My understanding of human experience from a Judeo-Christian world view.
Author: Timothy K. Lent
I am an undergraduate Lecturer in the greater Philadelphia area on ethics, religious studies, medical ethics and theology and the life and writings of Viktor Frankl. I am also looking for full-time employment at a university or college, teaching in a religious studies or theology department.
At the end of my university classes, I usually dismiss my students, saying, ‘Have a good day and stay alive.’ Some of them laugh at my words, thinking that I am being humorous; others take me seriously. Eventually, however, my students understand what I mean, namely, to live is to choose. Living and dying are matters under a person’s control, unless, of course, a person “passes away” from some unexpected sickness or disease, say, cancer, or dies suddenly from some kind of tragic accident.
I choose; therefore, I am. Even if I “run” from choosing, not wanting to choose, I choose to run from choosing, making a choice against making a choice. Because I make my choices, I – not another person – “own them,” that is, I am responsible for them. Life, then, is about making choices and being responsible for them. In the words of the Jewish Scriptures,
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIV).
Similarly, because all human beings have the faculty of free-will, they choose what to do with their lives. Therefore, on this day, right now, in this moment, either indirectly or directly, human persons are making choices for or against being alive. That, then, is why, at the end of class, I often tell my students, ‘Stay alive!’
In the United States, many state governors, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, are shutting down businesses or limiting their activities on which American citizens depend for their livelihood. Right now, Americans are undergoing economic suffering, losing or on the verge of losing their businesses. As that happens, they cannot fulfill their respective financial obligations, such as paying their monthly bills and feeding their families. They are also fearful of losing their homes and places of residence.
The politics of polarization, especially between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., have gotten in the way of helping the American people in their time of need; many of whom are in desperate need. Economically, state governors are not suffering during the pandemic. They live “good,” comfortable lives. The elected officials in Washington are also living well.
Do not the citizens of the United States of America have the same fundamental rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as do their respective governors and elected officials in Washington? At the moment, those rights, especially the rights of business owners and their employees, are being undermined, even attacked, by government leaders who want their constituents to make economic sacrifices. Yet those same elected officials have not made economic sacrifices, because they continue to receive their government paychecks.
Therefore, if state governors take away the rights of American citizens to earn a living, those same governors, assisted by the state and federal governments, should reimburse Americans for their economic losses. That is a matter of fulfilling the demands of economic justice, which is what the government owes its citizens. That is the America ethic, an ethic of “liberty and justice for all.”
As often as the opportunity presents itself in my university courses, I shall remind my students of the Shoah, the Holocaust, the mass insanity of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis), leading to the senseless murders of the Jewish people. I feel a duty, a responsibility, to teach university students, because of my studies of Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. As Wiesel wrote, when he first arrived at the concentration camps at the age of 15, observing the crematoria and remembering it until his death at the age of 87,
“NEVER AGAIN SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. “Never shall I forget that smoke. “Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under the night sky….” – Night.
Frankl also experienced the “living hell” of the concentration camps. For example, remembering Auschwitz, he wrote about the dual capacity of human beings for good and evil, observing,
“Our generation has come to know man as he really is: the being that has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and also the being who entered those gas chambers upright, the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” – Psychotherapy and Existentialism.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Many of them are also being evicted from their places of residence. In the light of such tragedies, I ask: What is a human life, a life that is befitting of the dignity of a human person? It involves, at the very least, having shelter, a place to live, and food to eat. From a moral standpoint, I cannot believe that there is a legal system put in place in the United States of America that will evict economically vulnerable families. Where do they go? Who, from a legal standpoint, cares about them, without them having to “slip” even further into debt by paying legal fees to hire lawyers to stop the foreclosures and evictions?
Wealth is a form of power and when American families do not have the money to pay their mortgage or rent, they become economically vulnerable, susceptible to being evicted. Legally, eviction is an America tragedy! It is the triumph of the economically powerful over the economically disadvantaged.
