...Or: How some would say that religion is bad for virtue, and the sense in which they are right
As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am hacking my way through Matthew Stewart's book, The Courtier and the Heretic on the philosophical journeys of Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. My philosophical studies have been very informal, and I have a distaste for meticulous arguments. As always, however, there are certain aspects of philosophy that do stimulate the hamster wheels turning in my brain, and one of them is the relationship between religion and virtue in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. In my opinion, this philosopher helped to found a spiritually deadly anti-pious piety that even contaminates religious people to this day often without their knowing it. I should know, because I too was affected by it once.
As you may know, Spinoza was born in the Netherlands to a devout Jewish family that was exiled from Portugal. His upbringing was very devout, and he was expected to become the next great rabbi that that Jewish community was destined to produce. The young Baruch, however, had other plans for himself. Living in the relatively tolerant Netherlands which allowed all sorts of creeds and ways of life to flourish, the young Spinoza felt he had to articulate a philsophical point of view that could define and encompass the new liberal order of things. Breaking out of the shell of the Hebrew schools, he began to study and subsequently discard all of the philosophies of the past. His iconoclasm ultimately resulted in his excommunication from the synagogue and his exile within an exile from the community of his birth.
As you may also know, Spinoza created a liberal system of mystical pantheism that discarded all of the philosophical foundations that had come before it, and can even scandalize the modern ear to this day. In Spinoza's system, God and Nature are really the same, and the "spiritual" and material have one and the same identity. The mind has no more of an exalted existence than a chair or a blade of grass. Nevertheless, even for Spinoza, the mind is immortal within the philosophical exercise since, according to Stewart, immortality is for Spinoza, "the union of the mind with ideas that are themselves timeless." This immortality is the contemplation of the order that is Nature/God.
Like the Stoics, then, accepting one's rather limited space in the cosmos is the true path towards hapiness. Spinoza thus pits contemplation against religion and virtue against tradition. As Spinoza himself so poignantly puts it:
Hence we clearly understand how far astray from true estimation of virtue are those who, failing to understand that virute itself and the worship of God are hapiness itself and utmost freedom, expect God to bestow on them the highest rewards in return for their virtue and meritorious actions as if in return for the basest slavery.
Here we see the emergence of the idea that religion is contrary to reason since religion is self-interested, if not so say selfish. Real happiness does not lie in reward, and virtue, for Spinoza, is a reward unto itself. As Stewart puts it in explaining the apostate Jew's axiom, He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return:
Spinoza's God... will make no exception to its natural laws on your account; it will work no miracles for you; it will tender no affection, show no sign of concern for your well-being; in short, it will owe you nothing that you do not already have.
Anyone who has ever read St. John of the Cross or any other Christian mystic can easily recognize some of the language and the tone that our pantheist uses. Indeed, that is why I have always personally been weary of reading any mystic and I would endeavor to say that I try to be anti-mystical. (To the popular refrain, "I am a very spiritual person", I will intentionally say that I am a religious person, with all of the superstition, wrathful Gods, and "mumbo-jumbo" intact.) It is a very pride-building thing to say that one is fundamentally disinterested in what happens to you as long as "God's will be done", but that seems more Stoic than Christian. I couldn't help but think on this passage from Scripture:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
For me, Christianity is an inherently interested religion. And yes, that means that it can look selfish. In the higher realms of mysticism and the soaring heights of charity, things can become a bit ambiguous. But in our day to day lives, we ask God for very childish things. That is the way it is supposed to be. And we shouldn't be ashamed of it. We should not be ashamed that we offer up our sufferings here on earth in order to be happy in Heaven. If there is any supposed moral inferiority to this sentiment, than so be it.
It is this same impulse, however, that is responsible for the colorfulness of Catholic Christianity, and the Western religious imagination in general. If the Reformation fought against anything, it was "superstition"; the idea that we can "manipulate" God with indulgences, scapulars, dead helpers, etc. It is the very condescenion of God in the Incarnation that makes this self-interested "superstition" possible. It is precisely because the purpose of God's coming down to earth is to uplift mankind and not to supress it that Catholicism can seem like Voodoo sometimes. A little bit of holy water and some brown cloth go a long way...
There is a deadly asceticism and an pious impiety that is at the heart of any many atheistic ideologies of modernity and postmodernity. It is the idea, as I have expressed it before, that man is alone in the universe, tossed about by its brute laws and deserted by the cosmos. In this world, one can have the stiffist of upper lips: we must be brave in the face of a universe that will swallow us up again as it randomly as it spit us out. As my exposure to Marxism in particular dictates, man must fight for justice as much as possible in this split second in the wasteland of cosmic eternity before he perishes like everything else. It sounds rather romantic, doesn't it? It also sounds much more heroic and rational that the Christian alternative. But it is still wrong, and in the end it still breeds barbarism.
I would argue that many of the crises in modern religiosity result from an unjustified moral inferiority complex that religious people often have. We think that the idea that we are behave ourselves in order to go to Heaven as someting childish and almost shameful. We often wish to resort to higher explanations, thinking that virtue is an "end unto itself", even though to be virtuous as one should be is out of the reach of simple human powers. Virtue is not a human thing, but rather a divine thing. And it has a reward, and it is the only thing that matters. As one Spanish proverb has it, he who save himself knows all things, and he who doesn't knows absolutely nothing.
There is also an ontological asymmetry going on, one which Iamblichus elaborated on in De Mysteriis when speaking of the divine mania:
This, therefore, is a difference the most manifest of all others, because all the works of divine natures differ [in a transcendent degree] from the works of other beings. For as the more excellent genera are exempt from all others, thus also their energies do not resemble those of any other nature. Hence, when you speak of divine mania, immediately remove from it all human perversions. And if you ascribe a sacred "sobriety and vigilance" to divine natures, you must not consider human sobriety and vigilance as similar to it. But by no means compare the diseases of the body, such as suffusions, and the imaginations excited by diseases, with divine imaginations. For what have the two in common with each other?
Does man know, then, what is truly virtuous, truly sane, and truly selfless? Again, this is the hubris of modernity, and it is the same hubris that is slowly dissolving the spiritual, liturgical, and historical imagination both within and outside the Church. An idea of virtue or an idea of rationality separated from divinity itself leads only to darkness, destruction, and ignorance. In trying to purify religion and the human mind of self-interested irrationality, Spinoza's ascetical atheism destroys man himself.
Let us rejoice, then, in our dark, medieval and life-giving superstitions.