Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Here is the text of my sermon from today’s service at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Grounded in Reality; Transformed by Hope!

On Wednesday evening, I was teaching dream analysis in Glengormley to a group of therapists and other interested individuals.  Here, in our church, I have spoken briefly about dreams as they occur in the Biblical narrative, particularly in relation to the Old Testament; that is a story I will certainly pick up again in the future – there is so much we can learn from reflecting on those moments and situations where God reveals important truths to us. The form of those dreams varies from straight-forward instruction to metaphor and allegory.

The type of dream analysis I do in a professional capacity is of course a reflection of the kind of Psychotherapy I do – Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, a meaning based approach to confronting the vagaries of life and dealing with them intelligently and purposefully.  At the beginning of last Wednesday’s session, I spent a few minutes providing an overview of the philosophy behind Logotherapy – without an understanding of that philosophy, it is not possible to go very far in making sense of our dreams.

In its most basic of forms, the philosophy of Logotherapy always strikes me as having similarities, and intertwined motifs, with Judeo-Christian theology. It is nonetheless a secular psychology grounded in human experience that is not bound by any faith tradition; it is universal in its application.

But I do often think about how Logotherapy speaks gently to my own faith orientation.  In that respect, I am drawn specifically to the highs and lows of life articulated in the Psalms; Leopold Sabourin, in his book ‘The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning’, reminds us that the Psalter has been referred to as ‘a microcosm of the whole Old Testament… the epitome of Israel’s spiritual experience’. It does, in my opinion, go far beyond that; it provides the foundation and points towards the Christ of the New Testament.

In Logotherapy, we refer to the ‘tragic triad’ that epitomises our existence: suffering, guilt and death.  No life is spared these three experiences.  Likewise in the Psalter, we see suffering embraced and lamented, not just once but repeatedly.  Consider the Psalmists cry in Psalm 88:18 – ‘O lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before you’. And what about guilt? Well, we see it in Psalm 38:4 – ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear’. And then of course, there is death; Psalm 82:7 describes its inevitability in poetic terms: “Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.”

 If the ‘tragic triad’ was where Logotherapy began and ended, then we would certainly be in trouble! But it isn’t.  Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy, talks at length of the case for ‘tragic optimism’, where we remain optimistic despite life’s enduring difficulties. In her Foreword to Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Claudice Hammond says this – Frankl ‘talks of tragic optimism….that life brings pain, guilt and death and yet, for the most part, we manage to carry on’.  Somehow we manage to get through. And it gets better! Frankl also understood the reality of the ‘triumphant triad’, where there is healing, forgiveness and meaning.

In the Psalms, that ‘triumphant triad’ is also clear to see. Even in the Psalms of lament, optimism remains, seeping through, sometimes at points when we least expect it. How true that is in the reality of our own lives.  Consider again what Claudice Hammond says of Frankl’s philosophy – she writes that Logotherapy is a personal catalyst for radical change and progressive development.  As individuals then, Hammond reinforces Frankl’s philosophy, where she brings us back to our call to ‘turn suffering into achievement’, to ‘use guilt to improve’ ourselves and to utilise ‘the knowledge that life is short as a spur to action’.

Interestingly, the triumphant and the tragic often co-exist in the Psalms, just as they do in our day-to-day lives.  Our Old Testament Lesson, Psalm 39, is one such example, where despair and hope are expressed, and those two realities held in tension throughout.  There is a recognition that hope would be incomprehensible if it were not for anguish and despondency.

Here then, is how that observation plays out in our Psalm.  In the second verse, the Psalmist writes: I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse’, but then goes on say in verse seven: “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you”. Life, as we know it and as the Psalmist understood it, is never clear cut….the edges are often blurred and our emotions fluctuate. We can feel despair and hope in the same day…..and in the same moment.

It is in the latter half of the seventh verse, though – “My hope is in you” – where we see the entire Christian message writ large.  Our hope rests very firmly in God.  We look to him through our individual experiences of suffering, guilt and the shadow of death and see him radiant in our sights. We call on, and cleave to those words that reverberate intensely in Psalm 55: 22: Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken’.

