Love Naturally


Thank you everyone who came to my Coffeehouse discussion on Spinoza last Monday at Rosslyn Hill Chapel. I was really challenged by the questions, and impressed by the engagement with the ideas of a sometimes difficult philosopher who lived over three hundred years ago.

Something I always try to do is to persuade people that, despite appearances to the contrary, Spinoza was not a simple pantheist, someone who reduces God with the totality of Natural entities, or the universe conceived materially. I quoted this passage from Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg:

All things I say are in God and move in God, and this I affirm together with Paul and perhaps together with all ancient philosophers, though expressed in a different way, and I would even venture to say, together with all the ancient Hebrews, as far as may be conjectured from certain traditions, though these may have suffered much corruption. As to the view of certain people that the Theological-Political Treatise rests on the identification of God with Nature (by the latter of which they understand a kind of mass of corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken (Letter 73 to Henry Oldenburg, 1675?).

Spinoza’s reference to Paul is to Acts 17:28: “…though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ as even some of your own poets have said.”

This close relation is echoed in a passage from the First Letter of John (4:13) which Spinoza quotes on the title page of his Theological-Political Treatise:

By this we know that we remain in God and that God remains in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Someone asked whether Spinoza’s conception God was really just the same thing as Nature, at least Nature more broadly conceived. This could be encapsulated in the expression deus sive natura, “God or Nature” used in the Ethics, Preface to Part Four.

The problem I think  is that unpacking Spinoza’s concept of Nature is just as hard as understanding his definition of God. He draws a distinction, based on medieval scholastic terminology between the active, creative power of Natura naturans (“Nature naturing”) and Natura Naturata (“Nature natured”), the passive, created aspect. The first he identifies with God and His attributes, the second with the finite modes – the individual beings that make up the world. This second aspect seems to correspond with our contemporary use of the word Nature, but while the modes (finite objects and ideas) depend on God for their existence, they do not completely constitute God. But how should we understand the relation between the two?

A clue to the resolution of this might be found in the medieval Jewish compilation, the Yalkut Shimoni (Gathering of Simon):

Why do we use a pseudonym and call the Holy One ‘place’ (makom)? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Remez 117).

Spinoza’s God contains the world but is not a being in the world – or merely the world itself. Nature is entirely in God, caused by God and can only be understood through the concept of God. However as God acts from the “necessity of His own being” in causing the world, then God cannot exist without Nature also existing, any more than Nature can exist without God. This intimate connection, a kind of sameness perhaps, between two seemingly distinct concepts is a key motif in Spinoza. Perhaps just as he asserts the identity of, as well as the explanatory disconnection between, mind and body, he also understands that there is both identity and difference between God and Nature.

Perhaps what really matters is that we, as finite beings, reflect on and recognise how we participate in God, particularly in God’s infinite love, and live our lives accordingly. Spinoza’s notion of the “infinite love of God” encapsulates not just God’s love of Himself and of human beings, but our love of God.

 As the previous verses in John’s letter urge:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (I John 4:11-12).