SPIRITUAL PARTNERSHIP AND THE
AFFIRMATION OF THE VALUE OF BEING
by Ralph D. Ellis
Clark Atlanta University
Atlanta, GA 30314
Christopher Lasch, Heinz Kohut, Alice Miller, and many other recent authors have criticized contemporary culture for a ubiquitous narcissistic disturbance -- an overconcern with the projection of attractive, invulnerable, and ‘superior’ images or masks -- which increasingly forces us into what Lasch characterizes as a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all.’ The demand to renounce the fundamental egocentrism of this narcissistic value system stems partly from the pragmatic dysfunctions of the narcissistic culture, with which we are all painfully familiar: the breakdown of family and personal relationships, the social isolation and economic insecurity of the self-absorbed individual in advanced-capitalist, post-industrial social systems, the exaggerated competitiveness, inability to cooperate in addressing collective problems such as environmental destruction and the abandonment of the ‘underclass,’ etc. The mere recognition of these social problems does not resolve them, however, but only traps individuals into a prisoner’s dilemma in which each of us feels powerless to unilaterally abandon egocentricity lest we be trampled upon.
But there seems to be another dimension of human beings that demands the renunciation of the narcissistic value system for a more essential reason. The all too obscure phenomenon that I shall call ‘transcendent value experience’ arises from a human need that appears to be so pressing that its widespread neglect serves only to quicken its urgency. When this need does thrust itself into the awareness of contemporary people, it seems to do so with deceptive simplicity -- as a relentless desire to sharply and directly experience the intrinsic positive value of life as instantiated in a conscious being other than ourselves -- and to appreciate it in a more intense way, with stronger feelings, than we could ever appreciate our own value. Many people are familiar with this effect only in sexual contexts, through the experience of being ‘in love’ or ‘infatuated’ with someone; but I want to suggest that the need served by this kind of experience is not essentially erotic, and that the effects of this kind of reverent feeling toward other conscious beings in principle is transferrable to non-sexual contexts, and ultimately to a person’s abstract value system. Such an intensely positive value experience is required (I shall argue) to serve the essentially ‘religious’ need to either overcome or somehow find meaning within the dilemma of our own finitude -- death, alienation, powerlessness, and relative insignificance in the ultimate scheme of things. To fulfill this need, we must do more than intellectually acknowledge the value of conscious beings; we must feel it through concrete emotions. The structure of human motivation requires not only that the melody of positive meaning in life be played, but that it be played loudly enough to subordinate the countermelodies of pestilence, famine, war (in all its forms) and death.
By ‘transcendent value experience,’ I mean the direct experience of the intrinsic value of an object that transcends the ‘circle of egocentricity.’ The meaning of transcendent value experience thus hinges on a definition of the circle of egocentricity. Within the circle of egocentricity, the value of an object can be experienced only to the extent that, ultimately, some inner experience arising from the object is valued for its own sake. For example, the value of an ice cream cone is experienced only to the extent that the enjoyment it facilitates has value. In the same way, the value of a spouse or lover is experienced only to the extent that the feelings of happiness or fulfillment she facilitates have value; thus people speak as though the value of love relationships were to make the lover ‘happy.’ Within the circle of egocentricity, even the value of a deity is experienced only to the extent that the feelings of existential security or meaningful existence that the deity facilitates have value. I.e., the person values religion because it facilitates personal immortality or a feeling that life has meaning. In general, within the circle of egocentricity, the value of each object can be experienced only to the extent that the experience it facilitates is valued; strictly speaking, only the extrinsic or instrumental value of the object can be experienced in this case, because its value is experienced as dependent on the intrinsic value of the experience that it facilitates.
Since no extrinsic value can exceed the intrinsic value that it facilitates, this circle of egocentricity automatically renders all other objects less valuable (experientially) than the self and its own experience, and there is no object whose value can be experienced in a more intensely positive way than the self can experience its own value. However, we shall see that there are structural impediments to the intensification of the experience of one’s own value; thus the circle of egocentricity imposes severe limits on the intensity of all positive value experiences, yet does not impose any corresponding limits on the intensity of negative value experiences. The circle of egocentricity therefore leads ultimately either to a feeling of excessive meaninglessness, or to thinly veiled and fragile psychological defenses against this feeling.
In a transcendent value experience, by contrast, the intrinsic value of the object is experienced in a way more powerful than any value within the circle of egocentricity could possibly be experienced. The reason is that the otherness of the other makes possible a feeling of compassion for the other’s embattledness in the face of alienation, relative powerlessness, insignificance in the ultimate scheme of things, and inevitable death; and this compassion intensifies our admiration for the other’s courageous attempt at authenticity in the face of these ontological difficulties in a way that our own compassion for ourselves (i.e., self-pity) does not intensify admiration, but rather becomes a negative value experience. This possibility of feeling the other’s value more intensely than we can feel our own creates what Levinas in Totality and Infinity calls an ‘infinite curvature of intersubjective space.’ I.e., there are types of relationships in which each person seems from the other’s perspective to be elevated into a realm beyond the ordinary -- a realm of transcendence or, in Levinas’ terms, ‘infinitude.’ But, paradoxically, this infinitude of the other’s value is accessible only through compassion for the person’s vulnerability -- i.e., her ontological finitude. The psychology of this phenomenon becomes especially clear in Levinas’ chapter on the ‘Phenomenology of Eros,’ which begins with the sentence, "Eros aims at the other in his frailty (faiblesse)" (256).
Because interpersonal experience cannot offer this possibility as long as we remain within the circle of egocentricity, a transcendent value experience as I have defined it requires a ‘transcendent object’ -- i.e., an object whose experienced value transcends any value it might have in relation to the egocentric motives of the subject. Obviously, such an object must be experienceable as having intrinsic and not merely extrinsic value. Thus the experience of transcendent objects as such requires an ability to empathize with the transcendent object, and transcendent objects therefore are always subjective or intersubjective kinds of beings -- for example, human beings, deities, or works of art that express the collective experience of actual and/or possible subjectivities. Such artworks also ‘symbolize’ such subjective and intersubjective values in the sense that they provide a concrete, embodied matrix for their intensification, as I shall explain further below. Although there is a wide range of objects that are capable of becoming transcendent objects for someone, I shall argue here that only other intensely-conscious beings (i.e., only other persons) are capable of adequately fulfilling the need for transcendent value experience on a permanent and sustainable basis.
I shall speak of transcendent objects in both a primary and a derivative sense. Strictly speaking, a primary transcendent object is one who in principle would be capable of pulling me out of the circle of egocentricity without my previously having been pulled out of it by some prior transcendent value experience. This becomes possible because of a mutually non-judgmental and non-directive empathic structure, or ‘space of empathy,’ which allows defenses against vulnerability to be dropped, so as to facilitate such an extreme admiration and compassion that the circle of egocentricity as a whole seems trivial and insignificant compared with the positive value experience revealed through the direct experience (through empathy) of the other’s intrinsic value.
Once such an experience has occurred, then it may be possible (if certain ‘empathic skills’ are developed) to transfer the way we feel toward a primary transcendent object to other persons (i.e., transcendent objects in the secondary or derivative sense), by reminding ourselves of the way we felt toward a primary transcendent object’s intrinsic value, and by learning to focus on those aspects of others that make it possible to feel this way toward them, though usually with a lesser degree of intensity than with a primary transcendent object because the ‘space of empathy’ with them is less complete, for a variety of reasons that will soon become obvious. Most ‘mature adults’ -- those who to greater or lesser extents have moved beyond the circle of egocentricity (which sooner or later becomes self-defeating) -- have experienced transcendent value in both the primary and the derivative senses. To define the meaning of an entire life purely in terms of the transcendent value experience of one primary object is not possible.
Because it is important to speak in experiential as well as abstract terms, I shall also refer to primary transcendent objects as ‘spiritual partners’ -- using ‘spiritual’ not in a conventionally religious sense, but in the sense of the French ‘esprit.’ The word ‘spiritual’ is meant to emphasize the sense that the relationship centers primarily around the kinds of conscious, subjectively experienced, or intersubjective processes that can be revealed and further develop within the space of empathy. ‘Partner’ suggests that a primary transcendent value experience requires mutuality, because it is facilitated by a mutual space of empathy in which people are able to reveal themselves somewhat defenselessly, so that each is able to directly and immediately empathize with (and not merely cognize) the other’s most serious ontological vulnerabilities, facilitating strongly felt admiration and compassion for the other’s ontological embattledness or endangerment.
Merely to ‘love’ other conscious beings does not accomplish this purpose by itself. We shall see that it is necessary to undergo a many-faceted process through which we first learn to intrinsically value a transcendent object more highly than we can value ourselves (for reasons that will be explained more fully as we proceed), thus highly enough to genuinely overcome the circle of egocentricity. In this way, we achieve access to a direct experience of a conscious being’s positive value that is structured in such a way that it can be felt more sharply and inspire us more enthusiastically than can the value of our own being -- but only in conjunction with a threatening and disturbing abandonment of the fundamentally egocentric perspective. This overcoming of egocentricity in itself is no mean accomplishment in a modern or postmodern ‘culture of narcissism.’ Once it has been accomplished, we must then face the fact that, if the sociocultural complexities of life are not to subvert the strength of this direct experience of the value of being, and at the same time if we are to avoid a clinging symbiosis (which also destroys the transcendent value experience), we must learn to transfer our ability to focus on a primary transcendent object’s seemingly infinite intrinsic value by using the knowledge we have thus acquired to focus also on this same value as it exists in other people. In the process, one learns to abstract the valuational feeling involved so that it can serve as the basis for a strongly-felt enough set of motivating values to unify the self toward the future. This unification restores the equilibrium that was lost when the need for transcendent value experience forcibly pulled us out of ourselves and dismantled the previous motivational unity of the self -- i.e., when that largely egocentric unity began to feel its inadequacy to counterbalance the dilemma of finitude. Once the new form of unity is achieved, through the ability to sustain a complete enough non-egocentric admiration-through-compassion for conscious beings as they bear up under the untamable harshness of the ontological dilemma of finite beings (with love for a past or present primary transcendent object serving as the paradigm for this feeling), then life is experienced as more than positively valuable enough to outweigh the negativity of its own unavoidable evils, and without the necessity for self-deceptively denying those evils through grand metaphysical theories. (This is not to deny, of course, the importance of metaphysics when done in a sober and non-self-deceptive way.)
1. Transcending the Circle of Egocentricity as a ‘Religious’ Need
The idea that a strong enough love for one’s fellow human beings might serve a religious need without the help of metaphysical or supernatural doctrines is not new. John Dewey, for example, proposes just such a notion in A Common Faith, beginning with the following characterization of ‘religious experience’:
There are . . . changes in ourselves in relation to the world in which we live that are . . . inclusive and deep seated. . . . Because of their scope, this modification of ourselves is enduring. . . . There is a composing and harmonizing of the various elements of our being such that, in spite of changes in the special conditions that surround us, these conditions are also arranged, settled, in relation to us. This attitude includes a note of submission. But . . . it is something more than a mere Stoical resolution to endure unperturbed throughout the buffetings of fortune (16-17).
For Dewey, religion is that which provides a sustainable sense that life itself (as opposed to specific goals attained in life) has more than enough ultimate meaning or value to counterbalance its pains and failures, however serious and numerous they might be. From this definition of religious experience, Dewey argues that "When the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unify the self (22)," then "the sense of the dignity of human nature is as religious as is the sense of awe and reverence (25)." Thus, "Human relations are charged with values that are religious in function (72)."
Ludwig Feuerbach, too, insists that the legitimate objects of religious feeling should be human beings. But, according to Feuerbach, we are too alienated from ourselves and from each other to enact such a love completely enough to be felt as a religious awe -- i.e., as an intensely positive experience of the extreme value of conscious beings. We therefore feel impelled, in effect, to imaginatively imbue a deity with the properties of consciousness and personality. By projecting onto the deity what is good in ourselves (i.e., in conscious beings), we avail ourselves of a love object devoid of any evil that might interfere with our ability to love the being. As Robert Tucker insightfully points out, this is why Marx, who studied Feuerbach very seriously, thought that the socio-political overcoming of human alienation would eliminate the need for the ‘opium’ of traditional religions.
