The spirit of faith

Faith is one of those evocative terms that stir great passion, whether to a secularist (e.g., faith in life) or religious believer (e.g., faith in God). It has been generically defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as “great trust or confidence in something or someone,” a definition that certainly points to an essential aspect at the heart of the faith structure in its various manifestations (https:// > dictionary > english > faith retrieved 1/8/20).

Freud, of course, was a devout atheist; he claimed religious faith was an ill-conceived, ill-advised, and ill-fated manifestation of infantile wish-fulfillment, and instead, he aligned himself with secular faith in scientific rationality. That is, Freud claimed that science was the singular truth, and that all phenomena must be tested in a scientific manner, even if, in some ways, science is not always reliable. For Freud, religious faith is the mistaken belief in an unevidenced, unseen, and therefore unreasonable God-image projection. For the most part, psychoanalysis has taken Freud as their lead, though as I will discuss shortly there have been notable exceptions who regard religious faith, at least some versions of it, as having a life-affirming ripple effect in the spiritual aspirant’s everyday existence. In contrast to Freud and others who have discredited religious faith, Buber steadfastly affirmed that faith was the living and enlivening relationship between God and the believer: “The fundamental experience of faith itself,” said Buber, “may be regarded as the highest intensification of the reality' of meeting” (Buber, 1967b, p. 121). Marcel, too, believed that faith strongly' pointed to a form of living that was enacted before the face of God, a divine/human encounter. As Cain notes, Marcel clearly' believed that “absolute engagement is faith,” that is, faith can be characterized, in Marcel’s words, as “perpetual witness” to a transcendent realm or reality (Cain, 1995, p. 83).Thus, as I will later detail, for both Buber and Marcel, somewhat differently but still, faith was intimately' linked with meeting, with person-to-person encounter, I-Thou relation (and Marcel’s creative fidelity'), that pointed to “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better,” what they called God (the eternal Thou/absolute Thou, respectively'). In this view, the trace of an I-Thou encounter transformed the existential orientation of the spiritual aspirant in a manner that was identity-defining and life-affirming, toward the ultimate goal, a “holy” way of being-in-the-world (roughly imitatio det). Being-in-the-world was mindfully animated by the transcendent virtues, the valuative attachments of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, the touchstones for fashioning a flourishing life.1 What Levinas (who studied Buber, Rosenzweig, and Marcel) said more radically and extensively could also be said of Buber and Marcel, namely, that holiness (or saintliness) was always his main interest; “this holiness ... the supreme perfection ... which cedes one’s place to the other” was what best characterized “humanity” (Levinas, 2001, p. 183). For Marcel, such holy people were “creators,” they were discernible “by the radiance of charity and love shining from their being, they add a positive contribution to the invisible work which gives the human adventure the only meaning which can justify it. Only the blind may say with the suggestion of a sneer that they have produced nothing” (2001, p. 45). Likewise, for Buber, holiness meant enacting in the concrete situation we find ourselves an open, receptive dialogue with God, that is, “hallowing the everyday,” hallowing one’s life through efforts to make himself responsible to what is holy (Friedman, 1986, p. 131). Indeed, as Katz ((2006) noted, Buber (and Marcel) emphasized that the I-Thou encounter summoned one to ontic and fundamental moral obligations to the other: “Responsibility presupposes one who addresses me primarily, that is, from a realm independent of myself, and to whom I am answerable” (Buber, 1965, p. 17). Psychoanalysis has had almost no interest in using holiness as a viable concept in the clinical context, though I believe this may be a notion worth judiciously integrating into its theory and technique.2

In this chapter I am going to briefly review some of the more interesting psychoanalytic formulations of the psychology' of faith, mainly religious (as Buber and Marcel were believers), less so secular, in order to illustrate in what manner analysts view how faith can operate positively in the real life of the spiritual aspirant. Next, I will present Buber and Marcel’s views on faith, which, in part because of their dialogical personalist approach, can enhance how analysts understand the role of religious (and less secular) faith in the analysand’s life and in the analytic dialogue. I should point out from the onset that I am not weighing in on whether it is reasonable or unreasonable to believe in God or a transcendent reality; that is for each individual to decide, including its implication for them in their real life. As the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas famously said,“To one who has faith [in God], no explanation is necessary.To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Moreover, I am not trying to convert the reader to Judaism or Catholicism, qua Buber and Marcel, respectively, or for that matter to any other religious belief system (and as we shall see, for Marcel, conviction and faith are not exactly the same). Rather, I will suggest that psychoanalysis conceived as a spiritual discipline can be enhanced by exploiting Buber and Marcel’s understanding of faith and its operations in everyday life, whether one is a believer or a non-believer, for they provide a phenomenology of religious faith (or a spiritually animated faith, as Marcel might say) that is significantly useful, as psychoanalysis tries to help the analysand live a more flourishing life. Similar to psychoanalytic ethos at its best, such a faith-driven outlook and behavior rejects “false moralism,” “hyperintellectualism,” and “rigid legalism” and opts for creating the conditions of possibility for a spiritual aspirant (and analysand) to will and choose, to become a poet of his life, as Nietzsche called it (Biemann, 2006, p. 108).

It needs to be stressed that engaging Buber and Marcel, qua religious believers, entails an empathic immersion in their “symbolic world,” in their outlook, their “particular manner of construing the world” (Geertz, 1973, p. 110). Religion, politics, and psychoanalysis can operate as symbolic worlds. A symbolic world is a total system of beliefs, values, morals, and knowledge, which for the believer are usually extremely abstract and appear far above ordinary life, yet palpably intrude themselves on everyday life in their ability to inspire or to infuse meaning to individual or collective activity, to delegitimate other activity, and to wield social control (Wuthnow, Hunter, Bergesen, & Kurzweil, 1984, pp. 37, 75). Symbolic worlds provide a significant ordering impulse to social affairs and to collective outlooks of the world. Most importantly for this chapter, for hybrid believers like Buber and Marcel, these socially structured, taken-for-granted meanings have a stability originating from more powerful, otherworld sources, usually called God, than the historical labors of human beings and contribute therefore to the creation of ultimately powerful and meaningful notions of reality (“sacred cosmoi”). A symbolic world thus provides a framework of ultimate meaning and concerns (Berger, 1967, pp. 35, 36). Most importantly, while the study of the symbolic world of believers is essentially focused on what constitutes such a world as real and how it both forms and penetrates ordinary life, which is our characterization of the believer’s world, the believer (even at the sophisticated level of a Buber and Marcel) may simply regard his world as the “real” world.

My claim, in short, is that without faith, minimally described by Buber and Marcel as existential openness and trust, it is difficult for the analysand to derive not only the strength, equanimity, and perspective that faith often provides (especially in making suffering sufferable, see next chapter), but perhaps even more importantly, as one Marcelian scholar aptly noted, it forecloses, or at least impedes, one’s access to being or “the unity of experience” (Sweetman, 2011, p. 6) to embrace without reserve the Beauty,Truth, and Goodness in oneself, in others, and beyond (e.g., animals/objects). By using the words “being” or “unity of experience,” I am pointing to the self’s relative unity and organization, the consequence of its aptitude to sieve through and internalize an ever-increasing number of multifaceted desires, feelings, and experiences (Ruti,2009,p. 23) that are often correlated with transcendence-pointing Beauty,Truth, and Goodness.