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 "Fromm Has a New Approach to a Vital Problem",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, November 20, 1966,
of a book:
YOU SHALL BE AS GODS: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition
by Erich Fromm.
New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966



"Fromm Has a New Approach to a Vital Problem"


YOU SHALL BE AS GODS: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition.
By Erich Fromm.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 240 pages. $4.95


   Eric Fromm has an unusual talent for producing topical books on subjects in which interest in rising. He did this in 1941 with "Escape From Freedom," just as men began to thirst for discipline; in 1956 he published "The Art of Loving," which reflected the younger generation's growing taste for diffuse impersonal love. And now, in “You Shall Be as Gods,” he has produced a guide for the contemporary yearning for theology without deity.

   In this volume Fromm is concerned with the Hebrew religious discussion of more than a thousand years, represented in the Old Testament, and the even longer period of interpretations of this Testament to be found in the Hebrew “Oral Tradition.”

   The gist of that discussion, he feels, is that man is compelled to be free, and thus personally responsible, in time, and that the only satisfactory goal of that freedom is that he become increasingly Godlike by developing his capacities for love and reason (the chief qualities of God). This responsibility can be assumed by man only if he frees himself from all distractions (even from God) to devote himself fully to the tasks of being Godlike.

   According to Fromm, the main religious theme of the Old Testament is the war against idolatry, including the idolatry of God. An idol is fixed, static, dead, a closed system, while God, and man striving to be like God, must be a dynamic, open, system: “The contradiction between idolatry and the recognition of God is, in the last analysis, that between the love of death and the love of life.”

   So far in man’s history, both in the narration of the Old Testament and since, man has been distracted from his true destiny by setting up, as idols, such false goals as the tribe, the family, the state, nature, honor, power, flag, property, sex, the leader, production or consumption, and artifacts made by man himself. But his true destiny should be to develop the human qualities he shares with God: reason and love.


Total Responsibility

   According to Fromm, Hebrew theology came to feel that this goal could he achieved only if man was forced to stand on his own feet, in total personal responsibility, without God, a process toward which the prophets and the Testament moved by making the deity transcendental, and thus outside of nature, and by man's expulsion from Eden, which pushed him, on his own, into the flow of time in nature.

   This book deserves to be read, especially by those who have been struggling with the evasive ambiguities of Teilhard de Chardin, with the rootless optimism of "The Secular City," and with the confusions of "God Is Dead" and "Honest to God." Now, as we are becoming disillusioned with the attractions of the drive for power and the mad rush for material wealth, it becomes possible, to turn to the fundamental questions from which we were distracted, in recent centuries, by the struggle for power and for affluence.

   The discussion has already begun and is now intruding into the struggle in Viet Nam and the war on poverty. Much of it is childishly confused, ambiguous, and misguided, chiefly because those who lead the discussions, even the most pontifical professors and most tedious theologians, act as if these questions had never been discussed before, as if they had not been, for many centuries, the core of two traditions (the Hebrew and the Western) which make up our past.


As Ritualism

   Religion has come to seem irrelevant and without meaning for ordinary men because these past discussions (over the long centuries 300-1400) were forgotten, and religion was allowed to lapse into ritualism and clericalism, the very things against which the prophets, including Christ, were struggling. As a result, today's seekers, by rejecting the ritualism and clericalism of the past few centuries as well as the centuries of discussion, both Hebrew and Christian, which occurred earlier, are trying to talk about these big problems by starting from scratch, without experience and without a vocabulary, quite unaware that the great dialogues of Hebrew learning and the Western tradition had, over thousands of years, marked out the problems, set up a vocabulary, and reached tentative answers to many questions.

   Today's seekers often do not realize this and naturally do not see that they can move toward their goals only by resuming the great dialogue of the Western tradition, by repairing the breaks which it suffered, both in the deplorable split of the Protestant Reformation (which crippled the tradition from both sides) and from the almost fatal gap in the dialogue caused by the pursuit of secular, and materialist goals over the last three centuries.


Behavior vs. Knowledge

   Fromm's book is a contribution to the vital need to splice backward onto the Old Testament tradition, without falling prey to the present fad for Germanic theological gobbledygook. It is marred by minor blemishes, such as its author's insistence on a non-theistic approach to theology, his preference for giving priority to behavior over knowledge of God, and his occasional lapse into unhelpful Freudian vocabulary, but these are not major faults and may be justified. Fromm would seem to agree with Bishop Robinson in "Honest to God": "I can understand those who urge that we give up using the word 'God' for a generation, so impregnated has it become with a way of thinking we may have to discard if the Gospel is to signify anything."

   Fromm has done so well what he set out to do that it would be unfair to criticize him for failure to do more. He is concerned with the Judeo-Old Testament root of our tradition and can hardly be condemned for his failure to point out its relationship to that other major source: the New Testament-Greek-medieval scholastic side. It should, however, be pointed out that Fromm's excellent volume is concerned with only one side of the story on a rather elementary level, and that today's seekers, the lost sheep and confused shepherds, will get on the road they are seeking only by grafting to both roots to get back to the greatest of human tasks, the resumption of the development of the real traditions of Western civilization.



Scan of original review



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