Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age | March 1

OLeary Book Cover



March 1   4:30pm
Swift Hall, Room 106
1025 E 58th St, Chicago

Free and open to the public. Sponsored by our partner the Lumen Christi Institute; cosponsored by the Program in Poetry and Poetics and the Seminary Coop Bookstore. 

How do poets use language to render the transcendent, often dizzyingly inexpressible nature of the divine? In an age of secularism, does spirituality have a place in modern American poetry? In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, Peter O’Leary reads a diverse set of writers to argue for the existence and importance of religious poetry in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature. He traces a poetic genealogy that begins with Whitman and Dickinson and continues in the work of contemporary writers to illuminate an often obscured but still central spiritual impulse that has shaped the production and imagination of American poetry.

O’Leary presents close and comprehensive readings of the modernist, late-modernist, and postmodern poets Robinson Jeffers, Frank Samperi, and Robert Duncan, as well as the contemporary poets Joseph Donahue, Geoffrey Hill, Fanny Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Pam Rehm, and Lissa Wolsak. Examining how these poets drew on a variety of traditions, including Catholicism, Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, and mysticism, the book considers how modern and contemporary poets have articulated the spiritual in their work. O’Leary also argues that an anxiety of misunderstanding exists in the study and writing of poetry between secular and religious impulses and that the religious nature of poets’ works is too often marginalized or misunderstood. Examining the works of a specific poet in each chapter, O’Leary reveals their complexity and offers a defense of the value and meaning of religious poetry against the grain of a secular society.


Peter O’Leary is the author of several books of poetry, most recently The Sampo (Cultural Society), a book-length fantasy poem set in the far north, featuring a wizard, a sorceress, a sword, and a mysterious magical object of absorbing perfection, and a new book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age (Columbia University Press). He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and teaches at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.

CFP: Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah, March 2018

Our co-principal investigator Jennifer A. Frey will give the keynote addresses
“Virtue and Happiness” and “Virtues and Meaning in Life” at the Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah (College of Arts & Sciences) 14-17 March 2018.

The main objective of this workshop, the second in a series in the Middle East, is to bring scholars and young academics from the Muslim world and from the USA, trained in philosophy, religion and/or science, to benefit from in-depth lectures and discussions on issues at the interfaces of philosophy, religion, and science from both Islamic and Christian perspectives.

Scholars will give 1-hour lectures or 2-hour workshops to cover major topics, while 15-20 young academics (graduate students, early career professors) will present their selected research papers in 30 minutes each. The goal is for everyone, particularly the young academics, to benefit from multi-disciplinary and inter-religious perspectives and to identify new avenues of research.

The workshop will run over 4 days, March 14 to 17, 2018 not including arrival and departure days.

The submission deadline for papers is: January 21, 2018, possibly extendable to Jan. 31, 2018.

For more information, including paper submission details, visit

James Baldwin among the Philosophers

Image from 2LeafPress.

Curated by University of Chicago Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, & Jewish Studies Anne Knafl, the exhibit “James Baldwin Among the Philosophers” is on display Sept. 25, 2017 – Dec. 31, 2017 in the Regenstein 4th Floor Reading Room and will remain online permanently.


James Baldwin’s work is widely recognized for its religious overtones and influences as well as for its critiques of racism and heterosexual norms. This exhibit displays books and essays by James Baldwin, alongside philosophical works that engage his work.


Said Knafl of the exhibit’s genesis, “I have wanted to mount an exhibit about James Baldwin since the release of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” in 2016. Baldwin’s works are known for their religious imagery but, given his complicated relationship to the church, I was curious about his philosophical influences and influence. I found a number of works that situated Baldwin in American philosophical traditions. In the exhibit, I juxtapose these with early editions of Baldwin’s works from the Library’s collection.”


Baldwin rose to prominence after the publication of his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood. By the 1960s, Baldwin had become the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson for the Civil Right Movement, a title he opposed.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time



Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

“Bringing up the Rear” Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Photo by Charles Payne.
What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

[1] M.G. Mullen (Admiral, US Navy), “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” CJCSI 3405.01, J-7 (1 September 2011).
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Cabrini Pak, PhD, recently earned her doctorate in Religion and Culture at The Catholic University of America and is on a two-year global assignment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. She was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence. This is an excerpt of her dissertation, which studies transcendence in resilient American service members in two major war periods. Her dissertation will be publicly available later this year. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis”: A Dissertation by Cabrini Pak, Ph.D. Director: Dr. William Barbieri, Ph.D. 

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part Two

farewell to summer

This is a two part series. Part One, “Anxiety and Loss”, posted yesterday.

