This paper will contend that the purpose of any religious education is ultimately to provide a pathway or multiple pathways that allow each person to undertake the journey towards meaning in personal life and hence engage with ultimate meaning. This in turn requires a different approach to pedagogy, a shift from “vertical transmission of information to a horizontal orientation where bot the teacher and the pupil cultivate values, authenticity and personal responsibility.” (Wolicki, 2009, p. 308)

This is a short paper and hence the aim is very optimistic. To properly analyse this proposed direction would take a whole book. Hence it will provide very broad brush directions only.

This paper will focus on Christianity as we look at pathways to religious education and meaning in life. It will do this because Christianity remains the dominant religious influence in the Western world even though many no longer relate to formal church structure.

The need for an alternative narrative

There has recently been much discussion (The Tablet, 30th January and following dates) on the findings of Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University that having ‘no religion’ is the new norm in the U.K. There were various reactions to this, perhaps one of the more radical being from the Reverend Rodney Ward (2016) who suggests that a ‘new kind of faith is needed’ and that ‘Christendom is over’. He adds that ‘nostalgia for it diverts us from the tasks of finding that faith for ourselves and helping others to do the same.’

Has faith been lost or simply muted? Ziebertz and Kay (2006) undertook an extensive survey of European Youth (including Turkish Youth) and their expressed religiosity. They found two dominant stances taken in their survey. The first they termed deistic. This sees God as absolutely transcendent and a higher power far removed from humanity. This concept, however, tended to last only until the young people surveyed reached around 17 or 18 years of age. It seems that universalism then takes over. Universalism according to Ziebertz and Kay is the idea that God stands across all religions and overlaps them. Religions can be nothing more ‘than a fragment of expression of this God’ (p.260).

Thus a dominant world view among European Youth and, in my own experience, at least among many Australian Youth, is that in blunt terms ‘all religions are equal’. This does leave unaddressed, however, the specific human need for ultimate meaning and for meaning in life, to which the frameworks provided by the various religions at least provided an answer. In my opinion youth will remain dis-satisfied and short changed unless religious education aids their search for meaning in ways that are relevant and acceptable.

The search has always been with us and is part of a human condition that is innately spiritual. The human capacity to experience the transcendent, a power different from and beyond the self has been extensively documented. (Hardy (1966, 1979), Hay (1987,2002, 2006), Ramchandran & Blakeslee (1998), Rankin (2006)). O’Murchu (2000) points out that human beings worshipped in caves not buildings 75,000 years ago. He quotes the indigenous people of Western Australia (Kununurra) as an example. There are numerous other examples around the world.

What has been changing is our understanding of the place of human beings in the cosmos. Smith (2004) sees us struggling at this time of human existence with a static perception of God. He suggests that we no longer express our souls or understand our world as our parents did, let alone our grandparents and even those one or two centuries back. ‘Yet we are expected to believe in and worship a God explained in theological concepts that remain unchanged since the Middle Ages.’ (p.3)

Smith (2004) is clear that this is not due to a change in the reality of God. It is human consciousness that continues to develop thus our perception of God and our understanding of who we are in this vast cosmos continues to change.

Changing the theological language and understanding in which we present our faith and our belief in a power beyond ourselves is a challenge, yet one Christianity has adapted to in the past. Radcliffe (2006) suggests that Christianity began with a narrative that demanded almost immediate change, the Last Supper is the genesis of that new narrative.

According to Radcliffe (2006) the Last Supper is an event that symbolises a lost story. It is clear that the early Christian Churches believed that Jesus would soon return. It created a crisis of faith in Christianity when it became clear that this was not to be. That is why, according to Radcliffe, there is a shift in the early Christian scriptures of the New Testament. The later writings tell a different story to earlier ones that envisaged an early return of the Messiah. He suggests that it is probable that the Gospels, especially Mark’s, were the fruit of grappling with this crisis. ‘So Jesus did not come in glory, but the word became flesh in new Gospel words’ (p.16). Reinventing our Christian story at this time in history will help to address our human need to make sense of our world and discern our meaning within it.

In this very short paper I will now outline where the parallels with Franklian psychology may take up this slack.

Christian belief meets Psychology

New narratives will not appear and be accepted quickly. When they do appear and are adopted they will preserve the basic truth that Jesus lives and that he came to show us the way. “I come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) They must also recognise the unavoidable struggles of life, having life to the full is not easy. It includes the reality of life challenges including suffering, guilt, conscience and death. Simply rejecting the old narrative is to avoid the questions, to live for the moment only or to go with the flow. None of these options will lead to wholeness, indeed they will most often be the etiology for some form of psychological or physical disorder.

Radcliffe (2006) points out that there is a sense of the victim about Western society. There is a competition to claim victimhood, to accept that we are powerless to change our circumstances. There are elements of Freudian Psychology in this. Freud’s genius was to realise that the past, particularly early childhood years, could affect the way in which a person interpreted their world and the way in which they engage with it. We are certainly predetermined by our past, our family and out culture. The danger is that in rejecting the Christian narrative as no longer relevant we fail to continue the search for new narratives and new meanings that will preserve that basic message of Jesus and provide answers to life’s big questions.

It was Frankl’s psychology that took Freud to task, pointing out the human being is more than drives and instincts and that we always have choices. Life always has meaning to be found. Freedom begins when people grasp the choices that they can make, even if they are extremely limited, even if it is just to get up in the morning. The basic message is that what life expects of us is important rather than what we seek in life or on what we blame for our current lot. That is the message of Franklian psychology.

Paralleling Frankl’s insights Radcliffe (2006, p. 29) suggests that the essence of Christianity is to show that there is a point to our lives, because our lives are pointed towards an ultimate end. It is this quest for ultimate meaning that has driven human beings to worship for millennia.

There is insufficient space to do justice to this discussion of the juxtaposition between Christian Theology and the psychology of Viktor Frankl. I will provide two examples only: the we cannot journey alone and that we must all come to terms with suffering.

O’Murchu (2000) points out that the church is based on a human and spiritual need ‘to be in communion with significant others’ (p.2). In Franklian psychology I can only be me by engaging with you. Another similarity is the concept of suffering. No human being can avoid suffering and it can be a positive, in fact in some circumstance we may even seek it or create it. Taylor (1989/1996) believes that a positive good remains so even if it somehow leads to suffering or destruction (p.519). In Franklian psychology suffering is unavoidable and it is the way in which we accept suffering and the meaning that we are able to give to it within our lives that makes us better or worse for the experience.

Franklian Psychology

Frankl insisted as a Psychiatrist and a medical practitioner that the search for meaning was the most fundamental human need. He also insisted that the basic question in life was not ‘what do I need from life now?’ but rather ‘what does life ask of me now?’ There are so many parallels with this in the Christian scriptures that they could be compared for a long time. ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ (Matt 16:24), ‘He who loses his life will find it’ (Matt. 10:39). And so many more like this.

Developing a pedagogy that can begin with this basic human need, and address it, is beyond the scope of this paper. I will base my suggestions on the work of Breitbart in his individual meaning centred psychotherapy for patients with advanced cancer. He quotes Frankl (The will to meaning, 1969) as he begins his process:

‘If there is a meaning, it is unconditional meaning, and neither suffering nor dying can detract from it. What our patients need is an unconditional faith in this unconditional meaning.’ (Brietbart, 2014, p. 1)

I suggest that the word ‘students’ can well be substituted for patients in this instance as the search for meaning is fundamental to the human person.

I adapt Breitbart’s seven step process to outline what this might look like pedagogically.

1. Concepts and sources of meaning

Understanding the basics of what generates meaning for the human being and realising that each individuals meaning is exactly that – the meaning that belongs to them. Frankl saw what we create in this world through our work, through our interactions with others and what we build can indeed provide meaning. But there is also the experiential side of what we take from the world by the way of our relationships with others, the experience of the wonders of nature and the beauty of art and music that can also provide meaning. Finally, Frankl suggested that, where there is no other choice and no alternative, the attitude that we must take for the situation in which we find ourselves is fundamental. Understanding these concepts has the potential to make such a difference to life. Once the concept of meaning is understood, comparisons can be made with the way various religions have answered this call to meaning.

2. Personal identity

An understanding of personal uniqueness in this world is essential to understand the meaning that I might give to life. DNA affirms my physical uniqueness, something the great religions have always affirmed before our scientific discoveries. Understanding the juxtaposition between meaning and uniqueness brings responsibility to the fore. What responsibility does my life challenge me to take?

3. What I give the world and what I will leave behind

My unique existence will affect the unique existence of others – I can only be me by encountering you and this encounter demands a focus outside the self. Once again, the great religions have embraced this question in different ways from resurrection to reincarnation.

4. Encountering life’s limitations

The attitude we take to the unchangeable. Finding meaning in suffering. If meaning is always there to be found, there must be meaning in suffering, since suffering is part of life. The same can be said of guilt and death. Again all the religions have grappled with these and provide answers in different ways, from suffering as a pathway to find the divine to something that each human being causes for themselves.

5. Creative sources of meaning

What each person is able to bring to this world to develop, to take responsibility for and to show courage in the face of.

6. Experiential sources of meaning. 

Connecting with life through love, relationships with others, beauty and even humour.

7. Transitions

Hopes for the future. Franklian psychology believes firmly that there is only a present, the past has finished, the future is yet to be created. The decision I take now, today, determines the future.

My personal experience in working with clients in counselling has been that many immerse themselves in suffering and are unable to recover from it. When the rocks of life are encountered and they have not been encountered before, they can be difficult to overcome. However, there is no choice but to actually move forward and try to rise to the challenge that has been put before us. Those who have led protected lives and have not suffered before find this extremely difficult.

On the other hand there are those who have had far too much suffering in life, particularly at times in early life. Abusive parents, difficult relationships and simply accidents of birth or events have left them run out and at some times are unable to cope with life itself. They play a game that blames all of where they are currently on past events. In both cases it is the genius of Franklian psychology to challenge them to understand that the only event over which they have control is life itself now and the decisions that they take now.

Carrol (2004) links Rahner’s theology to this meaning orientation. For Rahner God is the mystery and the human search for meaning and fulfilment is oriented towards this mystery. It is a mystery that can never be named, yet I suggest that to approach religious education from the perspective of Franklian psychology and meaning in life provides a bridge to the very myths and metaphors of religion that can seem irrelevant to many today.

Ph D, Psy. D

Paul McQuillan

Dr Paul McQuillan is Coordinator of Research for Brisbane Catholic Education, an honorary fellow of Australian Catholic University, a Diplomate (Clinician) of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy and Director of Lifechange Therapies.