Friday, April 25, 2008

Why People Need a Pope or a Paper Pope

In the late Middle Ages, we are told, Western man began seeing himself as an individual; that is, as a separate entity from God, from nature, from society, and from family. This phenomenon, historians say, was accentuated by the Reformation and has become sharper still until and into our own day. (1)

Eric Fromm, whose book I am reading (2), observes that individuation is a double-edged sword. Its positive side is that it gives us freedom we didn’t have when we still thought of ourselves as all one with God, nature, and each other. Now that I understand myself as my own, separate person, I can do whatever I wish, go wherever I wish, undertake any way to earn my livelihood, be whoever I can be and wish to be. The negative side of “realizing” ourselves as separate individuals is that it makes us lonely, insecure, and doubtful. It tends to make us hostile, as well. Now that I know myself as an individual, it’s me against the world, and the world is a lot bigger and more powerful than I am, hence, intimidating. Other people, instead of being part of me, are also individuals, looking out for their own well-being first, and possibly at my expense. Moreover, the well-defined place each person used to have in the world is gone; and with it vanishes not only my security, but my meaning. If it is up to me to find my own place and my own meaning, then who am I? What is my meaning, my purpose in life? When meaning disappears, doubt fills the vacuum.

There is only one workable, successful way to make the loneliness, the fear, and hostility, and the doubt of individualism disappear, says Fromm, and that is to re-integrate successfully and meaningfully with the rest of the world. (Ah, but how?)

Otherwise the loneliness, fear and insecurity, hostility, and doubt will never go away. A person will always feel isolated, because of course, he indeed is. He will always feel fearful, because we are each so small and weak compared with the whole world. He will always feel hostile, because of perceiving others as rivals and potential threats: you are the person who is taking the seat I wanted; who is blocking my way, whose job I want, who is making demands of me, who is delaying me, who is dating the person I love. A separate individual, whose place in society is not dictated to him, will always doubt what his place is, what his meaning is, and by extension, what anything means. He will always crave certainty. These cravings, which will plague a person all his life, can only be pushed out of sight for a while to relieve his suffering. In other words, we can quench our consciousness of the loneliness, insecurity, hostility and doubt resulting from our being separate individuals. Unconsciously, though, all these will still be there. In fact, our attempts to squelch them will backfire. As Fromm puts it (and this needs to be read rather slowly):

Just as a child can never return to the mother’s womb physically, so it can never reverse, psychically, the process of individuation. Attempts to do so [if one has not successfully and meaningfully re-integrated with the larger world] necessarily assume the character of submission, in which the basic contradiction between the authority and the child who submits to it is never eliminated. Consciously the child may feel secure and satisfied, but unconsciously it realizes that the price it pays is giving up strength and integrity of its self. Thus the result of submission is the very opposite of what it was to be: submission increases the child’s insecurity and at the same time creates hostility and rebelliousness, which is the more frightening since it is directed against the very persons on whom the child has remained – or become – dependent.

So, then, one (misguided) solution to the problems raised by rampant individualism, or even just by being a separate individual, is to submit to a strong, clear, specific, necessarily external authority. The degree to which one submits to this authority is the degree to which one will feel united with it or him or Him, making the loneliness seem go away – at least at the conscious level, and for a while. This authority, too, will tell you what your meaning is, where your place in life is, giving you a sense of security and certainty, again only at the conscious level, and only temporarily. After a while, you will find you need to renew your attempts toward submission, and then again, and yet again, trying each time to do it more thoroughly, to stave off these doubts, these fears, this loneliness. Meanwhile the unconscious hostility toward the authority mounts. In a religious context, this hostility usually takes the form of righteous indignation.

You also rely upon that external authority to make the doubt go away by providing absolute certainty. The problem is, the doubt will not go away, because this doubt is not the kind

which is rooted in the freedom of thinking and which dares to question established views. It [is]… doubt which springs from the isolation and powerlessness of an individual whose attitude toward the world is one of anxiety… This irrational doubt can never be cured by rational answers; it can only disappear if the individual becomes an integral part of a meaningful world. If this does not happen…the doubt can only be silenced, driven underground, so to speak, and this can be done by some formula which promises absolute certainty.

