Sun 18 Oct
The text for St Luke’s day is a paradigmatic programme to go out in pairs – vulnerable with few material resources – to visit homes, greet the house with the usual Judean greeting “Shalom”, eat whatever is set before you (even if not kosher) and commune; then cure the sick. Some parts of this programme may sheet back to the pre-Easter movement but most is likely to be post-Easter.
It says faith is about presence; connecting with one another; risking being in a strange place, sharing food, being together across difference, with few ‘religious’ words needed. In this there is healing – not medical healing – but the healing of division, isolation, and the fears and fractures found in the wider human community.
I’m a bit of an admirer of Baruch de Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of Jewish descent, who is considered one of the great rationalists of the 17th century. When asked about God he replied:
“God would say: ‘Stop praying. What I want you to do is go out into the world and enjoy your life.’
So, he too, like Luke, had a ‘go out’ message. But it was a message about going out and away from the narrow constraints of orthodox religion (Jewish, Calvinist, or Catholic), and the narrow definitions of God, prayer, and faith, to breath in the joy of living and celebrate the goodness of life. Or, to put his sentiment in religious words, go out “to live the blessing of God”.
Spinoza didn’t stop with just one sentence. He sought to address his context – particularly the religious fixation on sin and sex. (Has too much changed since the 17th century?) Although he didn’t believe in a deity with a voice box, Spinoza expresses his thoughts in the literary form of personal address:
‘God says: “Stop blaming me for your miserable life; I never told you there was anything wrong with you or that you were a sinner, or that your sexuality was a bad thing. Sex is a gift I have given you and with which you can express your love, your ecstasy, your joy. So don’t blame me for everything they made you believe.”
‘They’ refers particularly to institutional Christianity which had a lot of power back then. The deliberate strategy of making everyone into a sinner in order to cultivate guilt, servitude, and compliance to God’s representatives was so successful it endures even today. It is one of the great crimes of Christianity.
The task of healing the division, isolation, and the fears and fractures found in the wider human community, involves – as therapists know – engaging with our bodies. Our bodies carry not only genetic predispositions but memories of both triumphs and traumas. There is, for example, and noting the public discussion this week, some correlation between obesity and trauma.
It is foundational to healing the ‘body of God’ (to use that term to describe the sacred interwovenness that makes all life one), that we repel the malignancy of original sin and replace it with original blessedness, that we see the human body not as a rebellious animal needing to be tamed but as part of the Divine Love, and that we see our appetites not as weaknesses to curtail but as avenues to the fullness of sensual and spiritual joy.
About now you might be wondering how Spinoza survived. I mean it was the 17th century. And church and civic leaders had things like dungeons and torturers and used them. The Spanish Inquisition, down the road, was busy killing heretics for Jesus.
Spinoza was fortunate that he was in Amsterdam, since Erasmus’ time one of the most tolerant cities in Europe. He was fortunate too that he was Jewish, a faith traditionally that did not hold with torture. Note though he was, at age 23, harshly expelled and shunned by Jewish society (including his family) for his ideas (albeit still in a developing state). These ideas included early historical-critical methods of reading the Bible. Fancy suggesting Moses didn’t write the Torah? Spinoza also claimed there is no theological, metaphysical, or even moral sense in which the Jews are God’s “chosen people. That would not have pleased his elders! Spinoza also doubted (heresy of heresies) the immortality of the soul (the prize carrot for the obedient Christian faithful). Spinoza survived by publishing anonymously, and cautiously. And most of his major works were posthumous.
Spinoza was frequently called an ‘atheist’ by contemporaries, though nowhere does he argue against the existence of God. He just understood God differently than the controllers of religion, for example his line “God is not He who is, but That which is”. Or as Albert Einstein would later describe Spinoza’s God: as one revealed in the orderly harmony of what exists. I read Spinoza as wanting to free God from the constraints of human projections of power and control.
For another of the great crimes of Christianity was and is to limit the presence of God to places within the Church’s control. Yes, God is in a service of properly conducted worship in a properly consecrated place, but God is not restrained by or limited to practices and places proper. However, throughout most of Christian history, God was in a great cathedral but not in a great mosque. God was in the words of a great church leader or a holy Bible text, but not in the language and texts of yours and my fragile and wonderful, fraught and sublime bodies, thoughts, and feelings.
Spinoza, again giving his God a voice, writes:
‘God says, “Stop reading alleged sacred scriptures that have nothing to do with me. If you can’t read me in a sunrise, in a landscape, in the look of your friends, in your child’s eyes… you will find me in no book! I want you to sing, have fun and enjoy everything I’ve made for you. My home is in the mountains, in the woods, rivers, lakes, beaches. That’s where I live and there I express my love for you.”
There in Spinoza’s last sentence is the crux of it all – the movement of the sacred, of G/god in all the world and universe is a symphony of love for all, even you, even me. The energy of God, the presence of God, the incarnation of God, the warp and weft of G/god, is unconditional love for all.
So, Spinoza’s ‘That’ God, the ‘orderly harmony’, is not a-personal a-political, or a-transformative. Rather it is nothing less than the power of unconditional love – a power writ large for Christians in the life and teachings of Jesus.
And maybe the institutional Church’s biggest crime is this: making the love of God conditional upon right belief, good actions, proper repentance, and unquestioning obedience. If God’s love was freely available to all, at all times, with no intermediaries or conditions, then it was feared that the Church’s influence and control would largely vanish. Someone could have told them it would anyway.
Our first reading today comes from the Arab mystic Sa’di; a lovely fable that underscores the final point I would make about the task of healing the division, isolation, and the fears and fractures found in the wider human community – namely that often healing happens for us when we take our focus off our own needs and worries and instead focus on the needs and worries of those less fortunate than ourselves. When we embody the unconditional love of God in our actions towards others we too are beneficiaries. There is something personally life-giving in giving our time, industry, and wealth to others. The way of the tiger is a way of health even for those who consider themselves a disabled fox.
Spinoza reduces his ethics to a single moral maxim: “Love your fellow human beings and treat them with justice and charity. This is all that is essential to ‘true religion’.”
The older I get the more I realize that very few Christians believe what I believe, and – in one way of thinking – it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how we treat each other.
Spinoza’s God concludes:
“Stop being so scared of me. I do not judge you or criticize you, nor get angry, or bothered. I am pure love. (So) stop asking for forgiveness, there’s nothing to forgive. If I made you I filled you with passions, limitations, pleasures, feelings, needs, inconsistencies… free will. How can I blame you if you respond to something I put in you? How can I punish you for being the way you are, if I’m the one who made you?
Stop believing in me; believing is assuming, guessing, imagining. I don’t want you to believe in me, I want you to believe in you. I want you to feel me in you when you kiss your beloved, when you tuck in your little girl, when you caress your dog, when you bathe in the sea.
The only thing for sure is that you are here, that you are alive, that this world is full of wonders.”