Books

Do We Have Souls?

Robert Spitzer's sequel is a good read for those inquiring about the rationality of faith

The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Reason and Experience continues the project begun by Fr. Robert Spitzer in Finding True Happiness (reviewed here). The earlier book argued that human beings are hardwired for happiness, and that the authentic search for it will eventually become a quest for the transcendent.

His new book picks up at just this point, accounting more fully for our inner awareness of “the transcendent,” and asking whether this awareness counts as evidence for its existence. He wonders, in other words, whether we have a soul, and whether that soul is oriented toward a God who actually exists.

The first two chapters tackle the soul and its Source as matters of intuition — intimations of transcendence from everyday experience. He begins with the numinous (i.e., encountering the Other or the Holy). Spitzer describes this experience as overwhelming and humbling awe coupled with a bliss-inspiring goodness. Think of the quiet weight of an empty church, the arresting power of a sunset or seascape, or Rat and Mole’s encounter with Pan in The Wind in the Willows. Such encounters can be found in diverse religions, cultures, and histories. Their ubiquity allows us to intuit the existence of their object. That is, the numinous encounter is not an argument for the existence of God but is a subjective experience whose near-universality invites further reflection.

Perceptions of good and evil function similarly with the soul. Human beings across time speak of external and internal standards of goodness. From Mircea Eliade’s history of religions to The Lord of the RingsStar Wars and Harry Potter, Spitzer finds the external standard in classic and contemporary mythologies of cosmic struggle. (Although the allusions to the Potter and Star Wars franchises are surely sound, Spitzer’s point would be strengthened by greater familiarity with these stories, including the correct spelling of some characters’ names.) Two modern thinkers — Immanuel Kant and Cardinal Newman — establish Spitzer’s reflections on conscience. Spitzer affirms with them that conscience refers us to, and makes sense only within the horizon of, an Ultimate Good. Is the soul, in fact, there? We do not have an argument yet, but we do have permission to ask the question.

Are the intuitions of God and the soul trustworthy? The rest of the book answers with a very dense yes. By far the most difficult chapters in both books, chapters 3 and 4, are worth the effort. Drawing heavily on Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, and including a very interesting discussion of animal and artificial intelligence, Spitzer argues in chapter 3 that our minds are oriented toward Mind, and that our acts of knowing work from the horizon of Ultimate Reality — that which Christians call “God.”  Likewise in chapter 4, Spitzer argues that the best account for human desires for Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Love is given by the existence of their Transcendent Source — also that which Christians call “God.”

Spitzer draws heavily on his own previously published work in philosophy of religion, and his style continues to breathe the rarefied air of that arcane pursuit. As a former academic, I can sympathize with the challenges that come with translating  “academese” into plain English. It is hard work, and Spitzer’s effort is commendable. But it does not entirely succeed. The editor forewarns about the difficulty and advises those unfamiliar with philosophical terminology and argumentation to read certain chapter sections out of order. While intended to allay fears and invite entry, the warning may in fact do just the opposite, telling readers that these matters are too advanced for them. I worry that they will close the book a few pages into chapter 3, discouraged by the abrupt shift to “academese” from the popular, middle-brow style of the first book and the first two chapters of the second. That would be unfortunate.

When Spitzer moves from God to the soul in the book’s final chapters, the more accessible style resumes. Chapter 5 is a careful reflection on the fascinating results of academic medical studies of “near-death experiences.” These studies suggest that consciousness can be thought of as “trans-physical.” Consciousness exists beyond our bodies, irreducible to complex, higher functions in the brain. Last, Spitzer moves from evidence to argument, offering a persuasive account of trans-physical consciousness that rejects both a rigid atheistic naturalism (i.e., it’s all in the brain) and a simple dualism that treats the brain as a mere and easily dispensable vehicle to carry the soul from one place to the next.

The book concludes with two appendixes, one dealing with Richard Dawkins, and the other with Intelligent Design. It’s easy to see why they do not appear in the main text. Spitzer’s unifying theme is that, following Augustine, the route to God is found by turning within, by reflecting on inner experience of moral struggle, of conscience, on the possibility of the soul. The appendices, on the other hand, follow Aquinas and turn us outward to the external world as that which leads us to what lies beyond. Both apologetic routes are commendable, of course, but they each deserve to be pursued independently from the other.

As Fr. Spitzer warned us from the outset, this book was more difficult than the last (and, I expect, subsequent books will be more challenging too). I found it worth the struggle and commend it both to seekers and to disciples who are inquiring after the rationality of faith in general and Christian faith in particular.

 

Fr. Tim Perry is rector of the Anglican Church of the Epiphany and a lecturer in Religious Studies at Laurentian University, both in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He blogs at http://www.texasflood.ca. His most recent book, co-authored with Fr. Dan Kendall, SJ, is The Blessed Virgin Mary.