Based on my past affiliation with several religions and my study of comparative religion, I am convinced that every religion, no matter what it is, can be enriched if one searches for what makes his or her religious experience meaningful. This two-part article addresses the ways that everyone can find and increase that richness.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who founded the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, Logotherapy; Sigmund Freud and Alfred Alder had founded the first two schools. Logotherapy teaches that humans are driven primarily toward meaning instead of pleasure or power, as Freud and Adler had suggested. Although Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, is the most well-known source of his theory, there is a growing volume of research and literature on Logotherapy.
I have been teaching Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy (meaning-centered psychotherapy) and Psychology of Religion for over eight years at a private university in South America. It was inevitable that I would eventually try to connect these two schools of psychology.
I am not addressing religious beliefs per se. Rather I'm working here on the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism: the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Although it seems that the means of searching for meaning should be intuitive, I have found that this search is not intuitive, and most people can benefit from realizing that certain understandings, behaviors, and practices can enhance meaning in life in general and in religion specifically.
I am not suggesting that beliefs are not important; after all, beliefs can determine which religion or religious group a person joins. But once a person joins this group, certain behaviors and practices tend to make the religious experience more meaningful. This article is about these behaviors. Psychology of Religion refers to this approach as a functional approach to religion instead of a substance approach that focuses on beliefs, creeds, etc.
Derivative and Intrinsic Meaning
According to Logotherapy, achieving, accomplishing, and creating are principal sources of meaning. Within a religious context, we can identify different categories of activities such as those that provide intrinsic and derivative meaning. Intrinsic activities are those that are meaningful in themselves; we love the activities themselves such as prayer, meditation, and fellowship. On the other hand, derivative activities can be meaningful because they play a useful role toward worthwhile objectives or purposes that are meaningful.
If we discover that a worthwhile objective is serving God, and we place great value on doing things for God, our actions can take on a strong derivative meaning. Also, derivative activities can be potentially powerful sources of meaning because of their self-transcending nature—the meaning-producing benefit of doing things for Someone else instead of mainly for ourselves. Logotherapy emphasizes that by looking beyond ourselves, we can reach out to find intimacy, purpose, and a sense of meaning for living. It is important to add that we can serve God or a purpose beyond ourselves and love the activities we do. When this occurs we may experience both intrinsic and derivative meaning.
Self-Transcendence as a Source of Meaning
Having a purpose to live for can enhance meaning in life. Countless books and article have been written on this subject. Perhaps the most famous "religious" book on this subject is the The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. (I don't endorse this book for everyone; my research over ten years has shown that many people do not need a purpose to achieve a meaningful life.) One thing that can make purposes so meaningful for some people is that they are transcendental in nature—the purpose or mission is more important than we are as individuals. This means we turn away from a primary concern for ourselves and toward a concern for something or someone else. In his book, Viktor Frankl's Contribution to Spirituality and Aging, Melvin Kimble tells a story about a group of Jews fleeing Germany during the holocaust:
Having to cross a mountain pass to reach safety, some of the older members began to tire and give out, asking that they be left behind rather than slow down the group. A number of younger people, fearing their own safety, were willing to agree. A wise young person responded by saying, "We realize that you are tired and infirm and that you just want to sit down and rest. But we have these young women with their babies and they are so tired from carrying them this far. Will each of you take a baby and just carry it as far as you can before you give out? Then we'll leave you there." Everyone in the group made it across the mountains.