Here’s an interesting little quote from Spinoza’s Ethics (Samuel Shirley translation), in the scholium to proposition 47 of part II:
That men do not have as clear a knowledge of God as they do of common notions arises from the fact that they are unable to imagine God as they do bodies, and that they have connected the word “God” with the images of things which they commonly see […]. Indeed, most errors result solely from the incorrect application of words to things.
Now, one might note the similarity here between the ‘linguistic turn’ of analytic philosophy in the 20th century, which is itself fascinating, and a testament to Spinoza’s philosophy being well-ahead of its time, with plenty of valuable insights even for present day philosophers to note (Spinoza scholarship is very lively, mind you!).
But I want to note the similarity here between Spinoza and something my philosophical hero, Walter Kaufmann, notes in his ‘Critique of Religion and Philosophy’ (Princeton University Press, 1978 edition):
In sum, terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean. Those who say God exists do not really mean that he “exists” in the same sense in which anything else exists. Those who say that God is being-itself, or a spirit, or love, do not mean those terms in any ordinary sense. But if terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean, if they have a unique meaning when applied to God, then all such talk about God is conducted in a peculiar language with rules of its own. (section 50, p. 179)
Ahh, interesting. Especially since Spinoza himself means many of these terms in rather unique ways: his God is certainly not the traditional sort of God from either Christian or Jewish theology. Further we have a distinction of discourses in the plural. Kaufmann may be thinking of something like Wittgenstein’s concept of language games here, wherein certain rules, proscriptions, and so on, are the context within which general communication is even possible; and only by generally following these rules, can we be sure what we call ‘meanings’ are adequately communicated to our compatriots.
But Kaufmann has more to say as well:
In chess, “king” and “bishop” do not mean what they usually mean, but every term has a precise meaning, and the game would not be changed if we substituted “fool” for “bishop,” as the French do, or “devil” for “king.” But assertions about God depend entirely on their ambiguity: it is their apparent meaning, their surface sense, that counts 99 per cent of the time, and it is only under questioning that this is modified, and only under persistent attack is it withdrawn to the point where frequently no sense at all remains. (section 50, p. 179)
There is a point in favor of Spinoza, as Kaufmann sees it: the Ethics is a rigorously logical book. Starting from some few axioms and definitions, Spinoza is able to work out an entire system of metaphysics deductively, covering the entirety of God, or Nature… Or what we might think of all the universe, or everything that exists.
But the Bible mostly lacks this sort of rigour, which obviously isn’t a dig at the Bible. Far from it. The Bible isn’t a work of analytic philosophy, after all. Why ought we expect it to be amenable to that sort of analysis? The Bible almost certainly was not mean to be read (or listened to) with philosophy in mind, especially the sort of systematized, scholarly conception of philosophy as a discipline that we know and love/hate today. Hence, what Kaufmann describes as the genesis of theology:
To understand such peculiarities of theology, one must remember that theology, and indeed any systematic discussion of God, was born as a defensive maneuver. It is the product of a distinctive historic situation. Claims of a less sophisticated age have been exposed to rationalistic attack when theology appears to salvage the tradition. (section 50, p. 180)
Theology as an essentially defensive maneuver strikes me as not-inaccurate. Obviously, that’s not the only way of conceiving theology, but it certainly seems to be at least one reasonable way of characterizing theology. I don’t know if theology really began, or came out of, an intellectual defense mechanism, but I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. As with anything else, when claims one makes are questioned, one possible response is to come up with convincing reasons for why they are, in fact, true. Kaufmann then succinctly summarizes his point for us:
Seeing that “God” is so far from being a univocal term and that the terms applied to him by theologians are admittedly not intended to mean what they generally mean, it is no exaggeration if we conclude that most statements about God are essentially ambiguous [emphasis in original]. They cannot be called true or false. Interpretations of them which are true are usually ingenious or trivial or heretical—and often all three. The propositions themselves defy translation. (section 50, p. 181)
Here is where we find a significant break between Spinoza and the picture Kaufmann paints of theology (or, if you will, as theology really is…?). Spinoza’s conception of the universe, as well as God, thought, matter, mind, etc., are univocal. The attributes express conceptual differences, or perspectives from which to perceive, in one or another thing. We perceive each other as, simultaneously, extended bodies and as thinking subjects. But, rather unlike Descartes, Spinoza’s universe is emphatically non-dualistic. The extended body and the thinking subject are one and the same thing conceived now this way, and now that way. There’s no difference in substances, no difference in the order or kind of causation between states of my mind and states of my body. For Spinoza, can be no other sort of God except for a univocal God. To equivocate beyond noting that the attributes give us varying conceptual perspectives would be to introduce a break in reality that simply could not be justified without also jettisoning the sort of naturalistic order of reality that his metaphysical system exemplifies.
Spinoza simply cannot conceive that there could be a fundamental distinction between the extended and the non-extended mind (or soul), for the distinction would require a totally different order in reality, and Spinoza’s conception of reality is one that is singularly understandable. An understandable, or explicable, reality that has a single explanatory framework, a single causal order, and a single universal notion of what causation is. A reality where universal laws of nature pertain to all interactions, to all parts of every existent thing. To claim otherwise would be to violate naturalism as well as introducing a much less explainable or understandable conception of reality. The principle of sufficient reason forces us to conclude that there is a cause, or reason for every effect; every event can be explained, reasons given for why things occurred as they did as well as for why they did not occur in a different fashion. Occam’s Razor cautions us against introducing unnecessary entities, properties, or, in this case, explanations, into our understandings. Combined, they make a powerful argument to Spinoza for a naturalistic substance monism.
But to return to theology and Kaufmann, what is being pointed out here is that the Christian conception of God needs univocity, insofar as univocity would provide the most powerful defense of God in terms of predicates and properties that we are already familiar with, in the same way in which we are familiar with them. But when theology attempts to make use of predication or property that normally applies to the kind of reality humans inhabit on a day-to-day basis, there are huge philosophical problems lurking just beneath the surface. Once questions begin to be asked, theology is slowly forced back, eventually ceding the very ground that it requires to make the most powerful arguments for the very God theology clings to.