The main purpose of the present work is not simply to argue for the abstract possibility that human love can serve the religious need (as the philosophers just mentioned have already suggested), but to understand why this is the case, and in what ways such a project might have a chance at success. It will be necessary to analyze some of the ways people have unknowingly yet desperately felt pulled to accomplish this result, through the ‘sexualization of religious experience’ (i.e., the use of sexual relationships to serve the religious need), and to establish a more effective way to accomplish it, through transcendent value experience by means of what I am calling ‘spiritual partnership.’
For this purpose, I define the ‘religious need’ in question very much as Dewey, Ernst Cassirer, Otto Rank and many anthropologists have defined it: as a need to address the problem of our own finitude in the face of the ontological predicament of finite beings -- i.e., our own inevitable death, powerlessness, alienation, and relative insignificance in the ultimate scheme of things. Some people may object to the use of the word ‘religious’ to describe this need. The reason I choose this word is that all religions of the world seem to try in one way or another to meet such a need. Indeed, the attempt to address the ontological predicament of the individual’s radical finitude might well be the only thing all religions have in common with each other.
I shall suggest that religions traditionally have attempted to create a positive value experience powerful enough to counterbalance the harshness of this predicament; and that such a positive value experience, in concrete terms, consists of a feeling of love, because to keenly and directly experience the positive value of a being other than ourselves, through awe-stricken appreciation for the uniqueness and irreplaceability of that being, means to love the being. Traditional religions try to make possible such a love by projecting onto a metaphysical principle or force (for example, the Logos, the Unmoved Mover), or onto a totemized animal, or onto a mythologized sun or moon, the properties of personality and consciousness, so that we can concretely feel the acute emotion of love toward that being. To love a being requires, concretely and as immediately experienced, that we simultaneously feel both admiration and empathy for the courageous authenticity of a conscious being in the face of its embattlement and opposition. In this way we focus on its uniqueness and irreplaceability as a center of conscious sensitivity.
The reason we cannot very intensely love ourselves in this sense is not so much, as Feuerbach thought, because we are too alienated from ourselves (although it is true that we are self-alienated); rather, it is essentially because an intense focus on our own embattled authenticity in the face of the ontological predicament -- i.e., our own finitude -- is much less a positive than a negative experience. The very thing that is most valuable in our existence -- that we are irreplaceable centers of conscious sensitivity -- is precisely what most arouses our existential anxiety. To focus on our irreplaceability and essential sensitivity (hence vulnerability) would require focusing on our finitude. Ideally, the projection of consciousness and personality onto a deity should make possible such a love for a being other than ourselves, hence a positive value experience capable of overriding the negativity of the finite dilemma.
But it seems that the rational element in the contemporary mind is no longer as willing as it once was to be pushed aside to make room for this anthropomorphizing of a deity, be it an abstract principle or a metaphysical or physical ‘force.’ A science fiction film that popularizes the motto ‘The force be with you!’ is one of the few important American films in recent years to require only ‘parental guidance’ for children under 13; it is not considered to corrupt the moral or religious thinking of the youth, even though it reduces the deity to just such an impersonal ‘force.’ The contemporary mind increasingly demands this depersonalization of the deity, because we are unable to take fanciful anthropomorphisms seriously enough to inspire the real feelings that are needed to overcome the bleakness of the ontological predicament. An egocentric and self-deceptive belief in personal immortality through some sort of magical operation of physics (or some nebulous ‘merging’ with the physical universe) is thus retained, while love for a deity becomes increasingly incomprehensible. And, because the remaining belief in immortality is so thoroughly self-deceptive, it only further complicates our dilemma rather than solving it.
Religion therefore becomes less and less able to address the finite predicament, and the result -- as René Muller has well shown in The Marginal Self -- is increasing anxiety, neurosis, suicide, drug-use, automaton-conformism, authoritarianism, and any other method to temporarily distract ourselves from the harshness of the predicament without really reconciling ourselves to it or coming to terms with it. What I hope to describe in this work is a way to come to terms with it by means of admiration as enhanced by compassion for the consciousness of other human beings. The combination of extreme compassion with extreme admiration for a conscious being who is the object of our experience results in a powerful direct feeling of the value of being, which we are then able to enjoy through empathy. When such feelings are potent enough, they pull us out of our egocentricity to directly experience the value of another being more fully than we can experience any positive valuation from the egocentric perspective (because, again, we cannot very positively appreciate our own finitude and irreplaceability). In this way, we create a positive value experience so pronounced, which so permeates our entire value system, that it overrides the negativity of the ontological predicament. For reasons that will then become clear, this positive valuation ‘spreads’ to incorporate other people and experiences, so that they too are experienced from a less egocentric perspective; thus our attitude toward them is permeated with the intensity of Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ but with a feeling of positive, quasi-aesthetic awe resulting from having undergone the psychological process of spiritual partnership, the beginning of which is that the other’s value is experienced as superseding our own.
The question naturally arises: Who is the person capable of initially ‘pulling us out of ourselves’ so that such a powerful value experience could occur that it would lead to adequate compensation for the full brutality of the finite predicament without the help of metaphysical denials of the predicament? If such an experience commonly occurs in human relationships, then why are so many of us still disturbed by the predicament, and why do we still need to find such devious and far-flung methods of deceiving ourselves about it or numbing ourselves to it? But on the other hand, if such relationships are very rare, then with whom are we to pursue such a relationship? The answer to this question is very complex, and it varies individually, culturally, and historically. One thing that will become clear is that there is no point in looking for someone with whom to relate in such a way. When both people are in a peculiar condition of need or readiness for it, the possibility naturally presents itself. The key question is whether they understand the concepts necessary to use this opportunity wisely, or whether they misconstrue it in terms of inappropriate categories. For example, I shall try to show that the reduction of such an opportunity to a case of mere ‘sexual attraction’ or ‘romantic infatuation’ is a common type of misconstrual in our own time, because people who have opposite sexual polarity and/or are sexually attracted to each other are especially well-suited to serve the spiritual partnership function for each other. This is one of the main reasons why the relationship between the sexes has always been such a tumultuous battleground, and why even the most non-sexual relationships between opposite-sexed individuals have been so anxiously and elaborately tabooed. We shall see, however, that sexual attraction and sexual polarization are not essential ingredients of the transcendent value experience of spiritual partnership per se, but may often serve as catalysts for the development of the experience.
In some periods of history, romantic relationships seem fairly easily to lend themselves to the possibility of a certain amount of spiritual partnership, in which people can serve as transcendent objects for transcendent value experiences, provided that the romantic partners succeed in playing their cards right. But, of course, even during those periods, people all too often do not play their cards right. And during other historical periods (like the present one), the effects of violent social upheaval, extremely conflict-prone social and economic relations between the sexes, and other factors somewhat systematically cause romantic partners to feel defensive and mistrustful toward each other -- a necessary precaution against the cataclysmic pain that a failed or frustrating romance or marriage can inflict if we make ourselves too vulnerable to it. The increasing narcissism of contemporary culture also contributes to this problem, as we shall see. During still other periods, women are trapped in isolation and in such subordinate roles that meaningful spiritual interaction between romantic partners becomes virtually impossible (a problem astutely explored in the writings of Kate Chopin, for example). At such times, spiritual partnership -- in the sense needed to facilitate transcendent value experience -- is often found outside the context of the romantic or erotic sphere. For instance, judging from the Symposium, it seems likely that the henpecked husband Socrates found spiritual partnership with the erudite hetaira woman, Diotima -- as well as with young men (considering certain remarks in the Phaedrus, the Parmenides and other dialogues; note also that Socrates always seems ‘immune to seduction’ in these contexts, and is always interested in the spiritual side of such relationships rather than the physical side.) As another example, judging from certain biographies of Sir Thomas More, it appears that the relationship between More and his daughter tended strongly toward spiritual partnership.
The common pattern in these very diverse situations seems to be that two people interact in such a way that each learns from the other to empathically enact a vast realm of spirituality (or pattern of consciousness) that is readily accessible in the other but largely suppressed in oneself. This can help us to understand why, in modern and postmodern cultures, the spiritual partnership experience is increasingly linked to sexuality and romantic love: Typically, a predominantly ‘masculine’ subject (a term whose precise meaning will be considered in due course) and a predominantly ‘feminine’ subject interact so that each learns through empathy to vicariously enact the intensely admired differentness of the other’s style of being. The important point for our purposes is not whether or not this learning to enact the style of each other’s different forms of being has great value for its own sake; the point is rather that, in the process, each learns the dramatic effect of the principle that another conscious being’s value can be experienced in a more intensely positive way than one’s own, provided that certain conditions for a complete space of empathy are present. We shall find that such a relationship is not a static condition that endures unchanging, but rather a dynamic process that unfolds through a series of different stages or movements, and which results, if followed all the way through these various stages, in certain spiritual outcomes.
In fact, one problem that some readers may have to guard against in following my presentation is that, in essence, they already may have lived through a transcendent value experience in the crucial respects, including all or many of the spiritual changes that it is capable of engendering. In this case, they may have trouble remembering what it is like to experience the dilemma of finitude as an anxiety provoking and sometimes even suffocating threat to the ultimate value of being; correlatively, some readers may already have met, to greater or lesser extents, their ‘religious needs’ in the sense I am using. The story I am narrating here begins at the point when the ontological dilemma of the individual’s radical finitude is first fully, non-self-deceptively acknowledged and felt, and when the need for an intense enough value experience to overshadow this negativity is in the process of being felt. What I believe is really in need of being explored, though, is the series of changes that may flow out of such a spiritual partnership experience, because it is these changes -- not the spiritual partnership experience by itself -- which are capable of resolving the finite dilemma in a positive, constructive and permanent way.
I shall try to show that, during the contemporary period, people often fancy themselves as ‘falling in love’ when what is really happening has only a superficial connection or no connection at all with eroticism, but rather is primarily the pull of the need for transcendent value experience, which becomes more pronounced at certain times of life. In other cases, ‘falling in love’ itself results from an intensification of feelings toward a potential spiritual partner by symbolizing purely spiritual needs sexually -- i.e., by means of allowing one’s entire being to be permeated with sexual feelings (in the ways I discussed more extensively in Eros in a Narcissistic Culture). In any case, the usual tendency is to fail to see the potentiality for the transcendent value experience made possible by spiritual partnership in either its romanticized or its non-romantic forms. This tendency to misinterpret our own experience in terms of mere physical sexuality (perhaps combined with ordinary friendship toward the sex object) results from a largely hedonistic and egocentric worldview, which now is especially promoted by the unlucky combination of drive-reductionism in the social sciences and advanced-capitalist consumerism in the popular media. Such influences make us feel that the essential motivation of human beings should be to obtain benefits for themselves and to project attractive (and essentially invulnerable) images. (This is the now widely discussed ‘narcissistic’ value system, which in my view is by no means limited to modern Western cultures, but only tends to be exacerbated in them). We thus find ourselves unable to see spiritual partnership as a non-egocentric and (as I shall show) transcendent value enhancing relationship, in which people promote each other’s spiritual growth (beyond the circle of egocentricity) through purely altruistic feelings of compassion and admiration precisely for each other’s courageously authentic ontological vulnerabilities. All too often, instead of seeing the possibility of spiritual partnership in these terms, we feel compelled to categorize the experience as a mere sexual attraction or romantic infatuation, and thus denigrate and destroy its spiritual implications. Thus frustrated in the need for transcendent value experience through an adequate space of empathy with a primary transcendent object, we then feel guilty for our dissatisfaction, and therefore become self-deceptively defensive and constricted in our relations to others. This self-contradiction and resulting internal conflict arise from a mistrust of our own motives caused by a distorted view of the nature of human consciousness, especially in its motivational dimension. One result of this conflict is that we erect a taboo, in effect, which virtually designates any significant personal interactions between men and women as sexual overtures and scripts them into preconceived, conventionally ‘romantic’ patterns. This rigidified fear of the opposite sex then ‘protects’ us from just the kind of interaction we need to make us spiritually whole and to teach us how to revere the spirituality in human beings with the extremely positive feelings that the intrinsic value of an intensely conscious being can render possible. We could learn to experience this reverence, if we were to allow ourselves such feelings of selfless, quasi-aesthetic appreciation, because we would be pulled both to admire and to take compassion on the ontologically embattled attempt at authenticity of a sensitive being in the face of the world’s brutal onslaught.
