ColumnsWord on Fire

Blasting holes through the buffered self

Last week, during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I had the enormous privilege of sharing a breakfast with Father 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 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.”

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.