Socrates in a Roman Collar: Father Robert Spitzer: Dynamic Orthodoxy
By SUSAN HELEN MORAN
In an auditorium resounding with over 150 students, only a fraction of whom are formally enrolled in the class, a stout, Chesterton-like figure, clad in slightly wrinkled black clerics and a loosened Roman collar, strides across a raised platform and in a melodious voice declaims, “Death is the ultimate deadline for the ultimate decision. The decision is how to live one’s life.” This 37-year-old Jesuit professor of philosophy at Georgetown University teaches the importance of the reality of time and the limits it imposes on life. Only by living in the present and fully realizing it may we transcend time and experience the infinite, the eternal. “I am a metaphysical existentialist!” he exclaims. “People think that’s crazy, but I say it’s not. It’s the only sane way to be a Christian.”
In an age of secularism and hedonism, Father Robert Spitzer ignites a pentecostal fire within the hearts of his jaded young listeners. They say he breaks down the barriers between religious and secular thought, creating a synthesis between metaphysics and physics. He shows them that Catholicism holds the key to dealing with their feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness.
What is the appeal of this man? Why do students flock to his classes? Spitzer’s appeal is in part based on the breadth of his knowledge and understanding. He is known as an evangelist for metaphysics. He can captivate an audience—whether he speaks on the special theory of relativity or on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
He embodies “the best of the old Jesuit tradition,” comments Professor Russell Hittinger, a close friend of Spitzer’s from their days at St. Louis University, now a visiting professor of political science at Princeton University. Spitzer, who graduated summa cum laude from the Gregorian University in Rome, is grounded in the ancients and in medieval philosophy, as well as physics and the philosophy of modern science. He shows that one can be orthodox and still speak to the deepest concerns of young people.
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Using the Socratic method, Spitzer acts as a gadfly in his students’ pursuit of truth. He asks the questions people hate to think about because they fear the answers. Then he provides a complete, organized response, with an explanation of each question’s background.
Students say that Spitzer gives them what other teachers cannot: a glimpse into how it all fits together, how the physical sciences, faith, and philosophy interrelate. Spitzer transcends barriers between fields of specialization, and he opens the lines of communication between literature, history, philosophy, and science. “There is no question that is too trivial for him, and I have yet to find a question that surpassed him,” says one student. “Spitzer gives you an arrow pointing in the right direction, rather than just the facts,” says another. One Georgetown undergraduate whose conversion to Catholicism was due largely to Spitzer’s influence says: “When you look at Father Spitzer you can see how really exciting love is and how different it is from everything else.” A doctoral candidate in bioethics praises his quick mind: “He is able to understand different metaphysical systems and quickly fit them together. He makes his own system come alive and puts it into context in relation to possible objections in other systems of thought.”
This year Spitzer left Georgetown to teach at Seattle University. Professor Patrick Burke, who was chairman of Seattle’s philosophy department reports that the number of philosophy students doubled when Spitzer last taught there, between 1978 and 1980. Burke argues that the West Coast needs Spitzer more than Georgetown does. Catholicism does not have strong roots in that part of the country: Seattle University has no other Jesuits in its philosophy department.
After Spitzer’s departure was announced, people took extra pains to tape his courses, his homilies, his lectures. Wherever he goes, he seems to become a phenomenon.
Crisis of the West
At Georgetown Spitzer taught a monthly seminar on Christian existentialist literature, gave a lecture series on matters of the faith to more than 100 parishioners each week, and said Mass at the local parish, Holy Trinity. Following each of his homilies, people lined up to ask for his spiritual guidance. A prominent pro-life spokesman, he has also organized fellow academics in Faculty for Life.
On campus he conducted Ignatian meditation sessions on Monday nights in his dormitory, and, a Hawaiian by birth, he organized Hawaiian nights for over 150 participants. He said the 7:00 A.M. Mass most weekdays during term and the 11:30 P.M. Mass every Friday night. His philosophy classes were packed, and on his return from a two-week vacation, he received an average of 35 phone messages a day from students and friends seeking his counsel.
In his five years at Georgetown, Spitzer has excited his students about a subject that many of them had thought heavy, difficult, and boring. A philosophy major who had come to Georgetown to study business said, “Now I get excited on my own about the liberal arts, but someone had to get me over that barrier.” “It’s amazing how much the Catholic aura… on campus has grown,” says another philosophy major.
Besides an introduction to philosophy, Spitzer taught a course on Bernard Lonergan and a graduate seminar in metaphysics in which he presented his own metaphysical argument for God’s existence based on the laws of physics. Spitzer argues that new discoveries in physics can deepen rather than undermine our understanding of God. We live in a “privileged moment,” he explains, a moment when our highly sophisticated culture, with its great scientific and technological knowledge, offers confirmation in unlikely places of a higher being.