We shall see that such reverent admiration mixed with compassion can occur fully and on a sustained basis only when each person is able to non-directively and non-judgmentally empathize with the other’s authentic states of consciousness in spite of and in part even because of her foibles and imperfections, thus providing a mutual ‘space of empathy’ in which each stream of consciousness is able to unfold in genuinely-motivated directions. In this way, each person’s authentic consciousness is for the most part defenselessly exposed to the other without pretense, and at the same time both feel that they are allowed to be fully and intensely who they really are. This rare combination of intense consciousness and exposed vulnerability then allows each to deeply admire and take compassion for the other’s courageous attempt at authenticity in the face of the crass hostility and adversity of an ontological predicament that threatens and endangers the self-actualization of authentic consciousness at the needed level of intensity.
By ‘authenticity’ in this context, I simply mean being honest with ourselves about the content and meaning of our own consciousness. This is of course a matter of degree, and there is not necessarily anything ‘inauthentic’ about having had our consciousness shaped or influenced by history or environment, provided that we do not pretend to think or feel differently from the way we really think or feel. Granted, this is not a sharp distinction. When I write a budget proposal, arguing that I need more money than I really need because I know the granting authorities will provide less than is requested, I may in the process convince myself that I really need the additional amount. To some extent, I may now genuinely believe that I need the additional amount, but to some extent I know on some level that some of the arguments were trumped-up and that I really do not need as much money as I pretend (to myself) to believe. To this extent, the belief is inauthentic. Authenticity is an important concept with regard to the workings of the spiritual partnership phenomenon, because I shall suggest that there is a very strong need to relate to someone on an authentic level in order to experience one’s own consciousness, as well as to experience the other’s being and value in a full way; yet fully authentic relationships are rare and difficult to establish.
The complete letting down of psychological defenses necessary for the trust, non-directiveness and non-judgmentalism that facilitate the space of empathy required by spiritual partnership obviously is very seldom found in human relationships. It presupposes altruistic commitment, loyalty, mutual trustworthiness and an almost transparent empathic understanding of each other’s feelings. These factors do not result from any passing whim, but from an investment of energy and concerted effort toward the goal of in-depth communication of subjective processes. No one would want to engage in more than a few such relationships in a lifetime, and the nature of the requirements just listed almost inevitably entails, if successful, a long-term commitment. It cannot be entered lightly, or taken lightly once begun. Thus it is natural and healthy to be fearful of letting down our defenses to this extent at all. To do so is to set into motion a chain reaction that tears down the self-interested and egocentric orientation even more than we could ever originally intend or want, because we depend on this egocentricity for survival and effective functioning in the practical arena.
It is for this reason that the process of spiritual partnership, if carried through to its natural conclusion (and not aborted through narcissism and the danger of clinging dependence and deficiency-motivated symbiosis which will be discussed later), catapults us whether we like it or not (and most of us initially do not like it) into genuine humility, gratitude, and generalized agape. Our focus on the spiritual partner’s finitude (i.e., the person’s uniqueness, fleetingness and irreplaceability) in a sense tricks us into a non-egocentric perspective in which we appreciate the other’s value more sharply than we can our own (because we cannot focus this intensely on our own finitude in a positive way). We then learn to experience the ‘tragic sense of life,’ in Unamuno’s sense, which allows us to appreciate the uniqueness, fleetingness and irreplaceability of all people and events, but in a decidedly positive way (not in chronic anxiety, despair or depression) because of the effect of our intensely positive valuation of a primary transcendent object in the form of a ‘spiritual partner.’ I shall discuss Unamuno’s concept of the tragic sense of life further as we proceed.
What, then, is spiritual partnership? How does such a phenomenon come about and function? How does it facilitate the spiritual transformation that I have claimed is capable of resolving the finite dilemma? Why does it seem to orient itself so much more spontaneously around relationships between people of opposite sexual polarity? This work will attempt to address these perplexing questions, which until now have remained almost completely unspoken although their urgency for our time becomes increasingly obvious.
2. Spiritual Partnership, ‘Object Relations,’ and ‘Self Psychology’
‘Self psychology,’ as developed by Heinz Kohut, is generally regarded as an offshoot of, or as falling under the broader heading of ‘object relations theory,’ as exemplified by Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, Alice Miller, Christopher Bollas and others. Although I am aware that some followers of Kohut (for example, Ornstein) choose to emphasize the differences between object relations theory and Kohut’s self psychology -- and thus to insist on separating the two -- the differences are not very relevant to our discussion here. I shall therefore speak of self psychology as falling under the broader heading of object relations theory (as Alice Miller does, for example), since the points of interest for our purposes are issues on which Kohut and his followers completely agree with the earlier object relations theorists (and in fact with most ‘ego psychologists’).
Object relations theory and self psychology focus centrally on the ways in which we use our emotional relationships to certain selected ‘objects’ in our environment (‘selfobjects,’ in Kohut’s terminology) -- especially significant other people -- to facilitate the development of the self and its continued cohesion through the various developmental stages of childhood and adulthood. Since this kind of approach attributes great importance to the dynamics through which we enact idealizing feelings of love, ‘awe’ (Kohut, 104), a ‘longing’ to ‘merge’ with the idealized object (80), and even ‘addictive’ fixations (114-115), it seems natural to assume that this area of psychological research is especially relevant to the phenomenon of ‘spiritual partnership’ as I shall be describing it here.
The most basic assumptions of object relations theory (and self psychology) are essentially derivable from the central assumption discussed in the previous section -- that conscious beings require a concrete matrix of embodied symbolization in order to facilitate the enactment of their conscious potential. It is necessary only to add to this assumption two others: First, that embodied symbolization requires interaction with other conscious beings; and secondly, that one of the most important kinds of consciousness that needs to be actualized in this process is the experience of the value of being. The opening section of this paper argued that the need to affirm the value of being requires that we experience this value as instantiated in other conscious beings, through empathy. This leads to a need for ‘idealization’ of a transcendent object to facilitate a transcendent value experience.
Object relations theories rely on very similar reasoning. The ‘idealized object imago,’ according to object relations theory (and self psychology), is supposed to be a person whose image or presence is made to carry the ideals of the self during any time of weak or weakened self-concept. Such times include not only early infancy and neurotic regressions to infantile states, but also any period of self-doubt, self-restructuring or radical soul-searching, as during the germinating phase of intense creative work (Kohut 192-3). According to Theodor Reik, a similar period of weakened self-concept is often the precursor to falling in love. (In Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, I qualified Reik’s view to include cases where, even though all is going well in our egocentric life projects, we experience this worldly success as radically inadequate to provide a sense that life has enough ‘ultimate meaning’ or ‘significance.’ The precursor to love in this case is still essentially the same kind of soul-searching and self-questioning that Reik posits.) Since personal growth and self-actualization comprise a kind of creativity that demands radical soul-searching and restructuring in a more obvious way than any other kind of creativity (see Rollo May’s The Courage to Create), this view would also imply that the idealization of significant others plays an important role in the normal process of self-actualization, as many theorists of love have suggested (see May’s Love and Will, Ethel Person, Nathaniel Branden, the Jungian Robert Johnson, Maslow, Kohut, and Miller, just to name a few). God also is interpreted in this approach as an idealized other with whom strong longings for merger (through empathy) are felt. Saints, martyrs, ancestors or any other worshipped religious object could be viewed in the same way.
All the psychologists within this tradition emphasize that we often need to find another person in whom we can envision our highest ideals embodied, because we cannot fully enough make ourselves into an object for such appreciation. While object relations psychologists recognize this phenomenological fact, because they perceive it through empathy and introspection, they are less clear as to why it should be the case. Kohut seems to assume that it is difficult for the same being to play the role of both subject and object of the same experience. Thus consciousness, in order to actualize itself, needs to become ‘intentional’ consciousness in the phenomenological sense -- needs to be conscious in relation to some object. For Kohut, as for may phenomenologists, ‘consciousness is always consciousness of something’ (Lauer); furthermore, this something that constitutes the object of consciousness is usually construed as something outside of or over against the experiencing subject (for example, see Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego). I shall suggest below that the subject-object relation is more complicated than this and that, as David Carr has shown very well, the object need not always stand over against the subject; there may be non-intentional experiences, as Husserl grants in Ideas. But, generally speaking, a state of ‘intentional’ consciousness does not take just that state itself as its object: Anger is anger about something; jealousy is jealousy of someone. In many instances we may be confused as to what our feelings are ‘about’ in this sense, and we are often motivated to misconstrue their meaning or hide it from ourselves, but there is still something about which we feel what we feel. I also suggested in An Ontology of Consciousness that, in many cases, we take something as the ‘object’ of a feeling, not because it is what ‘caused’ us to feel that way, or because it is the essential ‘subject matter’ of the feeling, but rather because that particular object serves as a symbol or symbolization matrix in relation to which the feeling can be enacted more fully -- as when an otherwise indifferent piece of music is used to call up the fullness of feelings toward a love object. The music is not the primary reason why we feel what we feel; it only serves as an ‘object’ in the sense that it helps us to symbolize and thus make more concrete the way we feel. Gendlin has oriented an entire cognitive theory and psychotherapy around this point. By giving an adequate concrete symbolic expression to a cognitive or emotional state, we bring further implicit aspects of it from a preconscious to a conscious status, thus intensifying it as consciousness and allowing it to unfold. This also seems to be the reason for Bollas’ point that ‘the subject selects and uses objects in order to materialize elements latent to his personality’ (2). And again, ‘True self use of an analyst is the force of idiom finding itself through experiences of the object. . . . the analysand’s aim is not [at such times] to communicate a child-parent paradigm script, but to find experiences to establish true self in life.’ (16-17)
Because the kind of symbolization process that is relevant here depends on concrete embodiedness, object relations theorists are also correct in stressing that not only must consciousness actualize itself in relation to an object; it is also easier to make a concrete object than an abstraction serve as the bearer of idealized feelings -- especially very early in life, before the ego has developed far enough to allow for embodiment of such abstractions (in the form of an ‘ego ideal’ component of the superego). This is often one of the reasons for the idealizing ‘transference’ to another person, such as a psychotherapist (in which the latter appears ‘larger than life’ and is made to serve as the object either of the patient’s need for narcissistic gratification, or of the need for an ego ideal); according to Kohut, the transference occurs as part of a regression to a more disorganized period of development because the self concept is in the process of being questioned and reconstructed. Since the patient has trouble focusing on the guiding ideals of his or her own superego (which is in transition and disarray), the person either takes the analyst as an ideal in their place, or tries to get the analyst to affirm the weakened narcissistic ego. But we must remember that such idealization of another person does not occur only in regressive or neurotic conditions. It occurs when people fall in love, or idealize a ‘mentor’ figure (as according to Jones, 1953, Freud did in relation to the admired image of Fliess), or use a fellow artist or scientist as an ‘alter ego’ (as according to Gedo, 1980, Picasso did in relation to Braque). In Kohut’s view, this idealization occurs frequently as a natural part of the creative process. As the artist or scientist wrestles with the radical deconstruction of her own previous worldview, resulting in chaos and a disintegration of the feeling of stability, direction and competence of the self (and thus her identity as a person), she finds another person in whom to invest the now unavailable ideals (Kohut 193-4).