What strikes me when I read this is how sad all this is, and how very different from the world of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy does precisely what Fromm prescribes to deal with these problems, but in ways beyond what he could ever have dreamed. This is because Orthodox Christianity, while affirming both the one and the many, unity and multiplicity, transcends them both.

Immediately before His passion and death, Jesus prayed:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one... (John 17:20-13)

Christ incorporates us into Himself. Using marriage as an analogy, St. Paul writes:

Husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:28-32)

Because Christ invisibly but truly incorporates us into Himself, “we, [being] many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. (Romans 12:5; see also Ephesians 4:25)

This means we do not each lead his own, separate life. Instead, we all live one and the same Life, namely, Christ’s, which He shares with us. “My” life is being lived in your skin, and “your” life is being lived in my skin, for we are both living one and the same divine Life. “I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me…”

Now you are no longer a potential rival or threat, but a beloved part of myself, as I am a beloved part of yourself. Now you are not the person I shove past to get out of the burning building; you are the one with whom I stand side by side to help others get out. Now you are not the one whose job I want; you are a cherished part of myself, for whom I am content to work until you shall move on, and then we shall see whether God thinks it good for me to succeed to your former position. Now you and I are closer to one another than to our own families in the flesh (unless they are also living this Life). That is why, when Jesus’ family came looking for Him, He said, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:33-35, Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21)

Orthodox Christianity recognizes each person as unique and unrepeatable. Our unity does not swallow us up into an undifferentiated mass. But the Christian faith does not recognize any separateness between us. We are not separate beings, not individuals in that sense. Instead, we are persons, and a person is defined, or rather, characterized, in relationship to other persons. Made in the Image of God, every one of us shares in a single, common being, just as the Three Persons of the Christian God share one, single Being, and thus are One God. (Okay, that needs some technical nuancing, which, if it interests you, is in this footnote. 3)

While an individual is defined by his boundaries, by where he stops and starts, by his separateness from other individuals, the undefinable person is established by his connections with others. A human person is one who gives himself to (loves) others, and who in turn is loved by others. This same love both unites us with the others and, at the very same time, distinguishes us from them, by making us each distinct centers of love. (It's a little like being an airline hub: the more flights come in and out of you, the more of a hub you are.) The more you love and are loved, the more established you are as a unique human person – and, simultaneously, the more you are one with all others, in the bond of love.

And for us, this is no mere doctrine, but a way of life. St. Paul gives an example showing how unity and multiplicity are each preserved yet transcended in the Christian lifestyle: “And if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and each particular parts [of it].” (I Corinthians 12:26-27) This is the way we learn to live as Orthodox Christians. (For those of us coming from a Western, individualistic culture, it takes a while!)

Living this Life in the Church (and I'm sorry, but in its fullness, this Life is only to be found in the Orthodox Church) is the cure for the individualism that makes us so lonely, that pits us against the world and against each other. This is the remedy for the individualism that plants doubt in us and makes us crave absolute certainty and renders us unable to trust the true, inner Authority, the Holy Spirit who lives in the Church and leads her not only through means but also directly, in Person, through each of our hearts and through our collective heart. This is, in ways beyond what Erich Fromm could ever have imagined, the re-integration of the individual into a meaningful world that heals the human psyche.


(1) Obviously, individuation began with Adam, the moment he rebelled against God and then blamed Eve. But we are speaking of it as a psycho-sociological, cultural phenomenon.

(2) Erich Fromm, Fear of Freedom (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1960). Erich Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who in his later years rejected Judaism in favor of secular humanism. He also writes from a Western perspective. These are good reasons for an Orthodox Christian reader to take him with several grains of salt. Nevertheless, as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a background in philosophy and sociology, he is a commentator with a good deal of expertise. The book’s alternate title is Escape from Freedom.

(3) The common Being, or Essence, in God, is held in toto by all Three Divine Persons. That’s another way of saying each of the Three is fully God in His own right. The analogous thing cannot be said of human beings, however. It takes all of us to constitute humanity. Our common being is, as it were, parceled out among us. While each of the Divine Persons possesses the fullness of Divinity, each of us humans has only a share in humanity.