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Make Life a Mythic Journey

On the Path to God with Spinoza

“Spinoza’s adherence to immanence…refers to the idea that this worldly existence is all there is, that the laws of nature govern everything and that God is entirely equivalent to Nature. …Many refer to him as a pantheist.”

—-Irvin Yalom, The Spinoza Problem (pp. 172, 174)


In our modern, hyper-rational world the question, “Is there a God?” has become an increasingly contentious topic making it difficult for many to resolve in their own lives. In the immense destruction and suffering in the 20th century following Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death, many have lost hope, lost their belief, and lost a sense of any spirituality. And, many have argued forcefully that these failings justify atheism and abandoning a search for God. But, two towering men of genius—Carl Jung and Baruch Spinoza—have argued just as forcefully that there is a God. Their views of God, however, are radically different from the God(s) of our ancestors. An examination of their views may be useful in this era of 225px-Spinozadisillusionment and spiritual despair.

The benefits of viewing Spinoza through a Jungian lens occurred when my “History through Literature” workshop recently read and discussed Irvin Yalom’s book, The Spinoza Problem. The novel contrasts the life of the ex-communicated 17th century Jewish philosopher, Baruch or Bento Spinoza, with that of the 20th century Nazi propagandist, Alfred Rosenberg, who is being treated by a fictional, Jungian therapist using Spinoza’s ideas. The “Spinoza problem” for Rosenberg was to understand if this Jewish intellectual really influenced his Aryan idol, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In my view, Yalom was trying to show that we all have a “Spinoza problem.” And, it is the limits of the rationality Spinoza brought to the Enlightenment and to modernity in dealing with excessive irrationality as displayed by Rosenberg.  Spinoza’s philosophy is rooted in the extreme masculine personality approach that Jung called “logos” or the thinking aspect of our personality.  The feminine emotional of feeling aspect is, as the therapy-like conversation (p. 208) between Bento (Spinoza) and his friend Franco reveals, that feeling must be eliminated by incorporating it into the logical. Bento says, “If I do not heed reason, I will be a slave to passion.” Franco responds, “[W]e know that reason is no match for passion. To which Spinoza concludes by stating, “Only a stronger emotion can conquer an emotion. My task is clear: I must learn to turn reason into a passion.”

The suppression of the emotional feeling side, of course, is an impossibility, especially for a therapist like Yalom.  Since Rosenberg, as Yalom portrays him, is already emotionally repressed, Spinoza’s approach as a therapy for Rosenberg is doomed to fail–and it does.  Another way of viewing this situation is that we’re dealing with two very extreme personalities.  Both are very antagonistic to traditional religion in their own ways; and both are zealots in their belief systems. As Spinoza says (according to Yalom, p. 181), “I believe that all religions—Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, as well as Judaism—simply block our view of the core religious truths” with, what the noted Spinoza scholar, Steven Nadler, calls, “superstitious rites and ceremonies” to placate a judgmental anthropomorphic God.

William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience provides a devastating critique of Spinoza’s harsh rejection of the Old Testament and the Talmud based on its logical inconsistencies.  He says (p. 8), “if our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it, must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific or historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill.  But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and 10281723deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experience of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict would be more favorable.”

In other words, if you follow “logos,” as Spinoza did with his list of errors in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic commentary, then you reach one judgment.  But, if you use a feeling approach, then an opposite conclusion may be reached.  You need, as Jung always admonished, to maintain the “tension of opposites” that includes both the masculine and the feminine if you are ever to get to a better insight into both man and God.  In this regard, Spinoza, a father of the Enlightenment, failed.  Moreover, the recent work on the Big Bang theory indicating the existence of quantum particles called gravitons, which behave probabilistically, also undermines the Spinoza-Einstein deterministic, rational model of the universe. The question this leaves us with is: What or who is God?

As one whose dominant, Jungian personality trait is Feeling, the pantheistic God I find in nature as did Spinoza leads me to the same place, but with a significantly, different perspective. According to Yalom (pp. 301-302), Spinoza’s view was, “[You] must cast off [your] own identity—that is, [your] attachment to [your]self—and view everything from the absolute adequate and true perspective.” When you can expand yourself intellectually, but not emotionally, to include the world and achieve an “[e]nlightened egoism,” you experience “a loss of separation rather than a connection” with others. hheyeandworld

Spinoza thus remains firmly in the grasp of his ego or conscious self, and never gets to the true, unconscious Jungian Self—a place of cosmic compassion and connection. This is the true God that one encounters in the transition from the finite, temporal ego to the infinite, eternal Self that Jung called the “imago Dei.” It is here that one can embrace our differences and forgive our human imperfections. It is here where we join with the mystery, the unity and “We are ONE.”

This God, for me as a feeling Jungian, is a God of tolerance meaning that there are many paths to get there—not just one as Spinoza and so many religious dogmas maintain. And this God is available through a variety of exhilarating feeling or numinous experiences from religious texts to a walk in a miraculous place in nature like the Muir Woods (see my blog, “A Modern Path to Spirituality”).

– Paul Marshall Wortman

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2014 by in Carl Jung, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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