Part Two: Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning


While one formal characteristic of human life—that of desires and ends—prompts the anxiety of loss, we can see now how the other, rationality, renders us vulnerable to the anxiety of meaning. Rationality involves reflection on our ends that in turn can bring about the anxiety of meaning. In reflecting on them we may either approve or disapprove of them. We may, for example, take our ends to be valuable and thus delight in the bliss of pursuing conscious valuable life. But we may also fall into despair in realizing that ends we held valuable and labored to secure are in fact of no value. Thus, one may realize that a project one was committed to (e.g., promoting communism or nation-building), is, in fact, misguided and valueless; such realization can be devastating. However, such realizations do not in themselves constitute the anxiety of meaning. Rather than residing in the realization that one end or another has no value, the anxiety of meaning consists in recognizing that such realization is always a possibility; that just as I realize now that my enormous efforts to become a Sudoku champion were in vain because I see no value in being a Sudoku champion, similarly, it is always possible that I may realize that my other ends are of no value. Even worse, realizing we cannot ground values in reasons, leads us to recognize that value and worth cannot be secured and fortified; that it is always possible to lose sight of that which once seemed of worth to us. For, after all, rational justifications are finite, and if we are asked to provide them in support of the value we see in our ends, they will eventually give out and we are left without rational grounds to hold these ends valuable. Our very capacity to rationally reflect on the value of our ends, then, leads to the realization that our values are never fully grounded and secure.


If the story of Job symbolizes loss, Ecclesiastes epitomizes meaninglessness. When King Solomon lamented “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” he was a man with as much confidence, achievement and possession as one can hope for. Hence, clearly, he laments not the loss of that which he loves and values but rather the absence of worth and value; the waning and depletion of value from the world. In the absence of value, King Solomon asks “(w)hat profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” This question expresses the anxiety over whether what we toil for might be without worth at all, and therefore pointless.


So far we have seen that the anxieties of loss and meaning are bound up with our rational being; they are not mere accidents, but they are also not essential. They are, for lack of a better term, un-essential or un-rational aspects of human life; connected to our rationality through rationality’s negation—and hence internally linked to rationality and its intrinsic shortcomings. [1] With an understanding of the shared un-rational nature of these anxieties, we can now see how they relate deeply to one other: each anxiety both excludes the other and promises redemption from the other. A person agonizingly anxious of loss may envy her stoic friend who sees less value in his ends and consequently suffers less from the prospects of their loss. And vice versa, he who depressively conceives of no meaning in life may wish for his friend’s deep immersion in her values. Each sees hope in the condition of the other; the one wishes to value more, the other to value less, and we can imagine one oscillating between the two poles of anxiety in a wish to find the middle way between them. This is the doctrine of the mean in relation to the form of our practical life.


Accordingly, it appears, the human lot is at best to find the mean between these poles, or at least to oscillate gently between them. We may think about finding the right balance between the two anxieties as a virtue—a mean between two vices. But what assures us that we will not lose our grip of the mean and slip back to one of the extremes? Even in maintaining balance, we are vulnerable to the anxiety that nothing secures this balanced state; that it is forever subject to changes beyond our control. A famous Chasidic proverb by Rabi Nachman of Breslav goes “the whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.” If a man spends his life on a narrow bridge, leading nowhere (it is the entire world, after all), it appears that there is no better thing for him to do than to maintain balance and forever live in fear of falling down to the abyss of either of the anxieties. Is this truly the best we can hope for? Is there no way to transcend this precariousness human condition?


The rest of Rabi Nachman’s proverb may suggest that there is another way. Here is the full proverb:

The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.

And the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.

The transcendence offered by Rabi Nachman is one in which there is a sharp awareness of the inescapable human condition, but at the same time, an insistence that we must not live in fear. The promise resides not in running away from the human condition but in a cleared-eyed recognition of it. But once we recognize it, how can we avoid being afraid?


I shall conclude with an answer suggested by Job and King Solomon. Job, right after having lost almost all his loved ones and earthly possessions, says: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Coping with loss, and the possibility of loss, comes with an awareness that all of it comes from God and is thanks to God. This awareness allows one to see a point in the loss since it is not a mere outcome of human fragility but a part of God’s intention. It is by virtue of realizing this that one can overcome, or at least live with, the anxiety of loss: the loss is one part of God’s plan and hence, though it may torment us, it is a constituent of the good. As long as we trust in God, we are not afraid. King Solomon’s lamentations end with the words “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man.” In other words, we can feel safe that the world and our ends are valuable if we trust in God. It is through the fear of God that we are freed of our anxiety of meaning. The ends given by God’s commandments are of value we cannot doubt as long as we have faith. In faith, the world cannot be bereft of value and meaning. Through faith, Rabi Nachman’s imperative is fulfilled. One can stand in the world, which is nothing but narrow bridge, with confidence, and without fear of being engulfed by the two essential human anxieties.


