r m p







Spin Doctor

Men think it pious to trust nothing to reason and their own judgment, and impious to doubt the faith of those who have transmitted to us the sacred books. Such conduct is not piety, but mere folly. What are they afraid of? Do they think that faith and religion cannot be upheld unless men purposely keep themselves in ignorance, and turn their backs on reason? If this be so, they have but a timid trust in Scripture. 

Faith allows the greatest latitude in philosophic speculation, allowing us without blame to think what we like about anything, and only condemning as heretics and schismatics, those who teach opinions which tend to produce obstinacy, hatred, strife and anger.


The two quotations you have just heard used to hang framed on the wall in my church office, that is, when I had a church office.  When I went, so did they, and that, I suspect, in more ways than one. But I have always taken these mighty words of Spinoza as the two pillars on which my ministry rests, like the cosmic pillars Boaz and Jachin in Solomon's temple.

We must have the courage to take an unflinching look at the scriptures, even if the resultant faith looks to others like the rankest unfaith. And we must eschew any religious opinion that has as its inevitable result bigotry and exclusivism, with how ever sweet a smile and benign a tone of voice.

Spinoza is right: any so-called "faith" in the scriptures that seeks to shield them from honest scrutiny is no faith at all. Any creed which logically entails the damnation of another is as obviously false as a creed which might command us to be cruel and sadistic, because that, in fact, is what it is doing!

There is a fundamental flaw, a San Andreas Fault line, running beneath all religious bodies based on a common creed, an ancient set of beliefs. They are based on the denial and suppression of individual thinking and freedom. As Eric Hoffer says in The True Believer, groups of that kind exist in the first place because people cannot bear the burden of their own individual freedom, its problems or its greatness. The burden of freedom is too great for them to bear--or so they think. And they gladly trade in that selfhood to the Grand Inquisitor who promises them solace though a religious and intellectual lobotomy be the price paid: the infamous sacrifice of the intellect.

So what happens in such a religion when one raises questions, when one can no longer critically accept the party line? Doubts are met not with encouragement to seek the truth. Far from it, as many of you know too well. Instead, doubt is treated like a disease, a perversion, a straying from the right path, and the "help" offered is patient directions on how to rejoin the straight path with the rest of the flock.

In such a religious body, the role of the religious leader is that of the spin doctor, the apologist, the one whose job it is to explain away every problem, evade every objection, as if one were a PR man, a handler for a political candidate, explaining how every defeat is really a victory, every foolish statement was a wise one misconstrued. Making the bad look good.

Against this, you and I have adopted a ­spirituality of inquiry­, the realization that spiritual experience is found more in the questions than in any supposed answers, more in the quest than in the prize, that the quest is itself the prize, the Grail. And that in a community of inquirers there can be no heresy because no question is off limits. There is no apple cart to upset.

In fact, I wonder if that is not really the import of the strange scare story in 1 Samuel where a Levite makes to keep the sacred ark of the covenant from bouncing off the unsteady ox-cart and into a ditch--and is blasted by an angry Jehovah for his trouble! Why? Because he had not ritually prepared himself to touch the sacred object (which he couldn't have done anyway). His real crime was to upset the apple cart. And that is the one blasphemy that cannot be allowed in traditional religion.

I am thinking of another Jew who did touch the ark, who upset the apple cart, and was expelled from the synagogue for his efforts. That is, again, Baruch Spinoza. His statements about fearless scrutiny of the scriptures and intellectual freedom were not isolated sentiments. He did not make them in a vacuum.

Spinoza was one of the pioneers of the source criticism of the Pentateuch. He noted that various stylistic criteria implied the so-called books of Moses had been compiled from various source documents later than Moses. He showed how the extravagant miracle tales of the Bible could not be literally true.

And he had certain views of God that did not fit the established norm. In some measure they were reminiscent of the Kabbalah, but just as much so of Stoicism. It is on those views that I would like to concentrate for the remainder of my remarks this morning.

Baruch Spinoza was the object of very different evaluations by his contemporaries. Some called him "God-intoxicated." That is, like the drunk who sees pink elephants in the air about him, Spinoza saw God everywhere he looked. Others called him an atheist. Can they have been talking about the same man? Yes, and I will venture to say that both were right!                     

You see, Spinoza was a Pantheist. This is the belief, just a notch short of Shankara's Nondualism, that God is everywhere and that, more, God is everything. God is the only substance that exists. All persons and objects are so many manifestations of God. If God is infinite, how can anything else even exist? If something else does, that would mean God's being must have become restricted to allow even an inch of ontological space for any thing else's reality. So God is all; all is God. The world as we see it is by no means illusory. No, it is quite real. But it is all God.

Unlike some mystics, Spinoza did not say when you view the visible world you are in the grip of illusion, but rather that you are in the grip of delusion. You are wrong about it; you are drawing the wrong inference from it. You think it is mere matter, mundane, profane, ordinary. The Sacred, if it exists, is somewhere else, is something else. A God somewhere off in the sky.

