Implications for treatment

Faith is one of those summoning notions that is prone to “loose use” in that it has different meanings to different people, with little consensus about scholars and laypersons. Similar to God, it is beyond representation, and can only be evocatively pointed to. This being said, analysts have provided observations and formulations that resonate with Bubers and Marcel’s rendering of this challenging philosophical, theological, and psychological subject. As religious scholar Huston Smith (1979, p. 11) noted, faith reflects the human tendency “to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension,” to sense meaning and significance that is more than ordinary and commonplace. Paul Tillich has a similar perspective; he called faith “an act of a finite being who is grasped by, and turned to, the infinite.” Moreover, Tillich says, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with the ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God” (Tillich, 1958, p. 18). Both Buber and Marcel would most likely agree with the main thrust of Smith’s and Tillich’s definitions, but what do Buber and Marcel contribute to the faith conversation that has some positive bearing on psychoanalysis conceived as an art of living a flourishing life? Four points come to mind.

First, what is especially noteworthy is that these two religiously animated personalist dialogical philosophers make the love relationship, poetically rendered as I-Thou and creative fidelity, respectively, the most robust port of entry into the faith moment that always implies a relationship with the eternal/ absolute Thou (or perhaps its secular transcendent equivalent). In other words, the heart of faith for Buber and Marcel is faithfulness to a moment, fidelity to a self- and other-consecrating event, to a transforming response between two people that reveals the awesome, mysterious, ineffable transcendence-pointing goodness of the other, the basis for trust in the future (Heschel, 1955, pp. 132, 155). Faith, says Buber, is a “binding oneself to something, an involvement of one’s person, an immeasurably binding venture” (1967b, p. 126). Put in familiar psychological language, faith, Buber and Marcel suggest, is vital to a love relationship and living, for it provides “coherence and direction,” it connects one to “shared trusts and loyalties,” it existentially “grounds” one’s “personal stances and loyalties in a sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference” (e.g., God-animated, biblical-based ethicality), and it helps people to cope adequately with the “limit conditions” and inevitable suffering of existence, all by using compelling psychological resources that have a sense of “ultimacy” and transcendence (Shafranske, 1996, p. 168).

Second, Buber and Marcel were probably aware that while faith may begin at the mother’s breast, and morphs into faith in ourselves and in others, even to humanity as a whole, and to God for the believer, in whatever form it takes, it seems to be something that we need and/or desire to live a flourishing life. As Fowler has noted, humanity appears to have “evolved with prepotentiated capacities that underlie the structuring activities of faith and that equip people for their ontological callings to relatedness and partnership with God” (Fowler, 1994, pp. 182—183; Jeeves & Brown, 2009).This being said, Buber and Marcel were mainly focused on faith as an existential orientation that reflects an inner center of gravity, such that the specific object, whether called God or its secular equivalent, was of secondary importance in terms of living a flourishing life. This is faith conceived as a character trait, a way of being-in-the-world as opposed to say only a set of conscious beliefs/postulates that one is loyal to (Fromm, 1947, p. 199). Such beliefs can enhance faith, but they can also close it down because they are estranged from ongoing originary intimations related to the unknown that faith is in part rooted in (Eigen, 2012, p. 43). As Buber and Marcel were believing humanists, they saw earthly and celestial existence as always co-mingled and co-potentiating; I-Thou and creative fidelity always pointed to “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better.” Faith in God and faith in man were inseparable.

Third, for Buber and Marcel (and Levinas), forms of mysticism (perhaps including Bion/Eigen/Grotstein’s psychoanalytic musings) were not their preferred context to grasp faith affirmations as they conceived it. In fact, they were somewhat mistrustful of aspects of mysticism as an overall existential orientation, for it focused too much on actualizing some “big” transformational insight/realization, such as unity with God/Divine, or striving to directly experience the ultimate reality. Rather, faith was mainly an action-orientation that was best expressed in concrete, situated behavior that was other-directed, other-regarding, and other-serving, that emanated from a commanding or, at least, summoning God. Faith in the living God required aspiring to holiness or goodness (mainly using a biblical ethical calculus), which was best accessed through one’s being-for-the-other, especially before oneself as Levinas emphasized. Marcel’s rendering of love, hope, fidelity, and faith make this point especially clear.

Fourth, both Buber and Marcel were well aware that faith that was based on mere acceptance of authority (e.g., fear of God’s power/punishment) was not credible. Rather, they put forth a rational version of faith that demanded robust intellectual reckonings and emotional metabolism. Their faith was anchored in their own independent productive experience, including intense emotional processing, and in their relative assuredness in their power of thought, observation, and judgment (Fromm, 1947). Such faith is perhaps less a belief in something, even the Divine conceived as “out there,” than it is a manifestation of believing in the ultimate value of promise-making, creative fidelity as Marcel called it. That is, faith in God is a direction not a substance or endpoint, and said Buber quoting Rabbi Mendel of Korzk, this means “not to make an idol even of the command of God” (Moore, 1996a, p. 28). For such an inner attitude expresses faith in oneself (e.g., to have the will and ability to vigorously pursue holiness/goodness),in others (e.g., that they too have holiness/goodness that can be actualized and we can help bring forth), and in God (e.g., that we can grow in our ethical potential if we work at it and learn from our failings). Playing off Levinas s “religion for adults,” Buber and Marcel are putting forth a difficult wisdom, a “faith for adults.”

I am well aware that the aforementioned four points are not earth-shattering or even entirely new, especially for someone who is familiar with the glorious insights of the great Axial sages, religious teachers, and philosophers. But Buber and Marcel have graced us with oeuvres that have put into sharp focus a phenomenology of faith in a most summoning manner, that is, a faith that can contribute to the art of living a flourishing life. Indeed, as positive psychologists Compton & Hoffman (2020, p. 306) summarize, much of what Buber and Marcel are pointing to has been reasonably supported by scientific researchers. For example, greater faith (i.e., religiousness and spirituality) has been fairly reliably linked to better mental health and higher subjective well-being. One study interestingly reported that a persons perceived nearness to God (remember for Buber/Marcel, a life of faith is one willfully lived with the fullness of one’s whole being before the face of God) was the sole biggest predictor of life satisfaction across all age ranges. Moreover, people who are more behaviorally religious/spiritual tend to display better emotional well-being and lower rates of delinquency, alcoholism, drug abuse, and social problems. Not only do such faith-animated homo viators have greater happiness and life satisfaction (the latter only somewhat) compared to those without religious faith, but for those who can cultivate such faith-animated religious/spiritual practices, they can increase positive emotional states such as joy, hope, optimism, and compassion as well as promote positive virtues like self-control. One wonders if this is what Bionian-inspired analyst Civitarese had in mind when he said that the goal of analysis is “to gain emotional competence” (2019, p. 399).

Of course, it is not the psychoanalyst s role to try and convince the analysand to embrace any religious or spiritual outlook or practices, for that would be an imposition of a crude moralism, which all analysts find repugnant. However, what Buber and Marcel beautifully put forth is a mode of sacred attunement, an affect-integrating, meaning-giving, action-guiding existential positioning that is thoroughly lodged in apperception of the impossible-to-pin-down eternal/absolute Thou, though who one feels summoned to respond to as one engages in other-directed, other-regarding, and other-directed actions meant to potentiate and actualize the best in oneself and others.