Yet, even right now, America can learn both moral and legal lessons from the Hebrew prophet Amos, whom biblical scholars call “the prophet of social justice.” Amos teaches that it is a perversion of justice to use the courts of law to oppress the economically disadvantaged, saying to Israel’s leaders, “You turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” (Amos 5:7, NIV). “You trample on the poor” (Amos 5:11a, NIV). “You … deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:12c, NIV). Amos then calls for a moral reform of Israel, saying, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts” (Amos 5:15a, NIV). “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24, NIV).
It is both inhumane and not befitting of the dignity of the human person to use the law to evict human beings from their places of residence, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Such human beings are not faceless, nameless abstractions; anonymous entities in the vast “ocean” of being; statistics of homeless Americans. They are flesh-and-blood, sentient human beings. They feel. They weep. Yet they are “tossed out” of their places of residence as though they were nothing, worthless junk, unwanted trash. They are treated as even less than the property, which owners value more than the persons on it.
In a truly human hierarchy of value, persons are to be loved and things are to be used. But, unfortunately, in America’s free market economy, the value of a human being may become obscured, even lost, with persons loving things and using other persons. That results in an inversion of the hierarchy of value, treating objects, such as possessions, as though they were subjects; treating profits as if they were more important than persons; treating things as though they are worth more than persons.
I wonder, especially as the holidays are approaching: How many Americans feel a sense of anxiety at the prospect of being evicted, of being homeless? How many of them are in despair, even suicidal? Legally, who will come to their aid, recognizing and defending the economically vulnerable as persons of indelible dignity or worth, so that they may remain in their homes or places of residence? I hope that just and merciful lawyers and judges will come to the aid of individuals and families that are facing eviction! I hope that mercy will be raised above the strict justice of the law!
The psalmist of biblical poet gives an affirmation of hope and a declaration on the goodness of life, despite all its hardships and sufferings, saying,
“I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14, NIV, 1984 ed.).
The psalmist has a robust, this-worldly view of life with God. The view is expressed well in German by Fr. Ronald E. Murphy, the Carmelite scholar on the Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Scriptures: Leben ist Loben, “Life is praise.” In other words, to live is to praise!
May the psalmist’s God, the God of faith, be found by believers in this life, the here-and-now, which is a life filled with meaning and purpose, with hope in the positive possibilities to be actualized by believers in the future.
Adolf Hitler had aspirations for creating a perfect human race. He accepted a quality of human life philosophy. He wanted to rid the human gene pool of defects. How he went about doing that, however, resulted in one of the most horrible accounts of evil in the history of humankind.
Life Not Worthy of Living
Leo Alexander, American Medical Science Consultant to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trails, explains the early origins of the Nazi euthanasia movement, saying, “It started with the acceptance of the attitude … that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.”1 In Hitler’s quality of human life philosophy, there was no room for human beings with defects. For him, there were actually human beings whose lives are not worthy to be lived. They should be killed to relieve others, especially the State, of the financial burdens of keeping them alive. As a result, Hitler made euthanasia into a “scientific” and systematic form of killing millions of human beings.
Elimination of the Weak and Sickly
With a quality of life philosophy, a human being’s “usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society,” says Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.2 Under Hitler’s rule, anyone who could not contribute to society or was not in some way useful to the Nazis was a candidate for death. So, at his order, the mentally ill, those with various developmental disabilities, the elderly in state homes and those with physical or facial deformities were exterminated.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recalled the process of “selection” in the concentration camps. It was based on a quality of life philosophy. In other words, the prisoners were lined up naked before a Nazi physician. If they looked well, they would remain alive; however, if they looked weak and sickly, they were sent to die in the crematoria or gas chambers.3 Wiesel remembered the specific words of selection from the SS officer or doctor: “[Y]ou are too skinny … you are too weak … you are good for the ovens….”4
Strengthening the Weak
The Nazi ethic is defective, because, actually, to be strong is to support, defend and strengthen the weak. In other words, the strong of body become stronger in character by helping the weak and sickly in mind and body. Conversely, the strong become weak in character by killing the weak of body and mind, because murder is evil and, as such, not worthy of a person, that is, beneath his or her human dignity. Therefore, for the strong to crush the weak and sickly is, at the same, to “crush” and distort the human spirit, turning physically strong persons into moral weaklings.
1. Leo Alexander, “Medical Science Under Dictatorship,” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 241, no. 2, July 14, 1949, p. 44.
