Monday, January 28, 2013

Growth or decay?

Erich Fromm in The Heart of Man characterizes human nature not as substance but as a contradiction, a battle between forces that push toward decay/regression and forces that push toward growth/progress. He identifies three sets of forces:

1.      Necrophilia vs. biophilia (Necrophilia entails loving love of death and destruction whereas biophilia connotes loving life. The terms, as is the case with all three pairs of forces, encompass far more than the sexual. For example, Fromm points to Hitler's anti-Semitism as evidence of Hitler's necrophilia.)

2.      Narcissism vs. love for neighbor

3.      Incestuous symbiosis vs. freedom (Incestuous symbiosis connotes a human who has not differentiated him/herself from mother/father. Fromm broadens and extends Freud's discussion of the Oedipal complex to include both genders and the need to differentiate self from parent. Freud's focus on the sexual relationship in his treatment of the Oedipal complex represented only one exaggerated way in which differentiation may fail to occur.)

In the syndrome of decay a person moves toward increased necrophilia, narcissism, and incestuous symbiosis; the syndrome of growth describes a person progressing toward biophilia, love for neighbor, and freedom.

Fromm's analysis appeals for several reasons. First, he recognizes the central importance of a healthy love for self that complements love for one's neighbor. Trying to balance these two motives pushes a person toward greater autonomy. Second, Fromm recognizes that life is dynamic, not static. Change may feel uncomfortable or disorienting, but life is inherently dynamic. Death is static. Third, Fromm's paradigm acknowledges that change is often for the good or the bad, i.e., change is infrequently neutral or indifferent. Fourth, although Fromm applies his framework only to individuals, the framework, to a lesser degree, can offer a helpful perspective for viewing change in organizations. The challenges I have described in The Episcopal Church (cf. Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff) represent the dynamic tensions between the forces of decay and growth.

Individual spirituality and organized religion at their best promote growth; at their worst, individual spirituality and organized religion embody decay and death. Humans celebrate Jesus, Gautama, and other major religious leaders precisely because these figures embody and teach the way of growth rather than of decay.

In my recently published book, Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations – available from Amazon and elsewhere), I identify four models Christianity has used to view other religions. Three models (the Christ Alone, Christ Essential, and Christ Universal) argue for Christian exclusivity and superiority. The fourth model, the Theocentric Model, contends that in this era in which people are increasingly aware of other religions and of members of those religions who have experienced liberating and enriching transformation, Christians need to regard their religion as one path among many, reinterpreting scriptural claims of exclusivity as expressions of love.

Attempts to hold on to narrow claims of exclusivity and superiority reflect the forces of decay at work and will necessarily fail. Engaging other religions in genuine dialogue offers opportunities to learn and therefore to grow; this is the path of progress, setting aside necrophilia (love of dead forms) and incestuous symbiosis (union with yesteryear's theology that birthed us but from which we must differentiate ourselves).

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