To Have or To Be?


One of my favorite books from the 1970’s is To Have or To Be, by Eric Fromm in which he describes a significant change in how we use language. He explains, for example that people once would have said “I cannot sleep”, but now claim, “I have insomnia”. A more recent trend is the switch from “Let’s talk” to “Let’s have a conversation”. Over time, concepts of active participation have become transformed into terms that denote personal possession. We no longer relate experiences to our being, but to our having.By saying “I have a problem,” for example instead of “I am troubled” we claim the problem as a thing that we possess. The concept of treating an abstraction as if it is an object is called reification; from Latinres thing + facere to make; loosely translated as thing-making. Reified abstractions are treated as though they enjoy their own living existences with tangible capacities and concrete attributes.

I recently listened to an online lecture from In it Richard Baer, expounds upon issues related to The Meaning and End of Religion, by William Cantwell Smith. He demonstrates how our faiths have gone from “I am my religion” to “I have a religion”. Until relatively recent times, the Latin word religio meant piety not religion. Historically religio referred to a relationship with God: an adaptive relationship that extended and developed personal experience. Since the 17thcentury, however religio has become increasingly interpreted as a formal relationship with an institution. The archaic meaning projected a level of trust in a living God, but it has become altered to mean faith in an organized religion. Instead of experiencing dynamic responses to God, religious people increasingly identify with organizational traditions, liturgies and behavior patterns. (As the Rev. Mary Duvall laments…going to church, rather than being the church). Faith has tended to shift emphasis from functioning in a personal connection with a deity to supporting a system of practices, creeds and doctrines. When religious traditions are thus rationalized, the basis of faith becomes intellectual rather than spiritual.

By intellectualizing our perceptions we set them in “hard knowledge” that can be articulated, captured, stored and are slow to change. At the other end of the spectrum “soft knowledge” is changeable and refers to qualities that cannot be fully articulated or described, such as “Lost in wonder, love and praise”, as Charles Wesley’s glorious hymn proclaims. Present-day religions tend to stress the “hard knowledge” of dogma over more malleable “soft knowledge” of old fashioned piety (From pius;“devout” or “good”).

Religion is a prime example of how inspiring principles turn into insistent administrations, but it is also a common trend in secular life. The American assertion “All [men] are created equal”, for example seldom inspires an individual to stand alone for greater equality, say in the workplace (the notion is almost absurd). We hand that job over to the vagaries of policy makers. Similarly “liberty and justice for all” gets lived out through contributions to non-profit organizations, such as Amnesty International rather than in steadfast, daily, public and personal practice.

Overall, the trend is toward having values in immovable traditions, rather than being our own emergent, moral selves, with personal ethics that adjust to new information and contemporary situations.

Review & Commentary