‘Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”’ Prof. Viktor Frankl.
We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself . . . We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil. Carl Gustav Jung.
The perversion of medical ethics that characterised the Third Reich is painful to comprehend in both its scope and form. From initially murdering children with disabilities, participating doctors and nurses moved on to the involuntary euthanisation of adults with mental illnesses and learning disabilities.
Although generally selected by physicians, the actual killings were normally carried out by nurses, either by passive (exposing patients to prolonged cold) or active (lethal injection) means. Why did the nurses carry out these killings? The answers are complex, deeply disturbing and instructive.
Cizik School of Nursing has created a 56-minute documentary entitled ‘Caring Corrupted: the Killing Nurses of the Third Reich’. The film explores how nurses participated in the Holocaust, and in-so-doing abrogating their professional ethics at the behest of a corrupt Nazi ideology.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this historical reality is how easily those ethics were sidelined and debased. It provides a powerful reminder of what can occur when an entire society is gripped by an evil ideology which becomes normalised over time. As such, it is a warning to us all in general, and to those in the caring professions in particular.
You can watch this excellent film here:
For many years now I have been very much a fan of the writings of the monk, writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton. His commentaries and insights into ethics, non-violence, social action, the contemplative life, inter-faith dialogue and so much more, have been of great interest, and application, to me on my own very personal faith journey.
As a poet, Merton was enormously talented, each line and stanza beautifully crafted into a message that is brought to life by the spirit of the writer and the imagination of the reader. His deeply personal poem – ‘For my Brother: Missing in Action 1943’ – is for me at least, one of his best. Amidst such a tragedy, Merton intertwines that life of suffering, which although unbearable, is transient, with the redemptive truth of a Divine sacrifice which transcends time and space. It is in this context, of paradox and perspective, that Merton finds meaning in the cruelty of war and the deep sense of personal loss he felt so painfully. And so Merton wrote:
‘When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us’.
You can listen to my reading of ‘For my Brother’ in its entirety below. If you’re new to Merton’s poetry, I would recommend ‘In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems by Thomas Merton, by Lynn R. Szabo, Kathleen Norris (ISBN: 9780811216135).
Carl Jung was a fascinating, engaging and pioneering Psychiatrist who had an in-depth knowledge of theology, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology and mythology; he was a unique polymath and very much ahead of his time. Jung’s ‘Analytical Psychology’ has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact in various fields of human endeavour.
Jung was interviewed in his home by the BBC in 1959; here he discussed autobiographical details, his difficult relationship with Freud, as well as the findings of his clinical work which spanned many years and included psychological types, the unconscious, and the effect of religion and death on the collective and individual psyche.
For me, one of the most intriguing insights came when he was asked about his belief in God; his response, after some thought, was “I don’t need to believe, I know.” In essence he was pointing out the intuitive nature of the psyche, and also that the word ‘belief’ has unfortunate, and erroneous connotations; the nature of God is complex and our rush to reductionism is cautioned against by Jung.
Significantly, he ends the interview by stating, quite correctly in my opinion, that “Man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that: “We need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exist is man himself”. Indeed.
You can watch the interview in its entirety:
It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings. His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.
One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:
When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?
Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.
I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
One of the most frustrating facets of ‘Cultural Christianity’, where there is a remnant of belief and a minimal adherence at best, is that it often leads people to become intellectually incurious. In such an environment doctrines and dogmas go unchallenged, and key tenets of the faith are accepted without question and go unexamined.
I have some sympathy with the Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that: “There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.”
Encouraging at every opportunity, and from an early age, the exercise of critical faculties, is essential in all domains. Socrates was right when he said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
A faith that is alive with adventure and ongoing exploration is far more fulfilling than a dry and anaemic cultural affiliation. A questioning faith, but not a disputatious one, can lead to a much broader understanding of, and encounter with, the living God of Christianity.
The very best bible studies I have attended have been ones in which there were a broad range of people in attendance, with a myriad of ideas and a desire to learn; I have left such encounters with new insights and, perhaps more importantly, an awareness of what I do not know.
Of course many people will say that a singularly intellectual exploration is not a journey they wish to undertake. I understand that point. There is a very real danger of over intellectualisation, where people feel marginalised, the heart of the Gospel message is missed and elitism becomes the norm. The atmosphere this creates is the antithesis of the one envisaged by the reformers.
Therefore a balance needs to be struck, where we examine and explore, but remain mindful of the fact that, despite questioning, there is a limit to what we can comprehend. Such humility is necessary. Consider as an example Proverbs 3:5 – ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,‘ and Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will’.
I’ll finish with some words of wisdom from Colman, a nephew of St. Columba, who wrote in the ‘Alphabet of Devotion’: ‘What is best for the mind? Breadth and humility, for every good thing finds room in a broad, humble mind. What is worst for the mind? Narrowness and closedness, and constrictedness, for nothing good finds room in a narrow, closed, restricted mind’.
I like that.
The concept of self-transcendence and service to others is at the core of Christian belief and practice. Consider as an example Isaiah 58:10 – ‘If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’. Or in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10 makes the point very succinctly – ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’.
It would be erroneous however to think that religious belief has a monopoly on self-transcendence; it has a rich secular hinterland. In Viktor Frankl’s classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he addressed his understanding of ‘”the self-transcendence of human existence.”‘ and wrote: ‘It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter’. And crucially, ‘The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”’
The Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was cognizant of the fact that service need not be complicated or restricted to particular occupations; it is open to all of us, regardless of who we are and how we are categorized by society: