We live in a world strangely bereft of love. The characteristic mood is one of loneliness, anxiety, and estrangement. This is powerfully portrayed in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three souls drag out their existence in hell, physically together, but hostile, antagonistic, and embittered. The first, a man, had been a Fascist collaborator; the second had been a prostitute; the third, a lesbian. Condemned to the torture of enduring eternally a fellowship that they all hate, these three inmates of hell have no love, no pity, no hope. They long for escape, but hell has no exit. The man finally cries out, “There’s no need for hot pokers in this place. Hell is—other people.” So here on earth we experience hell—the presence of other people with whom one must exist but with whom there is no community, no joyous feeling of relatedness, no loving mutuality. And this by and large is the human lot today.

Psychotherapy is a discipline concerned with understanding and treating personality disorders. In the years since Freud started to explore the subconscious reaches of the mind, psychotherapy has been accumulating a wealth of data, much of it bearing upon the matter of love. In fact, psychotherapists stress the necessity of viewing life as a ceaseless quest for love.

Any discipline that can help to release human beings from a self-centered love, that inverted love which prevents a true self-acceptance and a true self-understanding, ought to be Christianity’s welcomed ally. Can psychotherapy, then, illuminate and perhaps correct the Christian conception of love? Or does the Christian view prove far more adequate than this secular wisdom about man?

Since the vast field before us includes an overwhelming amount of literature, let us arbitrarily select for examination a psychotherapist who is fairly typical. Erich Fromm is an outstanding theorist and well-known popularizer with a rich background of clinical experience. Against this, he projects ideas that unite depth-analysis, anthropology, philosophy, ethics, religion, and history in a remarkably productive alliance. Some of his books have become classics—Escape From Freedom, The Art of Loving, Man for Himself. Suppose we ask Fromm about love.

Man, he says, possesses innately the powers of love and reason, together with a capacity for productive work or creativity (though he also has a propensity for evil and destructiveness). His major task is to establish relationships with others marked by reason, productivity, and love.

Article continues below

But, tragically, man is reared in an irrational culture by parents who, as products of that culture, are themselves irrational. As a result, many human beings cannot live rationally and productively. They are unable to love and so become neurotic. Fromm emphatically states:

There is no more convincing proof that the injunction, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the most important norm of living and that its violation is the basic cause of unhappiness and mental illness than the evidence gathered by the psychoanalysts. Whatever complaints the neurotic patient may have, whatever symptoms he may present, are rooted in his inability to love, if by love we mean a capacity for the experience of concern, responsibility, respect and understanding of another person, and the intense desire for that other person’s growth [Psychoanalysis and Religion, 1950, p. 86].

It follows that “analytic therapy is essentially an attempt to help the patient gain or regain his capacity for love.” And what is love?

[It is an attitude] of responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge, and the wish for the other person to grow and develop. It is the expression of intimacy between two human beings under the condition of the preservation of each other’s integrity [Man for Himself, 1947, p. 110].

Thus from Fromm’s perspective,

To love a person productively implies to care and to feel responsible for his life, not only for his physical powers but for the growth and development of all his human powers. To love productively is incompatible with being an onlooker at the loved person’s life; it implies labor and care and responsibility for its growth [ibid, p. 98].

When through therapy this capacity has been gained or regained, a person is marked by not only a proper neighbor love but also a proper self-love.

The love of others and love of ourselves are not alternatives. On the contrary, an attitude of love toward ourselves will be found in all those who are capable of loving others. Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as the connection of “objects” and one’s own self is concerned [ibid., p. 129].

In bare outline, then, this is Fromm’s conception of love, and very impressive it is. Yet we must not forget that Fromm, like the great majority of psychotherapists, is a reductive naturalist, an antisupernaturalist who reduces everything ultimately to chemistry and physics. So, he asserts,

[Man must learn] to face the truth, to acknowledge his fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate, to recognize that there is no power transcending him that can solve his problems for him … that there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively [ibid., p. 44].
Article continues below

Within man himself, Fromm believes, there lies the potential to become loving; he can do this without any assistance except that which other human beings—a therapist, for instance—may give him. Fromm is unequivocal on this crucial point:

To love one’s neighbor is not a phenomenon transcending man; it is something inherent in and radiating from him. Love is not a higher power which descends upon man nor a duty which is imposed upon him; it is his own power by which he relates himself to the world and makes it truly his [ibid., p. 14].

In short, man is the sole ground and single source of love.

Listening to Fromm’s view of love, a theologian nods appreciatively again and again. He agrees that if man is to experience fulfillment, he must live rationally, productively, and above all lovingly. He also agrees that human beings are frustrated precisely at this point: they are unable to live in free, outgoing, creative love, joyfully and responsibly caring for their neighbors as themselves. And he agrees that something must be done to help frustrated people gain or regain the capacity to love.

But having agreed on these points, the theologian begins to disagree vigorously. Psychotherapy, he says, while it may indeed be healing and liberating, cannot penetrate to the bottom of the frustration and failure people experience in their relations with others if it ignores the one all-determinative interpersonal relationship—that between God and man. This concept of the human predicament differs radically from the psychotherapist’s. Assume that in self-love (a self-love for which he is responsible) man chooses to make himself the center of things, shouldering God aside, perhaps even doing this under the guise of religion). Assume, consequently, a malignant relationship between the creature and his Creator. Assume that, though he acknowledges the law of love, man cannot by his own efforts fulfill this law. Then what? In this predicament, a therapy far more radical than psychotherapy is required. What man needs is something that only God’s forgiving grace can provide: the therapy of divine love.

