The Spiritual Life and Its Enemies

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, of Catholic University of America, is a giant of contemporary Catholic philosophy.  He should be better known outside academia because his writing is brilliant and accessible to any interested college freshman.  In books such as The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology, Christian Faith and Human Understanding, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, and Phenomenology of the Human Person, Sokolowski shows us how to think like a Christian, which is no small accomplishment in a world that would prefer we thought otherwise.

Sokolowski’s approach to philosophizing—phenomenology—stands against most contemporary thought that has been corrupted by philosophical materialism, scientific reductionism, and atheism.  Such thinking, when focused on man, begins and ends with the view that human beings, despite appearances to the contrary, are in the end “nothing but” spiritless matter knocked about in a pointless and equally spiritless universe.  Sokolowski’s phenomenology refuses to dismiss these “appearances to the contrary,” but instead takes appearances seriously and respects their integrity.  Against the ingrained skepticism of Modern thinking, phenomenologists take it that things appear to us as they do for a reason.  Appearances are thus not to be seen as a mask or a façade.  The reason things appear to us as they do is because of the kind of things they are.  And so if it appears to be the case that we can do spiritual things this is because we are spiritual beings.

Sokolowski points out how what we do reveals that we are more than matter in a delightful chapter entitled “Soul and the Transcendence of the Human Person” in Christian Faith and Human Understanding.  He does this by making clear how we “… go beyond the restrictions of space and time and the kinds of causality that is proper to material things.  We do things that cannot be explained materially.”

Now it turns out that these spiritual things we do are shockingly mundane involving nothing particularly mysterious or “ghostly.”  Instead, spiritual activity is simply “…present whenever we do things that escape the confinements of space, time, and matter.”  One example would be what happens in an elementary school math class.  In such a class the teacher and students when engaged in a lesson all share in the knowledge that 2 + 2 =4 and they can do this at the same instant and in each appropriating this knowledge nothing is lost from it; it remains fully that 2 + 2 =4 no matter how many billions of people know it.  This is not something we can do with, for example, a physical thing like a glass of water or a hamburger.  We could not all drink the same glass of water, the same molecules, at the same time.  Nor can any of us occupy the same place in space at the same time.  Nor can any of us go back to our childhood reversing time.  But we can do all of these things and much more in our minds.  We can imagine them, and in doing so we are moved and changed in large and small ways.

One of the ways our spiritual nature is made manifest is in our relations with others, relations that involve matter but clearly are not reducible to it.  Consider the difference between accident and injury:

This spiritual responsibility of persons vividly shows up for us in their benevolence and malevolence, in the good or bad things they do to us.  If an animal attacks us, we consider ourselves unfortunate, but we do not bear resentment toward the animal; we do not think we have been treated unjustly or malevolently.  But if a human being deliberately injures us, we do bear resentment because we see that the agent acted through knowledge and choice.  He understood us as someone to be harmed, and it was through that understanding that the injury was done.  It was a spiritual not just a natural affliction of harm.  Human benevolence and generosity, as well as human friendship, are also expressions of spiritual rationality.

This is just right.  Imagine a father mistreating his son.  The injury, whether inflicted with fists or words, transcends bruises and sound, it is accomplished only because a father fails to understand his son as someone to be loved, or at least respected.  The son is hurt and feels resentment because it might have been otherwise; Dad might have understood me instead as someone to be loved, but he didn’t.  He chose not to love me.  He chose instead to hurt me.  To deny the spiritual nature of the mistreatment is itself a mistreatment of the nature of what happens when a father mistreats his son.  Injury to the body, when it occurs, will heal sooner and easier than injury to the spirit.  Indeed, if the spirit is denied the injury stops at the physical.  But this is not what happens when a father mistreats his son.  The scars of physical injury point to something else that has been injured, but if we are not also spiritual beings there is nothing to which they can point. They are instead mute and meaningless.  That such scars do point beyond themselves to something more, something deeper, mocks any attempt to deny that to which they point.

Sokolowski helps us appreciate the extent to which those who deny that we have spiritual lives are caught in a self-refuting contradiction, and so have taken up the sword against nothing other than commonsense.  It is more than a little ironic, he slyly points out, that the efforts by some to deny our spiritual nature is actually evidence of our spiritual nature.

It is a curious thing that human beings spend so much time and energy denying their own spiritual and rational nature.  No other being tries with such effort to deny that it is what it is.  No dog or horse would ever try to show that it is not a dog or horse but only a mixture of matter, force, and accident.  Man’s attempt to deny his own spirituality is itself a spiritual act, one that transcends space, time, and the limitations of matter.  The motivations behind this self-denial are mystifying indeed.

I think the Monsignor is being just a little disingenuous here.  I am pretty sure the motivations behind this self-denial are not nearly as mystifying to him as he pretends.  He has heard Confession.  He has studied the Gospels.  He has a copy of the Catechism.  He knows that denying common sense is inevitably rooted in sin.  We first decide how we want to live and then organize and arrange our philosophy accordingly.  Adopting the self-refuting philosophy of materialism is simply the price one must pay when choosing ourselves over God.

image: Andreas Zerndl /

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Clifford Staples is a Sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio

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