Ruin has taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
~ Sonnet 64
We are tempted to cut ourselves off from the profound depths of experience that Shakespeare is expressing at the end of this sonnet. “But the essence of being human is that, in the brief moment we exist on this spinning planet, we can love some persons and some things, in spite of the fact that time and death will ultimately claim us all,“ May wrote. To my mind, it requires more than courage; it requires defiance, an insurgent spirit.
Paul Tillich spoke of this eternal insurgency in his concept of God beyond God, which can be seen as a rebellion against an outmoded and inadequate form of God. Tillich held that theology must begin with an existential analysis of the human being. One method of analysis is to look on the political, scientific, and artistic life of our culture as a reflection of our existential situation. Also, our culture acts as a mirror of our ultimate concerns, be they worthy or idolatrous. We may insist, for instance, that “family values” are an ultimate concern but if our society does nothing to support those values, we can count on the culture to reveal what our ultimate concerns really are. Tillich’s analysis of our existential nature within our situation led him to understand why the biblical symbolism of a personal God is our only adequate means of relating to theology. He believed that the Christian message was the truth that fit the nature of humanity, but that it had to be reinterpreted for every generation. While the message remains eternally true, it must be translated to make sense for each cultural situation, and to answer the questions that are posed by each situation. The means of accomplishing this was what Tillich described as “the method of correlation [which] explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence.”
In the first volume of Systematic Theology, Tillich presented his doctrine of God as correlated with the structures of human being—a being always in tension and anxiety, threatened by nonbeing but finding the God at the very depth of being and experience, God is Being Itself: The Ground of Being. According to Tillich, we humans are guilt-ridden, painfully conscious of our finitude, and threatened with meaninglessness. We are estranged from our essential selves and suffer from the anxiety that comes from the dreadful awareness of the possibility of our nonbeing. Nevertheless, he urges us to find our meaning in the face of meaninglessness and to find certainty within our doubt. For this, we need “the courage to be.” Because we can no longer find the sources of this courage in the finite God of traditional theism, our courage can only come from the “God above God,” or the power of being itself.
But how does this impersonal God provide us with the salvation, the rescue that we so urgently need? Where is the immanent God? According to Tillich, the God above God, the power of being, has appeared in the New Being of Christ, and “the courage to be is rooted in this God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
Tillich looked at religion not from the standpoint of the object (God) but as it appeared in the subject (the person), a perspective shared by William James. It should be noted that his book, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, which is the transcript of lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902, is subtitled “A Study of Human Nature.” What mattered to James was not the development or defense of any particular theology, but how religion served humanity. His conclusions were based on his observations of the religious beliefs in the world around him, his vast eclectic studies, insights from his work as a psychologist, and most importantly from those philological concepts that were compatible with his notion of pragmatism.
In his twentieth and final lecture, he described a religious belief as holding:
“That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit “God” or “law”—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.” The positive psychological results of religion include “ a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism…An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” Each of us has our own work to do and he maintained that each person must find his own religious path. Furthermore, the fact that there are so many religious types and creeds is a vital necessity: “The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities…Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell it out completely. So a “god of battles” must be allowed to be the god of one type of person, a god of peace and heaven and home, the god for another. We must frankly recognize the fact that we live in partial systems.”
James was correlating our need for centeredness with our way of apprehending the Divine. Tillich’s method of correlation linked our culture to our worldview, and then to our cosmic view. In this way, Tillich’s theology is the answer to our question, while James appears to be saying our question determines the answer.
“Does God exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a richer, more satisfying life is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.” Thus far, James is claiming no more than that a religious belief is useful. He admits that there must be an indefinable something—“the More” as he called it—that produces real effects in the world. “But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal.” This is very close to his statements about truth, that something is true if you believe it so based on your own observations. So “God is real since he produces real effects.” This is still utilitarian. It is not until we get to page 568, in the postscript to Varieties, that James makes the least ambiguous statements about his belief. I am quoting it in the entirety because there is no other way to capture the obvious struggle it reveals, or his ambivalence in revealing it:
I state the matter thus bluntly, because the current thought in academic circles runs against me, and I feel like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not wish to see it closed and locked…If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God’s existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of “prayerful communion,” especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our center of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways. If, then, there be a wider world of being than that of our every-day consciousness, if in it there be forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating condition of the effects be the openness of the “subliminal” door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experiences belong.
James described his position as both radical empiricism and pragmatism, which are not identical. Empiricism bases knowledge on experience, but in James’s view it is experience that is seen realistically. His studies in psychology led him to insist that we look at all experiences– not just selective experiences. This can be seen in his empirical method of tackling religious experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience. In the chapter on the stream of thought in his Principles of Psychology he noted how thought is personal (mine), is ever-changing, is continuous, deals with things other than itself, and is selective. (In describing the non-static nature of experience, James coined the term “stream of consciousness.”) In this sense then, his radical empiricism can be described as phenomenological in character. He went on to add his theory of pragmatism to that of radical empiricism.
