On Spiritual Morality

by Aki Schilz

This extract is taken from the (brilliant) novel Jerusalem, by Goncalo M. Tavares (translated into English by Anna Kushner) and concerns Dr Theodor Busbeck, whose life work is to produce “a graph—a single graph to establish, to summarize, the relationship between history and atrocity. To chart whether horror has been increasing or decreasing century after century.”

Here, he contemplates spiritual morality, mental health, and the pervasive sense of loss which drives all human journeys.


Despite this fear of his own mind and where it might be leading him, Theodor was, by any standard, the picture of health: physically, mentally, spiritually. In fact, these three categories represented the essential axis around which all of Theodor’s life – or at least his sense of his own life as being a healthy one – revolved. In this regard, seeing health as a holistic process, he was rather more open-minded than the majority of his colleagues at the clinic, who tended to boil down mental health to a state in which our muscles always do what we want and we always want them to do something sensible. To Theodor, that kind of ‘healthy’p person – with ‘normal’ desires and the ‘normal’ muscles to carry them out – was still missing what he called spiritual normality. And what does spiritual morality entail? Here’s Dr Busbeck’s theory: The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing… because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self – a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call ‘spiritual’. So: the truly healthy man, wanting to become whole, goes off in search of the burglars and whatever it was they took – even though he couldn’t really tell you what he’s missing, doesn’t know the shape or substance of his stolen goods. It was the initial discovery, the realization that one had been robbed – on a spiritual level – that Theodor saw as the essential thing. A truly healthy man wants to find God – to put it more directly. And Theodor didn’t just say this in private conversations with his colleagues – he mentioned God at conferences too; something that left many doctors in his field perplexed, almost outraged, feeling that the mention of God in a professional, medical context was akin to heresy. Nonetheless, Theodor held fast to his opinions – or his instincts, as he put it – legitimizing them, provocatively, by referring to them as scientific. 

What conclusion, finally, did the scientific instincts of Theodor Busbeck – and of which he was so proud – lead him to develop? We could sum it up as follows. A man who doesn’t seek God is crazy… and crazy people need to get treatment.


I bought my copy of this book from my local independent bookshop. If you’d like to buy an independent-friendly copy online, you can do so here.

Jerusalem, by Goncalo Tavares