Spinoza's Treatise on Freedom, and the Temptation of Order

[ Fritz Guy In Memoriam (1930-2023) ]

Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza's “Theologico-Political Treatise” is one of the most important texts in the formation of European freedom culture, not only from the political but also the religious point of view. Published in 1670, it remains a paradigm, even for the Adventist church. No secular or religious institution is ever above the difficult balance between freedom and identity, self-determination and belonging, and creativity and loyalty. As Isaiah Berlin describes and admonishes in his "Four Essays on Liberty,"[1] we are all called to articulate and defend a healthy tension between being "free of" and being "free for." Freedom involves liberation from physical or ideological shackles that impede our flourishing. But freedom also demands to be safeguarded from dispersion and destruction. Spinoza's life experience, as well as his experience as an author, are instructive in this regard.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2023/spinozas-treatise-freedom-and-temptation-order
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The list of things proscribed by EGW runs into the hundreds, if not thousands.

This is freedom just as Orwell’s Big Brother insisted that war is peace.

So, yeah.

I know at least one person who spent the first 25 years of his life experiencing Adventist “freedom” first hand and I’m convinced that taking SDA-ism seriously is costly in the extreme, both in time, money and peace of mind



Or nonexistent?


I agree with Gutierrez’s conclusion, namely, that in practice, the Adventist church too often emphasizes order to the exclusion of individual freedom. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the church imposes a different kind of order than that which is discussed by Spinoza in his Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise.

As Gutierrez notes, the sort of order that Spinoza discusses is “natural determinism,” to which all people are subject, because we are essentially constituted by our natural conatus or endeavor to persevere in being. However, I would argue that the laws of nature are not a restrictive order—at least, they are certainly not an order that we can hope to escape (in this life). To the contrary, it is obvious that unless a person perseveres in being (i.e. continues living), they cannot be free. One’s ability to live in harmony the natural order is a prerequisite to personal and political freedom. (The ecological and social consequences of this conception of the natural order are worth emphasizing.)

Additionally, the endeavor to persevere in one’s being is a fully autonomous activity (conceding, of course, that in Spinoza’s view, God acting through each individual is the main agent in this activity). This is the main point of difference between Spinoza’s conception of the natural order and the order that is imposed by the Adventist church, which tends more towards heteronomy, in which the church is the agent responsible for moral decision-making, and the individual believer is expected to defer to this authority. This distinction between the order of nature—which is the subject matter of philosophy—and the order imposed by religious authorities—which is the subject of theology—is a major theme in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. This distinction is central to his thesis that philosophy and theology only come into conflict when political authorities endorse the doctrines of a particular religious authority.

In short, although I agree with Gutierrez’s argument that the church ought to affirm the intrinsic value of moral autonomy, I am not necessarily persuaded that Spinoza’s own defense of freedom is ambiguous due to his understanding of the order of nature. Natural determinism only becomes a problem for human freedom when God is conceived as (deliberately or practically) predestining us to salvation or damnation because of the natural circumstances to which we are subject. Rather than emphasizing human freedom to the exclusion of natural order, the church should instead reconsider whether its conception of salvation and damnation is compatible with the notion of a benevolent and omnipotent God.

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