Living a Spiritual Life – Richard J. Van Iten

Living a Spiritual Life While caught Up in the Tension between Believing and Knowing: A Synopsis

Richard J. Van Iten

During the course of this conversation I hope to work you through a journey which begins with the questions, “Is it reasonable to expect that we have a continuing spiritual contact with the world around us, including our friends, neighbors and even strangers, too, perhaps even our own selves?, and “Is there really a significant difference between believing and knowing-for example, There is a supreme deity? It is not mind-boggling to hear someone claim that a genuinely spiritual dimension to our lives hinges upon believing or knowing there is such a being. In short, on this view, absent a belief in the existence of God, the very notion of spirituality is vacuous.

During the 19th century there lived a philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who, after a long personal struggle to understand his persistent anxiety, announced, “God is dead!” Quietly he added, “Now my spirit is free!” He believed his anxiety was the issue of a long and painful attempt to conform to the moral standards of his day-standards defined and justified by appeal to a divine being who, it was claimed, willed a code of conduct and belief which, if faithfully followed, would grant all true believers the gift of the most highly prized freedom, eternal life. Nietzsche’s decision to renounce his belief in the existence of a benevolent deity was accompanied by a commitment to the belief that it is the Self, not some god, that “urges me on, for I am meant to be the creation of my own self-willed spirit.” This personal entity he understood to transcend mere mortal society. Much like an unrepentant adolescent he proclaimed, “I shall be the creation of my own design, free of the constraints by which Society would deny my freedom to be my Self!” In short, Nietzsche replaced one transcendent being for another, the god of civilized society by the god of his own design. While his fellow citizens believed in order to overcome Death, Nietzsche chose freedom, a freedom to express his own creative powers as he saw fit, a freedom to choose Life as lived by a power to create as his spirit-self chose. [Think here of Wagner’s operas in which the place of The Hero is so prominent. Once greatly admired by Nietzsche, he eventually had a falling out with him regarding what Nietzsche understood as Wagner’s claim to have hit upon the “rules governing creative genius.” Ever, the strong-willed adolescent, Nietzsche persisted in his attachment to his own transcendent Self-a Self-destined to remain incomplete! Recall the lines “In the end all our great teachers and predecessors have come to a standstill…the same thing will happen to you and me…Other birds will fly farther…” The revolt from the constraints imposed by the society that would have us believe and live as it demands is an open-ended undertaking. But no matter, for such is the nature of heroic effort. The effort itself is all that really matters. Here we come upon the belief that in breaking free of externally imposed constraints, heroes make way for others of their kind to carry on and on and on…forever seeking a transcendent Self. It is this deity, this creature which is the issue of our own creative will, that gives life to our spirits, drawing them on and on and on! “Other birds will fly farther!”

Sigmund Freud wrote a little essay, Civilizations and Its Discontents, which can justifyably be read as a retrospective psychoanalytic reading of Nietzsche’s project. Soren Kierkegaard anticipated that essay (one might say!) with his The Sickness Unto Death, an effort to put to writing his own experience as a believer, a knight of faith whose daily life amounts to little more than a persistent struggle to make sense to himself in a world in which Reason holds court on every street corner, in every café…even in coffee shops where time is consumed by stating and testing arguments designed to prove the Life of the Spirit is mere dross.

Still, the struggle continues. The bridling effects of Society persist. The Human Spirit championed by Nietzsche resists. The world has become a place were heroes continue to press on, transcending the Present, The Way Things Are, in their quest to stand in for the god now dead. Thus, Nietzsche’s proclamation, “Other birds will fly farther,” issues from his deeply held and controlling belief that the god of his society is dead. A new, a human god now is free to try its wings, transcending the constrictions, the deadening bridle that restricts the full-blown birth of the Human spirit! Think here of “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor Iron bars a cage: Minds innocent and quiet take that for an hermitage. If I have freedom love And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty!” from Richard Lovelace’s To Althea, from Prison, 1642…” Stone walls” give way to Nietzsche’s “the morality of the Herd,” Society’s demand that all humans conform!

The Principle of Credence & the Faith-Reason Tension

It is a common, often reoccurring experience in our world to come upon a new version of Nietzsche’ “God is dead” pronouncement. Quite often this “news” is accompanied by an affirmation of a rebirth of Humanism, a kind of spiritual enthusiasm energized by a declaration of faith in the expanding power of Science. In brief, this attitude turns on having confidence in the power of this giant to take us from merely believing to really knowing. Faith must now give way to Reason. Many who subscribe to this line of thought turn to Science in an attitude of Faith and, much like the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, believe that Science and its methods have the virtue of eliminating the Leap of Faith which invariably attends all attempts to justify holding beliefs as a matter of faith. Faith and Reason as the bases appealed to when justifying the holding of specific beliefs are themselves instances of what is traditionally known as conflicting expressions of the Principle of Credence which is itself a kind of moral principle whereby one is obliged to justify beliefs, religious or secular.

In recent times is has become rather common for those who think of themselves as atheists to also associate with some contemporary version of Humanism, the doctrine which affirms the inherent worth of each human being. What is peculiar to this view is its justification…it is self-justifying. In this setting the Principle of Credence functions very much like an affirmation to believe, for example, in the existence of a providential divine being. This belief, held as a matter of faith, is not, strictly speaking, self-justifying. It is itself a matter of mystery usually borne out of a spiritual experience-think here of Paul, the apostle’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

To conclude: it is not unusual to read or listen to proclamations or pronouncements intended to declare the superiority of beliefs based on appeals to scientific research…think here of the words, “According to a recent scientific study….!” A soft version of this proclamation might simply announce, “Brand Z is the most frequently pharmacist-recommended remedy for falling hair!” Belief in the efficacy of Brand Z is greatly enhanced by virtue of the fact that pharmacists are educated in the science of health enhancing concoctions. Think of this view as an example of the appeal of scientism, the naïve belief that Science is the ultimate authority regarding how we go about justifying our beliefs.