Eric Fromm’s The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture

I previously commented on Eric Fromm’s stated position in Psycoanalysis and Religion that healthy religion is necessary to mental health.  His definition of religion is crucial to that statement: healthy religion helps us orient effectively to the world around us and to find healthy objects of devotion.   I was early influenced by his essay, The Dogma Of Christ, which I will discuss here.

It may seem odd to include his essay in this section of my blog which is devoted to theology of the modern era.  By training he was a psychoanalyst, he openly espoused a humanist orientation and philosophy, and at times he was considered by some to be an atheist.  However, I have long felt that good mental health counselors must have a healthy religious orientation and understanding to be effective.  So it is with Eric Fromm.  Moreove, by his fruits I know him and trust him.

In his Foreword to this essay, which he first published in 1930 and republished in 1963 at the request of Professor James Luther Adams of the Harvard Divinity School, Fromm acknowledges,

. . .  I one – sidedly stressed in this work the social function of religion as a substitute for real satisfaction and as a means for social control.  While I have not changed my views in this regard, today I would also emphasize the view (which I held then as now) that the history of religion reflects the history of man’s spiritual evolution. . . .

As far as I know, this is the first work in which the attempt was made to transcend the psychologistic approach to historical and social phenomenon so customary in psychoanalytic literature.

Fromm states the principle that we cannot understand people by understanding their ideas and ideologies; but we can understand a people’s ideas and ideology by understanding the people, themselves.

The main emphasis of this study is the analysis of the socioeconomic situation of the social groups which accepted and transmitted Christian teaching . . .

He introduces the essay as follows,

It is one of the essential accomplishments of psychoanalysis that it has done away with a false distinction between social psychology and individual psychology.

Psychoanalysis is focused on experiences of the individual and their influence on the emotional development of that person.   It is concerned with groups of “normal” people within that society.

The present investigation is concerned with a narrowly limited problem of social psychology, namely, the question concerning the motives conditioning the evolution of concepts about the relation of God the Father to Jesus from the beginning of Christianity to the formulation of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century.

[As a child uncritically accepts all statements by his father, so, in society, the individual] is disposed to believe uncritically what is presented to him by the rulers as just and true.”  The figure of god supplements and supports that social trust; “god is always the ally of the rulers.

. . .

. . .  This infantile psychic situation represents the pattern of their religious situation. . . .  [Freud] attributes to religion the affect of a narcotic capable of bringing some consolation to man in his impotence and helplessness before the forces of nature.  [It should be noted that at the writing of this essay in 1930, Fromm was a strict Freudian.]

He then states his intention concerning this essay:

The aim will be to understand the dogma on the basis of a study of people, not people on the basis of a study of dogma.

Fromm notes that at the time of Jesus, Palestine had been a part of the Roman Empire, and it had to adjust to Rome’s economic and social demands.  Rome’s policies left a large part of the Jewish population unemployed and dependent.  The rural population suffered under an onerous tax burden; many fell into great debt, resulting in their submission to the conditions of slavery; the small farmers gave way to a small but powerful group consisting of priests and moneyed aristocracy.

The Pharisees lived subject to stringent rules of diet and conduct guided by their minutely detailed rules.  They believed in the vitality of the immortal soul which would be rewarded according to the manner in which they lived.  Although united in their similar scholarly approach to the Law, as a group, they were economically and theologically diverse.   Some were from the lowest social strata, while others were members of the upper class citizenry.  However, as scholars and keepers of the Law, they were hated by the common person.  That hatred intensified as the separation between the proletariat and the moneyed aristocracy increased.  Such enmity was at times demonstrated by revolts and the proliferation of various religious – messianic movements. Galilee was known as a hotbed of revolutionary struggles against Roman authority. In 4 B.C. a proletariat revolt was severely and ruthlessly crushed by Roman soldiers.  Rome celebrated its victorious suppression of the revolution by crucifying 2000 revolutionaries.

In 6 AD Rome asserted direct control of Palestine.  At about that time the lower classes united in a party known as the Zealots; however, the middle class, led by the Pharisees, sought reconciliation with Rome.  The greater the separation between the lower classes and the middle class, the greater the intensity of the rift between the two, and the activity of the Zealots, inspired by a swelter of messianic hopes.  Crucifixion was a gruesome Roman means to remind the people who was in charge and to warn them of the cost of rebellion and its resulting pain and humiliation upon failure.

In 66 A.D. popular insurrection arose.  Initially it was supported by the middle class, but not vigorously.  ts support dissipated and it returned to its old ways of compromise with the Roman authorities.  Ultimately Rome ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion.

Such was the political and social scene into the middle of which arose the movement of John the Baptist.  His most ardent followers were those of the lowest, despised masses.  Immediately thereafter the cause was taken up by Jesus, who bore many signs and was ultimately associated with messianic hopes.  Eschatological expectations abounded.

The bleaker the hope for real improvement became, the more this hope had to find expression in fantasies.  The Zealots’ desperate final struggle against the Romans and John the Baptist’s movement were the two extremes, and were rooted in the same soil: the despair of the lowest classes. . . .  We see here an ambivalent attitude: these people loved in fantasy a good father who would help and deliver them, and they hated the evil father who oppressed, tormented, and despised them.

