When he’s not lecturing around the world, giving interviews, producing documentaries, appearing on his EWTN show, developing curricula, chairing boards, and deepening his own spiritual life as a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Spitzer can be found writing his latest book out of his Magis Center office on the Christ Cathedral campus in the Diocese of Orange.
The former president of Gonzaga University (1998-2009), Father Spitzer launched the Magis Center with the stated mission “to restore, reconstruct, and revitalize belief in God, the transcendent dignity of every human person, the significance of virtue, the higher levels of happiness, love, and freedom, and the real presence of Jesus Christ.” Father Spitzer has breathed new life into Catholic apologetics, utilizing his grasp of science, philosophy, and the Catholic intellectual tradition to lift the veil imposed on modern society by secularism and the dictatorship of relativism.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Father Spitzer about his work at the Magis Center, as well as about his Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence quartet of books, two of which (Finding True Happiness and The Soul’s Upward Yearning) have been published by Ignatius Press and one of which (God So Loved the World) is now available for pre-order.
The second part of the interview can be read here.
CWR: In less than one year we’ve seen an entire series emerge from you, the Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence series—a quartet of volumes on mankind’s relationship with the divine. Is the sense of urgency intentional?
Father Robert Spitzer, SJ: I think it is very intentional. It comes from my own intuitions teaching college students, originally. Then, when I saw the Pew survey and other surveys that tended to verify it, I became extremely concerned. The Pew Research surveys, both 2012 and 2015 surveys plus the 2010 survey of millennials, are all pointing to one thing: that millennials are becoming unbelievers—a category the Pew Forum calls “nones”—at about a rate of 1 additional percent per year. So that’s a rate of acceleration. About 11 years ago, we were at about a rate of 25 percent among millennials; today we’re at about 36 percent. If this keeps up, we’ll be at 50 percent or more unbelievers in just 15 years. And there’s no reason to suggest that it won’t keep up. So yes, the sense of urgency is there. If we don’t turn it around and soon, it’s going to really become an epidemic.
The other thing that’s really clear is that this has a lot to do with what’s going on in education—or should I say “mis-education”—starting not just in high school and in college, but also in seventh or eighth grade, where the kids are already online, looking at the Science Channel, getting a certain view of reality. Now, much of the Science Channel is great and I love it, but much of it has that hint of the pure Darwinian viewpoint, the materialistic viewpoint, a viewpoint that’s exceeding agnostic, a viewpoint that’s undermining the faith even in times of suffering. These are the kinds of things that need to be redressed in a hurry. Frankly, morality—as Pope Benedict pointed out many times—has become relativistic among young people. They are so convinced it’s all a mere matter of opinion…. But there are signs of hope, things we can use that God has given us. I think we have an interesting opportunity but, unfortunately, in the midst of an almost pandemic crisis.
CWR: Are there specific things that you see as blocking millennials from experiencing the divine in their lives?
Father Spitzer: I think it’s four basic factors that are coming into play. They are searching for authentic happiness. I think they would go up to transcendent happiness if they weren’t blocked, but here are the blocks that I see.
The number-one block, and the one that is definitely part of the whole propaganda scheme of many of the secular materialist people in our culture, is faith and science. The basic syllogism is this: faith and science are contradictory, science is truth, therefore faith must be false, a fantasy. This is, of course, not true, but it’s been propagated by the media and certain very vocal champions of science. I would say that 20-25 percent of our young people believe that cultural myth.
The second thing that is going on is the old “crutch argument” that was put together by Freud and Feuerbach a long time ago, but which has now reached the level of a huge cultural myth: that religion is reducible solely to human individual thinking. “We have suffering to contend with, feelings of darkness, we are restless and not at peace. So what do we do? We invent God. And we make God a very, very nice and benevolent God who protects us from suffering, darkness, emptiness, and death.” This is completely unfounded. No one ever invented a God who was nice—this came from Jesus! In the history of religions, gods are really capricious and mean, but starting with Israel and Christianity we begin to see who God is. But the problem with young people is that they get chided into it: “Oh dear, I see you are believing in a crutch. Little Johnny here has naively turned to religion, I’m so sorry to hear that…” Any kind of chiding which makes our kids look unintelligent and uncourageous is exceedingly difficult for them to deal with if they don’t have really good rational arguments and defenses. C.S. Lewis saw this in the 1940s, but it has made its resurgence today with social media and people like Richard Dawkins, a media darling, and now the kids are really up against it. I’m working with a high schooler now who literally gives me 15 questions a day; he is getting chided so much. Other kids are just throwing that Nietzschean-Freudian accusation against them and they’re falling prey to it at a fairly significant rate.
