“The threat to the religious attitude lies not in science but in the predominant practices of daily life.” writes Erich Fromm in his famous work, “Psychoanalysis and Religion.” He explains that, “man has ceased to seek in himself the supreme purpose of living and has made himself an instrument serving the economic machine his own hands have built. He is concerned with efficiency and success rather than with his happiness and the growth of his soul.”
This description of our situation (written in the 1950’s, but as relevant as ever) is a description of modern idolatry. Idolatry, in Fromm’s thought, is not a strictly religious term, and has less to do with the worship of a particular object and more to do with an orientation, an attitude towards life. It is an attitude which seeks the deification of things: of a nation, of business, machines, success, health, etc.
Reading through Fromm the thought occurred to me that even one’s attitude towards God can be idolatrous. This seems clear enough. If one is using God as a means to material ends, as is a popular mode today (simply turn on any number of “Christian” television programs to get your fill of health and wealth worshipping) then without a doubt one’s orientation towards God is idolatrous. But it goes deeper than that.
Take Moses. Moses stands as perhaps the highest ideal of a prophet presented in the Old Testament, yet one of the first lessons God taught him during his stay in the wilderness was to rid his thinking of idolatry. Something as seemingly benign as asking for God’s name revealed this all too human need to put a name with an object of worship. In one of the most memorable scenes in the Bible God tells Moses, “I am that I am.”
A better English rendering of the phrase is “I am being that I am being.” Much can be made of this “name” but what seems logical (and I am not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch) is that in using this phrase God revealed Himself as very “being” and not as an object existing alongside all other objects in the universe. This revelation had the effect of drawing Moses’ attention away from symbolic labeling of God with a proper name (names in ancient times had the dual purpose of identifying and defining of a person). God’s name reveals that He is beyond all things and is not a mere object of worship. He is, as Christ would later reveal, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
The way, truth, and life are not objects to be handled and manipulated but a reality to unite with, to enter into – in this case, God through the person of Jesus Christ. To worship God is to be integrated into His life. This orientation battles with our human need to deify the objects of our affection, whatever they may be; it is why the Christian life is at once an “easy yoke” and a “light burden,” yet a rigorous striving to “enter through the narrow gate.”
But the purely secular person (if such a being exists) is not off the hook. He/she is still oriented to substitute what is real with what is illusory, what is authentic with what is inauthentic, as an unconscious method of deferring painful and fearful realities for another time. The irreligious person is every bit as inclined as the religious person to slap labels on realities outside their control in order to reduce them to something intellectually manageable; to neatly categorize them rather than enter into them, to struggle with them.
The twin brother of this is the act of making trivial things into things of supreme concern, that is, of deifying them, which is the hallmark of neurosis.
The deification of things is the ground upon which one loses touch with oneself and his or her real existential concerns, resorting instead to chasing phantoms as a way of coping. This is the very battle ground where Fromm believes that psychoanalysis and religion intersect and work together to heal the individual.
On a personal note, I am a practicing Orthodox Christian and a professional psychotherapist. In my studies and experience the aims of psychotherapy (generally speaking) and the liturgical life of the historic Church, as touching the issue of mental health, seem to me to have many more points of mutual benefit than of conflict. This basic understanding of the need to worship as fundamental in human nature is something both fields contribute to in significant ways. The notion of idolatry crossing the threshold of religion and entering into the purview of psychotherapy as presented by Fromm has lead me to think afresh about this issue of just how close the two fields work.
Exciting stuff if you’re a psychology-theology nerd like me.
Thanks for reading.