Spiritual perception is the human ability to perceive God, to be aware of God in a direct, non-inferential way, either through the mediation of creatures (which I call “sacramental perception”) or directly, without such mediation (which I call “personal perception”).This distinction resembles that between direct and mediate perception made by William Alston, Perceiving God, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1991), 22. An account of these forms of perception, and a defense of the claim that we can experience them, requires seeing how spiritual perception is related to other forms of perception and experience, differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate spiritual perception, and explaining why some fail to engage in spiritual perception. One account that accomplishes these tasks is the phenomenology of value perception pioneered by Max Scheler, according to which we perceive not only sensible qualities and physical things, but also “values,” qualities by which things have importance or make normative claims upon us; guided by value perception, we are able to engage in spiritual perception. I first present Scheler’s phenomenology of value perception. I then develop a Schelerian account of spiritual perception on the basis of that phenomenology, showing how this account meets the requirements given above. Finally, I draw on other phenomenologists to expand on and critique Scheler’s account of spiritual perception. Throughout this discussion, I emphasize the personalistic dimension of a Schelerian account of spiritual perception. By calling this account personalistic, I mean that it emphasizes that spiritual perception is a relation between created and divine persons, involving not only knowledge but all aspects of persons, including our emotions, bodies, and ethical relations. This corrects deficiencies in other accounts of spiritual perception, which seem to consider it just as a cognitive act in which one gains some information about God.
01. Value Perception
Through feelings, we perceive things as bearers of value (or importance).Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, Manfred Frings and Roger Funk, trans., (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 12–16. Compare to the accounts of affective perception in Michael McClymond’s chapter in this volume, which emphasizes how spiritual perception must include both a realist cognitive dimension and an element of creative striving. Another value phenomenologist, Dietrich von Hildebrand, (Christian Ethics, New York: D. McKay Co., 1953), 172ff.) shows how perception of values includes value-response: the value objectively calls for a certain response, but I must make this response, and I only grasp the value as it really is when I make my response. For example, I only fully grasp the beauty of a painting when I respond to it with the wonder it elicits in me. In this way, value perception includes the elements needed for proper spiritual perception. For example, we feel that a tool is useful for some task. that an athlete exudes vitality, or that a saint is holy. We experience values as properties belonging to objects, in virtue of which they have importance and call for some response. Indeed, on Scheler’s view, we only attend to anything at all because we first feel its value; to feel that something is valuable is to experience it calling for some response, such as attention. Understanding values (as opposed to just being affected by and responding to them) requires that we do phenomenology: we must attend to what is essentially given in experiences of values, setting aside all non-essential features of experience. For some content to be essentially given is for it to be unchanging across a variety of bearers. For example, there is an essential content to the look of the color red or the taste of a peach, which do not vary in different bearers, and which we can consider on their own, in abstraction from their bearers. Similarly, we can consider the precise feel of beauty, vitality, or another value in itself, which includes the experience of their calling for a particular response.Scheler, “The Theory of the Three Facts,” in Selected Philosophical Essays, David Latcherman, trans., (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973). This, like all phenomenological accounts, is an account of what is given in experience, not of the causal mechanisms underlying such feelings and objects.Paul Noordhof (“Evaluative Perception as Response-Dependent Representation,” in Anna Bergqvist and Robert Cowan, eds., Evaluative Perception, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 82–3) distinguishes theories of “evaluative perception” on which value properties are presented in perceptual experience, from theories on which only non-value properties are given, on the basis of which we conclude by an act of evaluation or judgment that some value property is present. The phenomenological theories of value-perception considered in this paper are examples of the former sort of theory. As Noordhof argues (ibid., 89), we must distinguish what is given in experience (e.g., values) from various sensory cues that underlie our awareness of what is given, and of which we might not even be consciously aware.
Scheler distinguishes two kinds of feelings. First, there are feeling states, such as hunger or depression, which do not disclose anything about the world to us. Second, there are intentional feelings, though which we perceive values and thereby experience a claim placed on us.Scheler, Formalism, 62–8, 263–4; “Ordo Amoris,” in Selected Philosophical Papers, 101. (In this chapter, when I call an act “intentional,” I mean that it is directed to some object, not that it is done on purpose.) To each value corresponds an opposite disvalue, which calls us to be averse to its bearer; the preferability of value to disvalue is not based on induction, but is given intuitively, in a feeling.Scheler, Formalism, 105. For support for the claim that appearances of value are perceptually given in acts of feeling and desire, see Graham Oddie, “Value Perception, Properties, and the Primary Bearers of Value,” Bergqvist and Cowan, eds., Evaluative Perception, 243. All of our other intentional acts—such as acts of sense perception, intellectual intuition, representation, volition, or striving—are guided by a prior value feeling (which Scheler also calls value perception).Scheler, Formalism, 201. Our first conscious awareness of anything is a perception of its value, and these values, even if we do not directly attend to them, guide our attention to various features of that thing. For example, one who only feels utility values and not aesthetic values can consider features of an artwork in virtue of which it is salable, but not in virtue of which it is art.
The claim that value perception is our first experiential access to a thing is not meant to contradict the fact that, causally prior to value perception, things in the world cause events in our sense organs.Scheler, Formalism, 58–60, 121, 201–3; “Three Facts.” Rather, the claim is that we do not fundamentally or normally experience things as value neutral physical entities or sense data—for example, we don’t first see pure colors, and then add in value—but as value laden entities; normal perception includes not only the senses but feelings as well: normal perception is an act of the whole person, involving each of our powers. Seeing things neutrally, as we might do in scientific inquiry, actually requires a prior value perception, in which we are guided by the perception of values like utility—that is, we must feel things to be primarily useful (rather than, for example, as beautiful or holy) in order to take them to be free of those other values.Scheler, “Ordo Amoris,” 118.
