Lent is hurtling toward us. This realization usually raises a sense of dread. The late great Fr. Alexander Schmemann may once have described Lent as “bright sadness,” but too often it seems neither bright nor sad. Rather, it often seems grey and glum. The extra liturgies and activities quickly come to seem like so many burdens, leading us (once the first flush of “this isn’t so bad!” has passed, usually before the end of the second week) to spend most of our time grimly glancing at the calendar: “how many days until Easter?”
This year, however, I am trying to think of Lent in a very different way. It seems to me more profitable to conceive of Lent not in terms of “how much fasting must we do?” or “which extra services shall we take on?” Rather, I am going to focus on this question: “In which areas am I unfree, and why do I prefer this slavery to freedom?”
Some might find it shocking that we often prefer to be unfree. But two rather prominent Jewish writers think that is indeed the case. The first of these is St. Paul. If, as he says, “for freedom Christ has set us free” why then must Paul’s very next sentence be an exhortation to us to “stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1)? Surely he wouldn’t have told us to flee slavery unless….we secretly prefer its yoke at least some of the time?
The second Jewish writer to develop this line of thinking in powerful and unforgettable ways is a man I first encountered as a student a quarter-century ago. That man is Erich Fromm, and this March marks the fortieth anniversary of his death. His works have continued to haunt me long after I first read them.
Born in 1900 and dying in 1980, Erich Fromm—psychoanalyst, global social critic, anti-nuclear activist, and, I would add, theologian manqué—had a profound influence in his day. His views were admired by and influential upon at least one US president and two popes. He wrote internationally best-selling books that sold millions of copies.
He was, however, neglected by Catholic thinkers even though he wrote on explicitly theological themes: love (The Art of Loving), hope (The Revolution of Hope), sin (The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness as well as The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil), the role of idolatry and illusion in shaping nationalism (You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition), and even Christology (The Dogma of Christ).
Perhaps some Catholics might have unjustly dismissed Fromm as just another Jewish psychoanalyst looking impudently at scripture and dogma, and seeing in him what they thought (wrongly) they saw in Freud: a hostile critic to be ignored. As I hope to have demonstrated enough by now (see, e.g., here and here), that is a misplaced and unjust dismissal of Freud, much of whose thought is profoundly helpful as an adjunct to theology and especially as a basis for therapy. But when it comes to Fromm any anxiety transferred from Freud is completely otiose: Fromm was such a different breed of analyst (cf. his book Psychoanalysis and Religion to Freud’s Future of an Illusion) that even other Freudians couldn’t get away from him fast enough.
If Catholic theology largely neglected Fromm, he was at least admired and quoted by three hugely influential Catholic leaders of the last sixty years (to say nothing of personal relationships Fromm had with Thomas Merton and Ivan Illich). In the 1960s his role in the peace movement and his views on the psychology of nuclear weapons had an impact on President John F. Kennedy, who shifted his views on the basis of Fromm’s many writings and international lectures. In the late 1970s, Pope John Paul II spoke very warmly about Fromm’s works and invited him to the Vatican for a meeting. More recently, Pope Francis has cited Fromm in both public speeches and written texts.
Fromm’s literary output was vast, but it his break-out book of 1941, the first of many best-sellers, Escape from Freedom, that remains his most important and profound. Harvard’s Lawrence Friedman, author of the best biography I have read (The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, Columbia University Press, 2013) calls the 1941 book “the deepest and most important of Fromm’s books” and a “rich and historically significant text.” I agree, though I would also add that Fromm’s short and posthumously published On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to Power brings his 1941 book to an even stronger and more pointed conclusion.
Though it might fall outside the usual recommendation for Lenten reading material, I want to suggest that as Catholics we need to use Lent as a time to examine the areas in which we are obedient to various forms of unhealthy compulsion and slavery, firstly in our inner life, but then also in our life as a Church, and ultimately in our world. Fromm’s Escape from Freedom raises acute question in all three areas.
Like all good analysts, Fromm is more profound and important for the questions he asks, leaving the answers largely up to us to sort out. So over the forty days of Lent, I would invite all of us to ponder this book, and to use as part of our regular “examen of conscience” throughout the upcoming 40 days such questions of his as these:
Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission? If there is not, how can we account for the attraction which submission to a leader has for so many today? Is submission always to an overt authority or is there also submission to internalized authorities…, to inner compulsions, or to anonymous authorities like public opinion? Is there a hidden satisfaction in submitting, and what is its essence?
Christ’s own time in the desert is nothing if not a demonstration of his total freedom and his unhindered capacity to refuse every demand of the greatest slave-master: Satan. And Christ’s rising on Easter is nothing if not a refusal to leave humankind in submission and bondage to that most destructive power we call death. But let us also ask the Lord this Lent to show us the other, often hidden forms of slavery which bind us still, and to break all of them by the power of his precious and life-giving cross.
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