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An Adventist Take on Spinoza

I was surprised to find an article in a Seventh-Day Adventist journal praising Baruch Spinoza. Adventists tend toward literal interpretations of scripture — their very name concerns the literal interpretation of the Sabbath — and Spinoza’s view of religion is high metaphorical. In some ways, it is hardly compatible with a traditional understanding of God, whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic.

This particular article relates specifically to Spinoza’s interpretation of freedom. The author cites the Peace of Westphalia as a major step in religious freedom, but goes on to say that “the 1648 Peace of Westphalia attempted to state that freedom is only truly defensible if it is for everyone, not only for those who belong to a particular group or tribe.” This is ironic, since Westphalia only guaranteed full religious freedom for specific Christian groups (Catholics and Lutheran or Calvinist Protestants). Other forms of Christianity, let alone non-Christian religions, had no protections other than freedom of conscience. Adventists would have been very disappointed with the Peace of Westhpalia.

The article makes some brief references to Spinoza’s ethics, which, the author acknowledges, are based on self-preservation. I find Spinozan ethics as tenuously related to actual ethics as his religion is related to actual religion. For him, self-interest is so primary that there is essentially no higher law governing human behaviour. “Everyone has by nature a right to act deceitfully, and to break his compacts,” Spinoza wrote; and “no one enters into an engagement, or is bound to stand by his compacts unless there be a hope of some accruing good.” If there is no obligation to honour an agreement except insofar as one can profit by it, then everyone is justified in doing whatever he thinks is best for himself. I have a hard time seeing how this constitutes an ethical framework, except in the purely negative sense.

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