God in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy

Did Viktor Frankl believe in God? Many progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, and of course, the myriad of agnostic and “ignostic”1 Jews) believe in a “force” deeper than themselves. Whether the force is within or without, they can’t be sure. The force is like the wind, but more primordial than the wind, because the force is everywhere and in everything; all the time. In a nutshell, the “force” is pandemic. Pan never takes a Nap. What is Frankl’s “God” like?

The 1992 Edition of Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning‘consists of: “Experiences in a Concentration camp” (82 pages), “Logotherapy in a nutshell” (34 pages) and “The case for a tragic optimism” (18 pages).(Download the free book).

Frankl explains the connection between the first two parts: “the theoretical part (“Logotherapy in a Nutshell”) boils down, as it were, to the lesson one may distil from the first part, the autobiographical account (“Experiences in a Concentration Camp”)”, where “Part One serves as the existential validation of my theories.” In this way, the two parts mutually support the other’s credibility. The “existential validation” is his personal suffering and the suffering of others experienced in a concentration camp, where the two key elements in “existential” are “personal” and “suffering.” The book (says Frankl, p. 18) does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” I’m puzzled. It’s the “but” that confuses. What Frankl seems to mean is that (human) facts and events have no “existential” substance unless they are experienced. The connection between facts and experience is important in Frankl. I return to this issue later on.

There are five occurrences of “God” in the book. God” occurs twice in “Experiences in a concentration camp” (p. 89). God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons—to offer my comrade a kind of medical care of their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired, but I had to make the effort and use this unique opportunity. Encouragement was now more necessary than ever (p. 90-91). I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him.”

In 1, “God knows” could be replaced by “the Pope knows” without changing its intended meaning. In 2, “a God” could be minimised to “a god,” where “god” could be anything you idolise without changing its intended meaning. So both these occurrences have no theistic meaning.

In “Logotherapy in a nutshell”, “God” appears once: “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his God” (page 101), whatever ‘God’ means to him – the cosmic police?

The fourth and final occurrence of “God” appears in “The case for tragic optimism” (p. 123). Frankl is counselling a rabbi whose first wife and their six children were gassed in Auschwitz, and his second wife turned out to be sterile. Frankl tries to show the distraught rabbi the bright side of this tragedy:

“Is it not conceivable, Rabbi, that precisely this was the meaning of your surviving your children: that you may be purified through these years of suffering, so that finally you, too, though not innocent like your children, may become worthy of joining them in Heaven? Is it not written in the Psalms that God preserves all your tears?” For the first time in many years he found relief from his suffering through the new point of view which I was able to open up to him.”

The psalm verse Frankl is alluding to is: “Thou has kept count of my tossings; put thou my tears in thy bottle! Are they not in thy book?” (Ps. 56, 8.). If I only had read Frankl’s “The case for tragic optimism”, I might have concluded that Frankl was speaking out of his personal experience of the Holy One of Israel. But when I come across the former biblical reference to God only after reading “Experiences in a concentration camp,” it seems to me that Frankl is doing what therapists (and many rabbis and priests) do, namely, meet the grieving rabbi “where he’s at”: The rabbi (ostensibly) believes in Adonai and Heaven, so what Frankl seems to be doing is “meet him where he is at.” When I was living in England (2007) and attending an Anglican church, I was talking to the priest who had to cut our interchange (my interrogation) short because he had to visit one of his dying parishioners. I asked– he was about to turn on his heel – “What do you say to the dying?” He replied, “I meet them where they’re at.” As he trailed off still within earshot, I let loose a parting shot: “Don’t you say anything about….. I’m not sure whether he heard the last word of the sentence: “Christ?” Mother Teresa did the same thing: she reconciled the dying with their “gods” The April 7-13, 1990, issue of Radio Times tells the story of Mother Teresa sheltering an old Hindu priest. “She nursed him with her own hands and helped him to die reconciled with his own gods.” I would imagine that Frankl would have called her a saint. (Maybe he did somewhere).3  The way the Anglican priest and Mother Teresa fulfilled the great commission (salvation through faith in Christ – evidenced by good works such as caring for the sick and the poor – is not the main thrust of the (Christian) Bible. Frankl – as all Jews and most professing Christians – would disagree, arguing that the “concrete” act of doing is far more more important than the “abstract” act of believing in God, that is, trusting and worshiping God for who He is, coming to Him in repentance.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah, 55:1-3.

Jesus alludes to this passage in John’s Gospel: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37,38).

There is one passage (pp. 118-119) in “Logotherapy in a nutshell” where Frankl does appear to believe in the God of Israel:

“Let me (Frankl relates) recall that which was perhaps the deepest experience I had in the concentration camp. The odds of surviving the camp were no more than one in twenty-eight, as can easily be verified by exact statistics. It did not even seem possible, let alone probable, that the manuscript of my first book, which I had hidden in my coat when I arrived at Auschwitz, would ever be rescued. Thus, I had to undergo and to overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own! So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning” (p. 118).

“Not yet did I notice that an answer to this question with which I was wrestling so passionately was already in store for me, and that soon thereafter this answer would be given to me. This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?” (p. 120).

Frankl’s phrase“Live my thoughts” reverberates in the Bible – in both Testaments. The Bible says much about thought and deed, faith and works. Has Frankl finally revealed his Judaic cards; can we ignore all Frankl’s impersonal references to God that we examined above and conclude that Frankl did indeed believe in Hashem Yisrael? (Hashem “the Name” is a Jewish way of avoiding pronouncing the Holy name of YHVH). Is the ultimate goal of Frankl to bring himself and his patients into communion with the Hashem of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who has commanded believers in his Name to have no other gods before them? The Logos in Frankl’s Logotherapy , as he says, means “meaning”, which is a far cry from the personal Logos in John’s gospel, which is closer, by far, to the Living Hashem than the noble product of human suffering. Jewish and many Christian theologians hotly contest that Logos in the gospel of John is a Judaic concept. They would say that Greek philosophy and Judaic thought are poles apart. Not at all. The very reason why John used “Logos” to explain to his fellow Jews  the relationship between Jesus the Logos and God was because most Jews read the Tanakh in Greek (the Septuagint).– because they were more fluent in Greek than Hebrew. Altough many of them couldn’t even speak or read Hebrew, they still thought Judaically. In linguistics, too much is made of the idea that language structures thought.

With regard to Reconstructionist Jews and Reform Jews, I am pretty sure than when they pray the Shema Yisroel, they are not praying to the God who irrupted into history, namely, the God of the Exodus, the God in the pillars of fire and cloud, the God who created them, for they don’t (as a rule) believe in supernatural beings period. Their idea of God is similar to Spinoza’s God, which differed radically from the Torah God of Maimonides; no one saw Baruch Spinoza saying a brokhe (a prayer of blessing) – which does not, by itself prove that he never did.

An “attribute” by definition is a consistent quality. One of the attributes of a world view or belief system should be consistency. So when “God” is included in that world view, the idea of “God” should also be consistent. There is no word as meaningless as the word “God.” Or to put it another way, there is no word with so many possible meanings that suffers more from what I call the disease of polysemia (polysemic in linguistics means “many meanings). One of the basic rules (that should be) taught in language class is that if a word has so many meanings that it can fit any context, including contradictory contexts, we say that the word is meaningless; too much meaning is no meaning at all.

“The word ‘God’ (says Francis Schaeffer in his lectures on basic philosophy)… has been made as a linguistic symbol to equal those things that are absolutely contrary to each other.” Linguistic analysis is a useful tool for understanding the connection between thought and symbol (words). Words themselves are products of thoughts, which themselves are a deep language (as I discussed in “Deep language as a semiotic system”). One can never arrive at an exhaustive understanding of the way words, thoughts and the things they refer to (referents) relate to one another. This inability, however, should not make it impossible to communicate. Linguistic analysis as a philosophy – in contrast, to linguistic analysis as a tool – holds the view that because we cannot know exhaustively how words, thoughts and things relate to one another, there’s no point in trying to find out how they do.

When the linguistic philosopher tells me that the word “God” cannot be fully understood, and that in fact all words contain, as John Locke said, knotty bundles of thoughts difficult to unbundle, I sigh (em)pathetically and sigh, “I know what you mean.” Socrates knows that he doesn’t know, while the worn-out linguistic philosopher knows that he can never know – because, alas he cannot know exhaustively. Paul Johnson (in his “The Birth of the Modern World Society,” 1991, p. 563) tells of a “curious episode during a dinner given by Charles Darwin’s brother, when Thomas Carlyle shut both of them up by discoursing throughout dinner on how much better mankind would be without speech. ‘After dinner,’ wrote Darwin, ‘Babbage [who designed the first computer], in his grimmest manner, thanked Carlyle for his very interesting lecture on the advantages of silence.”

In communication, less is more, which does not only apply to the quantity of words we use but also to its possible meanings4. In Frankl, we don’t know whether Arthur is Martha or Martha is Arthur; he (Frankl, not Arthur) swings between 1. a “God” who can be anyone or anything, and 2. elevating him/her/it to Hashem Yisrael. 5

So far in Frankl’s book, there’s no sure evidence that he believed in the eternal God who redeems (Psalm 56 – Frankl’s reference above), whom Frankl evoked (invoked? provoked?) to comfort the rabbi. The waters gets muddier in Frankl’s next paragraph that begins the section “Life’s transitoriness” which follows immediately after the session with the rabbi:

“Those things which seem to take meaning away from human life include not only suffering but dying as well. I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.”

Let me try to understand Frankl’s paragraph:

Every living being is potentially dead. That is clear to all. Then Frankl’s voice cries out that “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.” (Isaiah, 40:6). The reason why the grass withers and the flowers fall, says Isaiah, is because the breath of the LORD blows on them (Isaiah 40:7). Frankl might believe that “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:7), but his advice to the rabbi and the “coincidence” of the Shema Yisroel (in the rabbi’s pocket) is not enough to go on. Frankl tells the rabbi that his wife and children are waiting for him in Heaven. Suddenly, he changes more than a gear; he changes direction – a 180 degree turn – from eternity future (Heaven) to eternity past: “For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.” That statement may be in tune with the Zohar, but totally antithetical to the God of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The rabbi’s grief makes me think of Psalm 102:

“Hear my prayer, O LORD, And let my cry come to You. Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble; Incline Your ear to me; In the day that I call, answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, And my bones are burned like a hearth. My heart is stricken and withered like grass, So that I forget to eat my bread. Because of the sound of my groaning. My bones cling to my skin.”

“I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, And am like a sparrow alone on the housetop. My enemies reproach me all day long;Those who deride me swear an oath against me. For I have eaten ashes like bread, And mingled my drink with weeping, Because of Your indignation and Your wrath;For You have lifted me up and cast me away. My days are like a shadow that lengthens,And I wither away like grass. But You, O LORD, shall endure forever, And the remembrance of Your name to all generations. You will arise and have mercy on Zion; For the time to favour her,Yes, the set time, has come” (Psalm 102: 1-13).

Frankl ‘s Ph.D. Dissertation (1948) was entitled “The Unconscious God”, which examined the relation between psychology and religion. One immediately thinks of William James’ “Varieties of religious experience that Frankl must have admired (Frankl probably says as much somewhere). The emphasis in Frankl and James is not what (the unconscious?) God can do for us, but what the conscious me can do for myself and others– a very Jewish – modern Jewish – idea. For both Frankl and James, the best thing you can do for yourself – and only you can do it is find meaning in your life and develop a positive attitude to the circumstances in which you find yourself. How do you find meaning? You will it; you will the courage to rise above your suffering, which Frankl considers to be the most noble thing you can do – the only thing you can do to cope with suffering. But is this what the Torah teaches?

In the privacy of his own home, Frankl (his wife relates) read the Tehilim (Psalms) every night and put on his tefillin (phylacteries) every day. It reminds me of Moses Mendelssohn’s catchphrase ‘be a Jew at home, outside be like everybody else.’

We see that the rabbi (above) believed in an eternal God, because, as Frankl relates, the rabbi found relief in his suffering for the first time in many years. Surely, reading the Psalms every night and doing Tefillin every day is evidence that Frankl believed in the same God that he believed the rabbi believed in. Not necessarily; Jews may read the Tanakh and put on Tefillin, and even “want Judaism to imbue us with a sense of responsibility for the righteous use of the blessings wherewith God endows us” (Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism) but still believe with Kaplan that God is a product of man while also being some kind of (evolutionary) force outside man. What do many – probably most non ultra-orthodox – Jews think when they recite the Sh(e)ma Yisroel? They have an abstract (that is, philosophical) idea of Hashem, where “God” is a product of their own minds, and they may be happy to own up to this view of God. They, however, are not happy with the impersonal nature of such an abstraction; so they attach a personal term onto this super Idea and call it “He” (or “She” if you’re Reconstructionist Jew)). Then they can happily recite the Kaddish “Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmai raba. Magnified and sanctified be His great name.”