Jesus preached the nearness of the Kingdom of God.  Fromm notes:

The conditions of the entrance into the kingdom are, in the first place, a complete change of mind, in which a man renounces the pleasures of this world, denies himself, and is ready to surrender all that he has in order to save his soul; then a believing trust in god’s grace which he grants to the humble and the poor, and therefore hearty confidence in Jesus as the Messiah chosen and called by god to realize his kingdom on the earth.  The announcement is therefore directed to the poor, the suffering, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness . . .  to those who wish to be healed and redeemed, and finds them prepared for a entrance into. . .  the kingdom of god, while it brings down upon the self satisfied, the rich and those proud of their righteousness, the judgment of obduracy and the damnation of Hell.

Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of heaven, which is at hand, gave immense hope to the hopeless.  The core of that message is expressed in Luke 6:20 ff.:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of god.

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the son of man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

Fromm notes the intense hatred among the common people for tax collectors and Pharisees.  That remained a major theme throughout the 2000 years of Christian history.  Christianity arose from this lowest, poorest, uneducated stratum of Jewish Society and had little concern for social institutions.  They were known for their love for each other and their mutual support.  Because they believed in an imminent eschatological culmination during their lifetimes, they saw no need for earthly goods but shared everything that they had.  As Fromm describes it, they were “oppressed enthusiasts held together by hope and hatred.”

The oldest church doctrine of Christ is expressed in Acts 2: 36: ” God has made him both Lord and Christ.”  It consists of the “adoptionist” theory, i.e.  that god adopted him.  According to this thought, Jesus was not Messiah from the beginning, nor was he from the beginning the son of god.  That follows the line of thinking expressed in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” It also expressed the Semitic idea that the king is a son of god from the day that he assumes the throne, whether by descent or otherwise.  As Fromm puts it,

It is therefore in keeping with the oriental spirit to say that Jesus, as he was exalted to the right hand of God, became the son of god.

In the early community of enthusiasts, Jesus was thus a man exalted after his death into a god who would soon return in order to execute judgment, to make happy those who suffer, and to punish the rulers.

In true Freudian fashion, Fromm sees the significance of that elevation of man to god as an expression “of an unconscious wish for the removal of the divine father.” Later, Christianity abandoned adoption and the implied hostility toward God which it implied, for a notion that Jesus was god from the very beginning; however, the oppressed Christian community could only identify with someone who suffered as they suffered, and so it was also necessary that he be fully man.

Since the early converts had such a hatred for their rulers, and, as Fromm describes it, unconscious hatred against God the Father, they were drawn to the figure of Jesus, crucified.

Through his death, Jesus expiated the guilt of all, and the first Christians greatly needed such an atonement.

Early Christian beliefs concerning Jesus became transformed as Christianity came in contact with the pagan world, and as its membership expanded from the lowest classes to include the well educated and wealthy.  That was generally established by the end of the second century.  It was further transformed when it became the religion of the ruling class under Constantine.  With the alliance of Christianity with political power also came social stability.

[T]he original religion was transformed into another one, but the new Catholic religion had good reason for concealing this transformation.

. . .

. . .  The core of the missionary preaching of the early communion was, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” . . .  Paul’s faith was still imbued with eschatological hopes, but with him the expected time of the kingdom’s coming already began to be postponed further into the future.

By the direction of Constantine, the church “no longer looked to the future or application of the lessons of  history, but, rather, it looked backward.  The world no longer needed to change; salvation had become an individual matter guaranteed by faith in Jesus.  The hope for real, historical deliverance was replaced by faith in complete spiritual deliverance.  Historical interest was supplanted by cosmological interest.

Hand in hand with it, ethical demands faded away. . ..  Very closely connected with the renunciation of the original rigorous ethical practice was the growing reconciliation of Christians with the state.

. . .  With the continued development of the Church, the concept of the nature of Jesus leaned more and more to the dramatic viewpoint: a man was not elevated to a god, but a god descended to become man.  This was the basis of the new concept of Christ, until it culminated in the doctrine of Athenasius, which was adopted by the Nicene Council:  Jesus, the son of god, begotten of the father before all time, of one nature with the father.  The Arian view that Jesus and god the father were indeed of similar but not identical nature was rejected in favor of the logically contradictory thesis that two natures, god and his son, are only one nature; this is the assertion of a duality that is simultaneously a unity.

. . .  Far from being a religion of rebels and revolutionaries, this religion of the ruling class was now determined to keep the masses in obedience and to lead them. . . .  The formula of passive submission replaced the active hostility to the father.  It was not necessary to displace the father, since the son had indeed been equal to god from the beginning, precisely because god himself had “emitted” him.

Fromm reviews the development of Christian dogma and of the various “heresies.” He concludes The Dogma of Christ with the following:

Catholicism signified the disguised return to the religion of the Great Mother who had been defeated by Yahweh.  Only Protestantism turned back to the father – god.  It stands at the beginning of a social epic that permits an active attitude on the part of the masses in contrast to the passively infantile attitude of the Middle Ages.

I highly recommend this book of Fromm’s essays which was originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc..  and republished by Fawcett Premiere Book.   They are beyond the scope of this particular post, but really are very much relevant to the human condition, and its spirit.  Other essays by Fromm are as follows:

The Present Human Condition

Sex and Character

Psychoanalysis – Science or Party line?

The Revolutionary Character

Medicine and the Ethical Problem of Modern Man

On the Limitations and Dangers of Psychology

The Prophetic Concept of Peace

See Erich Fromm The Fear of Freedomat!/4FZsSyG/v/0, The Same Society, Psychoanalysis and Religion

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