On Scheler’s account of experience, when I feel a value, I do not just feel that particular value and its call for a response, but I also feel it to be more or less important than other values. For example, I might not just feel the beauty of a painting, but also feel that this is a higher, more important value than its utility on the market. I would then experience the normative demand of its beauty, which calls for appreciation and admiration, to be of greater weight than its utility. The hierarchical height of a value is felt in an act that Scheler calls “preference.”Scheler, Formalism, 89. Each person subjectively prefers certain values to others. But Scheler contends that there is, in addition to each person’s subjective value hierarchy, an objective hierarchy of values. The fully virtuous person’s preferences disclose this hierarchy. Since values are given in feeling, no reasoning or decisive argument can be given for the claim that a certain hierarchical ordering of values is objectively correct. However, evidence can be given for Scheler’s claims, though all such evidence is subject to critique, given the great possibilities here for self-deception and blindness to value. One value is higher than another when being guided by the former gives a deeper contentment than being guided by the latter. One value is higher than another when one can order more of one’s life around the former, but the latter only affects one superficially or momentarily. Higher values (like holiness) can be participated in by many people, and must be received as gifts, rather than produced by our own actions, while lower values (like pleasure) are more restricted to an individual’s experience and can be generated at will.Scheler, Formalism, 90–100; On the Eternal in Man, Bernard Noble, trans., (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 339–40.
The lowest values are values of utility: the value that belongs to something inasmuch as it is a means to a further end. Second are values of pleasure, and third are what Scheler calls vital values: the values of strength, health, vivacity, athletic prowess, and so forth. Fourth are spiritual values, which include aesthetic values, moral values of right and wrong, and intellectual values belonging to truth and falsehood. The highest value is the religious value of holiness, with its corresponding disvalue of profanity.Scheler, Formalism, 104–110. Lower values are relative in importance to the higher values—that is, we cannot fully understand and recognize the importance of a lower value unless we understand and recognize the importance of higher values; this requires that we be ready to sacrifice the lower values for the sake of the higher, and recognize that lower values exist for the sake of the higher.Scheler, Eternal, 76, 93, 169, 346; Ressentiment, Lewis Cosser and William Holdheim, trans., (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1998), 130ff. There are people who are exemplars at acting on the basis of each level of value: for example, the artist is exemplary at acting on the basis of aesthetic values, and the saint at acting on the basis of holiness. To know how to perceive some value and act on its basis, one must look to the relevant exemplar.Scheler, Formalism, 572–5, 585; Eternal, 341
This objective hierarchy is the objective “order of love” (ordo amoris),Scheler, “Ordo Amoris,” 99. but each person also has his or her own ordo amoris, his or her own order of preferring values. This is a fundamental intentional stance towards values that gives one the “reasons of the heart” that are the basis for one’s actions.Scheler, Formalism, 101, 111–117; “Ordo Amoris,” 116–7. To grasp a person’s ordo amoris is to understand him or her fully, for it is to understand the stance that is basis of all of that person’s acts. But one’s ordo amoris can change as one becomes more virtuous or vicious. As we have seen, to feel a value is to feel its call for some response. All persons feel the experientially given normative call of values, but one only grows in virtue if one responds well—that is, if one thinks through the calls one has perceived, evaluates which calls are to be given more weight, and responds accordingly. Good responses to values lead to growth in virtue, which in turn allows me to perceive values and their call more correctly. Correct value perception involves bringing my own ordo amoris into line with the objective one; indeed, it is each person’s task to match his or her ordo with the objective one.Scheler, “Ordo Amoris,” 98 For this reason, as I have said, the perfectly virtuous person is the only one capable of fully seeing why the true hierarchy of values is true. But this matching of subjective to objective ordo does not occur in the same way in all virtuous people. Rather, each should feel him or herself to have a unique vocation, a personal “value-essence” or way in which he or she is “called” to respond to values, albeit in line with the objective order. In some cases, this will involve the discovery of new values that no one has ever felt before. The facts that in some cases only one person or culture can perceive a given value, or that a given value only exerts a call on one person or culture, does not detract from its objectivity, for it is still given as borne by the object, exerting a normative claim, with a place on the hierarchy of values.Scheler, Formalism, 489–91; “Ordo Amoris,” 103; Eternal, 207
Love is the most fundamental intentional feeling; it is not a response to perceived values, but an act of intentional feeling in which one opens oneself to and seeks to realize the full range of values, especially in oneself and in other person.. To love another person is also to intend that he or she should realize the highest value, holiness. Indeed, one cannot feel the value of holiness without a fundamental stance of love.Scheler, Formalism, 109, 260–261; The Nature of Sympathy, Peter Heath, trans., (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970), 161. By contrast, to hate is to close oneself off to values; this renders one incapable of perceiving features of the world that can only be perceived by being guided by higher values, and this in turn leads one to have a false or partial worldview.Scheler, Formalism, 109, 260–261; The Nature of Sympathy, Peter Heath, trans., (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970), 161.
On Scheler’s phenomenology, persons are never presented as examinable objects of intentional acts, but only as subjects of acts or acting “spirits.” (In this section, I just present Scheler’s own phenomenological views; the claims of this paragraph on persons and how we can only grasp them through love will be subjected to phenomenological critique in the last section of this chapter.) To be a person is to be a subject that “flows,” as it were, into acts in which one reveals oneself, but is never exhausted in any of those acts, for one can always act further. Since persons are pure subjects, never able to be considered as objects, Scheler contends that we grasp them only when we, through love, act and experience along with them, and, by this sympathetic co-experiencing, experience their value essence. On his view, experience of persons is never a matter of taking in cognitive information about them, reducing them to an object I possess, but is a sui generis experience that requires me to act and experience along with the other.Compare to the view of Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Alphonso Lingis, trans., (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), on which I only perceive another person as such when I feel myself called to ethically serve him or her. We experience persons, including God, only through love. A person is not identical to his or her mind (that is, a stream of psychic experiences and powers of thinking, reasoning, and intuiting) or body, or to anything that can be regarded as an object (though we can, motivated by hatred or failure to attend to higher values, regard the person as these objective things).