[1] I am here referring, unfortunately quite crudely, to an idea developed by professor Irad Kimhi. I hope to make more justice to his thoughts in future posts.


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

Religion and Happiness

Candace Vogler, at the debate with Jennifer A. Frey and Fr. Thomas Joseph White  on the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 3 of 3 featuring Candace Vogler. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.


Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.


Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.


These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.


In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.


Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.


As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.


Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.


Worse, if your way of making sense of why it is that people go for anything in a serious way is that they think that they are going for what will bring happiness—a Jeremy Bentham sort of thought that has been re-packaged by some contemporary neo-Aristotelians—then the fact of serious pursuit on the part of many people at least suggests that worldly goods have been the substance of a lot of actual pursuit of happiness. Worse yet, the witnesses to these supposedly vain efforts have not exactly turned away from such things in disgust upon seeing what happens when people get them. Yes—trying to be as shiny and pretty and well-liked as possible for as long as possible is hard work and the passage of time is never your best friend, but that all by itself shouldn’t suggest that people who are pretty and shiny and adored are going for the wrong thing. Serious scholarship, science, and work for social justice also take a lot of time and effort and never feel complete or lasting. That hasn’t made people turn up their noses at these pursuits, even though everyone in these areas knows that they are spending their lives going for stuff has a shelf life and seeking goals that they cannot achieve under their own steam.


Now, viewed through the lenses of even the kind of potted histories that I know, any tie that has connected health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight—or science, scholarship, and social justice, for that matter—to religious practice seems at best coincidental. It isn’t impossible that these things might line up. Take bliss, for instance. I could have ecstatic mystic experience that healed my body and brought wealth and honor and knowledge my way and put me in an excellent position to inspire collective work for common good in whichever field of human activity you favor. But I will be dancing in a fool’s paradise if I expect these things to come of my graceful, whirling acts of worship.


Let us leave ordinary health, sensuality, intellectual or social pursuits, and the stuff of worldly success to one side (noticing that, in doing so, we rule out things that many people have regarded as crucial for happiness in this life). Allow that, not only does it feel like there has to be more than finding a place for myself in a complex world, more than finding productive and rewarding outlets for my talents, more than any health or wealth or recognition that I might enjoy, more than success, more than friends and family—basically, more than the things that my people take to be worth having. Suppose that there really is more than this. And suppose that I want whatever that more is.


Is there a way to the elusive more through religious practice?


Obviously, the answer will depend upon the variety of religious practice in question and the character of the elusive more. Take Christianity, for instance. By the lights of the varieties of Christian religious practice familiar to me, it would be a strange thing to turn to Christianity for temporal happiness. In the revealed literature, followers are frequently told to expect to be reviled for their faith. All are charged with obedience to commandments that are hard to obey. All are charged with loving neighbors who are inconvenient and needy. All are expected to fail in doing what they are supposed to do, individually and collectively. And none are supposed to be content with failure. Religious practice is supposed to help nourish and build the faith that anyone will need if she decides to go in for Christianity in a serious way, and, in the early days, at least, there was not an obvious casual way offered for ordinary people who were understandably concerned about the more strenuous side of what was just called the way.


Now, I of course agree with Fr. Thomas Joseph that there is a crucial link between this kind of religion and happiness, and that if you accept the points of the linkage, you ought to conclude that it is, in fact, crucial for happiness. I am going to lay out the points a bit differently.


  • Human beings are intellectual, social animals and creatures in the first instance.
  • As intellectual, social animals they are, for whatever reason, disordered—what they seek they seek because it appears as a kind of thing it will be good to go for (as something that is good for a human being), their urges and feelings and appetites want to be reasonable, but rarely are; they want their lives, individually and socially, to make a kind of sense that lives rarely do; they cannot live long or well without significant social cooperation; they often find themselves at odds with their fellows; even when they agree that a way of addressing social tensions is desirable, they need not share a vision about how to order their social lives and pursuits to make things better.
  • As creatures, they have deep need not only to make sense of themselves, their lives, and each other, not only to find ways of discerning and pursuing genuine human good and avoiding what is genuinely bad—that is, to be right with themselves and right with each other on however large or small a scale you care to mention—but also to be right with the divine source of their lives and world.
  • Religious practice aims at providing established channels for helping people be right with themselves, with each other, and with divinity. Sound religious practice provides channels through which to pursue harmony in all of these relations but, insofar as religious practices are human institutions carried, held, transmitted, and engaged by human beings, they are not free of the kinds of disorder that marks human life generally.
  • For all that, religion is what we have to pursue the kind of harmony with each other and divinity that is a core human need, and seeking happiness in some way that cuts divinity out of the picture is going to be seeking one or another kind of fulfillment that will leave the spiritual need unsatisfied.