The major components of this therapy are the atonement made by Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the miracle of the incarnation, to quote Emil Brunner, “God has gone down into the midst of man’s plight and shared it with him.” But the Gospel affirms something even more mind-staggering. It announces that in the miracle of the atonement, God has died for man and with man in order that he and man, dying “jointly to an old life,” might “jointly rise to a new one.” In the Cross man beholds the consummate evidence of love. This revelation of sin-bearing love breaks the bondage of self-love and sets man free to live according to the law of love.

Article continues below

Yet in all this process of redemption, this metamorphosis of self-love, the ministry of the Holy Spirit must not be overlooked. Here is another mind-staggering aspect of the Gospel. The indwelling Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, comes to fill the love-conquered heart with the love of God, changing the personality more and more into the likeness of incarnate Love. This divine therapy corresponds strikingly to the prescription that philosopher William Ernest Hocking gave for the salvation of the soul mired in self-love:

The question, How is love to God or to man possible if as a fact I do not have it? would be answered if there were, as the moving Spirit of the world, an aggressive lover able and disposed to break in upon my temper of critical egoism and win my response [Human Nature and Its Remaking, 1918, p. 398].

This is John 3:16 rephrased in philosophical language. God, the moving Spirit of the universe, is an aggressive lover who by the miracles of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, together with the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit, cracks through the sinner’s imprisoning egocentricity and elicits love. What the philosopher sees as indispensable is precisely what the Gospel announces and what Christian experience verifies. The vision of Calvary, where Love died, is brought home to the conscience with ego-penetrating power by the Holy Spirit, winning the response that produces love for God and man.

The theologian has no quarrel with the depth-psychologist concerning therapy. He merely points out that there is a vertical interpersonal relationship just as there are horizontal ones, and that, when the vertical dimension is ignored, even the most effective therapy cannot bring a man to wholeness.

Fromm, as we have observed, is a reductive naturalist who views the cosmos as an energy system devoid of meaning, apparently destined to disintegrate sooner or later. Nevertheless, he holds that on this ocean of meaninglessness man can somehow construct a little raft of meaning. But the theologian has grave doubts about this possibility. It seems to him that enervating pessimism must be a person’s mood if he believes that existence is purposeless and that the entire history of Homo sapiens is only a fleeting episode in an eternal space-time flux. Can man have significance in a cosmos that he believes is both mindless and heartless? Obviously not!

Article continues below

Fromm agrees that man must have “a frame of orientation and devotion” to vanquish his feeling of isolation and nothingness. Listen to this:

Unless he belongs somewhere, unless his life has some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overcome by his individual insignificance. He would not be able to relate himself to any system which would give meaning and direction to his life; he would be filled with doubt, and this doubt would eventually paralyze his ability to act—that is, to live [Escape From Freedom, 1941, p. 21].

If Fromm is correct, then in order to live, not just drag out his days in paralyzing doubt, man must know that his experience has meaning and direction. But what “frame of orientation and devotion” can satisfy his craving for significance except the Gospel of redemptive agape, the self-disclosure of an eternal, self-giving love? Brunner asks us to ponder a basic fact

Apart from this foundation in eternity, and this goal in eternity, the whole history of humanity is a mere nothing, which is swallowed up in the whirlpool of the temporal.… Either life has eternal underlying meaning or it has no underlying meaning at all. For what is meaning, if it is finally swallowed up in meaninglessness and annihilation?… In the Christian revelation of eternity, however, my eyes are open to perceive the truth that God, my Lord, regards me from all eternity with the gaze of everlasting love, and therefore my individual personal experience and life now receive an eternal meaning.… I, myself, acquire an eternal dignity [The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 1952, I, 304].

To be sure, this may be dismissed as speculation or myth. But the fact remains that it satisfies man’s longing for significance, for meaning and direction.

The theologian has another question for the therapist. What if the reality of divine love is denied? Think through the consequences of that denial; they are by no means trifling. Man may stoically pursue self-knowledge and self-understanding, but in the end his pursuit brings him to Nietzsche’s vision of an abyss in which the self disintegrates. Years ago the renowned English physicist George Romanes temporarily abandoned his faith in Christianity. During that time he wrote A Candid Examination of Theism in which he frankly admitted that the pursuit of self-knowledge had become intolerable:

Article continues below
There is a dreadful truth in those words of Hamilton—philosophy having become a meditation, not merely of death but of annihilation, the precept know thyself has become translated into the terrible oracle to Oedipus, “Mayest thou never know the truth of what thou art” [p. 114].

Although the theologian is deeply appreciative of psychotherapy, he argues that, when based on reductive naturalism, it holds a defective and ultimately frustrating wisdom about man. It fails to realize that to experience the highest form of health, healing, and happiness, human beings need a cosmic environment of love—divine love. This love supplies redemptive meaning and hope, and through the Church even the hope of community in a splintered world.

In short, the theologian is persuaded that man needs God, the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. As Leslie Paul perceptively said, “Yes, God is the meaning of existence, but love is the meaning of God.”

Vernon C. Grounds is president and professor of pastoral care and Christian ethics at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver. He has the A.B. from Rutgers, the B.D. from Faith Seminary, and the Ph.D. from Drew.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.