Rather, I act and experience “in” my body, “in” my mind, or in the world, but I experience myself as a subject apart from but acting in all these “spheres.”Scheler, Formalism, 386–402; Sympathy, 167–8; Eternal, 312–5; “Idealism and Realism,” in Selected Philosophical Papers, 300–3. Each such “sphere” is an experientially given realm of possible objects of experience. Scheler contends that we experience each such sphere a priori, as an essential kind of experience that is more foundational than any particular instance of that kind. For example, each person experiences him or herself to be essentially related to the sphere of the “Thou”—that is, each person experiences him or herself as capable of relating to other possible persons, even when we are not relating to any particular person. Likewise, we experience the sphere of the “Absolute”:Scheler’s talk of the “Absolute” is affected by nineteenth-century Romantic and Idealist theology—but can, I think, be taken apart from that theology, so long as we understand his talk of the Absolute just to commit us to the idea of a personal reality that is distinct from the world and on which the world depends. apart from having any representation of God or relation to an actual God, persons feel themselves to be in relation to a possible realm of experience defined by absoluteness (that is, by being the foundation on which the entire world depends) and by the value of holiness. Even if one does not believe there is an actual God, one can still feel this to be a possible sphere of experienceable objects.Scheler, Formalism, 109, 294–5, 288–93, 588–90; Eternal, 62, 162. Because of our a priori relationship to this sphere, Scheler defines persons as essentially religious beings.
02. Value Perception and Spiritual Perception
We can understand spiritual perception in the context of value perception and of these spheres. In this section, I show how Scheler’s phenomenology of value perception allows us to understand both spiritual perception in relation to other experiences, and the failures of spiritual perception, meeting the requirements for an account of this sort of perception.
We have already seen that on Scheler’s view, we are aware of spheres of experience, including the sphere of the Absolute. Any member of this sphere would be something existing in itself, the basis for the existence of all other things, placing an absolute claim for obedience upon us due to its holiness, which is the value of beings set apart from others and of pure love.Scheler, Eternal, 165, 168 We can believe that this sphere is empty—that there is no actual Absolute being—if we fail to develop our love, or if we have a false ordo amoris and so are blind to the value of holiness and to those things to which it leads us to attend. But our normative orientation as persons is toward the highest value, holiness.Scheler, Formalism, 96. We are not first aware of God as an existing being;On Scheler’s view, the existence of any being is given in the experience of its resistance to our efforts or drives. rather, through love, we are first aware of the sphere of the Absolute (that is, this possible form of experience) as a sphere of absolute holiness.Scheler draws on the proto-phenomenological work of Rudolf Otto. All religious experiences and representations of God derive from feeling this possibility of a being of absolute holiness (rather than from reasoning from the world to God),Formalism, 293–5, 588–90; Sympathy, 169–70. However, Scheler does not deny that we can give reasons to think that God exists: “person” and “world” are correlative notions, so there cannot be one without the other. But reality presents itself as a world exceeding any created person’s world of experience, so there must be an Absolute person who has all of reality as its world. See Formalism, 397; Eternal, 62, 186. as does our perception of the person of God. But we have already seen that, on Scheler’s phenomenology, we cannot be aware of persons as objects. Rather, we are only aware of other persons is acting and experiencing along with them. Hence, on Scheler’s view, to perceive God just is to experience the world with God as He experiences it, participating in His love for the world and for Himself. To those that balk at the idea of God experiencing the world, Scheler contends that it is constitutive of personhood as such to experience a world, that is, what is other than oneself. By His love, God grasps the world in its entirety, and on Scheler’s view, to perceive God is to share in that world-encompassing love.
As I have said, I shall challenge Scheler’s contention that we only perceive persons in this “co-experiencing” way and never as objects. But I nevertheless contend that this account of spiritual perception by co-experiencing is Scheler’s most important contribution to an account of spiritual perception. Whereas some other accounts of spiritual perception portray it as grasping objectively given contents belonging to or revealed by God, Scheler insists that it is a matter of one person relating to another, and that it cannot be separated from this personalistic context. If a purported instance of spiritual perception is not at bottom personal perception—perceiving or “co-experiencing” with God—then it is not spiritual perception in the fullest sense. Such an instance would not be guided by feeling the value of holiness, which always belongs fundamentally to persons, and so would be a sort of value deception.It is possible to know true things about God, and even to perceive God in some sense through other values than holiness, such as beauty, without perceiving God through holiness. One could hate God and still perceive God in some ways, but one cannot perfectly perceive God as the personal reality He is without loving Him. Any perception of God not as personal is, to some extent, a deception: it is to perceive things about God, but not to perceive God as such. Compare to the essay of William Abraham in this volume. Personally perceiving God requires that we are open in love to the highest values, but it also requires that God freely reveals Himself, since persons, being unable to be grasped as an object, are only known by their own free self-revelation.Scheler, Ressentiment, 120. For one person to perceive another as person, they must act and experience together, and this requires that each be open to the other in love, and that each reveal him or herself to the other. Since God is love, and so strives to bring about the highest values in all others, He cannot fail to reveal Himself. So, any failure to perceive God is due to a false ordo amoris and blindness to the value of holiness in the created perceiver.Scheler, Sympathy, 164; Eternal, 334–6.