The main reason for all the transformations of idealization from the abstractions of the ego ideal to the concreteness of another person or to an artistic or scientific product is, in my view, traceable ultimately to Gendlin’s point about the need to symbolize feelings in a concrete way in order to allow them to be fully felt -- as for example feelings of depression can be intensified, focused, and worked through if we find the right piece of music to listen to in order to facilitate the process, or as talking to someone about our frustrations enables us to feel them more fully and more accurately. I shall discuss the role of this kind of symbolization much further as we proceed.
In the case of adults, the main reason we so frequently take a conscious being as the idealized imago seems to be that (as elaborated more fully in Ellis 1992) conscious beings comprise the one type of being in the universe that most obviously and most strongly have intrinsic and irreducible value. This is why it is difficult to imagine any moral value in a universe completely devoid of any conscious beings whatever. But, for reasons that will become more and more clear as we proceed, it is possible to directly experience the value of a being other than ourselves in a much more intense and positive way than we can directly experience the value of our own being. The reason for this last point goes beyond the abstract philosophical assumption that the same experience cannot be both subject and object for itself. As adults, we obviously are able to have quite intense feelings about ourselves -- for example, self-pity, pride, self-hatred, anxiety about the meaning of our being and at times depression about its seeming meaninglessness. When we speak of relatively normal adults (not severely schizophrenic, autistic or mentally retarded ones), we are speaking of beings who have learned not only to make themselves the object of certain feelings, but also more or less to make a distinction between feelings toward the self-as-experiential-process and feelings toward the self-as-object-for-others. For example, we may feel depressed because the self-as-experiential-process cannot find the right opportunities to express itself or meet its needs adequately; or on the other hand we may feel depressed because the self-as-object-for-others is negatively evaluated by important others. We thus know how to make some sort of distinction between the self as experiential process and the self as object (although we may sometimes confuse the two), and we often feel emotions toward ourselves in both these senses.
Even so, the fact remains that adults tend to feel the idealization of others more intensely than they can feel the idealization of themselves. To understand why this is the case, we must explore the feeling of love not as the outcome of an abstract philosophical principle of intentionality, but in a concrete way. In this exploration, we see that love entails both admiration and compassion for an intrinsically valuable conscious being in the face of its ontological endangeredness. One of the main ways in which love is intensified is to focus on this endangeredness of the conscious being in its finitude. But to focus on our own finitude is to enter the realm in which we must remain stubborn, stoic and militant in our fight against the forces and conditions that make us finite. To give up this rugged attitude of strong-mindedness would be to lay down our arms, give up the struggle, and wallow in self-pity. Not only is this a luxury we cannot afford, but it would also become an intensely negative rather than positive feeling. Thus, paradoxically, to focus on the existential embattledness of another being intensifies our love and thus our admiration and the floating, euphoric feelings that go with love -- the direct feeling of the positive value of life that inspires us; whereas on the other hand to focus on our own embattledness has a strong tendency to depress and discourage us.
The feelings of admiration in love also tend to be more strongly positive when the love object is someone other than ourselves. One way of seeing this point is to reflect on the stagnation that results from too much self-admiration. Another way to see it is to notice that admiration tends to be intensified when the forms of consciousness in the other person are of a kind that we would like to actualize in ourselves, but cannot or have not been able to. We therefore intensely crave the other person’s presence, so that we can vicariously enjoy the admired form of consciousness, and at the same time we fear the person because our lack of control over this urgent need in ourselves gives the love object so much power over us. The urgency of the craving and the fear of having it frustrated greatly intensify our feeling of admiration for the other person. As a clear example, consider how much more frequently we tend to completely intensify admiration toward persons of opposite sexual polarization (and/or those toward whom sexual symbolization of the feelings is possible), often to the point of distraction and ‘divine madness’ -- and sometimes madness that is not so divine.
To suggest that infants have not yet learned to feel both admiration and compassion in the same emotion is entirely consistent with this approach. If the infant admires the omnipotent other, such admiration is more likely to stem from this object’s power to meet the infant’s needs than from the object’s vulnerability or sensitivity. And if the infant can feel compassion toward itself in some sense, this compassion is more likely to be a negative experience (the ‘depressive position’) than a form of admiration. When the omnipotent object fails to meet an infant’s needs, the appropriate response is anger or even denial that the failing object is even the same entity as the omnipotent one (i.e., the ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad mother’ are dissociated from each other). And when the infant succeeds in admiring itself, such admiration is more likely to result from its supposed power to meet its own needs and win the admiration of others, not from the sensitivity toward which one feels compassion. Thus it is unlikely that infants can feel ‘love’ in the adult sense (which combines both admiration and compassion) that is the primary concern of this work.
Nonetheless, for their own reasons and in their own ways, infants need to relate to admired others through patterns that are emotionally significant not only because they serve to meet the infant’s needs for homeostatic drive reduction, but also because the interactions serve to facilitate the infant’s ability to actualize its own patterns of consciousness as they unfold toward increasing complexity. And intense feelings toward the significant other seem to play a part in many of the interactions needed to serve this ‘symbolizing’ function. Here again, the relation of infant to significant other is analogous in this respect to the relation of a listener toward a piece of music that enables the listener to work through certain emotional processes by ‘symbolizing’ and ‘concretizing’ them in relation to the music. Without the availability of significant others, this symbolizing function would be thwarted, and consciousness could not sustain the desired level of intensity and complexity. This much seems to be as true for infants as for adults.
Object relations theory’s approach to interpreting the meaning of religious experience is clearly more sympathetic to the possibility of a legitimate and healthy role for such experiences in the normal psyche than earlier psychoanalytic approaches, such as those of Freud and Otto Rank. Freud and Rank seem to view religion essentially as a form of self-deception as defense against the too-painful reality of our own death. While I shall agree with Freud and Rank that religion occurs in response to a human need to come to terms with the problem of our own finitude (not only death, but also the powerlessness, alienation and relative insignificance of the individual), I shall also suggest that self-deceptive forms of religion are only one way of dealing with this problem. Other forms of religion attempt to deal with it, not by denying the harsh reality of finitude, but by providing a positive value experience intense enough to counterbalance the harshness of our dilemma, so that we can fully appreciate and directly experience the positive value of life in spite of the reality of such evils. Spiritual partnership is in effect a way to experience this value through non-egocentric feelings of positive valuation toward other conscious beings -- an experience we learn to have by means of a certain sequence of phases that must be undergone at the point when we have entered into a relationship that embodies an especially good space of empathy and thus an unusually strong proportion of spiritual partnership.
Although some psychoanalysts might interpret the phenomenon of spiritual partnership as a narcissistic transference in the interest of regression to an infantile condition as a result of unresolved ‘mirroring’ needs (i.e., phase-appropriate gratification of narcissistic needs that should have been met by the infant’s caretakers), such an interpretation begs the question. It deflects to an earlier period of life the question as to why conscious beings need to invest feelings of idealization in other conscious beings than themselves. To explain such needs entirely in terms of an infant’s strategies to get its homeostatic drives reduced is to resort to a complete homeostatic drive reductionism that Freud originally championed but then rejected in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and for good reason. If the only aim of living organisms were to reduce their homeostatic drives, the easiest way to accomplish this result would be suicide. For this reason Freud recognized that not only do we want to reduce our drives, but we also want to remain conscious while doing so, and we want to maintain this consciousness with a certain degree of intensity and complexity. I have argued elsewhere (1986, 1995a, 1995b) and will further argue here that the earlier Freud was wrong, and the later Freud was right on this point. If so, then the demand to maintain a certain level of conscious existence motivates a realm of needs that cannot be explained simply as methods of attaining homeostatic drive reduction. These ‘existential’ needs are geared toward experiencing ourselves as fully alive, as conscious in an interesting and meaningful way. In order to actualize conscious potential in this way, we need to engage in certain kinds of significant relationships with other people.
Bollas even suggests that the neonate is already possessed of such needs, that it already has a drive toward actualizing certain potential forms of being that will lead to more and more complex forms of consciousness until a complex and self-actualizing self finally eventuates. If so, then the neonate would be merely one among many instances of a conscious being who has existential as well as homeostatic needs and faces the problems inherent in the finite condition (alienation from needed others, powerlessness, etc.). True, the neonate confronts this condition in a more painful and cataclysmic way, at least in some respects. But this does not mean that only the neonate confronts it. Some psychologists, notably Adler and Horney, have elevated the infant’s difficulty in dealing with its relative powerlessness and alienation to the leading concept in the etiology of neurosis. But, of course, all adults, whether neurotic or not, must continue to confront and deal with these same basic existential problems.
This is why I say that to explain all human needs for intense positive value experiences through love, idealization, etc., as regressions to an infantile stage of development is to avoid the real question. Such an explanation would trivialize the question as to why conscious beings have such needs in the first place. At the same time, we can profit immensely from the insights about idealizing love relationships that theories of object relations (and self psychology) now offer us. And the understanding of object relations obviously can help us to see better why certain kinds of love toward a deity, or toward a human being, can serve the need to come to terms satisfactorily with the problems of our own finitude. Kohut, for one, insists strongly that the need for idealizing feelings toward others persists throughout the life cycle, and is not ‘resolved’ in infancy.
It would therefore seem that we can summarize the relationship between universal ontological problems of the human condition and the particular neurotic dysfunctions of individuals and cultures in something like the following way:
1. Certain inevitable anxiety-arousing conflicts are unavoidable for conscious beings per se, regardless of their circumstances. Among these are relative powerlessness, death, insignificance, and the threat of alienation from others whom one needs for the experience of value and the actualization of one’s own potential.
2. Different people may experience these conflicts with greater or lesser intensity, depending on their physiological constitution and previous experiences.
3. Infants tend to experience them in a more cataclysmic way than others because of their extreme powerlessness.
4. Some people’s interpersonal environment (especially during childhood) is such that these inevitable conflicts are even more severe than they need to be.
5. If a person is constitutionally oversensitive, or if the conflicts are exaggerated by a dysfunctional environment (especially during childhood), the probability of a neurotic solution is increased. On the other hand, if a person is constitutionally undersensitive or environmentally understimulated, the conflicts may be simply ignored rather than resolved. In this case too the result may be neurosis. But, in principle, the basic conflicts are ones that all conscious beings must confront and try to work out, whether normal, neurotic, adult, or infant.
6. It follows that the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘neurotic’ people is not whether they must deal with the anxieties stemming from these ontologically necessary conflicts. The difference arises from the way in which we deal with them. It is therefore a mistake to merely write off a philosophical or religious attempt to deal with them (such as the present one) as an essentially neurotic project for which there would be no need if it were not for certain underlying neurotic conflicts. The conflicts themselves are universal, although those who deal with them in inadequate ways may of course experience them more cataclysmically, and therefore become immobilized as far as any realistic facing up to them is concerned. But these are the very people who are most likely in one way or another to deny the ultimate realities of their own death, vulnerability, threat of alienation, and relative insignificance in the cosmic scheme. To deny or ignore these problems therefore is by no means a sign of psychic health, and to worry about them is not necessarily a sign of neurosis. The real question is not whether we worry about them, but rather the adequacy and honesty of the methods we employ in coming to terms with them.
These kinds of psychological considerations will become particularly helpful when the time comes to understand how the idealization of a spiritual partner must eventually become the basis for an abstract set of guiding ideals felt strongly enough to unify the direction of the self toward the active promotion of intensely cherished motivating values based on the powerful and concretely symbolized appreciation of the intrinsic value of conscious beings per se. In effect, the love for a primary spiritual partner becomes transferrable to other people who share with the spiritual partner the essential condition of all conscious beings as they face the ontological predicament. This ‘spreading effect’ enables us in a sense to ‘abstract’ the Valuable from our experience of the spiritual partner without depriving it of its emotional power. At this point we can therefore incorporate the love for the spiritual partner into a comparably powerful love for the values that guide the self, thus becoming relatively autonomous rather than utterly dependent on an idealized object. This newfound independence, however, is derivative from the sense of awe and reverence we feel for the spiritual partner, and is indebted to this sense for the strength of the feeling that the values that guide us are important enough to overshadow the all-pervasive hardness of the ontological predicament.
