Everyone in the DC area should be booking tickets asap to see New Jerusalem at Theatre J (major hat tip to Eve Tushnet). David Ives has done a magnificant job dramatizing Baruch de Spinoza’s trial for heresy in his own synagogue. I’ll be writing more about it soon, but don’t wait on me to get your tickets now. (I recommend buying seats in the bench section, which puts you onstage for the trial).
In the play Spinoza questions assumptions about the nature of God, and accuses the members of his synagogue of being too quick to anthropomorphize God. At one point during the production, I was strongly reminded of a book I’d recently finished: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm. Near the end of the book, Peter has gone through many crises of faith, but he has emerged as a kind of Christian deist, who is no longer so troubled by the longstanding mystery of theodicy. He tells his old teacher:
Moral evil is the price we pay for freedom. Natural evil is the price we pay for a world of natural law. Gravity keeps us on the earth. If someone falls off a cliff, gravity murders him. You can’t expect God to cancel a law ever time its about to kill someone….
I don’t think it’s an evasion. It’s just an honest confession of ignorance. Thinking about anything finally has to end in mystery. And why not? After all, we didn’t make this world any more than the jellyfish did. Why should the human race be easier to understand than time and space and matter and energy? Faith in God doesn’t explain an electron. Why should it explain evil?
In our highly Judeo-Christian culture, we don’t often conceive of a God without conceiving of him as a kind of superpowered human. Someone who loves us as a Father. And is omnipotent. And has a big beard. There’s not much mainstream discussion of why we expect those things of God. Discussions of theodicy and limits on miracles are standard components of the atheist arsenal but both sides rarely engage with the fact that there have been many religions, mythologies, and even some forms of Christianity that saw no contradiction between God’s existence and the presence of evil and misfortune.
Are most theists misunderstanding God, as Spinoza claimed?
What expectations for God and extrapolations from our experience are reasonable and how are we to judge?
I’d like to crowdsource a cry for help: I now have a powerful yen to read Spinoza. Where should I start?