If a triangle could speak, it would say . . . that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped. ~ Baruch Spinoza
I remember going home for the first break of my first semester in college. We, my mother, father, and I, were driving along the Mississippi River in Missouri, along the New Madrid Fault Line, traveling from our family farm in the southern part of Illinois to visit some relatives near Memphis, Tennessee for Thanksgiving. I, eighteen years old, was driving.
As I drove, I was paraphrasing the above observation of Spinoza, which I had just been studying in an intro to philosophy class at the community college I was attending. The community college was only twelve miles from our family farm, but a world away for me. My philosophy class was taught by the first openly gay man (“open” is a flexible term when applied to the attitudes of the 1970s), and my mind was racing with new ideas.
Spinoza’s argument seemed so elegant to me; so irrefutably true: We are not created in God’s image, but rather we create our gods in ours. If triangles could think, they would consider themselves created in the very image of god. If ants could think–and who says they can’t?–they would create an ant god (and who says they don’t?).
Neither my mother nor my father had any idea what I was talking about. How would a triangle think? Why would an ant think about god? Those things didn’t make “good horse sense.”
Both of my parents grew up in rural southern Illinois. They attended one-room schools–not the bucolic one-room school houses of US nostalgia, but places where the overworked teachers had, at best, a full year of college education and had to contend with whatever learning disabilities and behavioral disorders appeared among the in-bred hill country population. The teachers were generally paid in chickens, eggs, and firewood.
Consequently, both of my parents were nearly illiterate. Abstract thought did not come easily to them. As a matter of fact, the only negative statement I ever heard from either of them concerning orthodox Protestant Christianity was spoken decades later by my father, when the subject of the Resurrection came up. Out of the hearing of my mother, he said, “It just don’t seem possible, does it?”
I answered gently, “No. It doesn’t seem possible.” That’s as close to mystery as my father ever got.
On that day driving along the New Madrid Fault, I realized that Spinoza could not speak to my parents. And I discovered something else: I had the power to destroy the faith of poor, oppressed people such as my parents who had nothing else to fall back on. I stopped the argument when I was eighteen, and I have never argued religion again.
The chance to think abstractly, to pursue truth wherever it leads, is a powerful gift. A privilege. As with all power and privilege, it must be used responsibly and humbly.