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Then evaluate logotherapy with the help of the theology of Ecclesiastes and relevant insights from Supplementary Readings 3-6. Highlight in what way logotherapy is consistent with Ecclesiastes and in what way it is not. Can logotherapy be modified so that it can be safely used by Christians? If no, why? If yes, how? A summary on Frankl and his logotherapy is available at: (Length: 1000 words) http://www.meaning.ca/archives/archive/art_logotherapy_P_Wong.htm.
Questions about life’s meaning and suffering which were formerly handled by priests or rabbis are now increasingly confronted by psychiatrists and doctors. In his bestseller Man's Search for Meaning, Dr Victor Frankl highlighted the distinctive of logotherapy, also known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”, as the idea that “the striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man”. Therefore, for logotheraphy, the focus is on the will to meaning in contrast to the will to pleasure of Freudian psychoanalysis and the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology. While Freud and Adler tried to discover primal drives latent in the past, Frankl focuses rather on the meanings one is called to fulfill in the future.1 In his moving autobiographical account of experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, he observed how prisoners who lost hope in the future would be subject to mental and physical decay.2
According to Frankl, man’s search for meaning is not a derived projection from more basic instinctual drives or sublimations. Otherwise it would lose its ability to
Victor Frankl, 1984, p.120). page 117 – 121
challenge or summon him to live or even die for these values. Unlike Sartre’s axiom that existence precedes essence, Frankl’s existentialism asserts that the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves but rather we discover it as ‘something confronting existence’.3 Those who lack a meaning worth living for and find an inner void within their hearts experience ‘existential vacuum’. This is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century due to the loss of traditional values and rampant industrialization, manifesting itself in boredom, addiction, the will to money, apathy or unbridled sexual libido.4
As a Christian, I applaud Frankl’s critique of the determinism prevailing in much of psychoanalysis that reduced man to nothing but a victim of hereditary or environmental conditions. We share the hope that a ‘rehumanized psychiatry’ would replace the tendency to treat human minds as machines and focus on mere techniques. Indeed, Frankl’s view of man is biblical in the sense that man has both the potentials of behaving like a swine or a saint. Man’s dignity lies in him being created in the image of God and yet marred by the depravity of sin. However, Frankl has an overly optimistic view of human freedom in which even the most evil persons are ultimately self-determining. Through restricted by conditions, they are free to change their own destiny. In the Christian perspective, fallen man is in need of divine rescue and inner liberation before such a change is possible. As long as his basic orientation is self-centered, the outward change merely vacillates between hedonism and legalism. ‘Existential vacuum’ (and its
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, (Pocket Books: New York, 1963), page 156 4 Ibid., pages 169 - 170
symptoms) express in modern terms Augustine’s ancient prayer that our hearts are restless until they find fulfillment or satisfaction in God.
However, according to Frankl, the meaning of life cannot be abstract or general. It must be specific to a person’s life at a given moment. Everyone has his own concrete mission that demands fulfillment. Logotheraphy asserts that the human ability to respond to life’s vocation is the essence of his existence. “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life”.5 In order to help someone discover his own meaning, the doctor asks him question that ‘confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself’.6 The key is not self-actualization (promoted by numerous selfhelp books) but self-transcendence because the more we make self-fulfillment our goal, the more elusive it becomes. We transcend ourselves by fulfilling the higher meaning which can be detected through three different ways – 1) by achievement, 2) by experiencing a work of nature or art or a person we love and 3) by suffering. Again, Christians could agree with Frankl’s insistence that the meaning of life is detected rather than constructed. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher confronts his readers with the transitory nature of life and compels them to make a choice in how to live it not in pursuit of profitless ventures like wealth accumulation and selfish pleasures. We are most fulfilled when we give ourselves to a higher cause in accomplishing His concrete calling for us, experiencing personally the Creator’s love, and suffering in service of others as Jesus did
Ibid., page 172 Ibid., page 173. The categorical imperative of logotherapy: “So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
on the cross. However, Christians may press deeper the point that life itself does not make any demand or cannot ask questions. To answer such a summons on our lives is to imply that there is Someone who calls us to our greatest good (summum bonum). Guinness defined this calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to is summons and service.”7 To paraphrase Jesus, we may say that he who finds his life in self actualization will lose it and he who loses his life for the sake of Christ will find it. (Matthew 10:39)
Quoting Nietzsche’s words, Frankl claimed, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” In a culture obsessed with pleasure and pain-avoidance, an incurable sufferer “is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading”.8 Logotherapy seeks to help patients to accept unavoidable suffering bravely and find dignity in it. For example, when Frankl was stripped of all but his ‘naked existence’, he lost a treasured manuscript but saw his suffering as a challenge to live his insights instead of merely writing them on paper. Just as an ape cannot understand the purpose of its suffering in an experiment to find a cure for cancer unless it enters the realm of humanity, is it not conceivable that there is a dimension beyond our world where the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?9 Scientists cannot deny the existence of such a higher
Os Guinness in The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2003), page 4. Indeed, it is useless to ask a chess champion, “What is the best move in the world?” because it depends on a particular situation in a game and the opponent. However, the concrete move in a specific context works itself out depending on a bigger, more general purpose i.e. to checkmate the opponent’s king. So it is proper to discuss an abstract supra-meaning before applying it to the specifics. 8 Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, “Logotherapy and Existential Analysis”, Acta psychotherap., Vol 6, pages 193204 (1958). Quoted in Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning., page 181 9 Ibid. ,page 187
reality. However, this ‘supra-meaning’ necessarily exceeds our finite intellectual ability to understand it. “The more comprehensive the meaning, the less comprehensible it is.”10 Where knowledge and intellectual cognition failed, faith or existential decision took over.11 Instead of embracing nihilism as some existential philosophers do, we are called to bear our inability to understand its ‘unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms’.12 Following Heidegger, Frankl understood God as “Being” itself that is wholly other and can only be portrayed in anthropomorphic symbols.13 His operational definition reads as follows: “God is the partner of our most intimate soliloquies. That is to say, whenever you are talking to yourself in utmost sincerity and ultimate solitude – he to whom you are addressing yourself may justifiably be called God.” He hoped the definition is sufficiently vague to encompass even agnosticism and atheism.