Frankl  is famous (not that he cared about fame)  for showing those who suffer how to control their inner lives. Most of mankind would consider his attempt one of the greatest contributions to humanity. The God of the Torah, in contrast, says that it is He who is the One that wills to control the inner life of every Jew, and of every human being. But that is so unJewish, irrational, unhuman, unprogressive. The modern Jew is the archetype of modern man.

“When Rabbi Adam Chalom stands before the Sabbath flames and sings the Hebrew blessing to welcome Shabbat, there is no mention of God. Chalom believes there are no prophets. He preaches that only hard work yields miracles. And until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.” God has nothing to do with it.”

It seems to me that in public, Frankl didn’t know or created the impression that he also didn’t know who God was. In private, however, thanks to his wife, we know that he did know the God of and in history: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And yet, who can be sure that when a Jew reads the Tehilim (Psalms) and  puts on Tefillin – even every day – whether he really leans on the central historical pillar of the Judaic faith: the revelation at Sinai.

The Reform Jew will say it’s just a story that teaches great truths; in other words,  a myth, like Sysiphus. In contrast, the Christian who believes that the Bible is God-breathed (inspired) will say with the Orthodox Jew (make that “ultra”-Orthodox Jew) that the event is as historical as the holocaust, if not as life-changing as the theophany (revelation of God) at Sinai, which taught in a very graphic way that God is sovereign. Why do I say “make that ‘ultra’-orthodox”? Because it’s not rare to find atheists even among “Orthodox” Jews. The Faculty blogger of the Faculty of Religion, Peace and World Afairs of Georgetown University, Jacques Berlinerblau, writes in his “In praise of Jewish Atheism.”

“Are there atheist orthodox Jews? Sure. I have met a few. Speaking off the record, one explained his godlessness to me by reference to the slogan “All you need is Torah love.” (The use of Beatles’ lyrics is, apparently, the most effective way to enlighten dimwitted secular co-religionists).” Why doesn’t  Berlinerblau rather choose a Jewish pop group – the Bagels?

Finally, I’d like return to Frankl’s statement (above) “The book  does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences…” and link it to Reform rabbi Adam Chalom’s statement that  “until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.” God has nothing to do with it.”

It seems to me that the problem with Frankl and the rabbi, and most Jews, and most people who reject the Bible as divine revelation, is that they have little understanding of  the science of history. They either underestimate history or discard it as fiction. Frankl emphasises personal experience; rabbi Chalom, science. They don’t see that The Tanakh, and the Newer Testament, reveal the most staggering and wonderful fact that God not only entered history, but also created and sustains it.  The lense of physical science or psychology is just too narrow to see this fact, this personal fact. For Frankl, the greatest personal fact , “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart (is): The salvation of man is through love and in love.” This is true, but what, I ask, is the ultimate point of love and salvation if they are not of the Lord: “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah, 2:9).

1Here is a comment from a Jewish admirer of her rabbi. “Why is what is definitely not a new story “a big deal”? Not only has Humanistic Judaism been around for quite some time, but I remember decades ago a hooraw [a commotion] about a self-proclaimed “ignostic” rabbi .. He refuses to call himself “agnostic” because he thinks it is IN PRINCPLE possible to know whether or not God exists, just that we do not know. (A distinction constantly elided in the sacrosanct Popular Usage of “agnostic”).” I don’t follow; I thought that the “agnostic” simply believes that he doesn’t know; not that he claims that it is not possible to know. Most atheists claim there is no God because they claim to know that they can never know. If they go up in a space ship, will they find God! That settles it.

2A parallel would be the term “pantheism” which often has nothing to do with Pan being the body of Theos. “pantheism” often means – for Western “pantheists” – “pan-everything” – a cosmic car boot sale.

3Frankl (p. 154) mentions Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who died in the concentration camp, as a “saint.” “There, (Auschwitz) – Frankl says – the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints. And today you need no longer hesitate to use the word ‘saints’: think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved and finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid at Auschwitz and who in 1983 was canonized.”

4There are two basic kinds of meaning: the dictionary meaning (which Leech, in his “Semantics” calls the semantic meaning) and the what we mean by the word we use (which Leech, in his “Pragmatics” calls the “pragmatic” meaning. Why do mother tongue speakers of the same language, when in conversation, often ask one another, “What do you mean?” They are not asking for the dictionary meaning (semantic meaning) of the word but what the intention is behind the word they used. For example, the sentence “He’s clever” can mean the opposite, “He’s stupid” depending on what the speaker or the listener wants it to mean.

5Reconstructionist Jewish feminists love the idea that God is a “She” – so do many Christians. That is why “The Shack” , where “Pappy” (God) is a woman, is so popular among “liberal” Christians. Enough to make the tsitsit of a chasid’s talit stand on end (tsitsit “tassles; talit “prayer shawl”). I stand arm in arm – I should be so lucky – with the chasid on this one.

8 thoughts on “God in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy

  1. It seems to me that Frankl was not talking in terms of absolutes but rather what ‘works’. His god is very similar to the one realized by addicts in the seconds of the 12 steps of AA; god as we understand him. A Meaningful god works to fill man’s need for meaning.

    But Frankl seems to have discovered a need much greater and more basic than that of the addicts…. and correspondingly a much ‘greater’ more ‘infinite’ god to satisfy it; man NEEDS ABSOLUTE meaning that only an absolute, totally meaningful god (or G_d) can produce.

    As evidenced by the several times he mentions the Ten Commandments as the absolute value.

    But again; Frankl only seemed to be interested in what works to supply man’s needs; not the Jewish (Chassidic) idea of supplying G-d’s needs (Nachat Ruach l’mala)

    • Rabbi, as you no doubt know, Abraham Twerski, a Chassidic rabbi (like youself) adapted the originally Christian 12-step AA method and made it Jewish. Judaism preaches that man is essentially good, where people are regarded as “much better than we think we are” (Twerski), and “knowing that they are able to enjoy a more productive life” (Twerski). So, the solution to inner turmoil for Twerski, for Frankl, for Joshua Liebman, and indeed most Jewish psychologists was to learn how to get rid of one’s negative self-image.

      You say Frankl’s “god” goes beyond what works to an “absolute” meaning. I think his god is merely one that absolutely WORKS.

      As you probably know I am a Hebrew Christian (for you, probably, an oxymoron). In modern Christian evangelism, the popular gimmick is “if this world doesn’t work for you,try God”. I regard this as a “humanistic” approach, which is foreign to both the Tenach and the NT, whose main themes are God’s glory and holiness (which you agree with). The NT also emphasises His wrath against sin (which most Jews would probably not agree with) and His love in providing salvation. The Jewish idead of “salvation” is radically different from the Christian view. In both the Tenach and the NT, man’s needs are second to God’s requirements.

      The Jew and the Christian should not regard God as our servant, who’s job is seen as help in time of need, but rather as the Holy One. The Christian view is that we have offended God’s justice, but, in his infinite grace, He redeemed us by paying for our sins; much more, He destroys the believer’s Sin nature (which does not mean that he no longer struggles with sins). As you know, for a Jew, man sins but does not have a Sin nature. In the NT, first the bad news (the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans), then the good news of God’s grace – that we might be “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

      Rabbi, I’d be interested to know whether you think anything about Jesus in the NT could be true. The rabbis whom I speak to question his very existence.

      • bography – thank you for your insightful article, I found it very helpful. I am currently a PhD student (a Reformed Christian) working on a degree in Psychology (Pastoral Psychology to be specific). More importantly I am taking a class on Logotherapy and the 12 steps, with a professor that is very committed to the principles of Logotherapy. The concept of “polysemic,” or as you put it, “disease of polysemia” is certainly helpful in understanding Frankl and also most of what occurs in Alcoholics Anonymous. Thankfully, even the fuzziness (or polysemic) is used of God to call His elect into His kingdom. You would certainly agree, I think, that nothing goes to waste in the providence of God. I wrote an article on this, that might be of interest to you. If so, I will send it to you. Thanks again!

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