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Criticism of Christianity: Spinoza on the Wonders of Jesus

Updated on May 23, 2015
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza | Source

Spinoza's confrontation with wonders

At the same time of the pietistic approach to Christianity, a rationalistic confrontation took place with many different Christian conceptions. It was the scientific way of thinking at the time which opposed itself to scientifically unsustainable views. The first significant criticism was Spinozas confrontation with the term “wonder”. Christianity is extensively built upon stories of wonders: Most of the stories about Jesus and his miraculous healing powers are wonders, not to mention the idea of him being Gods son – his wonderful (in the strictest sense of the word) birth, his resurrection, his ascension et cetera. It is important to understand that a wonder, at the time of Jesus, was nothing but an event that was surprising and spectacular, an action in which one felt the presence of active godly powers. There was no such thing as laws of science, and therefore nobody doubted, that a wonder could occur – the wonder was very natural, so to speak.

The argumentation

Things changed within the new times of science and philosophy, which had defined the regularity and laws regarding an event, and one was forced to define a “wonder” as a violation of these scientific laws – an event that occurs without having a definable reason to do so according to scientific laws. By the use of this idea, Spinoza demonstrated that a wonder is exactly that which cannot happen; it is not merely a surprising, but in fact impossible event. Spinoza viewed the eternal rational connection of life as being identical to God; the laws of nature were not only something God had created while he created the world – in which case he could easily make some kind of exemption from the rules – no, instead these laws were an expression of God himself, and if he somehow made a wonder occur he would have simply abolished himself! A wonder would therefore not be a proof of Gods existence and power, quite conversely it would be a proof of the absence of God.

Friedrich Schleiermacher
Friedrich Schleiermacher | Source

Schleiermacher: Everything is a wonder!

It is important to understand that Spinozas’ criticism of the wonder is at the same time philosophically/scientifically as well as religiously motivated. That the wonder cannot occur does not mean that God does not exist or does not act, because essentially any event is caused by God, namely through the law of nature that he himself represents. This religious thought – that everything that happens, happens because of God – could also be presented by claiming that every single event, no matter how dull and normal, is a wonder. So did Schleiermacher proclaim, heavily influenced by Spinoza: Mir ist alles Wunder!

In theological circles this rejection of the wonder lead to an attempt to remove the wonderful aspects of the biblical contents. It was executed in a rather philistine way: When Jesus walked on the lake, it just looked as if he did, while in reality he walked on the beach; when he resurrected, the persons only appeared to be dead and so forth.

The new conception of Christianity

More importantly all of this gave rise to a new conception of Christianity. It was not only critique of the wonderful stories; it was a criticism of fundamental wonders: The virgin birth of Jesus, the resurrection and the ascension. The claim of the virgin birth was rejected, the resurrections were explained as hallucinations and so on. This resulted in the rejection of the divinity of Jesus. Instead of being the great Gods son of wonders, he became the great moral teacher, the noble human who had devoted his life to goodness and humanity. The comparison between Jesus and Socrates became popular. Both had become spokesmen of a life in noble humanity, both were subject to the pursuits of their fanatic and foolish countrymen. The fact that Jesus was comparable to someone else was in itself significant. It changed him from being utterly unique to being an example next to other similar historical personalities.
He was compared to others, to Buddha and Zarathustra, about whom not much was known. The conclusion was that each of these people had delivered the same message, only in different shapes and language. The natural consequence of a conception as such was extensive tolerance. It all lead to the realization, that religious conflicts were often products of the meaningless attention to irrelevant formulations or subordinate details. Backs were turned to the Churches and their lack of magnanimity, their petty intolerance towards each other. All of this was certainly not in the spirit of Jesus.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther | Source

Martin Luther

At this point, there could be good reasons to pay attention to a distinction between two forms of tolerance: Luther had advocated tolerance – even though tolerance was not practiced in the Lutheran churches. The tolerance of Luther did however evolve from the idea that one could not use power in regards to spiritual issues. One could not force the other to accept the same truth about, for instance, Christianity. A truth such as this could only be overtaken under circumstances of freedom: One had to accept it wholeheartedly, because if he did not, he did not accept it at all. In the attempt to convince him, one had to make sure that no type of force was brought into the relation; it had to be completely free for the sake of the truth. From another angle, this must mean that there is really a thing such as final truths and lies. The tolerance was not equivalent to some idea that everything was equally true.

Same content, different shape

The tolerance that appeared within rationalism tends to convey the message that the values of any religion or any church essentially are the same. The differences are only present in the outer appearance of the formulations, in the given circumstances of time and place, in the altered figure of culture and etc. If one submerges beneath this surface of difference, similar understandings of life will be found. The result of this is that there is no real sense in convincing others; it is only the form rather than the content that differs – and the conviction of the form itself does not really matter. It must be allowed for anyone to remain blessed in his or her own way.

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