Posted October 17, 2011
Our divine uniqueness: On Erich Fromm's 'The Art of Loving'
By Chase Nordengren
Love is not a thing that happens to us, psychologist Erich Fromm argues, it is a
thing we do. Published in 1956, Fromm's The Art of Loving describes love -- for
our neighbor, for our partner, and for God -- as an activity, requiring study,
practice and intent.
Love is a skill set human beings develop and use through their own will, not a
prize won by gaining someone else's affection and trust. Learning about and
practicing love, Fromm says, ought stand at the center of our lives.
Exercising this skill is not only virtuous; it is key to resolving the "anxiety
of separation" that lies at the heart of our lives. No longer united with God,
or under the safe blanket parental love provides, human attention strays to
focus on work, sensory pleasure or conforming with the broader culture. Each in
turn emulates some, but not all, of love -- love is interpersonal, permanent and
The unity we seek -- unity with another person -- can only be accomplished
through the work of love.
Fromm's elegant and challenging description of love, however, is not without the
flaws of his time and place. The Art of Loving exclusively describes
heterosexual love driven by gender roles, defining masculinity and femininity as
character traits innate in men and women.
With those assumptions comes a host of declarations about how human beings ought
grow, develop and act. Children, Fromm says, should transition gradually from
"motherly" to "fatherly" love. Men should represent discipline and
adventurousness to contrast with feminine protection and realism. Psychological
illness, he concludes, results from a "disordered" attachment to one parent over
These outdated notions, which bear some unfortunate parallels to church
teachings on the nature of human beings, are rightly distasteful to modern ears.
Taken in isolation, Fromm leaves us an unfortunate dichotomy: it seems we must
choose either the objective, material love of contemporary culture or Fromm's
activity-driven holistic love, paired with his strict definitions of how human
beings ought grow up and behave.
This dichotomy is false. Through faith, we can preserve both Fromm's emphasis on
love as skillfulness and a respect for all individuals and ways of life.
Fromm posits that love for God bears much resemblance to love for human beings.
"To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely
in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person," he writes.
"Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little
Like loving God, loving another person is taking the big leap: assuming that
under their bones and blood lies a self which persists and will love you back.
To love is to posit the soul.
Love is also a leap of faith in its universality: "If I can say to somebody
else, 'I love you,' I must be able to say, 'I love in you everybody, I love
through you the world, I love in you also myself.'"
Universal love, however, is much more than tolerance. For believers in a
creative God, responsible for the specialness of each human character, it is
insufficient to love the poor, the oppressed, or the different in the abstract.
We are called to love them, each of them, even if they do not play to our
expectations and especially if they don't deserve it.
Without a love for the humanness in each person, Fromm argues, we cannot love
that which is human about anyone. He who loves once, Fromm argues, is challenged
to love constantly, to grow from love of one to love of all things.
Buried in a culture and a church which often fail to appreciate the divine
origin of human difference, loving all the time is the most difficult Christian
Seattle evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll drew attention this week for declaring,
in his Sunday sermon , “God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates
some of you.”
To understand love as Fromm does is not only to render such an idea repugnant
but incomprehensible. The God we understand, who created and sustains the
universe, is in a real sense love, the force by which the creation of life
Even the wrath of the Old Testament God, with its ultimate direction towards
creativity, is a sign of love. Love is not only a gift God provides every living
being -- it is, properly understood, the only thing God could ever do.
[Chase Nordengren is a graduate student at the University of Washington in
Seattle, where he studies education policy. Among other projects, he edits a set
of reflections on contemplative spirituality called "At Once Good and Imperfect"
at goodandimperfect.net .]