2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152.
3. Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 1958, 2006), pp. 70-72. 96.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived meaningfully, dedicating his life to a worthwhile cause, which was to challenge, on moral grounds, American laws that promoted discrimination and segregation and advance the cause of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of their race, gender or religion.
Dr. King not only grasped the importance of the truth of civil rights for all people, but that truth also “grasped” him. It gave him a passion for living. In other words, he believed in something and was willing to live for it. Not only that, but he was also willing to die for it and, ultimately, he did.
Combining Theory with Practice
King was interested in both theory and practice. He had spent many years studying about the political, social, ethical and religious problems affecting the American people. However, after his studies, he decided to do something about those problems, becoming one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders.
Becoming a Great Person by Serving Others
King had a rather humble opinion of himself. He did not believe that he was better than anyone else. However, he had a healthy sense of self-esteem, because he believed that everyone, in his or her own way, including himself, was called to be great. For example, in one of his sermons, he said,
“… Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that ‘he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.’ That’s a new definition of greatness.
“And … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”
Discovering Your Own Sense of Greatness
Here, then, is a valuable life-lesson from Martin Luther King’s example: As important as thinking is to understanding life’s problems, don’t merely think about life. Be actively engaged in it! In other words, find some worthwhile cause to serve, whatever that may be for you, and live passionately for it. Live to the hilt, all the way, to your very last breath! In doing that, you will become, in your own way, a social activist and great person.
Like virtually anyone else, Christian leaders may make a living from their vocation or “calling” to ministry, for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity, taught that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7, NIV). However, Christian ministers may not abuse their right to financial support, living immoderately, luxuriously, because Jesus himself, for the sake of the kingdom of God, renounced worldly riches, saying, “[T]he Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58b, NIV).
In fact, in his day, Jesus was critical of religious leaders, because they worshiped money. Jesus’ teaching was clear, unequivocal: “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13b, NIV). “The Pharisees,” however, were bothered by Jesus’ teaching, because they “loved money” (Luke 16:14, NIV). Following Jesus’ teaching, the sacred author issued a warning to believers, namely, “Keep your lives free from the love of money” (Hebrews 13:5a, NIV).
Ministers, then, are to love God, not money, realizing that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10a, NIV). The love of money, not money itself, can exercise a morally and spiritually corrupting influence on religious leaders, causing some of them to wander “from the faith” (cf. I Timothy 6:10b, NIV).
Augustine of Hippo taught that it was a perversion of the Christian faith to “enjoy money and use God,” “worshiping God for money’s sake.” The apostle Paul, too, warned against those who equate godliness, say, in a so-called “successful ministry,” with making lots of money, supposing “that godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:5b, NIV).
Therefore, Christian leaders should not use God to make lots of money, becoming rich from ministry. In personalist terms, God is a “Thou,” not an “it;” someone, not something. God is not merely a means to an end, to be worshiped for financial profit. Rather, God is an end in himself, to be loved and worshiped as God, not used and manipulated as a religious object or thing.
Literary Classification, Outline, Historical Background or Setting
Psalm 127 is classified as a Wisdom Psalm, which usually teaches a moral or spiritual lesson, or both, about a life well-lived in communion with God.1 In particular, Psalm 127 teaches that, ultimately, “the Lord is responsible” for every successful activity or undertaking of human beings and that, whether they are aware of it or not, they are dependent on him ‘in every phase of life.”2 It takes the humility of wisdom to realize that in life itself, nothing worthwhile is accomplished by human effort alone. Whatever human activity is of value is due, ultimately, to the grace of God.3 In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “all that we have accomplished you [God] have done for us” (Isaiah 26:12b, NIV).
The psalm may be outlined as follows: The Value of Labor or Human Work, verses 1-2, and the Value of Family-Life, verses 3-5.4 The content or subject-matter of Psalm 127 is not connected with any kind of concrete, historical setting, but rather with a general lesson about life, labor, family and living in spiritual communion with God.5
The Value of Labor or Human Work (verses 1-2)
What the Psalmist Does Not Mean by “Vain”
Sacred Scripture teaches that there are two kinds of meaning. The first kind is secular, that is, of or related to the world. In other words, there is a daily, here-and-now, temporal meaning to life. There is also a sacred kind of meaning; one that belongs to religion. That is to say, there is an Ultimate Meaning to life, which is related to an Ultimate Being, namely, God.