One example of personal perception of God is a particular experience of “conscience” described by Scheler. The experience of conscience that Scheler describes is not the experience of applying universal ethical principles to particular cases, that is, the sort of conscience that can be well or badly formed. Rather, the experience that Scheler describes is an experience of being called to complete obedience to God, of standing under His judgment, and (most importantly) of seeing ourselves and the moral values and disvalues in ourselves as He sees them.Scheler, Eternal, 35, 60–1 This particular experience of conscience, like other religious acts like acts of faith and adoration, presupposes the feeling of holiness. To feel God’s holiness (and so be open to the personal perceptual experience of experiencing oneself or the world as He experiences them) includes an experience of God’s nearness or remoteness. When God is felt to be near, one feels this through the intentional feeling of bliss, and when God is far away, one feels this through the intentional feeling of despair.Scheler, Formalism, 108–110.
Feeling the value of holiness also leads to sacramental perception.‘Sacramental’ here should be understood as the presence of God in creatures inasmuch as He acts in and towards them, and is thereby signified by them, not in the more robust sense of Sacraments like Baptism or Eucharist, which causally effect what they signify. This experience presupposes that one has had personal perception of God, on the basis of which one sees the world “in the light of God,”Scheler, Sympathy, 161; Eternal, 62, 194. “according to” God’s vision of it.Paul Gavrilyuk, in his essay in this volume, draws on phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Eye and Mind,” which describes how we can, by looking at artworks, see the world according to the vision of the artwork. Something similar happens in sacramental perception. In this light, one perceives created persons as images of the Absolute Person, and so as capable of bearing the value of holiness. One can also thereby perceive non-personal things as bearers of a “symbolic value” of holiness—that is, the holiness that properly belongs to persons is felt to be concentrated in them sacramentally (analogous to how the value of honor belonging to a nation comes to be felt to be concentrated in its flag). This is not a mere symbol of the value of holiness; if that were the way we perceived things sacramentally, the value itself would be felt to be entirely elsewhere, in God, and just signified by things.Scheler does not deny that we can perceive things in this way, but this is not the sacramental perception to which he wishes to draw our attention. Rather, the value of holiness is felt to be present in the sacramental thing (such that it is appropriate to direct religious acts toward that thing), but present symbolically, such that the thing has holiness by way of standing in for what has holiness properly. Non-personal things can also be felt to have a “technical value” of holiness, that is, perceived to be means to holiness, directing our attention participating in God’s personal acts.Scheler, Formalism, 103–4, 109; Eternal, 165. Von Hildebrand describes this experience in more detail, focusing on how in feeling holiness to be symbolically present in non-personal things, one feels the great disparity between the thing that bears this value, and the lofty value made present and expressed in it. See his Aesthetics, v.1, Brian McNeil, trans., (Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Project, 2016), 162–3, 166, 211.
To be guided by a value on the hierarchy leads one to take up a worldview. For example, being guided by the value of usefulness leads to the modern scientific or economic worldview and being guided by vital values leads to the worldview of one of the heroic cultures, such as that of medieval Europe. Since each value is relative to the ones above it, each worldview is relative to and contextualized within the ones above it. The saint, the one guided by the value of holiness in an exemplary way, alone sees the world as it most fundamentally is, because the saint alone is guided by the objective ordo amoris and has no value blindness. The saint participates in God’s experience and acts out of the firm foundation of the bliss that he or she has by being guided by holiness. On Scheler’s view, bliss is the basis, not the reward, of virtue. To feel and be guided by holiness is to feel a deep-seated bliss, a confidence and joy in God that shapes all aspects of one’s life. Scheler contends that it is the hallmark of the saint that even when he or she undergoes extreme physical or psychological suffering, this underlying bliss, whereby the saint experiences the holiness of God, remains, giving unity and direction to his or her life. The saint’s love for others is a bestowal of goods on them out of the richness of bliss.Scheler, Formalism, 359, 367–8; Ressentiment, 65–70. Graham Oddie (“Bearers of Value,” 246) argues that just as visual perception is always from a particular point of view, so value perception should be understood as always involving a point of view. This accounts for cases of value-blindness. Scheler’s theory can be seen as filling in some details as to how this occurs.
Although spiritual perception is not a form of reasoning, having certain beliefs and performing certain practices are necessary to engage in spiritual perception, both in the sense that these beliefs and practices prepare one to spiritually perceive and in the sense that these beliefs and practices are involved in the act of spiritual perception itself. Scheler does not think, for example, that children have a pure value perception that then is corrupted by learning or influence. Rather, our perceptions, including our value perceptions, must be informed by concepts and beliefs. This is not to say that we explicitly consider these concepts when we perceive. Rather these concepts and beliefs are “functionalized”—that is, they guide our perception so that we either perceive more accurately or more blindly.Scheler, “Ordo Amoris,” 103, 118; “Idealism and Realism,” 312. cf. John Greco, “Perception as Interpretation,” Proceedings of the ACPA 72 (1999): 229–37. See also Fred Aquino’s essay in this volume. This idea of functionalization is further expanded by another value phenomenologist, Dietrich von Hildebrand, who describes how some beliefs can become so deeply ingrained in my consciousness, that I see all things in their light, even when I am not considering them. Correct beliefs must ingrain themselves in me in this way if I am to have veridical spiritual perception. See his What is Philosophy? (New York: Routledge, 1991), 84–8. See the essays by Fred Aquino, Paul Gavrilyuk, and John Greco in this volume Although all cognitive acts are guided by prior value perception, cognitive acts yield beliefs, which in turn can help us better attend to and act on the basis of value experiences. But false beliefs, which can themselves result from a false ordo amoris, can inform one’s perception such that one is blind to certain values. Many worldviews are based upon an inversion of values, often founded in an attitude of ressentiment toward higher values. This is an inability to bear those higher values, and this leads to a preference for lower values, and thus to a blindness toward higher values.Scheler, Ressentiment, 61, 112; Formalism, 306. For example, some cultures prefer utility values to religious values; a member of such a culture might see religious acts as only worthwhile inasmuch as they bring about some goal, such as a more successful, happy, or equal society, rather than seeing the call of religious values in itself.Scheler, Ressentiment, 103, 121ff. Overcoming such blindness requires functionalizing correct beliefs in one’s perception, which then lead one to correctly perceive values. But one can only take on these beliefs through first apprehending their value, and that requires the intervention of someone, such as a saint, who can reveal the true value hierarchy,One might object that some saints, while genuinely holy, are incapable of properly perceiving lower values, like aesthetic values, and so the saint as such seems incapable of guiding us to see the true value-hierarchy. But Scheler’s claim is not that the saint sees all values equally well. Rather, as we have seen, there are exemplars at acting on the basis of each level of value; the saint is just the exemplar for the highest value. The saint best sees two things: the value of holiness itself and the proper rank of each kind of value in the hierarchy—that is, the saint best sees how much each level of the hierarchy is to be loved, relative to holiness. But it does not follow from this that the saint sees the values at each level of the hierarchy in themselves better than anyone else. The artist sees aesthetic values in themselves (and has the knowledge that follows from that value perception) far better than the saint, but the saint best knows those values’ worth relative to holiness. or through a sudden epiphany in which one is struck by a value in a new way. Merely learning new information without the encounter with value and with other persons is insufficient for the necessary conversion.
