Robert Spitzer’s newest book says human beings are made for the journey to God
I was immediately taken by Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts, the title of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s newest book. It echoes a recurring theme in the writings of St. Augustine, my favorite saint. Our hearts are designed to desire, Augustine argues, and the heart’s ultimate desire is for God. Fr. Spitzer’s project is to help us find God by turning within to examine our selves.
Finding True Happiness is the first in a series of four books. The remaining three address separate themes: transcendence (God and the soul), revelation (Jesus as the disclosure of God) and suffering (does it have a purpose?). Designed as what is called “natural theology,” each builds from a very general foundation toward specific claims of Christian faith, showing their beauty and coherence.
Spitzer’s project aims to persuade the mind of the seeker and embolden the faith of the disciple. As the first book, Finding True Happiness is the most general. It is written to be understood by anyone of goodwill, whether Christian, other or (these days) “none.”
The human journey, in Augustinian fashion, is a quest for happiness, an ultimate happiness. It begins with the happiness resulting from the fulfillment of ordinary physical needs. To be happy at the most basic level is to have enough food, suitable shelter and adequate clothing.
The next step in happiness is the happiness of seeing those needs satisfied in others, and then third, the happiness of helping others find the same things necessary for life.
Yet as good as these are, they are incomplete. Spitzer calls this a “level-three happiness,” or “contributive-empathetic happiness.” Yet it is incomplete without something more. That something is “level four,” a longing for the transcendent.
In a sense this is reading the New Atheists upside down. Someone like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins may say that longing for the transcendent happiness finds its real meaning in our material nature, thanks to finally selfish genes. The search for happiness is merely the product of an evolutionary, biologic imperative: keeping the selfish gene happy.
Spitzer instead insists that human beings are made for more: a journey toward God. His preface—drawn from Augustine’s Confessions—makes his goal clear: “For Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Spitzer’s challenge is significant: How does one speak of subjects like grace (the helping presence of God in our lives) and sin (that broken part that turns our desires away from God) to a broad, increasingly secularized audience? It is not an impossible project. A culture that can produce Orange is the New Black or Sherlock can easily grasp the plight of human perversity and recognize even an inchoate yearning for the good.
Spitzer appears to present our journey to happiness as the result of our own work. But given the titles of future books in this series, I believe he will reveal near the end that it has been God at work all along.
This is a good book for both seeking friends and present believers. The invitation to examine our restless hearts, to ask what has made them so may open doors to faith.
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.