For James, pragmatism was not just a theory of meaning, even though in Pragmatism he presents it in that way to show that many metaphysical disputes are vacuous. His more important point was that pragmatism is a theory if truth: the truth of an idea us the very process if its verification. “Truth happens to an idea, “James tells us. Ideas are incipient projects. For example, if I am lost, finding a path back to the main road is a project that involves 1.) Finding my way back and 2.) My belief that such-and-such a path will get me there. If the path leads me to the main road, then my belief in that path was validated. The path wasn’t inherently true—it was my process of verification that made it true. If I had chosen (believed) in the wrong path, would the path I had not taken remain true? No. Truth is a concept, an idea and not a thing. An idea is a thought that arises out of a process. As I understand it, our minds are like manufacturers for the processing of ideas— a sort of factory that takes raw personal experiences, mixes them with all kinds of emotions and wants and needs, and processes these into ideas. Since a path is a thing and not a concept, it cannot be truth in and of itself. Only we can imbue it with truth in our process of trying it.
To further explain his ideas, James wrote,
In some of my lectures at Harvard I have spoken if what I call the ‘faith ladder’… I think you will quickly recognize it in yourselves as I discuss it, the mental process to which I give the name.
A conception of the world arises in you somehow, no matter how. Is it true or not? You ask.
It might be true somewhere, you say, for it is not self-contradictory.
It may be true, somewhere, you continue, even here and now.
It is fit to be true, it would be well if it were true, it ought to be true, you presently feel.
It must be true, something persuasive whispers in you next; and then– as a final result—
It shall be held for true, you decide; it shall be as if true, for you.
And your acting thus may in certain special cases be a means of making it securely true in the end.
Not one step in this process is logical, yet it is the way in which monists and pluralists alike espouse and hold fast to their visions. It is life exceeding logic, it is the practical reason for which the theoretic reason finds arguments after the conclusion is once there.
James wrote that we all want to believe in a caring universe, a universe that contains Truth. He felt that morality was meaningless without this. We can never prove this empirically, of course, nor can we be convinced of it by logic. The universe as we want it to be can only exist for us if we have faith, only if we passionately desire—only if we will it so. This seems at first such a radical notion! Is he saying that because we intensely want something to be true (perhaps need it to be true) we can make it true by willing ourselves faith? Yes, he is, but his statement only applies to ideas that cannot be proven. He is basically saying that in the absence of data, what we choose to believe is our truth. And I think we know he is right. We know that beyond facts, there is no objective truth, no Platonic Forms. But it troubles us, as if we were now on unstable ground somehow. Yet faith requires the will(power) to believe in the face of all reason. In the end, we must surrender to our yearning, and we must trust our “instincts of the heart.”
In The Will to Believe, James’ optimistic existentialism is evident. Therein he argues that when we are faced with a genuine option, we have the right to believe one thing rather than the other. Maybe we choose that belief because it is more satisfying to our moral nature, for instance. On a pragmatic level, he believed that free will was more fruitful than determinism in encouraging us and in improving our lives. He understood, and shared, the urgent need we have for answers to our ultimate questions. We cannot wait for idle scientific experimentation; we need to feel at home in the universe now. “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas in which we can rest,” he wrote in Pragmatism. Our daily life is full of choices we cannot dodge. We must choose, whether we will it or not. And where all is doubt, who can deny our right to believe what we need to believe? I do not think James would have characterized his theories of Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism as existential (nor have I found any evidence that he ever read Kierkegaard), but there are clearly existential themes in these concepts. William James’ examination of religious belief suggested to him that the believer “is continuous, to his consciousness at any rate, with a wider self from which saving experiences flow in.” To reconcile that ever-present paradox of evil, James contended that it is likely that the God or the wider self is finite in power or knowledge or both. To many of us this may seem disheartening, in the same vaguely uneasy way we responded to assertions that there is no absolute Truth. It is exactly this uneasy tugging that Rollo May urges us not to ignore.
May doesn’t write specifically about religion or God, but his existential psychotherapy is concerned with the same core issues. There is a vein of opinion among some concerned thinkers that psychotherapy has become a religion in itself. Those who hold this point put that religion and psychology both: have a tangential relationship to philosophy, use deep metaphor, influence our ways of seeing ourselves and others, attract devotees, and provide concepts and techniques for the ordering of the interior life. Because of the seminal role of depth psychology in determining our modern Western culture and orientation, it was incorporated into Tillich’s systematic theology, which stressed the importance of praxis and the method of correlation. In a practical sense, it doesn’t matter that the discipline of psychology would never identify itself as a religion. People turn to psychologists as they do to clergy when they ask, “What should I do? How can I be better?” And when they seek meaning. In a wonderful anecdote, Andre’ Malraux once asked a parish priest if he had any insights after fifty years of taking confession. The old priest told Malraux that he had learned that people are much more unhappy than one thinks, and that there is no such thing as a grown-up person. Our existential situation is part of the human condition, not necessarily as sign of pathology.