3. Ways of Addressing the Finite Condition
Emanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity defines erotic love in terms of a strongly felt appreciation of the other person’s conscious being as "foreign to the world too coarse and too offensive (256)." In this sense, it might not be overly dramatic to say that all conscious beings are too good for the world in which we must struggle for our tenuous existence. Whether the vulnerability of a sensitive and half-ethereal being presents itself as threatened by death, alienation, powerlessness, or an inability to find opportunities to express itself, all these instances of finitude are essentially constitutive of what I have been calling the ‘ontological dilemma’ of consciousness -- i.e., the various problems that stem from our inevitably finite condition, including death, alienation from needed others, and our relative powerlessness and insignificance in the scheme of things. The ontological dilemma is primarily just this: Conscious beings depend on the physical realm and on other conscious beings to enact the meaning of our existence (as Adler, Horney, Heidegger, Camus and others emphasize). Furthermore, the very notion of meaning for conscious beings involves unfolding in time and thus projection into the future (Heidegger, Rank, Binswanger, May). All of these needs entail that the incongruity and unsupportiveness of the hostile realm in which consciousness must struggle to maintain a sense of meaning precipitates such a fundamental anxiety -- such a difficulty in accepting what Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms calls the ‘dirty trick’ of finitude -- that only a very strong and sustainable experience of positive value can compensate for it.
This characterization of the individual as finite, and therefore relatively powerless and insignificant in the face of the Sturm und Drang of the cosmic scheme, is not equivalent to what Marcel calls the ‘despairing worldview’ of the person who does not expect good things to happen or cannot enjoy them when they do. Rather, it is a frank recognition that, as Karen Horney puts it in The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, "Factually all of us are helpless toward forces more powerful than ourselves, such as death, illness, old age, catastrophes of nature, political events, accidents. This anxiety of the Kreatur [existential anxiety] has in common with the basic anxiety [of the neurotic] the element of the helplessness toward greater powers. . . ."(81) But it does not embody, she adds, the various distinguishing features of neurosis, which might be summed up with Horney’s phrase, "The neurotic . . . stands in his own way." (21, italics added.) Thus recognition of the finite condition, along with the anxiety it precipitates, is not inseparable from despair or neurosis. It becomes despair or neurosis when we attempt to deny or flee from our own finitude, and therefore develop dysfunctional orientations toward it. In fact, Horney, like Adler, Rank, Alice Miller and the object relations theorists, attributes neurosis in general to a lifelong attempt to deny the reality of our own finitude, resulting in an essentially narcissistic disturbance which she regards as the most basic building block of the irresolvable conflicts that underlie more specific neurotic symptoms. The neurotic attempts to overcome feelings of powerlessness, alienation and insignificance by constructing a ‘grandiose idealized self,’ leading to self-contempt and defensive maneuvers when the real self fails to measure up to the impossible standard of superiority and invulnerability.
Ever since the first apes became vaguely aware of the phenomenon of death, they were unable to reconcile themselves to it, and therefore exhibited existential anxiety in a primitive form. A mother ape carries around her dead infant for days or weeks, unwilling to admit that it is dead (Nature, 1989). Confronted with the death of one of their own, apes invariably display their usual symptoms of anxiety and distress. Once rid of the dead body as reminder of the reality of death, they again enjoy the tranquillity of the present moment, just as do lower animals who are too unintelligent to appreciate death’s existential implications even in a rudimentary form. But when the apes’ intelligence evolves further still, they will find themselves less and less able to forget or ignore the harshness of the finite condition that increasingly dawns on them (if only unconsciously, since it is too painful for full awareness).
It is at this point -- roughly the dawn of human intelligence -- that the idea of religion presents itself. Whatever their particular dogmatic content -- theism, animism, ancestor worship, etc. -- religions address the problems of finitude (death, powerlessness, alienation), and they do so in two main ways. The first way does not deny the harsh realities we confront, but attempts to create an experience of positive value so pronounced that it compensates us for the cosmic insult of our dilemma -- or, what amounts essentially to the same strategy, to create a frame of mind in which the terrible facts of ultimate reality (i.e., the inevitable problems of finitude) can be accepted without self-deception.
The second way, on the other hand, addresses the problem simply by denying its existence, very much in the manner of an animal in combat at the moment of capitulation: The animal pretends that the adversary does not exist, thus repressing out of awareness the terrible reality that faces it. It gazes distractedly into the distance, scratches itself, and even preens itself just as the predator prepares to deliver the death blow. In this way it numbs itself to inevitable destruction, while hoping that the adversary will miraculously take pity and decide to spare it. This seems to be the way primitive conscious beings naturally orient themselves toward overwhelmingly insurmountable threats to survival. In the same way, the second kind of religion -- unfortunately, the kind most popular in the modern world -- self-deceptively assumes that an all-good and omnipotent deity has within his power to solve all unsolvable problems. It thus ‘solves’ the ontological dilemma by pretending that such things as death, evil, unredressed injustice, or insurmountable personal problems (other than those created by one’s own moral faults through ‘free will’) simply do not exist, or are somehow nullified in the ultimate scheme of things. But in order to shut itself off from reality in such a thoroughgoing way, consciousness must riddle itself with such convoluted defenses that the ability to consciously experience the positive value of life is reduced to a fraction of its former self (because the experience of reality itself is reduced to a sham), and the same defenses lead to increasingly pervasive self-deception, irrationality, conflict, alienation, incompetence, and even violence. Again, we can find detailed discussion of these self-deceptive and essentially ‘neurotic’ consequences of the attempt to deny the reality of finitude in Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth and, at the wider cultural level, in The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. Although Horney seldom mentions religion in this regard, it is clear that the second type of religion, because of its self-deceptiveness, will often contribute to similar consequences. All of these dysfunctional consequences severely worsen and complicate the very crisis of meaning that the denial of harsh realities was meant to ‘solve’ in the first place. (Someone might object that we have committed ourselves here to the view that all primitive peoples are neurotic. I do not believe the above remarks imply that primitives are any more neurotic than moderns. Every age has its own healthy as well as unhealthy ways of contending with the finite condition, as I shall further argue below.)
These two very different functions of religion usually commingle with each other in a virtually inseparable way. If the goal is to create an intense positive-value experience, religion must present its adherent with the image of a conscious being in whom this positive value can be appreciated, since conscious beings are the only beings which manifestly, unquestionably, and by their very nature have extreme and absolute intrinsic value (and not merely instrumental value). For reasons which I have further elaborated in Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, it is impossible for a conscious being to directly experience its own positive value in an intense enough way to accomplish this purpose (i.e., to compensate adequately for the brutality of our dilemma). A person may intellectually acknowledge his or her own extreme positive value, and may intensely experience the positive value of objects of consciousness -- other people, music, or awe-inspiring landscapes; one may also very intensely experience the negative value associated with one’s own being (through depression or anxiety). But we cannot very intensely experience our own positive value in the way we do the positive value of another being. To very intensely experience the positive value of a being means to focus on the finitude of that being, to take compassion on the courageous authenticity of the finite being in its irreplaceability and uniqueness in the universe, which also means to admire the being in its uniqueness and irreplaceability. In sum, it means to love the being -- to concretely experience the ‘tragic’ significance of the being in the sense spoken of by Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life, where he emphasizes that love focuses on the value of a being by focusing on its uniqueness and irreplaceability, which arise precisely from its finitude. Later, I shall argue that, in the case of an omnipotent God in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense, one empathizes with his finitude in the sense that he creates other beings which are independent of him, enters into various kinds of relationships with them, and suffers when his creation goes awry. One also empathizes with the finitude of God’s representatives -- saints, martyrs, prophets, Christ on the cross, etc. It is most of all in this finitude that one can concretely feel love toward an omnipotent God, as toward a vulnerable human being. But the important point for now is simply that we cannot love ourselves in this intense and positive way, because to do so would require that we intensely take compassion on our own finitude, which would mean to wallow in self-pity. To wallow in self-pity is to experience life in an intensely negative way, not an intensely positive way. At the same time, such emphasis on self-love would demand a form of self-idealization so inflated as to lead to narcissistic disturbance in the ways described by Kohut, Horney and others.
Since we cannot love ourselves in an intense enough direct experience of our own tragic significance to appreciate the value of being in a positive enough way to compensate for the harshness of the ontological dilemma, we must find another conscious being on whom to project this experience. But to invest this extreme positive-value experience in another finite human being is inherently risky. Finite human beings are all too prone to cut off the kind of empathy needed to fully experience them (i.e., to vicariously experience their subjectivity through empathy) in order to appreciate them to this extreme extent. The most minimal requirement for the availability of this reverent kind of empathy seems to be that the other person should be someone who reciprocates our love -- i.e., someone who simultaneously both admires and takes compassion on our own embattled authenticity. The other person must reciprocate our love in order that such an extreme empathy may occur, because both people must be willing to allow each other’s consciousness to flow in a way unobstructed by judgmentalism, directiveness, defensiveness or mistrust; yet at the same time they must be interested enough in discovering each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings to encourage the difficult task of expressing, explicating and further clarifying them -- which also causes consciousness to unfold, intensify, change and grow. In this way, both people are able to be fully who they are in relation to each other, so that the richness of each other’s being becomes visible to each other. It will also become increasingly clear that the lover’s consciousness as well as the beloved’s must be allowed to flow freely without obstruction by defensive judgmentalism and directiveness of the various kinds which we shall discuss, because the undeflected flowing of our own authentic consciousness contributes to the liberated, euphoric feelings in love; this is why such worshipful valuational feelings (not the pseudo-love of the narcissist, which we shall discuss later) require mutuality and reciprocity; this requirement also distinguishes transcendent value experience through spiritual partnership from the one-way empathy that normally exists in psychotherapeutic relationships. A space of empathy must be created in which both people feel free to fully exist their authentic thoughts and feelings in relation to each other, to unfold in directions and patterns of consciousness which only each other’s presence facilitates, and thus to simultaneously intensify consciousness and make available a full and clear perception of the other’s soul, which then is admired with all the intensity of this heightened consciousness.
To engage in such mutual spiritual nakedness with another human being is risky and threatening. Not only are human beings reluctant to open themselves up to such a complete space of empathy because of their own psychological insecurities, self-deceptions, defenses and insensitivities; the space of empathy may also be destroyed by the other’s legitimate fear and mistrust of our own ‘undependability,’ which drives the person to avoid ‘dependence’ on us.
One of the most obvious candidates for such an intense mutual experience of positive value through a space of empathy of this kind naturally presents itself in the phenomenon of erotic or romantic love. However, the attempt to meet the need for an idealizing relationship by means of romance presents three main difficulties. First, as Simone de Beauvoir and others have suggested, the sexual need and the reproductive function lead couples who are in erotic love to become a socially defined ‘couple,’ set up housekeeping, and thus try to make their relationship double as a social institution -- an economic and utilitarian arrangement that creates moral and cultural tensions and conflicts, questions of guilt and blame, etc. And this social institutionalization, for a variety of reasons which I discussed in Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, tends to severely dampen or often even completely destroy the space of empathy, and thus diminish the feeling of awe-stricken admiration through compassion in a strong enough sense to provide an extreme yet sustainable experience of positive value so as to override the negativity of the ontological dilemma. The second main problem is that the need for the other to be sexually attracted to us in romantic love is apt to force narcissistic issues to the forefront. Concern with whether the other perceives us positively enough thus tends to compromise our willingness to drop defenses for a full space of empathy. And, third, a relationship to one individual cannot supply the entire meaning of life on a sustained basis. If asked to do so, it becomes a stifling symbiosis whose effect (as we shall see) is to destroy rather than facilitate spiritual partnership. To the extent that these three conflicts remain unresolved, erotic relationships lose their ability to fulfill the need for the kind of sustainable experience of value that we have been discussing here.
