The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review


Escape From Freedom
By Erich Fromm (Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1941, Owl Books Edition 1994)

Escape from Freedom is about the need of humans to have structure and order in their lives. Fromm shows how those structures get their power from a surprising and deep sense of anxiety that coincides with individual freedom and not just from the external control of others.

Fromm engages in a historical review on the origins of freedom, going back to Europe of the middle ages and touching on economic, political and religious struggles between control and freedom. Being a German who left that country during the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, has he a special concern for how Nazism arose from a society where freedom had been realized. Yet, in the time of his writing German Nazism is in the past; he also has concern about how freedom and escapes from freedom take place in the context of a democracy like the United States.

Fromm uses a psychoanalytic approach in discussing these mechanisms of freedom and control, since that is his particular area of expertise. Readers might find this aspect of the book "deep soup," and I myself could wish that this book was written without some of this detail simply to make the main points stand out more. But in Fromm's defense-- the need to "escape from freedom" has profound psychological roots, and his approach is needed to demonstrate this.

The real value of this book is in its discussion of the paradoxical idea that people struggle for freedom, then they struggle with freedom. They don't really know what to do with freedom once they get it, and they find new controls and structures to control them.
At a psychological level, Fromm finds that freedom brings uncertainty and anxiety, whereas a lack of freedom brings certainty and comfort. While freedom seems appealing when people are not free, it brings a sudden and unexpected responsibility. This leads to an anxiety that can simply be overwhelming from a psychological point of view. As a result, people make choices to relieve themselves of this anxiety.

We can see this phenomenon played-out today in numerous areas of life. Those of us with concern about unhealthy, control-based churches and the desire for true spiritual freedom will find true value to this discussion and his insights about the choices to "escape from freedom."

Fromm cites three primary choices that people usually make in their "escape from freedom:"
  • Authoritarianism: Whether in control or in submission, an authoritarian structure removes choices and freedom from the individual, and it relieves the anxiety.
  • Automaton Imitation: In the absence of an authoritarian system, individuals conform to a group norm. This becomes the new authority for an individual, and it relieves the individual of the anxiety associated with freedom.
  • Destruction: People without an authoritarian system or a group norm to conform to often self-destruct. This can be manifested in low self-esteem, self-destructive behavior like crime or addictions or even the extreme of suicide.

A common thread in all of these options is that one initial choice eliminates the need to make future choices. Whatever negatives result from these choices, they are considered preferable to the anxiety and uncertainty that freedom brings.

Fromm's work applies in church settings in several ways. It explains the attraction of authoritarian church systems to people confronted with freedom (and thus experiencing anxiety) in some peculiar way-- perhaps due to emerging into adulthood, experiencing a life transition, moving to a new location, etc. It also explains why these systems often seek people in those sort of circumstances.

However, Fromm's work also sheds light on the dilemma of people leaving an unhealthy church. They are "free" but with that freedom comes a great anxiety. This is in addition to other difficult aspects of leaving an unhealthy church-- the taunts, accusations and threats from the group itself, as well as the phenomenon of experiencing a loss due to leaving the group.

That anxiety can be relieved by quickly getting into another authoritarian structure, finding a group of like-minded "free" people to conform to, or committing some act of self-destruction-- apostasy, severe sin, devaluing God or one's faith, or the like.

I've experienced each of these responses to freedom from an unhealthy church situation-- looking to get into another church group, associating with others where the main unifying factor is disdain for the old oppressive group, and in some ways looking to diminish my own faith because the pain of these conflicts and choices is so great. Each of these avoids freedom to relieve the anxiety.

Christians leaving an unhealthy church will face these temptations to give up their freedom, but they are well advised to discern the difference between God and what control-oriented churches tell them about God. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1), and it is this freedom to serve God that we ought to pursue. Being free is hard; giving up your freedom is easy.

Thankfully, Fromm explores healthier approaches to freedom. In his view, the appropriate and best use of freedom is self-realization-- knowing and being who you are.
Fromm sees self-realization especially manifested in creative, spontaneous activity aligned with one's talents, interests and circumstances. While some might turn this into a humanistic enterprise, I would align this with the scriptural idea of being what God made you to be, determining your gifts and using them in a way that benefits both the individual and those around you. As man is made in God's image and one of God's main traits is that he is a creator, this makes quite a bit of sense from a scriptural point of view. Personally, I'm inclined to be a creative person, and I find a special satisfaction in using my gifts, talents, opportunities and circumstances to create things. It is evident that when we create things for the good of others, we are quite free and the activity benefits all involved. By contrast, when our efforts are harnessed by other authorities, we are slaves to them and their agendas.

How this sort of freedom might be manifested in a truly free church is interesting to ponder. Considering that most of us have been constrained by various authoritarian, automaton and destructive things (all responses to the anxiety of freedom), conceiving of a free church is certainly thinking "out of the box" for us. But when I view the pages of the New Testament, I see free Christians submitting to God, using their gifts from him spontaneously and freely. T
hey lived quite free of the human church structures to which most of us are accustomed. Modernism is most comfortable with structures, but are these really a Scriptural mandate? This is something worth considering, if for no other reason than as long as Christians are constrained by structures they will always long to be free and be what God made them to be.

Escape from Freedom is a thought-provoking, penetrating discussion of the quest for freedom both in society and in the church.



Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

Send a letter to the editor concerning this article