Why then do we need a theory of psychotherapy that rests on a universal human experience? Further, since our situation is universal, what can we do about it anyway? One answer is that each of us experiences the stress of our human condition in highly individual way. A more relevant answer is that existential psychotherapy holds that the drives or dynamics or behaviors or emotions—by whichever words are used—must be understood only in the context of the existence of the particular being sitting in front of the psychotherapist. An illustration of this unique emphasis can be seen in the way an existential psychotherapist treats the meaning of death. Instead of giving weight to the theory of “death instinct,” May explains that an existential psychotherapist sees that:
The critical question thus is how he relates to the fact of death: whether he spends his existence running away from death or making a cult of repressing the recognition of death under the rationalizations of beliefs in automatic progress…The existential analysts, on the other hand, hold that the confronting of death gives the most positive reality to life itself…Nor do we need to go as far as the extreme example if death to discover the problem of non-being. Perhaps the most ubiquitous and ever-present form of the failure to confront non-being in our day is conformism, the tendency of the individual to let himself be absorbed in the sea if collective responses and attitudes, with the corresponding loss of his own awareness, potentialities, and whatever characterizes him as unique and original being. The individual temporarily escapes the anxiety if nonbeing by this means, but at the price of forfeiting his own powers and sense of existence.
Our ability to deal with nonbeing results in our capacity to tolerate normal anxiety, hostility and aggression without repressing them, and to use them constructively. May believed that it is clear that the neurotic forms of anxiety and aggression develop precisely because we are unable to deal with the normal forms of those states. There are myriad ways in which existential psychotherapy can help us live our lives more fully. While existential psychotherapists give importance to the role of our personal histories, they eschew the tendency to avoid the immediate, anxiety-creating issues in the present. Insight occurs in that moment when we grasp the meaning of something in the here-and-now. This is expressed as the moment of most heightened awareness, the “Aha” moment is psychological literature. Paul Tillich describes it as the moment when “eternity touches time.” It is known in religious literature as an epiphany.
I find the question, “Why are we here?” typically human.
I’d suggest “Are we here” would be the more logical choice.
~~ Mr. Spock on Star Trek
I began this essay with the big questions, seeking answers to be found for those dark nights of the soul. In all the works of James and Tillich and May, and in each and every religious tradition I have studied, the single most transforming message boils down to this: Face the pain. We may think we can evade our existential anxiety and avoid feeling the pain, but we wind up merely exchanging essential pain for voluntary suffering. The essential pains of our lives are our normal– but most soul-shattering—anxieties and doubts. They are also the ways in which we have been most profoundly hurt and need repair, but we pawn them for the cheap fixes of addictions and diversions. In effect, we volunteer to involve ourselves in all manner of troubles in the attempt to avoid the inescapable facts of existence, or to avoid our deepest pain, never able to heal their source.
Our visceral longer for a benevolent God can lead us into a narcosis of denial, prevent us from facing our existential truths. The paradigm illustration of this is The Book of Job. After God allows Satan to put Job’s faith to the test by stripping him of all his possessions, killing his wife and children, and tormenting his body with boils, Job refuses to curse God. Instead, he curses the day he was born and wonders, “Why let men go on living in misery? Why give light to men in grief? Instead of eating I mourn and never stop groaning.” His friends come to “console” Job by insisting that there must be area son for his suffering. In a just universe, Job must have done something sinful, albeit unknowingly, to have evoked such catastrophe. So profound is our “will to believe” in cosmic goodness that we will deny our own goodness. We will blame ourselves to protect our yearning for a benevolent cosmos. This is not only destructive to us individually, but also dangerous for humanity. For then if, as Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss avows, “it is impossible that things should not be where they are; all is well,” there can be no need in such a theodicy to rail against injustice or to fight evil. We will remain in the entropy of apathy. Since I can neither deny God or the facts of suffering, where should I turn? Maybe I should question the Oracle at Delphi, on whose temple wall was engraved, “Know Thyself.” Turn inward, to the internal Oracle for answers.
There is a Midrash –an illustrative rabbinic gloss—on the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. We are told that 6000,000 Hebrews stood at the foot of the mountain, cowering and trembling in love and fear: in awe. Amid the turbulence of huge black clouds and lightening, they were overwhelmed and nearly out of their minds. They could not listen to the message in their terror. And so, God speaks to each person individually, in the particular voice that only he or she could hear. To one person it was the crooning voice of his mother, to another it had the delighted voice of her grandfather; the particular voice that only they could comprehend. To me, this is the metaphor that explains the variety of religions and philosophies, the multiple truths, and the abundance of ways human beings discover meaning. We each need our answers to be in the voice that speaks just to us. In this regard, I agree with James’ theory of truth and with Tillich’s method of correlation. It is not relativism; it is relevance.
But having gotten through those dark nights we still need to know how to live in the daytime. We cannot stay, nor should we, in this place of full knowledge. Life cannot be lived in a crisis, so we must face it, then put it aside. The discovery of meaning is lifelong work; not a decision one makes, but the work one does. The process of transformation is complex, I think, and involves deeply felt difficulties. Courage and will, faith and love do not bring a sense of completion but stimulate a further reaching out. The quest never ends because the goals change. And the ultimate goal is wholeness, not perfection. I believe that the ultimate reward is the strength to go one.
The complete series can be viewed here: