We Are That We Are: Theism, Spiritualism, Naturalism, and a Path to Spiritual Existentialism
By Charles H. Troe
Published October 19, 2019
Paperback, 316 Pages
WE ARE THAT WE ARE, Theism, Spiritualism, Naturalism and a Path to Spiritual Existentialism is a serious book. Like most serious books, effort is required to read it from beginning to end. In the case of this book, the effort is well rewarded on multiple levels.
If you are a reader who values well-written English, you will delight in We Are That We Are. The author exhibits a level of skill rarely encountered in a culture that is increasingly indifferent to the art of writing non-fiction English with precision, clarity, economy, and style. This book is very well written.
If you respond well to the presentation of observation, analysis, argument, and conclusion in a logical and compelling fashion, you will enjoy being carried along as the author puts in place the building blocks of his path to a naturalist understanding of the universe.
If you value humor, you will encounter more than you are likely to expect in a serious book. This is particularly true of AA members who know the Big Book and appreciate inside jokes.
This serious book may also be an important book for individual readers. It is a source of clarity, encouragement and inspiration for alcoholics who struggle with belief in and reliance upon a higher power. Despite the Big Book’s disclaimers of a particular religious point of view and exhortations to adopt a personal concept of a higher power, anyone interested in this review would surely agree that the Big Book assumes the primacy of Christianity and condescends to non-believers. The book should also be helpful to secular AA members perfectly comfortable with atheism, by articulating the source and content of a philosophy of life lived on the basis of moral and spiritual (yet a-theist) principles.
We Are That We Are begins with a very short personal history, including early frustration and adolescent disaffection with Christian orthodoxy.
The chapter “Is You ism or Is You Aint” (an amusing reference to a 1940’s blues song) sets out a definitional framework of philosophies, god concepts, and religious perspectives. An important observation is that existentialism, the end point of the author’s spiritual evolution, is not so much a philosophy as a view of human beings’ place in the universe. Separate chapters expand on agnosticism and existentialism.
The author touches on his second encounter with a mainstream Christian church led by a pastor who was open-minded about differing concepts of and approaches to what he later would call a higher power. There follows a detailed description of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, with careful avoidance of opinion concerning how to work the program and adherence to factual description of the contents of the Big Book. Next is a description of the author’s personal experience with alcoholism and recovery in AA, including personal experiences that are common in recovery and that are generally labeled spiritual.
There is a long chapter that reprises 13 essays previously published by the author, the purpose of which had been to describe and illustrate by metaphor his views on matters of the spirit, including an “everything god” that is a “non-random force in the universe.” An appendix briefly comments on each of the essays. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that nearly all of the essay content is (in the author’s opinion) still valid, but that the inclusion of supernatural attributes of “god” is superfluous. “. . . [T]he spiritual realm has, for me, become a phenomenon that occurs only at the level of the individual human being and among human beings.” I found the essays and appendix a bit tedious, but they make the point that one can develop meaningful concepts of spiritual experience and higher power that include no theist component. It also illustrates the persistence of the notion that a higher power includes an element of supernatural power.
The author finally arrives at the point in his journey when, as a result of reading the work of a-theist scientists and philosophers, a stake was driven through the heart of a god possessed of powers unbound by the laws of nature, particularly modern physics.
Now, the going gets a little tough. There are nine chapters that, relying heavily on experts and employing extensive quotation, present in logical sequence and with cumulative effect the tools of deconstruction of the last vestiges, however vague or subtle, of belief in a god unbound by the laws of nature. Included are discussions of Bayesian logic (a formalized, mathematical approach to evaluating the truth of hypotheses or beliefs), ancient philosophical physics, the Dark Ages and Church suppression of uncomfortable science, the science of physics (including classical mechanics, relativity, and quantum physics), emergent theories, domains of applicability, the nature of time, evolution, and consciousness. There follows a chapter devoted to evaluation of standard defenses of theism.
The author writes about the profound implications of acceptance of naturalism. Those implications are many, indeed profound and antithetical to the core beliefs of theism generally and Christianity in particular. For example, there is no supernatural god, no god-given plan or purpose, miracles don’t happen, and perhaps most importantly, “Nothing Identifiable as an Individual Human Being Can Survive Death of the Body.”
Finally, in the penultimate chapter, the author addresses the question with which he began: if there is no god, higher power or force in the universe that can operate outside the laws of nature, particularly physics, how do I account for forty years of sobriety during which I have had countless inexplicable “spiritual experiences,” a “spiritual awakening,” and an entire psychic change and rearrangement that are the essence of recovery from alcoholism?
I have come to believe that spiritual experience is analogous to our experience of time. Something real is happening but only in the macro human domain of applicability. . . . That does not mean that it is un-useful or unreal. In fact, it is very useful and, in a sense, real because it is part of human experience and perception – just like time. It is a “local” phenomenon that has no meaning in the universe as a whole but only among human beings. . . .
The payoff for reading this book is the long last chapter, titled Spiritual Existentialism. The author first reminds the reader of what existentialism is, most basically the belief that human beings evolved without any guided or predetermined essence and therefore that the essence of humanity is defined by the actions of human beings.
So why spiritual existentialism? It decidedly is not because there is a definition of correct action or appropriate exercise of existential freedom that lies outside the province of human beings. . . . It is because there is something real, powerful, palpable, and experiential that occurs within, between, and among human beings that enriches the individual, the group, and over time the species that is still mysterious, but for the existence of which there is ample room in a natural world that does not admit the possibility of a supernatural god.
The chapter discusses many aspects of what the author has come to believe about life, how best to live it, what gives it meaning, the substance and source of moral principles, and how to face and embrace death.
The description of the book on its Amazon e-Book page and the back cover of the paperback includes:
Life can be every bit, even more, meaningful, fulfilling, and wonderful without, as it would be with, the existence of a supernatural god.
And lastly, the final paragraph of this excellent book:
It is my fervent wish that in my last fully conscious moment, which I hope is very shortly before my death, I will face life’s inevitable and complete end without fear, anger, guilt or regret, but with awe at the wonder of life, joy at having experienced it, sadness at its approaching end, and with love for those who were with me on this earth during our brief times of existence.
About the Author
Dan H. lives in Oceanside, CA. He has been, among other things, a delivery boy, musician, product rep in the chemical entertainment industry, university music teacher, software salesman, copy editor, proofreader, and novelist. His novels, written under the name Earl Javorsky, are populated with alcoholics and addicts trying to right in spite of their grosser handicaps.