There is much to praise about logotherapy’s focus on finding meaning in and through suffering. In a triumphalistic Christian subculture with an over-realized eschatology, we need to reclaim the place of suffering as part of our cruciform spirituality rather than a sign of spiritual deficiency. Eschewing nihilism, we can still endure in tension for our ultimate answers for present suffering will only be answered in ‘another world’. However, evangelical Christians will have strong objections for Frankl’s view of religion as different languages and none of which can be considered ‘superior’. It also appears that he views the leap of faith as a substitute for knowledge rather than a response to it. At best, his concept of the ‘Unknown God’ needs to be replaced with the self-revealing,
Ibid. ,page 143 Ibid., page 152. “…belief in God is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi holocaust; if it is not unconditional it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die – to resort to an argument once advanced by Dostoyevski”. 12 Ibid. ,page 188 13 Ibid., page 148
personal and concretely incarnate God of Christianity. Although faith is beyond reason, it is never “devoid of intelligible dogmatic content and grounded only in isolated subjective experience”.14 Certainly it should not be confused with ‘intimate soliloquies’, no matter how sincere or alone. For one may be sincerely and authentically mistaken. In a poem called “The Dream and Dreamer”, C.S. Lewis gives a different perspective on the seemingly ‘self-talking’ phenomenon of prayer:15
Master, they say that when I seem To be in speech with You, Since you make no replies, it's all a dream - One talker aping two.
They are half right, but not as they Imagine; rather, I Seek in myself the things I meant to say, And lo! the wells are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake The Listener's role, and through My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake The thoughts I never knew.
Stanton L. Jones and Richard E. Butman, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal, Existential Therapy, page 292 15 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, (C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd: Orlando, 1964)
And thus You neither need reply Nor can; thus, while we seem Two talking, thou are One forever, and I No dreamer, but Thy dream.
Finally, does the transitory nature of life make our existence meaningless? No, Frankl said, the only transitory aspects of life are the potentialities so we need to be responsible to actualize them. Once they are realized, what we have done in the past is ‘rescued and preserved from transitoriness’ like an eternal “footprint in the sands of time”.16 But given an atheistic worldview, life (taken as a whole) is ultimately absurd and meaningless. There is no one out there who preserves the past eternally. In the long run, we would all be dead and the universe will wind down. As Thomas Nagel put it, “Given that any person exists, he has needs and concerns which make particular things and people within his life matter to him. But the whole thing doesn’t matter.”17 In the end, the entire life is not connected to something larger than itself. Therefore the notion that our choices in life echo through eternity makes sense only within a theistic framework. I also wonder how Frankl would salvage meaning from a squandered life whose sinful choices have been eternally preserved in the past if there is no redemption from the misdeeds of the past. The writer of Ecclesiastes asserted that there is no net profit in this world as we shall lose in death all that we have gained in life and the basic realities of life remain the same with each passing generation (Eccl. 6: 10-12). He confronts his audience with this unpleasant reality of human finitude. In view of how fleeting life could be, there is a need to look beyond one’s lifetime to know what worthwhile purposes that we should pursue
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning, page 190 -191 Thomas Nagel, The Meaning of Life, Second Edition edited by E. D. Klemke, page 6
within this life. As Donald Polkinghorne puts it, “To ask about the meaning or significance of an event is to ask how it contributed to the conclusion of the episode [of which the event is a part]”18. Unless we know how the story ends, we do not know its significance or meaning. For Christians, a transitory life is meaningful as we choose responsibly to live in the fear of God and to keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13).
Polkinghorne, Donald E., 1988, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, Albany: State University of New York Press. Quoted in http://ourreasonforbeing.blogspot.com/2007/09/recapitulation-of-theme-andsub-themes.html (Last Accessed on 12 December 2009)
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