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Terrance KleinMay 22, 2024
Baruch Spinoza, Wikipedia

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40 Romans 8:14-17 Matthew 28:16-20

Here are the opening lines of the herem, the philosopher Spinoza’s excommunication from the Amsterdam synagogue.

With the judgment of the angels and with that of the saints, we put under herem, ostracize and curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of the Blessed God and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, before these holy scrolls, with the 613 precepts which are written in them; with the herem that Joshua put upon Jericho, with the curses that are written in the law.

What had Spinoza done? He had denied the divine origins of the Bible. It was only folk tales and uninformed piety. Consequently, Christians would join the rabbis in their condemnation of the philosopher, who had suggested that the deity revealed in sacred Scripture had nothing to do with the true God, one who could be identified through reason alone.

Spinoza’s thought flowed rather naturally from that other architect of the modern world, René Descartes. He had famously insisted that philosophy’s search for the real should begin with the only thing that we know for certain: Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Spinoza took a second step. If you can think, you know that you exist, but you also know that there are realities beyond yourself. Spinoza simply drew all these disparate things into a unity. So, he argued, there is only one real thing in the universe. It is infinite and eternal. Everything else that we encounter is only a mode of this self-caused substance, which Spinoza called God or nature (Deus sive Natura). It did not matter which term you used because they were essentially the same thing.

History has been kinder to Spinoza than his contemporaries. Today he is considered an architect of the modern world, one who suggested that reason could deliver humanity from interreligious warfare and set science free from the shackles of superstition. Writing in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, the philosopher proposed both religious tolerance and the separation of church and state.

Many moderns join Spinoza in judging Scripture to be both unnecessary and untrue, and the church has always insisted the Gospel corresponds to the deepest longings of the human heart, which is why the church considers its truths to be almost self-evident to those of good will.

This is what makes Baruch Spinoza such a worthy foil on Trinity Sunday, when the church preaches a truth she says is not self-evident to reason. Indeed, the church insists that, left unaided, humanity could never discern, never dream of, such a thing! At the center of the universe stands a circle of eternal, self-sufficient love.

This truth comes from revelation. It is not something lying out there in the world, waiting to be discovered. No, it stepped forward and revealed itself in the course of history.

For strict rationalists like Spinoza, history has no meaning. It is only a kaleidoscope of passing impressions. But most of us are not such high-altitude rationalists when we leave the library, when we cry, suffer and die. For us, history, and especially our individual stories, matter. They matter greatly.

This is why we give a second glance to the stories Spinoza deemed pious superstition. We are ready to consider their core claim. Namely, that a man came among us, insisting that he was in love with someone, someone more present to him than we are, someone not within the world. He called this person “Father.” When the one who had identified himself as “the Son” was killed, some of us insisted that he came back from the dead and was now more present to us than he had been before. After the risen Son returned to the Father, God existed on Earth in an entirely new way that could only be called pure and eternal Spirit. Even today, some of us say that we continue to encounter this same Son in prayer.

Philosophers seek the essential. So do theologians. For Spinoza, that was the mind discovering nature. For theologians, it is a triad of love. A Father whose love eternally begets a Son, and a Son who returns the Father’s love so completely that, together, the two of them eternally breathe forth the Holy Spirit.

Reason studies the world, and, set free from superstition as Spinoza wanted, it does that well. But reason must also ponder itself. How did we become the spot in nature that seeks to know? And which is greater, which came first? Nature or knowing? Because a Trinity of love would be the highest form of knowing.

All this raises the question: Should we entrust ourselves to revelation, to a claim of history? That is indeed the question. Just what is it that we have encountered in our own history? Superstition or a love that precedes our own?

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