On the other hand, non-erotic relationships do not often allow for an intense and concrete enough direct experience of the other’s value. The reason for this shortcoming is that erotic feelings provide an intense physical-symbolization vehicle for the experience of love, in which one’s whole being can be enlisted in a fully-actualized concrete feeling process (as can be introspectively observed in erotic love). As we shall see more and more clearly, physical symbolization through some embodied activity (language, gesture, imagery, music, etc.) is crucial for the intensification of any state of consciousness. Most people cannot easily imagine how a non-erotic friendship could provide a matrix of physically-embodied activities which could serve as a concrete enough symbolization and thus intensification and extreme actualization of the feelings in question. This comparative calmness of non-erotic forms of love seems obvious from the fact that romantic feelings, at least in their initial phases (and at certain key times throughout a good romantic relationship), are felt in a way more intense and overpowering than the sedate, level-headed liking and concern for a friend or family member. Not only is the possibility of physical expression through sexual behavior unavailable, but also all the other physical embodiments of the feeling of being in love -- shortness of breath, continual adrenalin which causes sleeplessness, the cramped feeling of ‘restlessness’ in the chest, obsessive and involuntary mental imagery, etc., all the physical symptoms with which lovers are familiar, whether the love is ‘consummated’ or not.
In theory, religion offers the ideal solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, it allows us to intensely enough experience the positive value of being to compensate for the harshness of our ontological predicament. The personalities of deities, ancestors, martyrs and saints offer the believer an image of a conscious being in whom this value can be directly experienced by loving the being in a way that does not necessitate power struggles and conflicts with that being, nor cut into the perfection of the space of empathy because of mistrust, social role-playing, or need for self-aggrandizement and avoidance of blame for real or imagined shortcomings -- problems that are almost universal in permanent erotic-love relationships. Yet, at the same time that the relationship to the deity, ancestor, martyr or saint avoids the problems of erotic relationships, it also preserves the essential advantage that erotic relationships have over non-erotic ones: the use of physical, concrete symbolization of the feelings involved through the phenomenon of dramatic ritual and all-consuming artistic expression -- music, architecture, eulogies to the dead, verbalization of prayers, kneeling, genuflecting, lighting candles, wearing special jewelry and clothing, etc. Other emotionally significant events -- puberty, marriage, death, etc. -- are also converted to use for religious ritualization. All these religious rituals thus provide physical symbolization for the love of the deity.
Moreover, priests allow indirect empathic communication with the deity; thus reciprocation of the love is assured. Nor does the deity harbor any psychological shortcomings of its own that might destroy the feeling of empathy. As for the danger that our own defensiveness might destroy empathy, all of our own faults are forgiven or absolved, so that in theory it should be possible to avoid the inauthentic defensiveness on our part that would constrict consciousness and destroy the space of empathy.
The problem with this kind of positive value experience as a solution to the finite dilemma, however, is that the ideal conscious being (i.e., the deity) tends to serve this purpose only to the extent that the ideal being literally exists as a personal and conscious being. But the process of convincing ourselves that this ideal being (which we would like to believe exists) actually does exist, simply because we would like for it to exist, sets up a psychodynamic that already threatens to catapult us into an almost irresistible self-deception. As soon as we begin believing that things are true simply because we would like them to be true, we are already dangerously close to the realm of irreality. In this case, there is no longer any reason to try to avoid the self-deceptions inherent in the second type of religion, in which we simply ‘deal with’ the finite dilemma by denying the truth that it exists -- with all the consciousness-destructive consequences mentioned above. One pretends that people do not really die when they die, that there is no injustice or evil in the ultimate scheme of things, and that the only purpose of enduring our harsh and perilous existence ‘here below’ is to wait for death to deliver us to the rich pleasures of ‘heaven’ or the ‘non-physical realm.’
But to make these kinds of beliefs credible, the believer increasingly feels the need to adopt and defend a whole host of untenable and socially harmful philosophical theories: In the case of any occurrence that seems inconsistent with the ontological trappings of this rigid and literalistic kind of religious belief system -- such as the suffering and death of innocent children or the destruction of entire cities by tidal waves -- the natural tendency is to trump up some ad hoc hypothesis, such as the notion that the child was destroyed in order to teach the parents a lesson, or that the entire city was sinful. A whole philosophical worldview is then constructed which systematically denies any facts inconsistent with any of these ad hoc hypotheses. To resolve the problem of evil, we must suppose that man has ‘free will,’ and thus people must be blamed and punished for their psychological faults and aberrations rather than prevented from acquiring them through constructive social institutions. We then feel constrained to assume a dualism of mind and body rather than a harmonious reciprocity between them, so that the psychological motivation of human beings must be viewed in terms of conflicting ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ driving forces, leading to inability to understand ourselves. The tendency then is to enhance the congruence of the belief system with moral principles by supposing that poverty and other social disadvantages are fitting punishments for laziness and sloth (which result from free will); thus beneficial social programs must be viewed as infringements of the ‘freedom and responsibility’ of the individual, and the entire system of moral values must be distorted to make room for the importance of such ‘just retribution’ and ‘individual responsibility.’ The victims of social problems and other misfortunes must be held accountable for their own difficulties (on pain of undermining belief in free will, which is needed to solve the problem of evil); thus they must be required to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ and morally blamed if they do not. The correlations between ‘religiosity’ (in a fundamentalist sense), political conservatism and authoritarianism documented by Adorno and others are therefore not mere coincidences. For many believers, it evolves quite systematically from such a belief system that patriotism and military heroism are among the most important of all virtues, since neither soldiers nor civilians really ‘die,’ and since war against evil adversaries is necessary to reinforce the belief system, as Durkheim and others have suggested. Perhaps most important, the credibility of the whole edifice is reinforced by assuming that any person or thing that threatens to challenge this delicate patchwork of ad hoc hypotheses is wrong and evil and thus must be destroyed, suppressed, or ostracized.
Once the belief system has become this bizarre and convoluted, the believer must riddle his or her entire thought process with such systematic distortions of logical thinking that the defense mechanisms of denial, repression and self-deception become habitual, and thus the same illogic that characterizes this sort of religious belief also permeates the perception of reality. Inauthenticity becomes pervasive and therefore reduces the capacity for genuinely intense experiences of positive value -- as indeed the intensity of consciousness generally is eroded because of the extent to which experience is simply shut out of awareness. One becomes a placid, cud-chewing creature, or, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, a ‘hollow man.’
We seem to have reached the point in human history when these kinds of belief systems no longer serve their purpose very effectively. One may speculate as to the reasons for this erosion of traditional theocentricity in modern life, but the event itself seems undeniable. Accurate proof of the unequivocal existence of evil and injustice is now too readily available. The cosmic scheme of traditional religions is too much in conflict with science and technology (and thus with the demands of utility and survival) to motivate literal ontological belief in a trans-physical being who can eliminate our ontological dilemma for us; yet a merely symbolic or mythological deity is too fanciful to inspire the kind of deeply felt love required to give life the needed meaning. And the complexity of social life makes alienation, competitiveness, and mutual hostility such all-pervasive and inescapable realities that the authoritarian and philosophically ungrounded morality of dogmatic religions becomes at best more and more irrelevant, at worst a cause of repressed resentment and frustration in the psyche of the believer, who must practice a morality that seems to unilaterally undermine one’s competitive position in the struggle for survival in an urban-industrial form of culture. Moreover, the pervasiveness of self-serving propaganda on the part of authority figures makes modern people rightfully skeptical of authoritarian pronouncements -- pronouncements which in religious matters increasingly oppose themselves to readily available factual information about the nature of reality (for example, that the earth is not the center of the universe, that humans evolved through natural selection, that population control is necessary to avert environmental destruction, that the personalities of evil people result from developmental dysfunctions that are largely or perhaps completely beyond their control, etc.). But, for whatever reasons, the inability of traditional religions to resolve the finite dilemma for modern people seems to be a given fact. We might look back nostalgically to the time when praying and genuflecting were adequate to quell these ontological concerns, but to actually return to such times seems as unlikely as that the world economy will return to a predominantly agrarian rather than urban-industrial basis. The facts with which religious belief must be reconciled, and the logic needed to reconcile them, preclude the possibility that a magical and superstitious form of religion can any longer be taken very seriously by clear-thinking people.
Against this background, modernity’s increasing tendency toward investment of religious meaning into romantic relationships is understandable as addressing an urgent need for a different approach to religious experience -- one that does not depend on pie-in-the-sky self-deceptions or absurd metaphysical fantasies. This tendency is an attempt to reorient the experience of the numinous toward a finite rather than infinite love object -- a conscious being who physically exists and with whom one can concretely relate. But such an attempt falls short of serving religious ends adequately if it is done in such a way that fully authentic communication within a free space of empathy would be destroyed by the complications of sexual dependence, the social institution of marriage, and the vast matrix of empathy-destructive demands that sexual partners in our form of culture seem almost inevitably to place on each other, at least to a considerable extent, whether in or out of ‘wedlock.’ (As just one preliminary example, consider the bitter battles so prevalent in erotic relationships over ‘who is to blame’ for any given problem -- battles that are virtually non-existent in non-erotic friendships, where they would normally be considered silly and even neurotic.) What is needed, if we are to be able to fulfill the religious function in such a radically finitized way, i.e., if we are to have a positive value experience capable of compensating for the negative realities stemming from the finite dilemma, is a better way to facilitate religious reverence for the value of being as instantiated by other conscious beings -- a dimension of human relationships for which we have not developed adequate names or categories. This dimension must be experienced fully enough to make possible a kind of love for a concretely existing conscious being that is not based on sexual activity as a symbolization process (at least not primarily that); yet at the same time it must provide a more elaborate matrix for the physical symbolization of emotion than is normally available in ordinary non-erotic friendships or relationships with family members or work colleagues.
We shall see more and more clearly that people have been unconsciously groping toward such a religious alternative for at least ten centuries now (and probably longer) through the increasing sexualization of spirituality, in which a relationship to a ‘romantic’ love object becomes the spiritual center, the meaning-giving element, and the balm for all injury in most people’s most basic hopes and dreams, if not in reality. The problem is that this sexualization brings with it a new set of neuroses and malfunctions which indicate that something is fundamentally wrong in the basic assumptions we have made about the use of eros for this purpose. Instead of facilitating spiritual partnership, romantic symbolization seems largely to conflict with, inhibit, and divert attention from the kinds of symbolization processes needed to allow the process of spiritual transformation (beyond narcissism, egocentricity, and the dread of finitude) to reach its needed outcomes. But to recommend that people should simply eschew this tendency toward the humanization of religious objects as a dead-end and a bad idea would be like telling people who are breathing contaminated air that they should simply stop breathing. People grope toward psychological solutions as a plant gropes toward light. What we must do now is to analyze what we have been doing for all these many centuries, and why we are doing it. Only then can we perhaps improve on it.
4. The Sense in which the Experience of Spiritual Partnership Is an ‘Experience of Positive Value’
It is important to clarify what it means and what it does not mean to ‘have an intensely positive value experience’ in the context of spiritual partnership. Paradoxically, positive value experiences are not necessarily productive of one’s own happiness, pleasure or enjoyment of life. Few people leave Death of a Salesman in a ‘happy’ mood in any ordinary sense of the word ‘happy.’ Yet we positively value the experience. If given the choice to be a happy dog or an unhappy human being, most of us on our more honest days would choose the unhappy human being. Obviously, there is something that we positively value about being a human being other than, or in addition to, the happiness, pleasure or contentment we may or may not enjoy. Of course, we value happiness and pleasure, at least to a certain extent, but there seems to be something else that we value as well -- something that human beings apparently have more of than dogs have.
I am not referring to the Cartesian argument (which philosophers now have resoundingly refuted) to the effect that man has a ‘soul’ whereas animals do not, or that humans have consciousness whereas animals do not. But it seems clear that humans have more consciousness than dogs, and dogs more than mosquitoes. This is why we feel somewhat guilty if we kill a dog, but more so if we kill a human being. We have destroyed something that has more value because it is more conscious. In the case of the mosquito, we feel little guilt at all.