Basically, if you do not think that there is a core need to be right with divinity built into human life, and you notice that religious practice can be very hard and can make you unpopular, it is hard to see the link between religion and happiness, at least in terms of the varieties of religious practice I have encountered.


So you’ll notice that I am with Fr. Thomas Joseph and Aquinas, but with a couple of caveats for folks who are turned away from seeing any role for an essential tie to the sacred or divine in human life.


[1] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 97.

 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

No Happiness without Religion (and even only imperfect happiness with true Religion)

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating with Candace Vogler (not pictured) the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 2 of 3 featuring Fr. Thomas Joseph White. The accompanying audio of the debate was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


Consider the non-rational animals. Can they be said to be happy or unhappy? In an analogical sense, yes, insofar as they experience wellbeing of a physical or even emotional sort. Augustine notes that the non-rational animals “desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites, [that is to say] bodily comfort and the [right measure of] pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance.” (City of God XIX, 14) And of course we might add with Aristotle that they instinctively desire the good of their species, and seek to perpetuate it. This form of happiness may be modest but it is real, just as living things that are not human are real and are subject to flourishing.


We are different from these creatures because we avidly pursue happiness, through rational deliberation, even in all our free actions. This is different from saying that we understand well what happiness is, or know well how to procure it. Augustine underscores how fragile human happiness is in this world: Elusive, ephemeral and limited. On the one hand our desire for happiness is inextinguishable and vivid. On the other hand, it is often a source of disquiet or even torment. The desire for happiness frequently gives rise to serious disappointment. It can even humiliate us as we become worried or convinced that we have failed in life to be genuinely happy, whereas others have succeeded.


So the desire to be happy and appear happy gives rise to various forms of ambition and self-deception. Augustine notes that we tell ourselves and others lies, or half truths about how we happy we really are, and that we seek to demonstrate this through various mediums, from philosophical arguments to external postures, like Facebook posts or annual family Christmas letters. [No one ever writes in the annual Christmas letter, “This year Alice had a serious operation and had to confront for the first time her genuine fear of death. She is currently anti-anxiety medication and is in counseling.”] Instead, we take refuge in the public vanities of career or the accomplishments of children, of the private distractions of pleasure and leisure, claiming that we have fulfilled the canonical obligations that make us successfully happy. We settle for too little, and conceal our deeper unresolved-frustrations. This act of self-deception in fact suggests a profound form of self-antipathy, or self-refusal, insofar as we resist confronting our deeper more genuinely fractured selves.


Blaise Pascal writes about the positive benefits of admitting the deep imperfection and limits of our happiness in this world. Our failure to find anything other than very imperfect, unsatisfying forms of happiness in creatures is the negative side of very good news. If we admit this truth, we can begin to acknowledge the possibility of genuine happiness with God. Pascal argues in response to Montagne that the religionist is not the person who is naïve and escapist, but the only person who is actually in the end being a realist. We do genuinely wish to be happy, so let us be realists, and long for something we can actually have: life with God, and friendship with God. This is an existential possibility, by the grace of Christ, and it can endure forever, because God is eternal, and the soul is immaterial and lives on after death.


Of course here we might cough politely like Prufrock, and think quietly to ourselves: “that is not realistic. That is not worth the risk.” Or by contrast, we might briefly consider Aquinas’ version of this Augustinian argument.


Negatively Aquinas argues thus, in summary form: Wealth cannot be what makes us happy, because we procure wealth as a means not an end. Wealth provides a horizon of possibilities, but forces us to ask anew: ok, now what do we do with our money? Glory and fame cannot make us happy. They are radically contingent goods that by their very nature are transitory, and unstable. To be famous you need other people to agree to look at you a certain way continually, so as to procure satisfaction for your vanity or self-love. The problem is they might stop paying attention to you at any moment. (This is why famous people need twitter accounts.) Power is not a good candidate, because power is morally indifferent. A person can have a great deal of power, and do great wickedness with it. So it is like wealth: more a means than an end.


 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.