The psalmist mentions three kinds of labor in verses 1 and 2: Building a house, guarding a city and tilling a field.6 The poet has in mind, though, any kind of undertaking or building, any human endeavor. By “vain”, the biblical poet does not mean nihilism. As Viktor Frankl, the “philosopher” of meaning, writes, “Nihilism … states that everything is meaningless;”7 that existence or “being has no meaning;”8 that, ultimately, life is nihil, “nothing.” Nor is the poet teaching that for a person who does not believe in God, life is meaningless. The non-believer still lives in God’s world, which is invested with all kinds of meaning by God the Creator. Life itself is a gift from God, whether a person believes in God or not.9
Therefore, in verses 1 and 2, the psalmist is not saying that having a job to provide an income for oneself or one’s family is useless, a waste of time, without any value whatsoever.10 On the contrary, work or human labor is a gift from God. For example, from the very beginning of human existence, even before the Fall – the sin of the first human couple and its negative consequences on the world – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). Work, therefore, is willed by God for human beings. As Koheleth or the author of Ecclesiastes says,
“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This, too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, NIV).11
Therefore, work, human labor, fulfills a person, giving his or her life meaning, even if that person does not attribute such meaning to God’s design. That is to say, humans, even without believing in God, can know the value of the effect, namely, labor or work, without believing in its cause, namely, God.
The Meaning of “Vain”
What, then, does the psalmist mean by “vain?” Two things. First, apart from a personal relationship with God, daily living by faith in the Creator, work, as good or as wonderful as it may be, leaves a person with the sense that something is incomplete, lacking in his or her life. Second, without God, that is, without his blessings to “crown” human activities, no kind of work could ever succeed.
The God-Invested Value of Family-Life (verses 3-5)
The psalmist teaches that children and family-life have meaning. They are good in themselves, being gifts from God. As the poet says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (127:3, NASB). For instance, when Joseph’s father, Israel, saw Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “‘Who are these?’” (Genesis 48:8b, NIV). Then Joseph answered his father, “They are the sons God has given me” (Genesis 48:9a, NIV). Similarly, when Boaz had conjugal relations with Ruth, the Moabitess, Sacred Scripture says, “the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13b, NIV). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah says to his people, “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me” (Isaiah 8:18a, NIV). Thus, for the psalmist, children are not merely biological material; nor are they things, objects, that their parents possess. Rather, children are human beings, sacred persons.
The family is God’s creation. The poet teaches that as parents become old, children are to parents what arrows are to a soldier in war, providing protection to the family (verses 4-5).12 God designed the family to be a community of persons, loving and being loved, supported and being supported, by each other. That is why family-life can be meaningful. As with work or human labor, even if such meaning is not ascribed to God, nevertheless, it comes, ultimately, from him.
Therefore, the psalmist, while recognizing the value of temporal, here-and-now or day-to-day meanings of a person’s life, such as work and family-life, presupposes that there is a meaning that is even higher than the temporal meanings of life, namely, an Ultimate Meaning. It is a meaning which gives greater meaning to all other finite meanings in life.13 Such a meaning is related to religion or faith in an Ultimate Being, namely, God. Of course, life itself is a great good. But life in spiritual communion with God is even a greater good. It is the summum bonum, because a person is spiritually related to God, the “Highest Good.”
1 Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one book in two volumes, Vol. I., p. 599.
2 John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol. 3, in The Way of Life Series, no. 133, ed. J. D. Thomas (Abilene, TX.: Biblical Research Press, 1974), p. 93.
3 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms (Nashville, TN.: Miller Publications, 1976), p. 64.
5 William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), p. 793.
6 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms, op. cit., p. 64.
7 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152.
