Spinoza, Einstein, Tillich

… 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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Spinoza, Einstein, Tillich

  1. Bet Tillich never makes clear why we, as persons, cannot heal ourselves. (I know, I know – you’ll get to that later…)


  2. Huenemann says:

    Nah, I won’t come back to that, except here: I imagine Tillich believed we need healing from a spiritual affliction, an infinite removal from a transcendent being, and the rift is mended only through the intercession of a person both mortal and divine, etc.


  3. Vince says:

    Here again is why god is found in the incarnate relation ‘between man and man’. The god of complete mystery and separateness (holiness) cannot really be fully known through reason. Einstein seems to agree with the failure of human reason to completely solve the puzzle of Spinoza’s god (Aquinas’s governance proof of god remains in this unsolvable gap if god is considered separate).

    I disagree with Tillich and Kierkegaard here to some degree. The infinite gap between god and human (sin) is the sickness of man that must be healed in relation between god and man (“Sickness unto death”). This is also Karl Barth’s solution, that Christ is the arm that reaches down from infinite heights of heaven to heal. There is an intellectual satisfaction and a degree of healing when one acknowledges forgiveness of self by the finite other, but wholeness is only found in community and relation (Buber).

    Kierkegaard (Tillich) remain saved individuals to an infinitely distant god. Their Christology remains heavenly. Buber would require saving the whole man within an earthly community. (So would Jesus by the way he teaches.) Kierkegaard’s (Tillich’s) god remains completely separate. The incarnation of god into flesh must be accomplished in the flesh of the church to provide salvation to the whole man.

    In this regard, Spinoza and Einstein also provide insufficient answers to heal sick man. The relation through reason to the universe-god will not heal the human. An incarnate face must speak forgiveness and concern through ‘I-Thou’ relation for a human to experience healing in community.

    Man is not just ‘one who considers the universe’ (spinoza) and he is not just ‘one who considers self’ (heidegger). These cannot heal the sick human who is isolated and alienated. Man is the is one who is called out of chaos into relation by and with other — the human incarnation of the Infinite Other (spinoza’s universe or aquinas’ god of mystery) — can find wholeness. In the other, man can see the infinite face, find acceptance, and be healed.

    This need not be theistic.

    The most profound demonstration of ‘healing by providing a face’ was discussed on “This American Life” by Ira Glass


    I think I identified this program several years ago. It is a wonderful hour program. The second story in the program is about a boy who is ‘face-deprived’ as a baby and is healed by ‘providing a face’.


  4. Sandi Atwood says:

    Being “moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence”; of “reason incarnate” is something I really relate to. Huenemann, I enjoyed all of your last few entries on here. I wanted to say something interesting regarding each of them and then just felt completely overwhelmed with thoughts and even alternate interpretations of your quotes and ideas.

    I guess I do have to wonder whether we are “‘projecting’ a creator” or “‘providing’ a face” as much as we are simply sensing/”seeing”/knowing/acknowledging not only the “manifest” or “incarnate” aspects of Reason but the experiential aspects of Reason as well. (More of a sentience to sentience or intelligence to intelligence relationship rather than demanding it be human to human only? Does this get us out of anthropomorphic or humanizing problems yet leave us with a creative essence that is potentially related to us as humans in some way and thereby able to communicate, interact, comfort, and heal?)

    You know I have been exploring “Folk Dyads” and whether they are limited to human-human relationships for a paper I’m writing…well, I came across this interesting example of what would appear to be, perhaps, a human-plant dyad (or relationship).
    Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank said,”The secret to improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love…While I was conducting experiments to make ‘spineless’ cacti, I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. ‘You have nothing to fear,’ I would tell them. ‘You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.’ Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety.”

    (I know what your thinking–ridiculous! But what if…)


  5. Huenemann says:

    Yeah, I think ridiculous. Sorry!


  6. Sandi Atwood says:

    Ever the skeptic! I respect that about you.


  7. vince says:

    Martin Buber would say that he relates to the tree as a ‘Thou’ even though he does not know if it is a ‘Thou’. Giving the earth and its inhabitants a face (thou) is not ridiculous if one wants to give creatures an honorable position in the world.

    But, if that seems ridiculous to the materialist, then removing the mystery of the human face does put us on the same level as earth, then self-interest should be sufficient for keeping a good einvironment for health and life.


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