What about the physical good of the body? Will the perfect diet and exercise routine finally make me happy? No, for if that were the case people would be content simply with being healthy and no healthy person would be unhappy. This is clearly not the case. What about pleasure as the source of happiness? Ah, pleasure! Now that seems like a good candidate. Pleasures make us happy. Yes, but here Aquinas qualifies. Pleasures of the senses give temporary joy and rest to our sensate animal life, our felt psychology, you might say. But human beings also aspire to other forms of goods that are not simply sensible: friendship, love and appreciation, justice, and also truth, authentic perspective on the meaning of things, artistic skill, and practical wisdom. So reducing all of that down to sensate pleasures is not just un-reasonable; it’s impossible.


This means we are getting close–true happiness consists in the stable possession of various forms of authentic goods, like those just listed: true friendship, a life of personal love, justice etc. This is a life of virtue, toward which the health of the body and the pleasures of senses can oriented, as when parents nourish their children (as one animal to another) but do so motivated by personal love as well as a sense of justice. Notice what we need to make appeals to happiness: a certain intensity of human flourishing and a certain stability of possession, and to have an authentic good and have it in a lasting way. But what such higher good or goods can we pursue virtuously that really provide us with genuine lasting happiness, a happiness that will really satiate our desires, so that we are not subject to misery? Friendship? Marriage? Career? Children? Aquinas says: No, none of these really grants us either sufficient intensity of fulfillment or perennial possession, that is to say stable freedom from systemic disenchantment. He even concludes that no created good really suffices in the end. And this is very good news.


The reason has to do with the positive side of Aquinas’ argument. The human animal is different from the other animals because we have a spiritual intellect. That is to say, we are open to the universal horizon of being, to all that exists. Likewise we are also capable of loving all that is exists insofar as it is in some way good. This argument has several steps but basically Aquinas argues that if we are able to know and love all finite being, this is because on a deeper level we are open intellectually not only to what is finite but also the transcendent and infinite, God the author of all that exists. God is the perfectly intensive infinite good, and since we are structurally capax dei, or capable of God, we are likewise structurally incapable of ever being fully satisfied by the finite good.


To conclude we might note a final objection: I cannot cross the abyss that stands between me and the unsolvable enigma of God, if God exists. Given this fact, the desire for God is a pointless want. Smart people confine themselves to the humble cell of agnosticism. To which the follower of Christ responds: No, that is not true. The human being can come to know God by grace, and in grace, can come to recognize true happiness, or the invitation to true happiness, which begins in friendship with God, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The contemplative discovery of God is the beginning of true peace that gives genuine rest to the soul. That is a religious answer to a philosophical question. But of course, if human beings cannot achieve their true happiness without God, then the religious answer is precisely what is needed.


“If we were irrational animals, we should desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites,— nothing, therefore, but bodily comfort and [a right measure] of pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul.…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace, and…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance. But, as man has a rational soul, he subordinates all this which he has in common with the beasts to the peace of his rational soul, that his intellect may have free play and may regulate his actions, and that he may thus enjoy the well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes, as we have said, the peace of the rational soul. And for this purpose he must desire to be neither molested by pain, nor disturbed by desire, nor extinguished by death, that he may arrive at some useful knowledge by which he may regulate his life and manners. But, owing to the liability of the human mind to fall into mistakes, this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master, whom he may obey without misgiving, and who may at the same time give him such help as to preserve his own freedom. And because, so long as he is in this mortal body, he is a stranger to God, he walks by faith, not by sight; and he therefore refers all peace, bodily or spiritual or both, to that peace which mortal man has with the immortal God, so that he exhibits the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 14.

“But, in that final peace to which all our righteousness has reference, and for the sake of which it is maintained, as our nature shall enjoy a sound immortality and incorruption, and shall have no more vices, and as we shall experience no resistance either from ourselves or from others, it will not be necessary that reason should rule vices which no longer exist, but God shall rule the man, and the soul shall rule the body, with a sweetness and facility suitable to the felicity of a life which is done with bondage. And this condition shall there be eternal, and we shall be assured of its eternity; and thus the peace of this blessedness and the blessedness of this peace shall be the supreme good.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 27


210: The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.

257: There are only three kinds of persons; those who serve God, having found Him; others who are occupied in seeking Him, not having found Him; while the remainder live without seeking Him, and without having found Him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy; those between are unhappy and reasonable.

438: If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

540: None is so happy as a true Christian, nor so reasonable, virtuous, or amiable.

785: Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him.

Pascal, Pensees

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

From T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Fr. Thomas Joseph White is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.