How do we know we are transcendent beings?
The second volume in Fr. Robert Spitzer’s “quartet” on human happiness is now out from Ignatius Press. I described the overall project and reviewed the first volume back in July (see Fr. Robert Spitzer on happiness: An effective approach to God?). Entitled The Soul’s Upward Yearning, this new volume explores all the “clues” which point to the transcendence of our nature, a nature that reaches beyond the material world to a necessary God.
To review the structure of the series, the first volume explores the four levels of human happiness and how we must progress through these levels to attain the highest happiness, which requires life on a plane which transcends the material. This volume also gives a foretaste of the entire series. The second volume (the subject of this review) sets forth the evidence and arguments which prove that the human person does transcend the material and, indeed, transcends the very self in a yearning for God.
The third volume will explore how Christian Revelation provides knowledge of God and our relationship with Him which corresponds perfectly to our transcendent natures. And the fourth will explore the special problem of suffering and the role it plays in the attainment of human happiness.
Evidence and Arguments
As usual, Fr. Spitzer combines a firm grasp of both philosophy and science in identifying and expounding evidence for the transcendent character of the human person. The book begins with a consideration of the widespread human experience of the “numinous”—our sense of a mysterium tremendum, and our response to it in fascination, desire, love and bliss. Numerous studies have demonstrated that large numbers of people experience the “numinous” as something distinctly outside themselves and far greater, toward which they are attracted at the very core of their being with a kind of awe.
The second chapter explores three broad areas: (1) The nearly universal human sense of the sacred (explored primarily through the work of Mircea Eliade), including the anxiety produced by the “absence” of the sacred, both of which have been well documented. (2) The universal awareness of the “conscience”, particularly well-articulated by Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman, as necessarily of Divine origin; and (3) The persistent myth of the cosmic struggle between good and evil, which colors so much of the human imagination, and which has been explored thoroughly by such figures as Eliade, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Carl Jung. These common factors again suggest that the human person is a transcendent being.
Next, Spitzer takes up the nature of the human intellect, the desire for truth, and especially the brilliant proof developed by the Thomist Bernard Lonergan, a proof for the existence of God based on the intelligibility of reality. This is one of the denser chapters, detailing a powerful philosophical argument which, by the very nature of its focus on intelligibility, is necessarily quite abstract (not to say unintelligible!). Not all readers will want to push through it, but we can at least notice that the very nature of intellectual abstraction is itself a powerful argument for human transcendence. The only embodied beings we know of that demonstrate a capacity for abstraction are, of course, humans. Significant studies of more advanced animals demonstrate this point.
The fourth chapter explores the transcendentals (truth, goodness, beauty and love) which—again quite demonstrably—all normal people value, aspire to, and sometimes mistake for the highest spiritual experience. But when such confusion enters in, it results in a disappointment which spurs the person to look for something even more beautiful, more loving, etc. Human experience of the transcendentals is (as the very nature of the word suggests) evidence that the human person is a transcendent being.
Chapter five is quite straightforward. Fr. Spitzer simply reports the results of the extensive formal studies that have been done of near-death experiences. These provide a unique confirmation of the transcendence of which human nature is capable. Not only are “out of body” experiences quite common, but careful studies of what people report they have experienced in these near-death experiences provide verifiable evidence that they must have been, in fact, out of their bodies.
These are cases in which their brains had essentially shut down. People claim to have “moved” to different locations and to have seen specific persons and objects during these experiences which really were exactly as they saw them to be, but were not within the range of their bodily sensory perception (even if that perception were in working order, which it was not). In addition, they hear verifiable conversations that they should not have been able to hear and, in studies of near-death experiences among the blind, it has been found that they enjoy visual images which their bodies are incapable of producing or transmitting.
The final chapter studies the uniquely human issue of self-consciousness. Scientific studies have established that even the highest animals, while aware of themselves to some degree, cannot reflect on themselves reflecting on themselves, as humans can. Only humans can, so to speak, see themselves from outside, or abstract into an idea whatever it is they are thinking about, such that this idea can be explored in ways independent of the immediate use that is being made of it in a particular situation. A very simple illustration is the difference between a chimpanzee which can pick up a stick to extend its reach (the kind of thing that very high-order animals can do) and a human person who can conceive of making some tool that will work very much like a stick when no adequate actual stick is available.
The chapter goes on to examine the question of the relationship between the spiritual “soul” and the physical “brain”. The treatment becomes extraordinarily dense and difficult (as Spitzer cautions the reader) when it explores how the transphysical nature of human self-consciousness might find its link to our material nature in quantum fields. The problem is an interesting one. How can a purely spiritual order of being interact with or produce the appropriate responses in the material order?
As it turns out, in quantum physics it has been demonstrated that the mere act of observation alters the physical reality being observed in a quantum field. Therefore, some theorize that the particular linkage between soul and body—the way the soul directs the body—is found in quantum fields, where purely non-physical (intellectual, spiritual) input actually causes physical changes to the system. Spitzer combines this notion with insights from studies by Michael Polanyi (see Our mental prison: The myth of “objective” knowledge) and Bernard Lonergan (specifically his notion of hylomorphism) to propose one theory of soul-body interaction.
Whatever may be true on this last point, the importance of The Soul’s Upward Yearning is that it presents a broad range of experiential, philosophical and scientific evidence which proves that the human person is a transcendent being, possessing a nature that is at once both material and spiritual, and which is fundamentally oriented toward the ultimate spiritual reality that we call God. It is not necessary to understand or even agree with each point of this evidence (particularly the highly speculative potential role of quantum fields in the interaction between soul and body). But the complete range of evidence and arguments makes it impossible to dismiss the transcendent character of the human person in favor of our culture’s current materialistic prejudice.
Materialism simply leaves too many aspects of human experience unexplained. Therefore, this volume is an indispensable addition to any library, yet there is no shame in reading only portions of it, for those unprepared to tackle the more difficult sections. In all, the book is very convincing. It is not at all surprising that Fr. Spitzer wishes to turn in his third volume to the question of how Christian Revelation fills in the details of our nature and our relationship with God. These are the details that we are incapable of knowing on our own, and which we must therefore reasonably expect God to supply.
Review of Volume 1: Fr. Robert Spitzer on happiness: An effective approach to God?
Review of Volume 3: Emmanuel: The dominant theme of Fr. Spitzer’s third volume on happiness
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