We Make Gods for ourselves
Naomi Sherer reviews...

You Shall Be As Gods
Eric Fromm



"The Old Testament is a book of many colors, written, edited, and re-edited by many writers in the course of a millennium and containing in itself a remarkable evolution from primitive authoritarianism and clannishness to the idea of the radical freedom of humans and the brotherhood of all people. The Old Testament is a revolutionary book; its theme is the liberation of people from the incestuous ties to blood and soil, from the submission to idols, from slavery, from powerful masters, to freedom for the individual, for the nation, and for all of humankind. It is the revolutionary character of the Old Testament which made it a guide for the revolutionary christian sects before and after the Reformation.

"I do not look at the Bible as the "word of God", not only because historical examination shows that it is a book written by men--different kinds of men, living in different times-- but also because I am not a theist. Yet, to me, it is an extraordinary book, expressing many norms and principles that have maintained their validity throughout thousands of years. It is a book which has proclaimed a vision for people that is still valid and awaiting realization. It was not written by one man, nor dictated by God; it expresses the genius of a people struggling for life and freedom throughout many generations.

"The editors of the Bible did not always smooth out the contradictions between the various sources they used. But they must have been men of great insight and wisdom to transform the many parts into a unit reflecting an evolutionary process whose contradictions are aspects of a whole. Their editorship, and even the work of the sages who made the final choice of the Holy Scriptures, is, in a broad sense, a work of authorship.

"The Old Testament is the document depicting the evolution of a small, primitive nation, whose spiritual leaders insisted on the existence of one God and on the nonexistence of idols, to a religion with faith in a nameless God, in the final unification of all humans, in the complete freedom of each individual."

AND ABOUT RADICAL HUMANISM, HE SAID: Previous Topic Return to top Next Topic
"The interpretation of the Bible given in this book is that of radical humanism. By radical humanism I refer to a global philosophy which emphasizes the oneness of the human race, the capacity of each individual to develop their own powers and to arrive at inner harmony and at the establishment of a peaceful world.

"Radical humanism considers the goal of humankind to be that of complete independence, and this implies penetrating through fictions and illusions to a full awareness of reality. It implies, furthermore, a skeptical attitude toward the use of force, precisely because during recorded history it has been, and still is, force--creating fear--which has made humans ready to take fiction for reality, illusions for truth. It was force which made people incapable of independence and hence warped their reason and emotions.

"If it is possible to discover the seeds of radical humanism in the older sources of the Bible, it is only because we know the radical humanism of Amos, of Socrates, of the Renaissance humanists, of the Enlightenment, of Kant, herder, Lessing, Goethe, Marx, Schweitzer. The seed becomes clearly recognizable only if one knows the flower; the earlier phase is often to be interpreted by the later phase, even though, genetically, the earlier phase precedes the later."

AND ABOUT JEWISH HISTORY, HE SAID: Previous Topic Return to top Next Topic
"There is one more aspect of the radical humanist interpretation that needs to be mentioned. Ideas, especially if they are the ideas not only of a single individual but have become integrated into the historical process, have their roots in the real life of society. Hence, if one assumes that the idea of radical humanism is a major trend in the biblical and post-biblical tradition, one must assume that basic conditions existed throughout the history of the Jews which would have given rise to the existence and growth of the humanistic tendency.

"Are there such fundamental conditions? I believe there are and that it is not difficult to discover them. The Jews were in possession of effective and impressive secular power for only a short time, in fact, for only a few generations.

"After the reigns of David and Solomon, the pressure from the great powers in the north and south grew to such dimensions that Judah and Israel lived under the ever increasing threat of being conquered. And, indeed, conquered they were, never to recover.

"Even when the Jews later had formal political independence, they were a small and powerless satellite, subject to big powers. When the Romans finally put an end to the state after R. Yohanan ben Zakkai went over to the Roman side, asking only for permission to open an academy in Jabne to train future generations of rabbinical scholars, a Judaism without kings and priests emerged that had already been developing for centuries behind a facade to which the Romans gave only the final blow. "Those prophets who had denounced the idolatrous admiration for secular power were vindicated by the course of history. Thus the prophetic teachings, and not Solomon's splendor, became the dominant, lasting influence on Jewish thought.

"From then on the Jews, as a nation, never again regained power. On the contrary, throughout most of their history they suffered from those who were able to use force. No doubt their position also could, and did, give rise to national resentment, clannishness, arrogance; and this is the basis for the other trend with Jewish history.

"What from a mundane standpoint was the tragedy of the Jews--the loss of their country and their state--from the humanist standpoint was their greatest blessing: being among the suffering and despised, they were able to develop and uphold a tradition of humanism."

"Words and concepts referring to phenomena related to psychic or mental experience develop and grow--or deteriorate--with the person to whose experience they refer. They change as the person changes; they have a life as he or she has a life.

