Jesus as Logotherapist: the "technique of common denominator"


Viktor Frankl mentions in his "Recollections" a lesser-known technique of Logotherapy, the so-called "common denominator". He describes the case of Ilse Alchinger, an Austrian writer who at that time faced a dilemma whether finishing the book she was writing or continue her medical studies. The "common denominator" for the decision was "Which is more at risk if interrupted?" - and she chose to interrupt her studies and finish the book (that made her later famous) (page 67 of the 2000 Basic Books edition of "Recollections" ).


This “technique” for decision reminds me of the choice posed by Jesus to his listeners: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Lk 9:25; cf. Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36). Seems like Jesus uses the “common denominator technique” to show the way, how to choose the most important, what really matters. The choice is between the value system represented by Jesus and that of the “world”: the latter promising all the success, wealth and fame but maybe at the risk of something greater, the person’s “very self”, that is maybe at the cost his/her unique and irreplaceable call or mission for which he/she was created. One should choose the option that involves the lesser risk, the possible loss of material goods, but the promise of realizing his/her personal potentialities and human vocation [1].


Again, Jesus brings up a sort of calculation of risks in the sayings in Luke’s gospel about the “cost” of discipleship. First we read: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’” (Lk 14:25-27). To illustrate how to calculate this risk, the “common denominator” suggesting that the best choice is to follow him he uses two similitudes: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:29-33)


In my opinion we can see a similar type of decision process at the end of the Second Phase of the Spiritual Exercises (Conforming) in the chapter “Arriving to a Decision” [169-189] especially in connection with the third method of the decision which we called “reasoning” (Finding Our Way Together, 2006 pp. 187-196 or see the chapter “Arriving to a Decision” in our Manual ). Shortly, this method requires the recognition of the alternatives to choose from and then weighing the advantages and disadvantages of choosing each particular option – we might say bring them to a common denominator - in order to choose the best.


The question is treated in general in the “two ways” teachings which we presented in connection with the “Two Standards” meditation: “The reality we are to reflect on is the fact that there are two “calls” in our lives drawing us in opposite directions especially when we face decisions. This polarity is present deep in our hearts as well on social, national and multinational levels and it derives from the history preceding us, which is history of sin and salvation at the same time. The opposite sides we identify as one from Satan, “the deadly enemy of our human nature” [136] and the other from Jesus Christ. In consequence of this polarity we constantly need to make choices even when we don’t do it consciously but out of routine or convention. The forces of evil working in our world always influence us but we always remain free through the grace of God to choose what is good and reject the opposite which leads to despair, hatred, less freedom and alienation. Even if usually we seek to forget it, in this meditation are we reminded on the need for decisions, but also that there is always at least one right choice in every single situation, which leads to more life and more love for us and our world.


“The concern of the flesh is death,

but the concern of the spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6)


In the New Testament we find first of all in the writings of Paul (as in Gal 5:16-26 and Rom 8:1-13) the antinomy between the “flesh” and the “spirit”, the contrast between the sinful tendencies and weaknesses of the human nature with the faculty that enables us to share in the Holy Spirit[2]. Similarly to the list of the works of the “flesh” and of the fruits of the Spirit in Gal 5:16-26, we find in the Christian spiritual literature numerous examples of descriptions and definitions of the destructive and life-giving attitudes, including the so-called “capital sins” and their counterparts called “virtues”[3]. An example from outside Christianity to such a system is the Enneagram, which puts in contrast nine basic passions as the foundation for a typology and their counterpart virtues in order to identify ourselves in these types and so try to avoid the destructive tendencies and cultivate the positive side of each passion[4].


“Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom…

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.

Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live…” (Deut 30:15.19)


“Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14)


The teaching about the “two ways” is an ancient one present in various Jewish texts, as well in the Old Testament as for example in the quote above from the farewell address of Moses (similar “two ways” are found in Jer 21:8). The moral teaching about the way of life and way of death in Christian texts comes from its Jewish roots[5], and is found for example in the New Testament as in Mt 7:13-28 describing the contrast between two kinds of life. The most eminently known presentation of the “two ways” is in the “Didache” an early second century writing in which the first six chapters are usually referred to with this title and begins with this words: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways” (1:1)[6]. Then the text describes the way of life and way of death as a genuine teacher of Christian righteousness would teach it. The Epistle of Barnabas states it this way: “There are two Ways of teaching and power, one of Light and one of Darkness. And there is a great difference between these two ways. For over the one are set the light-bringing angels of God, but over the other angels of Satan. And the one is Lord from eternity and to eternity, and the other is the ruler of the present time of antiquity”. (Epistle of Barnabas 18:1b-2)[7].