There’s a third problem with the more affectively-oriented kids, the heart kids: the seeming irreconcilability of suffering with God. They’ve been taught that God is a loving God, but when they come into their critical consciousness, they see the earthquakes, diseases, friends suffering, their suffering—the failure to address this question head-on is a really vexing thing for these kids. They believe that love and suffering are opposites. And Christianity has this incredible history of the reconciliation between love and suffering. Martin D’Arcy, C.S. Lewis have written wonderful works, but we need a contemporary re-interpretation of this and we need to get it out there as quickly as possible so they can see that love and suffering are not incompatible, that many times suffering leads us to love; suffering frees us from our narcissism, as Paul tells us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. But the kids don’t have the ammo.
I’m not blaming the Church. I’ll just simply say we haven’t done any apologetics in a concerted fashion since Vatican II. I don’t know why. I’m still trying to figure this out myself—why did apologetics became a bad word, why did it become a reflection of some kind of inauthenticity of faith? We’ve somehow drifted into a Kierkegaardianism—we have to take a leap of faith across an infinite chasm. But I’ve never thought that at all! I luckily had great teachers who believed reason and faith came from the same source, with God never intending us to jump over an infinite chasm. We build a bridge over 99 percent of the chasm and then we jump, with the bridge constructed out of all the clues He has left us in nature, in the universe, in proofs of God, in miracles, in Jesus’s own life, and everything from the Shroud of Turin to near-death experiences. But you have to make the information known. And what has happened is we have now built up this incredible and wonderful curriculum from the bishops for high schools…with almost no apologetics built into it at all. They’re not addressing the faith and science question, they’re not addressing the question of the crutch argument, they’re not addressing the question of the reality of Jesus, they’re not addressing the question of suffering on any level that’s significant enough for students to be reinforced in their faith. If apologetics has to precede catechesis in order to engage kids both analytically and affectively, and if we are doing a great job on the second level but not on the first level, then we are building statues with clay feet.
The fourth problem is what I call “the Jesus doubt.” Even though there have been the likes of John P. Meier, Raymond Brown, and N.T. Wright, our kids don’t know they have crushed the Jesus de-mythologizers. So the History Channel (which does play good things) goes out and interviews these de-mythologizers…and these kids are uncritical: they don’t know the difference between a good or bad scholar. The kids hear this stuff—they hear Jesus was just a political guy or didn’t really rise from the dead.
But we have one other problem. It’s what I call perennial distraction by new media, by the Internet. These kids, even though they’re intrigued—“There’s a game to play, a website I got to go to.” Continual distraction. We are entertaining ourselves to death and I’m not sure if there’s the depth to ask the questions with all the multitasking. So when you combine the four problems, plus the continual distraction, they are in a tough situation.
We need some radical surgery, we don’t need Band-Aids. We’ve got to change our viewpoint.
CWR: It seems apologetics now is more about defending the Church’s positions on social issues than about clarifying her theological tenets.
Father Spitzer: Or defending the existence of God, the existence of a transcendent soul. We’ve taken the easier path. By the way, I am a big advocate of the Church’s social teaching, and I certainly think it’s absolutely important that it be taught well, and it’s certainly a big part of the Church’s contribution to world culture. However, if you don’t have faith, what is the Church’s social teaching? It’s just a bunch of moral aphorisms and it’s subject to exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche said: this is your view, I’ve got my view. There’s nothing to your God because you haven’t defended your God, you’ve defended social justice teaching.
But apart from God, what’s to say Nietzsche’s not right? We have to get back to fundamentals. The social teaching of the Church alone is not going to do it. It leaves us wide open not only to Nietzsche, but the critiques of Darwin, the critiques of Freud, and all the other critiques that are compounding their critiques in the 21st century. If all we can offer up is just a secular social teaching, and our people have no idea whether God exists, or if this is what his will is, or if this is what he’s asking us, or whether there’s objective morality or real spiritual evil or good—if we can’t defend those positions, then as Chesterton would say, you can forget it. All the other positions will fall like dominoes. Because, of course, feet of clay. We’ve built a statue with feet of clay.
CWR: Benedict XVI, in his 2008 address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America, suggested that we’ve lost “the will.” Is that what you’re seeing? A basking in mediocrity?
Father Spitzer: He’s right. We have lost the will to defend our faith and defend it intellectually and intelligently. And the reason we have lost it is because we’re not confident ourselves. But why? Because we haven’t studied it. There are some high school teachers who know this. There are some high school teachers who if they were to know it would have to pass it on—and they don’t want to commit themselves to the intellectual enterprise! They don’t want to do it. They don’t have the will.
Something more is needed if we are going to get out of mediocrity, and that’s a solid and intellectual defense of the faith, and it has to be done by religion teachers in high schools, confirmation teachers, adult education curricula in parishes, campus ministries in colleges—we have to have champions who will stand up for the faith and give evidence.
Yes, not everybody is analytically oriented or has the desire to defend the faith intellectually on a public stage. However, that’s a very different thing than trying to present people with the evidence in the classroom. That’s doable if we but learn it. And that’s the Magis mission: we have to get out and teach high school teachers and have classes teaching the teachers; reorient the way religion is being taught. Catechesis is not enough. You can’t leave these kids defenseless. Sometimes we get too satisfied—“We’ve got a great Catechism of the Catholic Church!” It’s not enough. “We’ve got a great catechetical structure for our high school kids.” It’s not enough.