"There is simultaneously permanence and change in any living being; hence, there is permanence and change in any concept reflecting the experience of a living person. However, that concepts have their own lives, and that they grow, can be understood only if the concepts are not separated from the experience to which they give expression. If the concept becomes alienated--that is, separated from the experience to which it refers--it loses its reality and is transformed into an artifact of a person's mind.

"The fiction is thereby created that anyone who uses the concept is referring to the substratum of experience underlying it. Once this happens--and this process of the alienation of concepts is the rule rather than the exception--the idea expressing an experience has been transformed into an ideology that usurps the place of the underlying reality within the living human being."

"History then becomes a history of ideologies rather than the history of concrete, real people who are the producers of their ideas.

"The foregoing considerations are important if one wants to understand the concept of God. They are also important in order to understand the position of this book. I believe that the concept of God was a historically conditioned expression of an inner experience.

"I believe that the concept of "God" was conditioned by the presence of a socio-political structure in which tribal chiefs or kings have supreme power. The supreme value is conceptualized as analogous to the supreme power in society. "God" is one of many different poetic expressions of the highest value in humanism, not a reality in itself.

"To which reality of human experience does the concept of God refer? Is there some experiential substratum common to the concept as used by various people, or might it be that while such a common ground exists in the case of some, it does not exist with regard to others?"

"That an idea, the conceptual expression of a human experience, is so prone to be transformed into an ideology has its reasons not only in a person's fear of committing oneself fully to the experience, but also in the very nature of the relationship between experience and idea (conceptualization).

"A concept can never adequately express the experience it refers to. It points to it, but it is not it. (A concept is likened to the finger which points to the moon--it is not the moon.) A concept and a symbol have the great advantage that they permit people to communicate their experiences; they have the tremendous disadvantage that they lend themselves easily to an alienated use."

ABOUT THE HUMAN QUEST FOR CERTAINTY, HE SAID: Previous Topic Return to top Next Topic
"Another factor that contributes to the development of alienation and 'ideologization' seems to be an inherent tendency in human thought to strive for systematization and completeness. (One root for this tendency probably lies in our quest for certainty--a quest that is understandable enough in view of the precarious nature of human existence.)

"When we know some fragments of reality we want to complete them in such a way that they "make sense" in a systematic way. Yet by the very nature of the limitations of people we always have only "fragmentary" knowledge, and never complete knowledge.

"What we tend to do then is to manufacture some additional pieces which we add to the fragments to make of them all whole, a system. Frequently the awareness of the qualitative difference between the "fragments" and "the additions" is missing because of the intensity of the wish for certainty.

"In many scientific systems we find a mixture of true insights into reality, with fictitious pieces added that are intended to produce a systematic whole. Only at a later point of development is it clearly recognized which were the true but fragmentary pieces of knowledge and which the "padding" that was added to give the system greater plausibility. The same process occurs in political ideology."

"In the history of religious concepts we find the same process occurring. At the time when humans had a fragmentary knowledge of the possibility of solving the problems of human existence by the full development of human powers; when people sensed that they could find harmony progressing to the full development of love and reason, rather than by the tragic attempt to regress to nature and eliminate reason, they gave this new vision, this unknown quantity "x", many names: Brahman, Tao, Nirvana, God.

"This development took place all over the world in the millennium between 1500 B.C. and 500 B.C. in Egypt, Palestine, India, China and Greece (Karl Jasper's concept of the Axial Age). The nature of these different concepts depended on the economic, social, and political bases of the respective cultures and social classes, and on the patterns of thought arising from them.

"But the "x", the goal, was soon converted into an absolute; a system was built around it; the blank spaces were filled with many fictitious assumptions, until what is common in the vision almost disappeared under the weight of the fictitious "additions" produced by each system."

"Any progress in science, in political ideas, in religion and in philosophy tends to create ideologies which compete and fight with each other. Furthermore, this process is aided by the fact that as soon as the thought system becomes the nucleus of an organization, the bureaucrats arise who, in order to keep power and control, wish to emphasize the differences rather than that which is shared, and who are therefore interested in making the fictitious additions as important, or more so, than the original fragments.

"Thus philosophy, religion, political ideas, and sometimes even science are transformed into ideologies, controlled by the respective bureaucrats.

"The concept of God in the Old Testament has its own life and evolution correspomding to the evolution of a people within a span of twelve hundred years. There is a common element of experience referred to by the concept of God, but there is also a constant change occurring in this experience and hence in the meaning of the word and the concept.

"What is common is the idea that neither nature nor artifacts constitute the ultimate reality or the highest value, but that there is only the ONE who represents the supreme value and the supreme goal for humans: the goal of finding union with the world through full development of specifically human capacities of love and reason. "The God of Abraham and the God of Isaiah share the essential qualities of the One, yet they are as different from each other as are an uneducated, primitive, nomadic tribal chief and a universalistic thinker living in one of the centers of world culture a millennium later."

Naomi Sherer

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You Shall Be As Gods
Eric Fromm

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