… but for now let us try to understand the broader implication of Spinoza’s concept of God. The implication is fully illustrated in an interaction between Albert Einstein and the theologian Paul Tillich at a conference on science, philosophy, and religion in 1940. Einstein criticized traditional religious views as being rooted in childish and superstitious anthropomorphism, and championed in its place a thoroughly rationalistic kind of reverence toward the unity found in nature:
It is in this striving after the rational unification of the manifold that [science] encounters its greatest successes, even though it is precisely this attempt which causes it to run the greatest risk of falling a prey to illusions. But whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain, is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life. (“Science and Religion”)
“The grandeur of reason incarnate in existence” – this is perhaps the most poetical characterization of Spinoza’s substance monism ever devised. Both Spinoza and Einstein saw the cosmos as infused with a profoundly impersonal reason, a unifying architecture that pulls every seemingly disparate entity into itself and makes it both knowable and absolutely indispensable. The passage from Einstein signals only one difference between the two: Einstein believed that the deepest aspects of unity are inaccessible to human beings, while Spinoza put nothing beyond our grasp.
In his response to Einstein, Paul Tillich argued that this “reason incarnate in existence,” so thoroughly impersonal, could not possibly complete the work we require of religion:
[S]uch a neutral sub-personal cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but it cannot convert our will, it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair. For as the philosopher Schelling says: “Only a person can heal a person.” This is the reason that the symbol of the Personal God is indispensable for living religion. It is a symbol, not an object, and it never should be interpreted as an object. And it is one symbol besides others indicating that our personal center is grasped by the manifestation of the unaccessible ground and abyss of being. (“The Idea of a Personal God”)
Reason can satisfy our intellect, and please our longing for elegant harmonies, but that is not all a human being requires – “our loneliness, anxiety, and despair.” If we recall, as stated earlier, that the ancient religions project their creators’ deepest needs into a metaphysical backdrop, then we may see that there is a reason for having a god that is familiar to us: we need healing, and it takes a person to heal a person. Spinoza might well agree that many of us should not abandon these comforting projections. The rest of us (he might say) believe we are ready to face life without them and let reason, so far as it is able, lead us to a new and revolutionary kind of healing. But more about that later.