You remember the old logical adage, the first rule of all logic: there are far more errors of omission than commission. And right now, we have a real error of commission. We have a giant scotoma (a self-blinding, a screen, past which obvious data cannot get) and that’s what’s going on right now, and it’s wide and shared by just about everyone in Catholic education. There’s a bias against apologetics at the very moment we need it. Perhaps it is a devilish plot to make everyone really, really self-satisfied with a bunch of nice things…but it will not satisfy intellectual requirements and needs.
CWR: So Cardinal Ratzinger was on to something with “the dictatorship of relativism”?
Father Spitzer: [Laughs] Absolutely! As I said, there are signs of hope. Somehow kids are beginning to think, “Maybe there’s some sense of authority that goes simply beyond the instruction of my parents; I feel like there’s an imperative here.” And then, of course, the whole idea that there’s no such thing as an objective moral principle—how did Darwin get away with it? How did Freud get away with it? How did Hume get away with it? How did it become pandemic on not only the collegiate level, but in secondary education? Because they deconstructed God and Jesus. That’s how they did it. If you deconstruct God, evil spirits disappear, and if you deconstruct Jesus, who claimed to win a complete victory over evil, it’s so much easier to kill objective moral principle as a medieval vestige. If divine goodness is gone, what’s the ground for good at all? It was brilliantly done.
But there’s opportunity to reconstruct God, reconstruct the afterlife on good evidence. The main thing, though, is that we have to get the information to the kids and that is a challenge. There’s the old sales expression: unless a person sees that you have a solution to the problem he has, he’s not going to buy anything from you. Now I don’t want to sell anything to anybody—I want to give it away.
But we are living in a little bubble and the bubble is going to burst when our kids have nothing left. “No transcendence? Oh but we gave them the best computer equipment and the best this and the best that”…but no sense of ultimate dignity and meaning and transcendence is left. So the parents have to recognize the problem, Church authorities have to recognize the problem. Yes, we have scandals we need to take care of, yes, we have tremendous needs in the world, but we better take care of those problems of faith, because if we get lazy, if we content ourselves with the mediocre, if teachers don’t want to help the kids get over the hump, I just shudder to think what will be left of Christian culture. God is always in charge, but I hope we have a lot of young people with fire in their bellies wanting to do something more than lie around and wait for the inevitable to happen.
CWR: Can one find God without “religion”?
Father Spitzer: If you go to people like Rudolf Otto, who wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy, where he describes the numinous experience, the answer is “no.” If you go to someone like Mircea Eliade who shows why the vast majority of the world is naturally religious, the answer is “no.” But you don’t have to turn to people like Rudolf Otto or Mircea Eliade or John Henry Newman, who had a very keen sense of how intrinsic God is and how transcendence works. You can go back to Plato. It is Plato who, 2,400 years ago, describes in the Phaedo a desire for perfect love, truth, goodness, beauty, and home—and that’s God. God alone can satisfy us. Plato in his later period recognized this is precisely it. We’re only going to be satisfied by the divine, it’s only going to happen if we’re immortal and eternal, so here’s this pagan 400 years before Jesus and he’s already saying this.
But if you really want to get fancy, how about atheistic existentialism? Now, they’re not going to admit that there is a God, but do they all admit that we have a yearning for the divine, a yearning for ultimate meaning, a yearning for ultimate authenticity, that we feel these deep feelings of cosmic emptiness and loneliness and alienation and guilt? Yes, they totally admit it: Sartre does, Camus does, Kafka does! But instead of taking the Kierkegaardian move—which is the leap to faith—Camus and Sartre just say, “Unfortunately, there is no God, these feelings are going to be unfulfilled, and life is completely absurd and meaningless, so the only thing you can reasonably do is despair!” So can we be whole without God? The answer is: of course you can’t be whole without God.
Karl Rahner wrote a book called Foundations of Christian Faith and in it, that’s basically the entire case he’s making—we are born into the world with a yearning for God and with God present to us, which is making our transcendental yearnings possible, the numinous experience possible, our intuition for the sacred possible, the voice of God and conscience possible. And so the theistic existentialists—Søren Kierkegaard who was a Protestant, Karl Jaspers who was a Protestant, Max Scheler and Gabriel Marcel who were Catholics, the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber—all are saying one thing: we can’t possibly be whole, fulfilled, have meaning, or be ultimately at home without God. God exists, and if you just have faith and start praying you’re going to find out he exists. Just say, “Lord Jesus, I put my trust in you,” and keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you’re going to find in that transcendent mode of being some glimpses of home—“stabs of joy” as C.S. Lewis said—through which you’re not only moving home, but you’re able to do tremendous good for yourself, your family, and others in the culture around you. And at the end of the day, that makes all the difference.