Spitzer is dedicated not only to studying and writing philosophy but to teaching it because of his concern about the spiritual destiny of the West. He believes that happiness and concord result when a society adheres to objective truth and transcendental goals; despair, corruption, and desolation, on the other hand, result from their repudiation.
Young people thirst for the guidance a professor like Spitzer can provide. Homelessness, drug dependency, alcoholism, abortion, and euthanasia are symptoms of a society in the futile pursuit of happiness through sensory pleasure—euphoria—alone. By definition, however, euphoria is short-lived, and then becomes aggression, adventure-seeking, and domination. Spitzer says that society has lost faith ineudaimonia, the happiness which comes with the fulfillment of one’s nature, which inspires one to do good in the world and gives transcendental meaning. This loss of faith, Spitzer explains, is “part decline of religion, part decline of education.” Eudaimonian fulfillment cultivates the cultural and spiritual development necessary for real happiness. “If we can’t find eudaimonia through faith,” he says, “we’d better find it through philosophy and the metaphysics of meaning.” They alone can liberate the mind, Spitzer argues, from the prison of pragmatism that America’s educational system, with its focus on technology and business, and the popularized philosophies of despair have led us into. Genuine philosophy, the highest rational activity, can encourage spiritual growth.
Up from Materialism
Spitzer did not always possess such a vision. “Originally, I was a crass materialist,” he says. Before he had a series of revelations, he did not care much about what he could not dominate intellectually. “Even as a philosopher, I was the type of person who needed a great deal of intellectual security.” His philosophy of education is grounded in and grows out of his experience. Now he teaches not intellectual control but wonder.
After growing up in wealthy surroundings in Hawaii, Spitzer earned a bachelor’s degree in public accounting and finance from Gonzaga University, a Jesuit liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington. He questioned God intellectually, especially when he read some of the prominent intellectuals of the twentieth century like Elie Wiesel, J.D. Salinger, and Albert Camus. Then he read Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study in Human Understanding. The book was the most intellectually challenging experience of his life. It put together epistemology, cosmology, ontology, physics, and metaphysics for him.
Yet, after reading Insight, his God was an intellectual God. “I could not open my heart to anything. Because I had such an intellectual conversion, I wanted Catholicism in its purest form. I was really an absolute, total conservative,” he remembers.
Once Spitzer freed himself from what he now regards as the philosophical prison of pragmatism, “the liberation of the mind turned out to be the liberation of the heart.” The moment he intellectually accepted a transcendental reality, he felt secure enough to trust people. “I didn’t have to be my own universe, self-contained. I could take risks, and my deistic God would be a ground of my being,” he explains. His first discovery of the heart was the “loveliness of just having friends.” However, when he discovered love, he could feel what he calls cosmic loneliness—even when he was with friends. Before that, he had no heart to feel that “loneliness of being out of kilter with the whole universe.”
When Spitzer started attending daily Mass on the suggestion of a close Catholic friend, his anxiety and loneliness began to dissipate. It was then that he realized “religion is not a mind-game. Religion is not proofs for God’s existence but speaks to the heart, and the heart does have reasons that the mind knows not of.” For the first time, he intuited God’s words, “I just would like to love you. Please, stop thinking!” The church’s ambience, the priest, and the parishioners served as icons, which enabled him to contemplate and to enter something beyond himself. “I did not want to control it, categorize it, deduce it, create it. I just wanted to revel in it and behold it. At that moment God actually touched my heart,” he says. That experience inflamed him with a passion for Catholicism “in its perfect form, and the more traditional the better.”
Crisis at the Adding Machine
Spitzer did not know he wanted to be a priest until about two weeks before he made the announcement. “At first I thought I should be a permanent deacon and keep the other options open.” The final decision was “very difficult.” He loved God but thought he was not worthy of the priesthood.
Before realizing his vocation, Spitzer worked as an accountant during his senior year at Gonzaga. “I really had an existential crisis at the adding machine one day. I went to Mass that evening and looked at this priest with utter jealousy. I thought: if I’m so jealous of him, I should do it.”
In his doctoral dissertation, which he defended at Catholic University in August 1989, Spitzer presents “evidence for objective time from everyday experience and reveals problems inherent in denying the reality of the present.” Many of his students find this amusing, because, as one put it, “he forgets what time it is, what day it is, what century it is, because he is so absorbed in the present.”
His faculty colleagues advise Spitzer to concentrate solely on philosophy and sacrifice his other activities, which sap the essential time needed to “write really great work.” Spitzer knows, however, that “man does not live by metaphysics alone.”
He has fallen in love with “the immensity of the infinite, the ‘uncapturableness’ of the infinite, yet the fact that one is breathing it in this very minute.” Love is necessary for the salvation of souls and is thus of even greater importance than his most treasured metaphysical proof.
He moves in measure like a dancer, to divine music. He is constantly asked to instruct and perform, in public and in private, on matters of the heart and mind, but always in relation to the Spirit.
At the time this article was published, Susan Moran was an editorial assistant for publications at the American Enterprise Institute.
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