Achieving a true ordo amoris and functionalizing true beliefs depends upon ascetic practices that move one from a bodily worldview (based on values of utility, pleasure, or vitality) to a worldview based on the value of holiness. This shift to God’s perspective requires denying oneself those things to which bodily values lead us to attend, in order to focus on higher values.Scheler, Eternal, 92. Ascetic practices also intensify one’s experience of both higher and lower values, which leads to a more accurate perception of things, more virtuous action, and greater happiness.
We often take on worldviews held in general by those in our culture, nation, religion, and other groups to which we belong; the concepts and beliefs of that worldview then become functionalized in our perceptions, so that we tend to perceive things as those in our groups perceive them. For this reason, perfected value and spiritual perception requires that one be part of the right community; on Scheler’s view, this is the Church.By “the Church,” Scheler at least means the universal Christian Church, but sometimes means the Catholic Church, though he never defends the claim that this is the referent of “the Church.” Persons experience themselves both as individual persons and as members of a “collective person.” The latter is presented experientially as an acting subject that is a community, which encompasses the individual: I experience the subject of some of my acts (such as acts of collective responsibility) not as this individual person, but as a community, such as my family or nation, that encompasses me and other members.Scheler, Formalism, 102–3, 299–300, 519–522; Eternal, 57–8; Ressentiment, 114–5. A collective person is not a conglomeration of or experientially derive from individual persons,Scheler, Formalism, 543 but is given as a person, a subject of acts, in its own right. Nor is the individual person experientially derived from a collective person, as if we always experienced ourselves as mere parts of a community. Like spheres of experience, collective persons are fundamental ways in which persons are given to themselves. Both communal and individual persons are endowed with conscience and responsible before God.Scheler, Formalism, 534. Like individual persons, collective persons act towards the various spheres, can be open to the highest values, and are primarily organized around or oriented to the realization of some value family. The Church is organized around the value of holiness inasmuch as it is oriented to collective salvation, that is, an experience of love for all finite persons. As the highest value, holiness can be shared among persons more than any other value. Since to be a person is to experience oneself as an individual and as a collective person, one can only perceive all things “in the light of God” if one is part of the collective person that relates to holiness, that is, the Church. So, spiritual perception is fully possible only in this community, and only there can I be fully aware of my salvation or sinfulness before God.Scheler, Formalism, 545–554.
Both individual and collective persons experience themselves both as “social persons” (that is, they experience themselves as relating to other persons and as being members of collective persons) and as “intimate persons” (that is, they experience themselves as transcending all responsibility for others, experiencing themselves in solitude from all other persons and in intimacy with God.) The experience of oneself as an “intimate person” alone with God is a crucial aspect of Scheler’s view of spiritual perception. Communal persons distinct from the Church such as nations, as well as individual persons, experience this intimacy with God. They thereby can perceive themselves, apart from any reference to the Church, as co-experiencing with God. However, though one can only have this sort of spiritual perception apart from the Church, full co-experiencing with God and spiritual perception is only possible in the Church.Scheler, Formalism, 561–4; Eternal, 317. Compare this to the account of spiritual perception given by Thomas Gallus; see Boyd Taylor Coolman, “Thomas Gallus” in Paul Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley, The Spiritual Senses, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
03. Expansions on a Schelerian Phenomenology of Spiritual Perception
Scheler provides a well-developed phenomenological framework for an account of spiritual perception, but we can retain this framework while revising his account, so as to describe the full range of our actual experience more accurately than Scheler does. In this section I outline some ways in which this could be done.
First, Scheler’s account of the hierarchy of values requires development. On Scheler’s view, values fall into a strict hierarchy: higher values, like holiness, can give us the perception and motivation we need to properly order lower values, and lower values are properly felt as relative to higher values. But lower values do not, on this view, share in higher values—that is, Scheler never considers the idea that usefulness itself could be felt to be beautiful, or pleasure to be holy. Rather, on his view, only bearers of values (such as objects, persons, events, and states of affairs) share in values. But we do often feel not only the value of things, but the value of values.See Von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 84–89. For example, we might, in watching a great athlete be aware of his or her vital values, the way in which he or she is a bearer of health, strength, and athletic prowess. But these values themselves (his or her vitality or prowess in themselves) and not just the athlete, have a beauty of their own—and, I contend, at least in some cases, a holiness of their own, at least in the sense of the symbolic value of holiness. There is a gracefulness to vitality that makes present the giver of all good gifts;See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Oliver Davies, et. al., eds., The Glory of the Lord, v. 4, The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 90–100. we can perceive this especially if we functionalize beliefs about God’s presence in all things in our perception. Lower values can be bearer of higher values, especially aesthetic and religious values, and take on a sacramental significance. The saint, purified by ascetic practice and having functionalized true religious beliefs, perceives not only all things, but all values, in light of God. The saint can c see even in mundane things a sacramental holiness—and, if Scheler’s account of worldviews is correct, thereby see these things as they truly are.My claim is not that all lower values are holy or beautiful, but that some are and should be felt to be so.
This brings us to a second area that could be expanded phenomenologically. On Scheler’s view, one can only feel holiness properly speaking in another person, that is, another subject, which is distinct from the person’s body. Bodily acts can symbolically, but not properly, bear the value of holiness. Furthermore, on Scheler’s view, when one perceives holiness and the world “in the light of God,” God (or saints or the value of holiness itself) does not causally affect me—that is, He does not make anything come to be in me by His power. Rather, by feeling the value of holiness, I have a feeling of bliss, and out of this feeling, I imitate God and so become holy. Despite his personalism, Scheler focuses on intending values, rather than intending their bearers: to be a religious being is to be related primarily to the value of holiness, not to real bearers of that value, even God, nor to being causally affected by those bearers.
But this is problematic, both from an orthodox Christian point of view on which God acts upon me in giving me grace in virtue of Christ’s merits and thereby transforms not only my spirit but also my body, and from a phenomenological point of view.See the summary of Karol Wojtyła’s critique of Scheler in Michael Waldstein, “Introduction,” in John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Michael Waldstein, trans., (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 69–77. Scheler is rightly concerned about making values mere means to my betterment, but his students von Hildebrand and Aurel Kolnai showed that we can love goodness, and responding to values can improve me, without either implying that I respond to values just for the sake of my betterment. In fact, I am bettered most if I respond to values for their own sake. This is a theme throughout Hildebrand’s Ethics. See also Francis Dunlop, “Kolnai’s Dissertation,” in Zoltan Balazs and Francis Dunlop, Exploring the World of Human Practice, (Budapest: Central European University, 2004), 269. When we grow in holiness we do not primarily perform spiritual acts out of an interior sense of bliss. Rather, we experience ourselves being shaped and transformed by another, especially in transformative ascetical and mystical experiences like the dark night of the soul.Scheler would explain these experiences as a more intensified attending to the objective guilt in me, but coupled with and motivated by a deeper sense of my value and bliss. See Eternal, 54–60. This fails to attend to the perception of God causally acting upon me to transform me. To perceive God is not just to feel His holiness and then to share in His experience and acting toward the world; rather, it is to feel oneself acted upon by Him, both in Himself and through things. Contrary to Scheler, we do not normally start the religious life with a rich interior sense of bliss, out of which we lovingly act towards others; sometimes, we start the religious life with an interior sense of emptiness, and find ourselves being acted on and filled by God.
Furthermore, this experience of transformation in holiness is frequently bodily.See Coolman’s essay in this volume for a discussion of eschatological bodily transformation, as well as my “Perceiving the Image of God in the Whole Human Person,” St. Anselm Journal 13 (2018): 1–18. Scheler denies that persons as such are bodily and that the value of holiness can be had by bodies (except symbolically) because he holds the erroneous principle that if something is what one is, then one cannot know or love it objectively as such. Since we can know our bodies as objects, our bodies cannot be what we persons are. On Scheler’s view, we “enact” our spiritual acts—that is, we “become” them or “flow” into them, such that we are wholly taken up in them (though still in such a way that we can always perform further acts.) We merely “live” our bodily acts—that is, we act into our body, such that it is a sphere of experience, but is always as different and at some experienced distance from ourselves.
But this is phenomenologically inaccurate. We can experience our bodily acts as equally our own to our spiritual acts, as occurs in sexual experiences, acts of affection, or liturgical acts like genuflecting, processing, or bowing.This is phenomenologically defended by, e.g., In Excess, Jean-Luc Marion, Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud, trans., (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), ch. 4; Levinas, Totality, section II. Here, the bodily acts are not symbols of what is properly a spiritual act; rather, the bodily act is itself directly experienced as a personal act. I experience the subject that I am not as something standing back from but living in a body, but as a subject that is irreducibly bodily.This does not exclude the possibility of also having experiences in which I experientially stand back from or transcend my body. See my “Habits, Potencies and Obedience,” Proceedings of the ACPA 88 (2014): 165–180. If this is right, and if persons are the proper bearers of values of holiness, then the human body could itself be a bearer of holiness in itself. Perception of Christ’s body or a relic of Christ’s cross, or even perception of an icon, a statue, or a saint’s bodily act of charity, can transcend the level of being a symbolic bearer of holiness, and be a proper bearer of holiness in its own right. Furthermore, bodily ascetic practices are not just instrumental in bringing about a more accurate value perception but are an experience of being transformed so as to act and experience with God in one’s bodily acts.
Late in his career, Scheler developed the idea of bodily affective drives, which move us blindly toward some desired good; the experience of a drive is an experience of exerting effort. By their resistance to these drives, we feel the real existence of things.Scheler, Eternal, 191; “Idealism and Realism,” 318. On this later view, our experience of the world is fundamentally a complex of spiritual or personal experiences of values and feelings, and of blind drive experiences. Indeed, Scheler came to contend on the basis of this two-fold foundation to personal experience that reality itself fundamentally is made up of personal spirit and blind drives. So fundamental did Scheler take these two experiences to be that, in a departure from classical theism, he argued that even God must have both spirit and drives in Him.Scheler, Man’s Place in Nature, Hans Meyerhoff, trans., (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1961), 88–95; The Constitution of the Human Being, John Cutting, trans., (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2008), 154–162. We can perceive God’s spirit by the feeling of the value of holiness, but we perceive God’s drives, by what Scheler called the “Dionysian reduction.”Scheler, Constitution, 99–100, 401–3. Scheler does not describe this in any detail, but the idea is that one would set out of one’s conscious awareness all consideration of intelligible or sensible contents, or of values, and just immerse oneself in a pure feeling of drives, which Scheler describes as a pure feeling of vitality or erotic impulsion—that is, an experience of life without any consideration of the value or meaning of life. This, then, seems to be a concession to the observation that we can perceive God in a bodily way.
Aside from the fact that this is problematic in terms of Christianity and of classical theism, this “concession” also overlooks the way in which the body can be genuinely personalized,Von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970), 31. such that one can perceive holiness in a bodily way, without recourse to immersing oneself in blind, amoral drives. The body, no less than the spirit, can be a proper locus of personal acts, into which I wholly “flow” and am “engaged.” For this reason, the body can be perceived, after the necessary asceticism whereby one distances oneself from what is non-personal (no longer construed as everything bodily), as a locus of properly personal values, including the value of holiness. So, a body (primarily that of Christ, but secondarily those of the saints) can be proper objects, not merely in a symbolic sense, of adoration, worship, and other religious acts. This goes not only for the individual person’s body, but also for the collective person’s “body,” that is, the living community of believers and their bodily acts of charity and of liturgical worship. This would affect the way that we ought to engage in spiritual perception with regard to these bodily realities, and the sorts of religious attitudes of love that we ought to have toward them: love is properly directed to persons, but if what I have argued here is correct, this will include an irreducible bodily component, and not merely be directed to the person as spirit.
This brings us to the third and final area where a Schelerian phenomenology of spiritual perception needs revision. We have seen how, on Scheler’s view, we cannot perceive a person, including God, as an object of awareness, but only as a subject through experiencing and acting with them. Furthermore, we cannot, on his view, perceive God in creatures such that we come to our first perception of God through them; rather, we must start with a personal perception of the Absolute and its holiness, and come to sacramentally perceive God in light of that. But this seems phenomenologically inaccurate. Persons, including ourselves, are presented both as subjects and as substances, stably existing things capable of being partially examined in themselves and having natures of their own.For phenomenologically-motivated arguments that being a subject does not exclude being a substance see my Aristotelian Substance and Personalistic Subjectivity,” International Philosophical Quarterly 55 (2015): 145–164. This is affirmed by value phenomenologists like Von Hildebrand and Wojtyła. Scheler errs in thinking that all consideration of things as objects is objectification, reducing those things to only being objects of my intentional acts; since persons are themselves intentional actors, he reasons that they can only be grasped in themselves if we do not subordinate them to our acts. But I can intentionally experience something as an object without reducing it just being an intentional object, for some acts allow me to grasp a reality as it is in itself. When I come to know another person, it is not purely via a sympathetic co-acting and co-experiencing, whereby I know that person’s ordo amoris. It also involves coming to know that person in themselves—and not just the properties of their body or their minds (such as their beliefs or desires). Rather, it involves coming to know them, in their unique content, as a sort of object, through a sort of intuition, motivated by love. Spiritual perception can involve such an intuition of God, as well: we come to really see what He is like, in Himself,This could be understood in various ways. It could be understood, inspired by Thomas Aquinas, as a grasp of God’s essence, or, inspired by Gregory Palamas, as a contact with God but not with His essence. The core claim is that one can see God in some sense, as the object of one’s intentional act of spiritual perception. in personal perception, as well as how He has revealed Himself to be through creatures, in sacramental perception. Just as we do not start the spiritual life with an interior sense of bliss out of which we act, so we do not always begin spiritual perception with an experience of the sphere of the Absolute and its holiness, in light of which we see all things religiously. Rather, we sometimes start with an awareness of creatures motivated by values lower than the religious (such as aesthetic or moral values) and then come to feel the value of holiness and perceive God through these values, based on our act of lovingly being open to higher values. This is a sacramental ascent to God through things.
None of these corrections are meant to take away from the immense helpfulness of the phenomenological framework for spiritual perception that Scheler provides. This framework shows us both how we can perceive God personally and through creatures sacramentally, all motivated by the feeling of the value of holiness. It shows how spiritual perception and the feeling of the value of holiness fit into a larger framework for our experience, and it shows why spiritual perception can sometimes fail through value blindness. In this way, Scheler’s phenomenology meets the desiderata for a plausible philosophical theory of spiritual perception.
04. Lightning Interview with Mark Spencer
Mark Nelson: First of all, congratulations, Mark Spencer, on winning the Dallas Willard Research Center Research Article Award for 2023!
Mark Spencer: Thank you very much for this award! It’s a great honor!
MN: What is your current academic position, and how long you have been there?
MS: I’m currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is my twelfth year teaching at St. Thomas.
MN: Could you summarize your paper in one to three sentences, or at least say what it is about for our readers who are not academic philosophers?
MS: My paper, “Value Perception and Spiritual Perception in Max Scheler,” was written for a volume on spiritual perception, those acts in which God or things having to do with God appear in our experience. Scheler was an early twentieth century philosopher who emphasized the role of feeling in all experience, especially religious experience, and my paper sums up and expands his approach to spiritual perception, emphasizing not just the role of feeling, but also his insistence that our experiences of God are experiences of God as a personal reality. God doesn’t enter into our experience as an object that we can examine impersonally, but as another subject, with whom we can act or experience.
MN: Had you heard of Dallas Willard before you won this award? If so, how?
MS: Yes, I’ve had the honor to engage in a couple of events with the Dallas Willard Center before now through my work with the Hildebrand Project, a group of academics and others that promotes the work of twentieth century personalist philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and of personalist philosophy more broadly. A few members of both groups held a really fantastic reading group online a few years ago, which we followed up with a colloquium in June 2023 that brought together scholars interested in both thinkers. But I had first encountered Dallas Willard’s thought when I was an undergraduate student. He was recommended to me by friends and professors as both a gifted spiritual writer and a fine phenomenological philosopher.
MN: Thank you, Mark. What are one or two similarities or points of contact between those two thinkers?
MS: Personalism is a school of thought that holds that persons are the most important and fundamental reality, and that all other things must be understood in relation to divine and created persons. Dallas Willard shared some personalist commitments with Dietrich von Hildebrand. They also shared a rootedness in phenomenology, the school of thought founded by thinkers like Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler that is focused on analysis of human experience. Finally, they are both really outstanding spiritual writers focused on helping all people live lives transformed by Jesus Christ.
MN: You work in phenomenology, as did Dallas Willard and Dietrich von Hildebrand, both of whom were committed professing Christians. Were the founders of this tradition people of faith? If not, is there something about phenomenology that makes it especially hospitable or useful to Christians?
MS: Phenomenology was founded by Edmund Husserl, who was personally a Lutheran, but whose faith did not enter much into his philosophical work. Max Scheler, who can be seen as a co-founder of the movement, was for a period of his life a committed Catholic, and his struggles with and passion for his Christian faith entered deeply into his philosophical work. Many of their first students were deeply committed Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. I think that there is something about phenomenology that makes it especially useful for Christians. Christian thought has, at times, tended towards the abstract and impersonal, emphasizing arguments defending Christian doctrine, as opposed to helping people pay attention to the life-transforming experiences involved in a relationship with Christ. Phenomenology is a school of thought that is entirely centered around helping us analyze our experiences and the realities that appear in our experiences. For this reason, it is well-suited to helping Christians attend to their own religious experiences and practices, and help others do the same. Indeed, I have experienced practicing phenomenological analysis as quite a helpful spiritual practice.
MN: As you may know, the Martin Institute/Dallas Willard Research Center seeks to promote scholarship on Christian spiritual formation. From the Roman Catholic tradition, who is one historic thinker whose life and thought on spiritual formation you think evangelical protestants should know about? And who is one modern or contemporary thinker?
MS: One historical writer on spiritual formation I would above all recommend is Francis de Sales. Francis lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I above all recommend his Introduction of the Devout Life. It’s a deeply insightful and eminently practical book, basically a manual for spiritual formation. He has really helpful things to say about prayer, reading Scripture, growth in virtue, and living as a Christian in various states in life.
A more modern Catholic writer on spiritual formation that I’d recommend in Therese of Lisieux, especially her autobiography Story of a Soul. While she wrote over a hundred years ago, she is surprisingly contemporary in the concerns she takes up. For example, she grappled with the temptation of atheistic materialism, and has many helpful things to say about the struggle with that temptation. But above all, she is, I think, the best writer on how to live a life of holiness and love of Christ in ordinary, middle class, modern circumstances.
MN: Just a few background questions, Mark. Where did you go to college and grad school? Did you know from an early age that you wanted to study philosophy?
MS: I did my undergraduate work and Master’s Degree in Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a small Catholic liberal arts school near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in Steubenville, Ohio. I did my doctoral work under the late Jorge Gracia at the University at Buffalo, which is part of the State University of New York system. But I knew I wanted to study philosophy since I first heard of philosophy, sometime in early high school. I’ve always been interested in fundamental questions. Before I knew about philosophy, I intended to follow in my father’s footsteps and think about these questions by going into theoretical physics. But when I learned about philosophy, and about how it asks even more fundamental questions about reality than physics, I knew that was the path for me.
MN: What areas or topics in philosophy do you teach and research in?
MS: Most of my research has been on the nature of human persons. I’m really perplexed by myself and my own motivations, and this has led me to focus on philosophical anthropology. Inquiring into the human person has led me to other areas of research in metaphysics, natural theology (especially the relation between divine action and human freedom), and the philosophy of beauty—and that last area has increasingly become my main research focus.
In researching each of these areas, my general method is to look into what a wide range of traditions have said about a given tradition and then try to synthesize their findings together, asking what each tradition enables us to perceive about reality. For this reason, I’ve done work in the phenomenological and personalist traditions, the contemporary analytic tradition, the scholastic tradition, and in ancient and medieval Greek philosophy. A lot of my current thinking about synthesizing these traditions on the human person and on those other topics I mentioned is summed up in my recent book The Irreducibility of the Human Person: A Catholic Synthesis. And I’m following that one up with a book I’m currently writing on beauty.
Every student at my university has to take a class on the philosophy of the human person, and I teach that class a lot. I also regularly teach a class on the philosophy of art and beauty, a class on the history of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and a few different classes on philosophy of religion and natural theology. I find that my teaching and my research have been able to build well upon one another.
MN: And a quick personality question. Please share your position on this vexing problem of modernity: when squeezing a tube of toothpaste, should you squeeze from the middle of the tube, or from the bottom and flatten as you go up?
MS: My general practice is, when the tube is new, I squeeze it all over indiscriminately, because that’s the easiest thing to do. Then, when the toothpaste starts to get a little low, I start flattening from the bottom and trying to get all the toothpaste I can out of it. Now that I think about it, that’s probably a great image for what it’s like to live in late modernity—it’s an alternation between wantonly embracing convenience when it’s easy to do so and falling into anxiety about scarcity and thrift at other times, ha ha! So, I don’t think that I can say that my practice is what you should do.
MN: Thank you for your time, Mark, it is good to know more about your life, work and practices 🙂
MS: Thank you! It’s an honor to receive this award and to be able to share some thoughts with you!