“Fr. Spitzer leads us, step by step, as a true spiritual guide to a deeper understanding on our personal journey of faith to Jesus Christ. Thank you, Fr. Spitzer, for your precious and fundamental help to understand God’s love for the world.”
— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Archbishop of Vienna
Author, Jesus’ School of Life
“Summoning his scholarship and intelligibility, Fr. Spitzer explains in ways graceful and compelling that God makes himself accessible unconditionally, save for the desire that there be a loving response to his generosity.”
— Fr. George Rutler
Author, He Spoke to Us
“Making wise use of the best of contemporary Scripture scholarship, Fr. Spitzer provides an in-depth exploration of how Jesus makes real the unconditional love of God, and he gives a sophisticated account of the reasonableness of Christian beliefs.”
— Christopher Kaczor, Ph.D.
Author, The Seven Big Myths about
the Catholic Church
“A book to read and savor over and over again.”
— Fr. C. John McCloskey
Author, Good News, Bad News: Evangelization,
Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith
By Bishop Robert Barron
Last week, during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I had the enormous privilege of sharing a breakfast with Fr. Robert Spitzer, the inter-galactically smart Jesuit, who once served as president of Gonzaga University and who now directs the Magis Center on matters of faith, reason, and science. I had just finished Spitzer’s latest book entitled The Soul’s Upward Yearning and delighted in discussing it in some detail with him.
This text is, in my judgment, the best challenge to what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “buffered self,” that is to say, a self isolated from any sense of the transcendent. Taylor observes that, prior to 1500, almost everyone believed in God and held that life would be meaningless apart from some reference to goods lying beyond our ordinary experience. But today, at least in the West, one can find armies of people who both deny God and affirm that the goods of this world are sufficient to make us happy. This buffered existence makes evangelization nearly impossible, for it closes a listener to the proposal that true fulfillment and God are tightly linked together. Spitzer’s strategy is to show from literature, philosophy, the popular arts, theoretical physics, and epistemology that the human soul yearns for and is in fact already linked to a transcendent or transphysical dimension. By the sheer accumulation of evidence from this wide variety of sources, he punches hole after hole in the buffer that surrounds the modern self.
There is a brilliant idea on practically every page of The Soul’s Upward Yearning, but I will focus simply on three. First, Spitzer draws our attention to the remarkably universal sense of the transcendent described by philosophers, mystics, and seekers across time and cultures. Limiting ourselves to some key Western figures, Rudolf Otto, for example, speaks of the experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the mystery at the same time fearsome and compelling). This numinous reality overwhelms us and simultaneously draws us into itself, and in its presence we intuit that we are more than physical, that there is a dimension of ourselves that links us to the realm where this mysterious reality dwells. We can find echoes of Otto’s speculation in Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern” and in Karl Rahner’s “absolute mystery” and in C.S. Lewis’s “longing for joy.” Now we might imagine the skeptic wondering whether this is just so much fantasy and subjective projection. Spitzer’s answer is that the properly numinous puts us in touch with the good and the true and the holy in their unconditioned form, and this implies that the experience cannot be sequestered within subjectivity alone, for such an experience would be ipso facto a conditioned one.
A second major connection to the transcendent is in the very dynamic of human knowing, an idea articulated by myriad philosophers across the centuries—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Newman, etc.—but given particularly clear expression by the twentieth century Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan maintained that each particular act of knowing takes place within the heuristic context of what can be further known. In any field of intellectual endeavor, every answered question gives rise to a dozen more questions, precisely because the mind is never satisfied with anything less than total knowledge. It wants, in Lonergan’s language, “to know everything about everything.” This means, Spitzer explains, that the mind is always already in possession of an, at least, inchoate awareness of what is completely and radically intelligible, that which, in itself, provides answers to every possible question. But this is none other than the unconditioned reality, that which is utterly real, for a conditioned thing, by definition, would beg the question of its own existence and hence would not be utterly intelligible. All of this is to argue, in a word, that the mind is ordered to God, or as Thomas Aquinas put it, “in every particular act of knowing, God’s existence is implicitly co-known.”