But the thing you must see is that the Sacred is nowhere else but here. There is no other place for it to be. It lies at your feet. It is within and beneath the Profane, if you will learn to see its witchfire glow. It is subtle; one must gain a certain kind of second sight. Just as Krishna says to Arjuna: "You cannot see me with the eye of flesh. Behold I give you a supernatural eye."

As Hopkins says, the world, even in its post-industrial tawdriness and defilement, "is charged with the grandeur of God. Why do men then now not reck his rod?" That is, why can they not discern his rod and his staff in the midst of it all, which would be to the soul's great comfort?

Nagarjuna knew this truth, that Nirvana is not to be found away somewhere, but is the deeper level of this sad world of Samsara.  In fact, this old world, this veil of tears, only seems like Samsara in the first place because we do not see that it is Nirvana!

Last week, I spoke of the Zen masters and the Russian Formalist critics who said our problem is that we grow so habituated to everything. We lapse into the torpor of familiarity and can no longer behold the flaming wonder of the world. One can grow used to even miracles if they happen every day, and they do.

We tell our children that we must finally put away the Christmas tree and the decorations, because if it were Christmas Day every day, we would grow tired of it. Even Christmas would become mundane. So with miracles. As Schleiermacher said, "To me, all is miracle." So it should be, but as he also admitted, we cannot remain always conscious of that fact. We grow unconscious of God.  And religion, he said, is the effort to wake ourselves up again.

But conventional religion does not even make the effort! Instead it decides that sleep is the normative state of the spirit. It drives forth miracle from the world and places it, falsely, in some other world, a world of fairy tales and angry Gods and sticks turned to snakes. Not the real world which is full of miracles which we despise because familiarity breeds contempt.

As Feuerbach said, we drive forth the true divinity within ourselves and pin it on an imaginary personal God up there in the sky somewhere. We cease to seek divinity where it may be found: within ourselves.

Spinoza, then, was God-intoxicated. That was true. Filled with the Spirit. Everywhere he looked, he saw God. But this was quite different from traditional religion which put it differently: everywhere you look, God sees you. He is inescapable, like modern surveillance satellites. Today we can say to the government, "Thou hast searched me and known me. Before a word is on my tongue, thou knowest it." 

But Spinoza did not have the satellite God. He had shot it out of the sky. His detractors were right: he ­was­ an atheist of sorts.  He rejected the God they believed in. Tillich, too, says that the atheists are right: the God in whom they disbelieve in fact does not exist. He is a figment of theism. But there is a God beyond the God of theism. And that is Spinoza's God. The God, as 1 Corinthians says, who is All-in-All.

Spinoza said that it is vain and foolish to imagine God as a person, because that is to shrink God down to the proportions of a human being. If God is infinite, can God be restricted to single set of personality characteristics? To ascribe some personality to God would be like saying God has a particular hair color!

It is only our childishness that makes us imagine God in our own image, just as primitive people personified the forces of nature. It is as silly to picture a personified God as it is to imagine the Storm personified, or the Ocean or the Sun personified, which is what ancient myths did.

And you know what else that means? God cannot have a will! A plan! You and I have plans, but that is only because we are desperately finite and must contrive and design to get from here to there, to attain some thing which we do not have. But for the Infinite, for the Eternal, all these needs and motives are simply out of the question. Infinite Completeness requires nothing, therefore seeks nothing, intends nothing.

This means there is no plan of God for you, no will of God for you, no orders you must follow, no test for you to pass. Surely this is the truth of the Grace of God. There is infinite freedom and spontaneity for you to create the meaning of your life! You are a driver, not a car being driven. You must dare to take the burden of free responsibility. There is no rule-making God, no homework-assigning deity, to tell you what to do. That God is dead.

Jung says that each of us grows first into an Ego, and then into a Self. Or we ought to, though not everyone goes the whole way.  The Ego is a necessary stage: we must know who we are, define ourselves over against others, raise our protective walls, seek our own good, because no one else will.

But then we need to go farther and shed the Ego like an outworn cocoon, transcend it to become a Self. This means that the circumference of your circle continues to grow till it encompasses more and more people. You actually start loving your neighbor as yourself. If you lived long enough and kept on growing, your Self would finally be synonymous with everyone and everything.

I've preached that sermon before. For now, let me just say that Spinoza is in effect saying that the personal God of traditional theism is like the Ego. It was probably a necessary stage to go through, but it was too limited, too narrow. It has to expand to something more capacious, more comprehensive. It can't be the tribal totem of a single religion. It can't be a god who likes you but not your enemy. It can't be male and not female. It can't be a god who favors one theology over another. It can't be the personal God of theism. It must be the All-in-All.

It is the glory and the wonder that secretly radiates from every face, within every place. If you know in truth that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, that Nirvana is right here under the veil of Samsara, then you will require no other god, ache for no better heaven.  





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