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:
In The Art of Loving, the psychoanalyst and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” And he is right. Love takes work and can be counter-intuitive in that it requires us to reach beyond the constraints of ego, and travel beyond our comfort zone.
The best exposition of love though, in my opinion, is to be found in those timeless words written by Paul the Apostle and Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 –
The Gift of Love
“13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Cultivating and applying the gift of love is a life-long endeavour and is always an imperfect process. We make mistakes, we fail, and we hurt each other, but we go on, strengthened by St. Paul’s words of wisdom and the grace of God.
A favourite short poem of mine was written during the Victorian era by William Ernest Henley. ‘Invictus’ is a classic blend of Stoicism, cultural and a biblical reference. With respect to the latter, in the fourth stanza Henley alludes to Matthew 7:14, ‘Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’
Here is a poem that was written by a defiant Henley – he had a leg amputated and was fighting Tuberculosis. He knew hardship and he knew how to make a defiant stance against ‘fate’. This stance was a measure of a man who lived in a challenging world, accepted that to be the case, but through his words, demonstrating the power of free will Anyway, here is the full poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul
Such has been the impact of this poem over the years, it has been quoted by Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, among others.
For those who are interested, I have a second website dedicated to my role as a Logotherapist & Existential Analysis. Logotherapy was developed by Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Prof. Viktor Frankl; its premise is that humans are motivated by the pursuit of meaning throughout their lives and in individual circumstances. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Frankl writes: “Man is originally characterized by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself.” The more he forgets himself—giving himself to a cause or another person—the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.”
Logotherapy can be characterised as ‘healing through meaning’ and has a broad range of applications, especially in relation to navigating existential problems e.g. career choice, retirement, relationships, bereavement and living well with chronic ill-health. Logotherapy helps us to take control of our loves by accepting that “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” (Viktor Frankl).
You can visit the website here: www.scottpeddie.com
The question of how we best use our time, and the direction our energies are focused on, are not new. Yes, the pace of life has changed, but the core principles are the same. The biblical narrative – in both the Old and New Testaments – bares witness to this. There is, for example, the beautiful and poignant words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
‘3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.’
And then in the New Testament we have a number of verses reflecting on time, responsibility, wisdom and the Divine imperative to live a full life mindful of our calling. Consider James 4:14, where it is written:
’14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’
Wise words indeed.