Entering in this line of the tradition of the lists of vices and virtues and of the “two ways”, in Christotherapy I Bernard Tyrrell presents a series of fundamentally destructive attitudes with their life-giving counterparts which he calls the “gates of hell and gates of paradise”, with the intent that the recognition of these helps the mind-fasting and spirit-feasting process[8]. Notwithstanding the extremely polarized name, the “gates of hell” are ways of life present in our everyday reality on individual and societal level, as excessively sensualist, emotionalist, possessive, intellectualist attitudes and the idolizing of self or other persons. The opposite “gates of paradise” are ways of existence that puts these tendencies in the context of freedom and balance.

The two “standards” in the Spiritual Exercises is presented to us by Satan and by Jesus Christ in a symbolic but very real way. Satan is not only the parable of the destructive forces but he is a personal reality who stands behind every evil in this world. The goal of the exercises of “Finding Our Way” is to learn how to distinguish the two voices that are calling us in different directions on personal on social and national levels. Following the existential diagnosis of the negative tendencies and the consequent fasting of the mind and heart, the discernment leads us to the cultivation of the understood positive ways of thinking and living aided by the Christotherapeutic technique of spirit-feasting. The work of orientation among concurring tendencies in our life traditionally is called searching of God’s will[9], of which we can say also that it is the existential discernment or finding the meaning of every moment in our life regarding the continuous challenges we face.

As we see the “two way” teaching is strongly polarized and antagonistic, it presents an absolute opposition between the two extremes, there is no way in-between. To this stark picture we find a more serene addition in the Didache: “…for, on one hand, if you are able to carry the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but on the other, if you are not able, undertake that which you are able to bear” (Didache 6:2)[10]. In this notion of perfection that calls for constant striving toward “what you can”, which is open to all not only for an elite, we can find a precursor to the Ignatian spirituality, which defines perfection as the constant desire for the “more” and in the discernment recognizes God’s will basically where one finds finally peace.” (Finding Our Way Together, 2006 pp. 118-122 or see it in the chapter “Two Standards: Conflicting value-systems defining our way” in our Manual).

[1] Already Robert C. Leslie has shown in his little book Jesus as Counselor,” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968) that it is possible to discover in the ministry of Jesus elements of Logotherapy. My approach is similar here to show how Jesus the Logotherapist might have applied the technique of “common denominator”.

[2] The words “flesh” and “spirit” do not refer to some sort of the body-soul opposition. St. Paul’s view is far from the Neoplatonic or Manicheist dualism seeing body as the principle of evil while the soul as of the good. The lists of the works of the “flesh” eminently include idolatry, hatred, selfishness, greed and malice (Rom 1:29-31, Gal 5:19-21, Col 3:5.8), which are not connected with the body. He is in the line of the Hebrew thinking where “flesh” means the human person or nature in its unity but weaknesses in respect to God (See in this regard Jesus saying: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” in Mt 26:41).

[3] A short study of these attempts of catalogs of vices and virtues is found in Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” pp. 175-181.

[4] Although Enneagram comes from non-Christian tradition, eminently from the Sufi school of Muslim piety, there are Christian interpretations of the system and it is used as a means to support self-knowledge in spiritual retreats and books. A practical example of such application is Richard Rohr-Andreas Ebert, Discovering the Enneagram. An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey, (New York: Crossroad, 1990).

[5] Cf. John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) p. 396. Crossan quotes further examples of the “two ways” teaching in the pre-Christian Jewish literature from the “Rule of the Community” (3:17-21) found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and from the “Testament of Asher”(1:3-5) in “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”, op. cit. p. 396.

[6] Roberts-Donaldson translation; see Alexander Roberts-James Donaldson, The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner's 1908-11) and many subsequent publishing.

[7] Translation of Lake, quoted in Crossan, “The Birth of Christianity” p. 397, alongside with an other example from the “Teaching of the Apostles” (1:1), which goes back to a common source with the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. Both the Jewish and Christian texts can refer or not to cosmic and angelic dualism as seen from these examples; however the question is open if this intense dualism is an influence from the Zoroastrian theology, from the antagonism between Mithras and Ahriman, light and darkness or not. Referring to the striking parallelism between Christianity and Mithraism, a shocking fact for the early Fathers who thought it a confusing stratagem of Satan (Ahriman), Will Durant writes so: “It is difficult to say which borrowed from the other; perhaps both absorbed ideas current in the religious air of the East” (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ. A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A.D. 325 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944) p. 524).

[8] Tyrrell, “Christotherapy I,” pp.87-96.

[9] “God’s will” should not be considered as something external to us, as a rule to adhere or a program ready to perform, but it is the fruit of our freedom, a decision discovered during the discernment process, in a certainty beyond consolations and desolations, a dynamic and intrinsic reality where we can “meet God”, confirm our relationship with him. Cf. Lefrank – Giuliani, “Freedom for Service”, pp. 227-228.

[10] Cf. Crossan, “The Birth of Christianity,” pp. 400-402.