Neither am I implying, however, that the ‘intensely positive’ value experience of quasi-aesthetic awe by means of admiration-through-compassion toward a spiritual partner derives its value from its power to make us more intensely conscious. It is true that it does have this effect, and often the allure of the opportunity for spiritual partnership is motivated by a feeling that we have been sleepwalking through life, that we have not been ‘fully conscious’ or ‘fully alive.’ But the positiveness of the experience goes far beyond this effect. Once we grant that no amount of enjoyment, pleasure or contentment can adequately or enduringly console us for the brutality of the ontological predicament (powerlessness, alienation, death, etc.), then we must also admit that, even if intensity of conscious existence comes a little closer to accomplishing this objective, it still cannot fully achieve it (unless we are at least partially in a state of inauthentic denial of the reality of the predicament). Many people cannot appreciate this point until they reach a time in their lives when the hitherto easy conditions for the fulfillment of these existential needs finally become precarious. (And, in the case of death, those conditions become more and more precarious with each step that the Grim Reaper takes out of the shadows and into his inevitable place in any realistic phenomenal field.) At this point, we feel the need to go beyond even an existentially fulfilled existence, just as previously we felt the need to go beyond the placid and contented existence.
In any event, fulfillment of the need to be ‘fully conscious’ is not the primary reason for the positiveness of the experience of a spiritual partner. The intensity of the positive value feeling in a transcendent value experience does not correlate primarily with the extent to which either the fullness of self-actualization or the pleasantness of our own consciousness is enhanced; the intense positiveness of the experience correlates essentially with the extent to which the other is seen as having intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of the other person is something that we appreciate not because our own experience of her has value, but because she has value. The reality of the other’s value is not dependent on our subjectivity, but exists independently and then is perceived by us in the subjective act of focusing on the person’s embattled finitude, thus her uniqueness, fleetingness and irreplaceability, including the ‘tragic’ nature of this irreplaceability. Then, if only we can set aside egocentricity well enough to elevate this extreme positive value that we have experienced above our own (whose positive value we cannot appreciate to this extent, as explained earlier), we then fully ‘appreciate’ this value and are moved by it in such a way that we feel that such extreme positive value is well worth the trouble and grief inflicted on us as we bear up under the adversity of the ontological dilemma.
In essence, the experience of the other in a transcendent value experience is a positive value experience precisely when and to the extent that we enact the form of her consciousness in ourselves by means of empathizing with her. In this way, we experience the extreme positive value of her consciousness just as if it were our own. It follows that, to the extent that we are able to establish empathy with the spiritual partner, we also experience our own being (i.e., our own consciousness) in an intensely positive way. By feeling admiration through compassion toward the other more intensely than we could toward ourselves, we are impressed with the extreme value of being, and thus feel the infinite value of life and are inspired by it to the extent that our entire outlook is transformed to one in which the negativity of the ontological predicament is more than overshadowed by this positive appreciation of the worthwhileness of being.
Other than this non-egocentric awe in which a spiritual partner is considered more important than ourselves, the only other times most of us can usually experience our own consciousness in this positive a way and on a sustained basis are in the four instances cited earlier: romantic love; traditional religious ritual; appreciation of worthwhile artwork; and altruistic behavior toward ordinary friends, family members or humanity generally in principled moral and political action. But these experiences all have inherent limitations with regard to the extent, permanence, authenticity and/or concreteness of the ways they can sustain intense experiences of quasi-aesthetic awe. Only a relationship of spiritual partnership in the primary sense can initially facilitate a concretely-symbolized and mutual space of empathy that is not systematically subjected to the kinds of socio-cultural, interpersonal and moral conflicts that in other types of relationships would tend to either erode the space of empathy, remove the opportunity to symbolize empathic feelings, or (ending in these same outcomes) destroy authenticity.
At the point when we have learned to directly experience the other’s value in this positive way, the important thing is not primarily to ‘live for’ the other in the sense of making her well-being into the most important concern in our own lives. It is not merely or even primarily her well-being that is experienced as so extremely valuable, but her very existence. In fact, to devote too much of our energy to the service of her well-being would be counterproductive to preserving the essential nature of the spiritual partnership relationship, which must be a relationship between equals who respect each other’s autonomy and independence. To pressure the other person to become dependent on our benevolent actions (as many husbands do to their wives, for example) threatens to reduce both her autonomy and our own. More important still, we cannot allow ourselves to become dependent on the other in the sense that a ‘cult follower’ is dependent on the cult hero, or that a masochist is dependent on a sadist, or that an overprotective parent is dependent on the child. In this case we would undermine our own autonomy, and thus render ourselves less able to maintain our own agency. Agency, in the sense of accepting responsibility for directing one’s own stream of consciousness, is necessary for the skills needed to avoid self-deception, neurotic defenses, and an inauthentic shifting onto the other person the responsibility to live our own lives. This is not to say that a spiritual partner does not feel intense altruism and often act on it. Indeed, we do, as a natural expression of the way we feel. The point is that we cannot allow the meaning of our own life to become defined in terms of these altruistic behaviors or dependent on them.
On the contrary, the way the experience of a primary spiritual partner enables us to live more meaningfully is not that it substitutes benefiting the partner in place of our other goals, but simply that it allows us to live with the attitude that the unavoidable tribulations of life are justified by the positive value that we have experienced in experiencing the spiritual partner’s full value. To experience this positive value, it is necessary only to contemplate the other’s positive value in a mindframe of quasi-aesthetic awe. This does require that we periodically symbolize our admiration and compassion through the vehicle of the space of empathy as practiced by spiritual partners. But it does not require that our whole life revolves around the spiritual partner, that we dependently ‘cling’ to her, that we follow her as a cult follower, possess her as a jealously guarded use-value, or define the structure of our goal-orientations primarily in terms of altruistically benefiting her.
In fact, the way we structure our goal-orientations may not be reasoned very differently from the way we did before entering into the spiritual partnership, except that the usual predominance of egocentric concerns that characterizes the ‘normal’ value system will no longer be so pronounced. The reason for this change is more negative than positive. We lose the obsession with acquiring ever more and more benefits (of whatever kind) for ourselves, because that obsession was caused by the fact that, in the absence of an adequate resolution of the ontological predicament, no amount of benefits we could ever acquire could possibly be enough to compensate us for such an abominable outrage. To try to come to terms with the finite dilemma of human beings by acquiring benefits is like trying to satisfy sexual need by eating, or to satisfy a need for romantic love through merely physical sexual pleasure. No amount will ever be enough, because we are trying to satisfy the wrong type of need with the wrong type of fulfillment.
Another, more subtle effect of spiritual partnership is that it leads to increasingly altruistic feelings toward humanity generally, because of the ‘spreading effect.’ Having witnessed the spiritual beauty of the spiritual partner by beholding her from the standpoint of embattled finitude, as ‘too good for the world,’ we then see the similarity of other conscious beings to her, and thus are able to focus on their positive value more easily (although this requires ignoring their alienation, hostility, degradation and sometimes obnoxiousness). One reason we are able to see people from this charitable perspective is that we ourselves are not as frustrated as before in the overall meaning of our own lives, and therefore can ‘afford’ to be benevolent. Also, once we have come to terms with the larger ontological issues that really determine the meaningfulness of life, the everyday problems that previously would have ‘gotten our goat’ seem relatively trivial. And we are less inclined to pounce upon some trivial conflict as an opportunity to symbolize and act out deeper frustrations, because these deeper frustrations themselves are less pronounced now that we have faced up to the ontological dilemma and are no longer as frustrated by it. If spiritual partnership is fully realized by means of the symbolization process described above, then the ‘spreading effect’ -- i.e., the spreading to other people of this intensely-felt focus on their intrinsic value through compassion for their finitude -- becomes more and more forced on us whether we like it or not, for reasons that will become clear in the following sections.
5. Transferring Value Feelings to Derivative Objects and to Ideals that Organize the Self
After the relationship of spiritual partnership has been established, is somewhat stabilized, and is reciprocal, we are then confronted with an internal dilemma which inevitably is built into the nature of spiritual partnership in the primary sense per se: If the spiritual partnership is to retain its character as such, rather than becoming a symbiosis, then establishment of a complete space of empathy must not be forced to bear the burden of supplying the entire meaning of life. The reason is that a symbiosis cannot support the aims of spiritual partnership. One of the preconditions for primary spiritual partnership to function as such is that each member must maintain an interesting, meaningful, and value-expressive life outside of the dyadic relationship itself in order to continue injecting life into the relationship, so that it does not stagnate into an inert stasis. This requirement would not be met if both people were completely dependent on the relationship itself for the only meaning and motivational direction in life. Moreover, in a symbiosis, each person uses the other’s different form of being or opposite polarization as a crutch to avoid developing and fully experiencing his or her own corresponding conscious potential, rather than using it as a catapult toward such development. But that which is not experienced is also not consciously appreciated in the intensely value-laden ways we have been discussing here. Also, we must remember that (especially if the spiritual partnership is to double as an erotic relationship) full spaces of empathy will become less frequent as the quality of the space of empathy is permeated and contaminated by the various effects of the fabric of socio-cultural and pragmatic interrelations. This last point is well dramatized in cultures where members of the community make noise and throw vegetables or other objects at the tent or house of the newly married couple throughout the wedding night. The couple must be reminded that their marriage is only a small part of their total life cycle, and that this life cycle must still be worked out in terms of the fabric of the couple’s larger social context.
At this point, the experience of the value of other people then forces itself on us as a sort of substitute for the experience of the spiritual partner’s positive value. We are forced to experience that which is valuable in the spiritual partner as it exists in others as well, so that our generalized agape for them (which now can be felt more concretely and immediately than before) serves as an indirect access to the sharply felt positive value of the primary spiritual partner, which thus continues to override the negativity of the ontological predicament. And in order to have the strength to face life’s turmoils on these terms, we ultimately must be able to generalize this value feeling to the abstractions of a system of motivating ideals, without losing their emotional intensity in the transfer. But how can such a spreading or transfer of value feelings take place?
Obviously, a very happy outcome would result if the idealization of the person of the spiritual partner could be transferred to our own ego ideal in the form of abstract moral or valuational commitments that could be cherished so strongly as to provide motivated direction, and thus meaning to life. In fact, one reason for the difficulty in relinquishing dependence on empathic contact with a spiritual partner is that the idealization of the spiritual partner is forced to shoulder so much of the burden of the sense of meaning in life, precisely because the radical reconstruction of the self that made one ripe for spiritual partnership in the first place also left one with a shortage of guiding goal-orientations based on strongly cherished values. It thus seems virtually inevitable that, if spiritual partnership is really to restore a sense of meaning to life without becoming a clinging symbiosis, then the powerful valuation of primary spiritual partnership must be spreadable to secondary spiritual partners, to romantic partners, to guiding values within oneself, and in some cases to future primary spiritual partners. And there does seem to be a way to accomplish these objectives. To see how this can happen, we must first consider the psychodynamics of the need to value transcendent objects in order to appreciate the value of being strongly enough to provide motivational unity and structure to the self.
It is possible to distinguish (and most psychologists do distinguish) at least three aspects of the self which are oriented in different ways toward valuational feelings in such a way that the motivated directedness toward these values provides much of the unity and continuity needed to structure the self. First, there is the ‘ego ideal’ -- the aspect of the self (or of the ‘superego,’ if one prefers) which holds up esteemed images of what the self ideally should strive to be like. According to many theorists, notably Kohut (and this is also consistent with casual, everyday observations), people often are able to love their abstract ideals (moral values such as loyalty, integrity, magnanimity, etc.) with an emotion quite similar to the idealizing love one feels for a person.
Second, there is the ‘narcissistic self.’ This is the aspect of the self (or of the superego) which craves the attention and admiration of others. Since we all must first attract the attention of others in order to make contact with them to meet the need for meaningful interaction, there will always be a narcissistic self in anyone’s personality structure. It is only when this narcissistic self becomes ‘disturbed’ -- when infantile traumata cause the person to react cataclysmically and compulsively to any threat to the narcissistic self’s craving for attention, approval and admiration -- that it becomes a neurosis or even psychosis.