So yes, we live lives that are frequently difficult. But we also live lives that are grounded in hope and animated by expectation.  Viktor Frankl was a realist; the Psalms, and the wider Old and New Testaments are realistic too – they echo with the stuff of a life lived authentically, the tragic juxtaposed with the triumphant.  From our faith perspective, we can go even further.  Our hope is infinite; it is all around us; it moves as the Spirit moves and it seeks us out.  We must allow ourselves, in the midst of life, to be engulfed in love and transformed by hope.

Although I have spoken in this short reflection in very broad terms of the message of the Psalms, and Psalm 39 in particular, let me finish with some New Testament wisdom, specifically Romans 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

Powerful, yet serene, there is nothing to either add or take away from Paul’s striking message to the church in Rome. It is a call to reflect deeply on our journey and gain insight into the radical nature of Christian faith.

And so, it seems appropriate that, in a few moments of silence, we allow ourselves to reconnect with the God who meets us where we are – in the reality of pain, suffering and death, but also in the transformative realm of healing, meaning and hope.  We are met on that journey with a love that knows no boundaries; a love that seeks us out. Let us feel the vigour of the Holy Spirit move among us and within us, in the stillness, and deep peace, of this holy place…………..where we are grounded in reality and transformed by hope.

‘Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever’. Jude 24-25.


This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.Flag of Germany.svg Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”  Viktor Frankl (Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and Author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’).

‘The world isn’t being changed as effectively as it should be because many of us are forgetting to study the tips that can usefully be drawn from religion. We should use the history of religion to inform us about the role of repetition, ritual and beauty in the name of changing how things are’.

So says philosopher and author Alain De Botton.  And so if you are a budding social reformer or want to change the world for the better, read what De Botton has to say in his aptly named article ‘On the Desire to Change the World’:  It ‘s well worth thinking about!

In this film one encounters a man who lived life to the full, and crucially, lived out his own philosophy.  He understood the import of Socrates’ maxim: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Also, like Socrates, Frankl understood what it is to be human and to experience the panopoly of emotions; he experienced the nihilism of Auschwitz, the heights of academic and professional achievement, and the satisfaction of seeing his therapeutic theories impacting positively on so many lives. And of course as prisoners, Frankl and Socrates understood exactly what freedom was and its importance.  Moreover, that both experienced imprisonment and the transcendence of suffering as intrinsic to the out-workings of a philosophy centred on meaning, was absolutely crucial.

The basis for Frankl’s brand of therapy and existential analysis was conceived before the Holocaust, but was moulded and tested in the horrors of the concentration camps.  Rather than destroying his faith in the goodness of humanity, his suffering at the hands of others cemented in his mind the basis for the logotherapeutic relationship.  And in-so-doing, Frankl returned again and again to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words: “When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”

Viktor Frankl and I_dvd_cover

We know much about Frankl’s theories and philosophy from the publications he has left behind and the proponents of logotherapy and existential analysis. With the release of Viktor and I we now have a detailed exploration the life and character of Viktor Frankl.  His grandson Vasily has done a fantastic job of interviewing a diverse range of associates, friends and family of his famous grandfather.  What emerges is a portrait of a man who is generous, humorous, humble, intensely intellectually curious, and yes, perhaps even slightly vain.  The most touching parts of the film are where the interviewees relate stories of Frankl in tears as he recounts, in very private moments, the dreadful cost of the Holocaust on those he loved.  And then there is that magnificent moment when an almost blind Dr. Frankl shuffles across the stage to kiss his tearful wife as she receives an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University; in that poignant instant, we see a man who loves deeply and exudes gratitude.

Viktor and I is a film that can only increase one’s admiration for a man who suffered appallingly, yet in and of that suffering found meaning and therefore led a life of self-transcendence and service to others.  His legacy will live on, both in logotherapy and existential analysis, and in the hearts of those who knew and loved him most.

You can find out more details about Viktor and I, and order the DVD, by visiting:

Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium (founder of Stoicism)

Stoic philosophy, with its roots in Greek culture and developed before Jesus Christ was born, has a surprising affinity with Christianity. That it was regarded ostensibly as a pagan philosophy by the Early Church Fathers does not detract from the areas of overlap. For example, terms such as logos, Spirit, and conscience make their presence felt in both philosophical worldviews.