If these last two arguments seem too abstract, consider a third route of access that Spitzer presents, namely, the phenomenon of near death experience. Such experiences have been studied carefully for the past forty years, and most of us are well aware of their characteristics: moving out of the body and seeing its surroundings clearly, passing through walls and ceilings, following a tunnel toward a bright light radiating love and compassion, often meeting deceased loved ones along the way. Those who have had such experiences usually swear by them and remain utterly convinced that there is a dimension of the self that survives physical death. Nevertheless, as Spitzer acknowledges, critics have emerged, arguing that these can be explained as hallucinations produced by the brain as it is deprived of oxygen, or the fruit of endorphins released by the dying brain. But how can such reductive accounts begin to explain the fact that those who have exited their bodies can describe their environments with such remarkable accuracy? Indeed, in one extraordinary case, a woman left her body on the operating table, travelled through a variety of corridors in the hospital, left the building on the far side of the operating room and saw a single tennis shoe on the ledge. Afterward, the shoe was found, just as she had described it. And how can the physicalist theories possibly explain how people, blind from birth, correctly see objects and colors in the environs of the sites where they died? Is it not far more likely, Spitzer speculates, that these experiences demonstrate the existence of a transphysical dimension to the self?
As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, I would enthusiastically endorse Fr. Spitzer’s book. And I might suggest that, after you’ve read it, you pass it along to a bright young person who has soaked too long in the acids of postmodern skepticism and materialism and who has lived too long in the musty confines of the buffered self.
Fr. Robert Spitzer on happiness: An effective approach to God?
July 14, 2015
By Dr. Jeff Mirus
Those of us who consider it important to know and love Jesus Christ find ourselves frustrated by the difficulty of convincing others. Over the centuries, a great many Catholic thinkers have turned their attention to questions of apologetics, spiritual development and conversion in the hope of finding the most effective approaches. Even if we recognize that people are initially attracted to Christ and the Church in very different ways, we still want to know how to make the best possible case.
That is why I am so interested in Fr. Robert Spitzer’s new project, a four volume treatment of human happiness, suffering and transcendence. Spitzer’s goal is to demonstrate that human persons are transcendent beings, oriented to a spiritual and even supernatural end, and that the Revelation of Jesus Christ gives us the guidance we need to actualize this transcendence, respond positively to suffering, and find ultimate happiness in God. The four proposed volumes, to be published by Ignatius Press, are:
1. Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts
2. The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason
3. God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus
4. The Light Shines On in the Darkness: Contending with Suffering and Evil through Faith
The first volume has been published, the second is available for pre-order, and the last two are in progress. But the overall course of the project is clear in the first volume, which covers in a briefer form the ideas that will be developed in the rest of the “quartet”. It is fascinating to see how various Catholic authors meet the challenge of getting through to our generation. Fr. Spitzer’s tactics in particular are well worth examining.
Stages, Types or Levels of Happiness
Fr. Spitzer, a Jesuit priest, is a former president of Gonzaga University and the founder of the Magis Institute. He has had a lifelong interest in the intersection of physics, philosophy, reason and faith. In 2012, I reviewed his outstanding book New Proofs for the Existence of God, which explores both scientific and philosophical arguments (see Proving God and God: Philosophical Proofs and the Transcendentals). It is not surprising that Fr. Spitzer draws on similar sources and ideas for this new project.
Here too he explores the confluence of science and philosophy to shed light on our common goal in life, which, of course, is happiness. The “hook” for his secularized neighbors is simply this: Many people find themselves unhappy, and do not understand why. Drawing on both psychology and philosophy, Fr. Spitzer shows that the human person seeks happiness in response to desires on four different levels; he explains that it is possible to understand these four levels; and he insists that a truly happy life depends upon recognizing all four and prioritizing them properly.
The four desires which must be fulfilled to achieve happiness are:
1. Desires connected with biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers, arising from our brain and sensory faculties
2. Ego-comparative desires, arising from our self-consciousness
3. Contributive-empathetic desires, arising from our empathy and conscience
4. Transcendental-spiritual desires, arising from our transcendental awareness
Clearly, these four levels of desire, and the happiness that is achieved when these desires are fulfilled, both derive from and point to the full nature of the human person. Fr. Spitzer goes on to explain that the depth and duration of the happiness resulting from fulfilling these desires increases as we move up the scale. The happiness of a good meal (level 1) does not last as long as the happiness of a significant personal achievement (level 2); by the same token, the happiness of a personal achievement does not last as long as the happiness of having contributed to the good of others; and finally, this “contributive” happiness does not last as long as the happiness of being in love with God.
Moreover, Spitzer points out, it is often necessary to discipline our desires at the lower levels to facilitate happiness at a higher, deeper and longer-lasting level. Thus habits of discipline concerning sensuality and pride (levels 1 and 2) are not embraced as deprivations but for the sake of achieving higher levels of happiness which are ultimately rooted in love.
The Rest of the Story
The first five chapters of Finding True Happiness cover these levels of desire and happiness. Along the way, Fr. Spitzer offers considerable evidence in answer to the question, “Are we really transcendent?” Once again drawing on both science and philosophy, he also documents the self-defeating character of what he calls “the comparison game”, in which we constantly compare our personalities, wealth, and achievements with others to determine whether we are really happy. This, he shows, is a misguided process which too often locks us into a kind of personal hell.
The key to true and complete happiness consists in being able to move from happiness at levels 1 and 2 to happiness at levels 3 and 4, which offer greater self-realization and, again, are essentially fueled by love. But this brings us once again to the problem of the transcendent, and how we are to know Who God is, and how to respond to this yearning for the transcendent He has built into our nature. Here the exploration of reality through philosophy and science must give way to the possibility of something communicated more directly to us by God, namely Revelation.
If the most interesting thing about Fr. Spitzer’s approach is his exploration of the nature and levels of happiness, the second most interesting point is that he not only explains what God has revealed in Christ but provides the basic principles of spiritual discernment necessary to open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit, and to follow His lead within the dynamic community of the Church. The final five chapters of Finding True Happiness explore this process, from making a “little leap of faith” in order to “test the transcendent”, as it were, to an explanation of prayer, divine inspiration, and the relationship between consolations and true spiritual growth.
On these topics, Fr. Spitzer speaks first as a Catholic and second as a Jesuit, which means that the advice he offers and the approaches he recommends are universally applicable but specifically in the Ignatian tradition—the Jesuit approach to meditation, the discernment of spirits and the examined life. Also in this tradition, the author provides basic steps and guidelines to help the reader through initial efforts at introspection and prayer.
Only time will tell whether three more volumes fleshing out this interesting and evocative introduction will add substantively to the guiding principles. The premise is very sound—the premise that Revelation in Jesus Christ corresponds to our personal quest for happiness as the glove fits the hand. Certainly a whole volume devoted to “clues to our transcendent nature from experience and reason” (the subtitle of volume 2) will benefit from Fr. Spitzer’s wonderful ability to use the best of human knowledge to properly interpret human yearnings. The last two volumes will cover territory that is far more well-worn, namely Revelation and suffering, but to leave them out would be to raise critical questions without offering coherent answers.
While Revelation receives significant treatment in the introductory volume, suffering and evil are touched only lightly—just enough for the reader to know that they fit the scheme and are no cause for the rejection of the premise. But it just so happens that one of the chief rationalizations for the rejection of God in the modern world is the presence of suffering. I say “rationalizations” for, in truth, those who really suffer most from things outside their control tend to be drawn more easily into God’s embrace. In other words, among the affluent—who remain unhappy—suffering is often the trump card used to justify a refusal to serve God.
In any case, suffering is a riddle for all. And so we must wait and see. But as two more volumes will emerge in the meantime, the wait promises to be well worthwhile.
+ + +
Dr. Jeffrey Mirus is one of the chief writers for CatholicCulture.org.