Third, there is the ‘idealized object image’ -- i.e., the image of some specific person in whom one feels are embodied the cherished qualities of the ego ideal and/or of the narcissistic self. It is an obvious phenomenological observation that we sometimes relocate values from our ego ideal to another person (who serves as an idealized object image), and vice versa. In the same process, we also relocate the investment of emotional commitment and energy that accompanies these valuational feelings. It has also often been observed (for example, by Reik and by Kohut) that, at times when the ideals that unify a self are faltering or are being committed to radical questioning, the person is likely to find a person whose idealized image serves as a stand-in for the now missing or weakened ego ideal. In concrete terms, a person who finds herself no longer able to be enthusiastically enough motivated and inspired by the abstract value beliefs that used to define the meaning of her activity and organization, will then desperately cling to the meaning and motivational direction provided by falling in love, or by becoming a follower of a charismatic personality or political demagogue, or by becoming devoted to a spiritual partner, whether the latter be a human being, a deity, or the representative of a deity such as a saint or martyr. In effect, the idealized person is made to serve the meaning-structuring and motivational directedness that organize the self, now that the ego ideal is no longer able to serve as much of this purpose as it did in its better days. When this kind of dynamic is heavily involved in a love relationship, the threat of the loss of the beloved person’s intimacy literally threatens to issue in an extreme disintegration and unraveling of the basic fabric of the self, leading to a more or less schizoid condition. Even among well-balanced personalities, such a disintegration of the motivated directedness of the self is often experienced to a greater or lesser extent with the loss of an important love relationship (as discussed more extensively in Eros in a Narcissistic Culture). But the difficulty of working through the resulting anxieties seems to be proportional to the fragility or weakness of commitment to the valuational feelings toward cherished long-term goals that could pull the person into the future, thus providing a sense of direction and continuity to overpower the fragmentation and meaninglessness that would otherwise intensify the anxiety.
How is it that most people usually do work through the loss of love without too much of this schizoid disintegration? On the basis of the above reasoning, it would seem that, when the person is in love, the beloved is serving as the primary locus of unifying values for the self. Why, then, does the self not lose its unity when love is lost?
In some cases, a person simply allows the passage of time to heal the wound, and at some point recognizes the need to assert ourselves against forces that would overrun us if we remained in such a vulnerable condition of disarray. But the type of case that is of most interest to us here is the one where love is reinvested into a new love object. What happens here seems to be that, when the original love object becomes unavailable, we at first feel a push toward disintegration of the self. But what saves us from this condition is that our experience with the original love object has taught us how to love; we have learned to focus on the person’s vulnerability, innocence, and finitude in awe-stricken admiration for her struggle to maintain authenticity and intensity in the face of this finitude, etc. We then realize that these same qualities also have intrinsic value when exemplified in other people, if only we could vicariously experience them within a space of empathy so as to fully appreciate them. Finally, we allow ourselves to be open to a space of empathy with someone else toward whom we can feel this reverence by appreciating in that person the qualities that are intrinsically valuable in conscious beings generally. In essence, we abstract the qualities that are valuable in conscious beings from the lost love object, so that we can later admire those qualities as exemplified elsewhere.
I should emphasize at this point that none of this contradicts the notion that it is precisely the uniqueness of an individual that is loved, and not some abstract set of qualities (such as ‘temperance,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘courage,’ etc.). But the way in which we appreciate the person’s uniqueness -- her irreplaceability and unrepeatability in the history of the cosmos -- is by focusing on her potential embattledness and vulnerability in the project of trying to maintain authenticity and sensitivity in the face of the ontological conditions that all conscious beings face, simply by virtue of being conscious beings. This ontological endangeredness will manifest itself in the guise of very different kinds of threats for different individuals under specific different circumstances, but the essential effect that it has in allowing us to intensely focus on and appreciate the person’s value qua unique individual always follows the same dynamic. Since this dynamic is the way in which we focus on an individual’s uniqueness in order to feel reverent toward it, we can therefore say that we learn to love by learning to directly experience the value of a conscious being qua conscious being, and that we can then learn to focus on this same value (which can be abstracted) in other conscious beings as well -- provided that we are able to enter into and maintain a space of empathy with them.
This same process also serves to restore the stability of the ego ideal. When we learn to focus on the fact that the same qualities that are intrinsically valued in the original love object can also be found in all other conscious beings, we adopt an abstract system of values based on the premise that the existence of conscious beings has intrinsic value, and including all corollaries derivable from this premise. The ego ideal then includes this set of values, and we find that by loving the person in whom we worship this value, we also learn to love the entire value system based on affirming this value.
We can clearly see, then, that the value placed on an ‘idealized object image’ and the values that guide the ego ideal are the same values -- the irreducible value of the existence of conscious beings per se. This value needs to be seen as embodied in an example, and intensely appreciated there, so that it can be felt strongly enough to be the guiding ultimate value of the ego ideal. In fact, what could the definition of a ‘healthy’ ego ideal be if not one whose ultimate guiding principles are derived from the intrinsic value of certain qualities inherent in conscious beings? And the person with the healthy ego ideal, as defined in this way, will also have a healthy narcissistic self. I.e., one will enjoy the image of oneself, not as a ravishingly beautiful or handsome, omnipotent, irreproachable kind of persona, but as a person who embodies the same ideals that the healthy ego loves in a spiritual partner -- sensitivity, courageous authenticity, uniqueness, finitude, and moral sincerity. These are the kinds of qualities one will then enjoy having people see in oneself, and will thus enjoy seeing oneself as exhibiting.
The ability to make a positive and reasonable choice as to whom one allows oneself to love -- rather than remaining involuntarily unable to grieve and let go of a lost or harmful love object -- therefore correlates with the health of the ego ideal, with causation working in both directions. I.e., commitment to a set of moral values based on the intrinsic value of all conscious beings allows one to focus more easily on the valuable as it exists in a specific potential love object. At the same time, to transfer love from a lost love object to someone else involves abstracting that which is valuable in both, and this abstraction strengthens the abstract moral standards of the ego ideal.
Since the process of abstraction of the values manifested by one love object enables us to transfer this love to someone else, it is therefore possible to transfer the locus of value appreciation from within a beloved spiritual partner to secondary spiritual partners, or to a subsequent romantic partner, or to human beings generally, merely by focusing intently enough on the appropriate qualities in these other objects. A romantic object, for example, in effect becomes a spiritual partner in the full sense, while at the same time offering the opportunity to concretely symbolize this love (for example, through sexual feeling) on a continuing basis. Furthermore, each time other functions of the relationship again tend to eclipse the space of empathy, it is possible to renew the space of empathy by again focusing on the qualities that one learned to admire in a primary spiritual partner. At this point, one has learned to love a romantic partner or other derivative objects in a ‘reverent’ enough way that this positive value experience is continually intense enough to compensate for the harshness of the ontological predicament. The spreading of spiritual partnership to derivative value objects is thus extremely important, and this same process serves to spread the love for a spiritual partner to the love for one’s own guiding ideals.
6. From Spiritual Partnership to Generalized Agape
Once we have appreciated the direct view of the extreme positive value of the spiritual partner’s soul (or form of consciousness) by means of the space of empathy, in which our compassion and admiration aim at the person’s ‘tragic’ irreplaceability and uniqueness, i.e., her finitude, this appreciation then spreads to other people and things. The intensity of our appreciation for other beings initially corresponds to their similarity to a primary spiritual partner. In these early stages, before we have fully understood the phenomenon of spiritual partnership, we may find ourselves feeling more empathic than usual toward individuals who happen to share superficial similarities to the partner, such as forms of body movement, facial characteristics, vocal inflections, or peripheral personality characteristics such as leftist political views or an incisive logical ability.
But the more fully we have understood and experienced the phenomenon in all its facets, the more we understand that these peripheral characteristics are not the essential things we admire in the spiritual partner, but are only associated stimuli that please us because they remind us of the particular form of the conscious being of the spiritual partner -- her courageously embattled refusal to give up the authenticity and intensity of her consciousness in the face of alienation, powerlessness and death. The feeling of love aims at her finitude in this respect. Once we understand this, and yet have forced ourselves to relinquish frequent empathic contact (or, in the case of romantic spiritual partnership, to compromise the spiritual partnership aspect of the relationship to make room for other aspects), we are then in need of less direct ways to appreciate her value than by actually being with her in the space of empathy. At this point, we are motivated to turn our attention to the fact that the essential thing we most value in the spiritual partner (not her peripheral appearances) -- namely, her embattled authenticity in the context of finitude -- is present to a greater or lesser extent in all other people. The main reason we chose the particular person we did as a spiritual partner was not merely that she embodied this ideal so much more than others, or that she shared certain personal affinities with us that allowed the space of empathy to develop (although this may be true), but rather that she was willing to drop her defenses at least enough to make the beauty of her form of being completely visible to us. The same beauty is also present in other conscious beings, but is not as visible to us because their defenses (both normal and neurotic) wall us out, so that we cannot get a clear view of their authenticity-in-the-face-of-finitude. Since love aims at the person in this finitude, in the form of admiration and compassion for embattled authenticity, we are initially unable to love most people fully because this view is hidden from us. But we know intellectually that they do embody this phenomenon in the same way that the spiritual partner does, and we have also had a chance to view the phenomenon in the person of the spiritual partner. We are now therefore more likely to focus on this phenomenon in others.
It is much easier to see something when (1) we have had a chance to view it before; (2) we know what we are looking for; (3) we know that it is there; and (4) we are motivated to look for it. With regard to the embattled finitude of other people, our repeated experiences with the spiritual partner in the space of empathy have led us to meet the first three of these conditions, and the ultimate spreading effect causes us to meet the fourth one.
The way we feel toward people when we view them from this perspective is similar to what Christians call agape, although it must be suspected from their behavior that most Christians do not feel agape with anything like the strength that a spiritual partner does once the ultimate spreading effect has occurred. Perhaps saints or holy men have felt it this strongly.
When we do empathize with people generally to this extent, we are then able to partially gratify the need for spiritual partnership in our concrete relations with them. We find ourselves lowering defenses in the attempt to establish at least a partial space of empathy with many of the people with whom we interact. Since we have also abandoned much of our commitment to the egocentric mask in learning humility and gratitude, we are able to lower defenses more easily because we feel less competitive and care less about the pragmatic consequences to our egocentric project if lowering defenses should make us vulnerable to hostile and self-serving attacks on the part of others. On the other hand, we still must preserve defenses to a certain extent, because if we invite hostility and self-serving attacks, the other’s attacking posture erodes the space of empathy -- which would be counterproductive -- and the hostility and self-servingness eclipse our view of the positively valuable aspect of the other’s conscious being in terms of which the person is similar to the spiritual partner. Granted this qualification, we are still able and willing to appreciate the positive value of others to a much greater extent than we could if the experience of a spiritual partner, combined with the relinquishment of dependence on continual empathic contact, had not led to this spreading effect.
This agapistic effect also leads to concrete action in the service of an abstract value system built up from the initial premise that the conscious existence of human beings has intrinsic value and thus ought to be enhanced and facilitated rather than thwarted, perverted or destroyed. The reason we are emotionally committed to useful action in this concrete moral arena is that we now emotionally affirm moral ideals rather than merely intellectually cognizing them. A good part of the emotional investment in the primary transcendent object now has been transferred to these abstract values because they are based on the concrete feeling of love toward an intrinsically valued conscious being other than ourselves, and this love has now spread to all other conscious beings. Moreover, we are driven with an emotional intensity that is derivative from the intensity of our love for the primary transcendent object, because this love has discovered its need to find other avenues through which to manifest itself than through a smothering symbiosis with the primary transcendent object. The abstract value system is now emotionally charged because in it we love the values that have been abstracted from that which we love in the primary transcendent object, and useful action in the service of this value system is a concrete way to symbolize this feeling of love through embodied action.
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