Jonathan L. Friedmann. Ph.D.
In the non-theistic mysticism of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), God is not a power hovering over us, instructing us or judging our behavior. God is a concept: a symbol of our higher self and a metaphor for what we can become. Fromm articulated this view, among other places, in The Art of Loving: “[God] stands for the highest value, the most desirable good.” He considered this conception of the deity harmonious with the Jewish faith of his birth, since the essence of Jewish monotheism is “imitation of God,” not some rarified theological formulation. This is a principle affirmed in the Torah—“To walk in all His ways” (Deut. 11:22)—and reiterated in rabbinic literature: “Just as God is merciful, you too must be merciful . . . just as God is compassionate, you too must be compassionate” (Sifre, Ekev 49).
Fromm agreed with the believer that the divine (or at least the divine concept) can and should be experienced. He regarded himself a mystic—not in the sense of striving for an external entity, but in the sense of seeking one’s highest potential, symbolically represented as God. In this framework, which he called humanistic religion, “transcendence within” can be achieved in three ways: cultivation of knowledge, ethical development and rising above the “prison” of daily routine. The first two uphold critical thinking and healthy relationships as aspirational ideals. The third endorses the value of transcendence.
Although Fromm did not state so explicitly, the third path is ably facilitated by music. Music is almost universally acknowledged as a language of transcendence. It pierces through the ordinary noises of sound and speech, and has an expressive capacity surpassing other forms of communication. This is the underlying reason why prayers are regularly sung in houses of worship: the “beyondness” implicit in musical tones is felt as contact with the deity. For Fromm, however, communion is not between humanity and a higher being, but between humanity and higher human essence.
When we hear or sing or play music, we are activating areas of our consciousness that are dormant under regular conditions. Absorption in the musical activity can deliver us into a world of emotions, memories, sensations, images and epiphanies rarely approachable in other pursuits. The experience is so distinct from the norm that the theistically minded rush to label it sacred or holy. But Fromm saw it otherwise. Stimulants like music unlock a deeper layer within us all. They do not tap into some cosmic energy; they lead us further within ourselves.
Fromm would recognize music as a spiritual encounter in that it is immaterial and essentially ineffable. Yet he would identify the object of the encounter as our interior potential. On an experiential level, this perspective does not automatically conflict with conventional theism, since both promote peak experiences as life-enhancing moments. And whether one’s religion is theistic, humanistic or none at all, it is hard to argue against Fromm’s assertion that knowledge, relationships and transcendence are key avenues toward self-realization.
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