Fr. Robert Spitzer on happiness: An effective approach to God?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 14, 2015

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.

Conclusion

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.


Review of Volume 2: How do we know we are transcendent beings?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 15, 2015 8:41 PM ET USA

    Thanks for your book review. I bought Thomas Van's last reviewed book, and I will buy this one.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 14, 2015 6:00 PM ET USA

    Fr. Spitzer is a great writer and speaker. I first encountered some of these ideas in his one-volume HEALING THE CULTURE from Ignatius, and found it useful with my high school sophomores.