But there is more to it than that. The concept of freedom of action, connectivity between creation and the divine, detachment from possessions, the mastery of emotions and the practice of spiritual ‘exercises’ (prayer or meditation/reflection) are yet more areas of convergence.

Consider for example the similarity between Seneca the Younger’s statement: ‘Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes.’ (De Provid. v.8).  There is much here that finds an echo in Matt 6: 25-31 and parallels: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’’

Or what about Marcus Aurelius’ reflection: ‘Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone.’ (Meditations v. 19).  Now consider what is written in Romans 12:2: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’.

The UK-based ‘Stoicism Today’ ( project run by an inter-disciplinary team of philosophers, psychologists, psychotherapists and others and followed by an eclectic mix of practitioners have just finished their 2013 ‘International Stoic Week’.  By making accessible modernised Stoic resources, the project is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring Stoicism.  Those who do will no doubt find it to be more compatible with a Theistic worldview, particularly Christianity, than they may previously have thought.  Moreover, its emphasis on reflection and meditation fits well with the more contemplative strands of Christianity.

I first watched Astra Taylor’s brilliant film ‘Examined Life‘ a year or so ago.  I was initially drawn to it as it contained a segment by the mercurial philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek. I had of course heard of Cornel West, the American philosopher, academic, activist, author, but had not read any of his publications.

I say that Examined Life is brilliant, partly because it focuses on the thoughts of key critical thinkers, like Žižek and West, but also  Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt and Judith Butler.  But perhaps more than the content of each individual’s thoughts is the fact that by their very actions they are pulling philosophy out of academic journals, textbooks and classrooms, and put it back where it should be – on the streets.  Taylor accompanies these thinkers through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and has helped them formulate their ideas.

For West, driving through Manhattan stimulates his critical thinking and sees him comparing philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how invigorating and exciting a life of critical thinking can be. Furthermore, he encourages us to adopt philosophy as a critical disposition, informing and shaping our lives and intellectual development. West’s drive to highlight philosophy’s power to transform the way we see our self and how we fit in to the world around us, is essentially a microcosm of Taylor’s documentary.

You can watch Cornel West’s thought-provoking contribution to ‘Examined Life‘ here:



‘I am because we are; we are all one‘ says Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he describes the essence of the African philosophy of Ubuntu.

In his 1999 book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu gives a fuller explanation of the Ubuntu concept: ‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed‘.

The world would be a transformed place if we practiced Ubuntu: there would be no war, no prejudice, no discrimination, no hatred, no bullying, no cheating, no oppression. It may seem like an impossible task, but we can all practice Ubuntu in our own little corners of the world; cultivating empathy and understanding of ‘the other’ will always pay dividends…… let’s get started!

Here is a short video of Archbishop Tutu explaining Ubuntu in simple terms:

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”  So said Mohandas Gandhi.

But the question still remains: how do you deal with a bully without resorting to violence and becoming a thug? In a superb TEDtalk, peace activist Dr. Scilla Elworthy maps out the skills we need — as nations and individuals — to fight extreme force without using force in return. To answer the question of why and how non-violence actually works, she refers to the usual heroes of the non-violent movement — Aung San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela — and the personal philosophies that underpinned their peaceful protests.

Here is Elworthy’s thoughtful and informative talk:

A few words of wisdom from Henry David Thoreau which remind us that we can, and should, all be philosophers:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not theoretically, but practically.”

The Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Prof. Slavoj Žižek answers this question in this short ‘big think’ clip: “Do you think science has replaced philosophy in discovering the bigger questions of life?” Typically forthright, Žižek answers in the negative, claiming that philosophy is not dying, rather we need it more now than ever. And he is of course right. Why? Well for starters philosophy provides the grounding suppositions on which all scientific endeavour is constructed. Not only that, scientific understanding is informed by philosophy and vice versa.  Consider the case of quantum physics – a proper understanding of the myriad implications of quantum theory requires a philosophical input.

Philosophy at its best is much more than futile navel gazing; it can open up new frontiers in thinking and force us to look outside the box and into a wider vista of possibilities.  There needs to be more widespread teaching of philosophy at all levels if we are to make best use of technological and scientific opportunities.  That’s why I’m with Žižek on this, and many other issues!