Did Mother Teresa have doubts? Did she have questions about God, even agonizing over why the Creator allows suffering, poverty and evil? Of course she did! So do many saintly or godly women and men. However, doubt is not necessarily an enemy of faith in God. Actually, an honest, sincere kind of doubt is rooted in the search for truth, being open-minded to finding satisfactory answers to questions about one’s faith. I do not think that Mother Teresa, with her “rich” theological and philosophical heritage, was suffering from intellectual doubt. In what follows, I will explain why.
Feelings of Distance from God
Sometimes, Mother Teresa had felt as though she were only “going through the motions” of being a Christian, of serving others. For example, in one of her letters, she confessed,
“If you only knew what goes on within my heart. – Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel as if everything will break. The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.”1
At others times, she had felt as if her faith were contradictory, desiring to be near God but feeling repulsed by him. In another letter, she admits,
“There is so much contradiction in my soul. – Such deep longing for God -– … a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. … Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me….”2
However, note well: Mother Teresa is experiencing the feeling, not the reality, of the absence of God. Faith is not a feeling! Rather, faith proceeds from the will. It is a decision, a firm, lifelong commitment to God. As such, it is not reducible to feelings about God. If it were, then a person’s life would, indeed, be contradictory, for on one day a person may have faith; and on another, he or she may not.
Mother Teresa may have been suffering from emotional, not intellectual, doubt. C. S. Lewis explains what goes on inside a person suffering from emotional doubt, saying,
“I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old sceptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feelings of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. Mind you I don’t think so – the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”3
Similarly, in still another letter, Mother Teresa, now a saint in the Latin or Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, expresses her emotional doubts. It reads, in part,
“Where is my faith? — even deep down, right in, there is nothing, but emptiness …[and] darkness. … [H]ow painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. — I dare not utter the words … [and] thoughts that crowd in my heart … [and] make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me.”4
Elsewhere, she writes,
“In my soul I feel … that terrible pain of loss – … of God not being God … of God not really existing. … I have no faith – I don’t believe.”5
Prolonged stress adversely affects a person’s emotions.6 That may be why Mother Teresa, constantly caring for men, women and children in poverty and homelessness; in starvation, suffering and death, questions God. For certain periods of time in a believer’s life – some lasting longer than others – he or she may feel frustrated, at a loss for answers to his or her questions. That applies, in principle, to Mother Teresa. However, it does not mean she had rejected her faith; that she no longer believed in God.
That Mother Teresa’s questioning of God is not a denial of her faith is evident from the example of Jesus himself, the Founder of Christianity. While undergoing excruciating pain and suffering, as he approaches his death, he cries out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46b, NIV). Those are also the words of the psalmist or biblical poet, another believer in God, yet questioning God (cf. Psalm 22:1, NIV).
Living with Unanswered Questions
If many, if not most, questions about life and its problems find answers by believing in God, then it is prudent to live by faith. Not having all the answers does not mean that a person’s faith is wrong. Rather, it means that he or she is a finite creature or finitum noncapax infiniti, that is, “the finite cannot grasp or contain the infinite,” the creature cannot comprehend the Creator. After all, if every question has a rational explanation, one which reason alone can settle, then faith would no longer be faith; rather, it would be reducible to reason.
Mother Teresa did not abandon her faith in the Lord! Likewise, there are times in a believer’s life, when he or she may have a kind of psychological ambivalence, a mixture of belief and doubt, which says, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24b, NASB). Faith is a process, a pilgrimage, a journey to God. In that journey, there will be struggles, emotional “ups-and-downs,” questions and even doubts. But by the Lord’s grace, trusting in his providential guidance of a believer’s life, doubt eventually gives way to faith; belief eventually overcomes unbelief.
Mother Teresa, “Letter to Archbishop Perier, July 15, 1958,” in Mother Teresa – Come be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2007), p. 176.
Ibid., “Letter to Archbishop Perier, February 28, 1957,” p. 169.
C. S. Lewis, The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914 – 1963), ed. Walter Hooper (New York, N.Y.: Collier/Macmillan, 1986), pp. 398-399.
Mother Teresa, “Letter to Jesus, Undated,” in Mother Teresa – Come be My Light, p. 187.
Cf. Frank B. Minirth, In Pursuit of Happiness: Choices That Can Change Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI.: Fleming H. Revell/ Baker Book House Company, 2004), pp. 68-83.