare you to evangelize our religiously skeptical culture.

Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Contact him at www.wordonfire.org.

Website: www.wordonfire.org
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