This is my personal blog concerning my philosophy of life as a Christian following the Romantic world view. I am a priest in the Anglican Catholic Church – Original Province and live in France.
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This is a theme that confronts us each year during Passiontide as the Church brings us to meditate on the rising wickedness of Scribes, Pharisees, Temple clergy and others against Christ, culminating in his death by crucifixion inflicted by the Roman occupying forces.
Some time ago I read Frederick Forsyth’s Odessa File, in which the diary of a former Auschwitz prisoner who had committed suicide is unfolded. It lays the entire foundation of the quest of a German journalist in the 1960’s to find the evil SS officer who was responsible for millions of deaths at the concentration camp and of his own father. The old Jew had written in his diary about when the Nazis killed his wife:
After her death, my soul died inside me. But my body and mind remained alive. I was determined to survive…
This is certainly the most poignant quote in the whole novel. It is the testimony of absolute destructiveness of evil. There is nothing positive in it. It does not build the personality, but destroys it. We will only find redemption by seeking a higher power, the good and true – which we call God.
Where did evil come from? There are any number of myths (not something that isn’t true but expressed via a narrative not intended to be literally understood) that try to answer this question from the Book of Genesis to the Gnostic scriptures and others in other world spiritual traditions and religions. Whichever narrative most describes the origin of mankind and evil, whatever happened in that parallel universe we will never understand fully in this life, man was driven from paradise into a world of evil. Thus we would encounter people who care about nothing, who lie, kill, swindle, are cruel bullies and everything we read about in the news. There are also the catastrophes that happen independently from human causality. It is a mystery that goes all the way back to origins.
In each of us remains the imago Dei, the spark of divinity that no amount of evil can extinguish. This enables us to choose to seek the truth, beauty and goodness. We can find our place among many philosophers and prophets, lessons of wisdom and the highest aspirations. This has to be our cause for optimism however dark the world becomes. Notwithstanding, as it comes and goes in waves, evil seems to win out until some miracle comes from where it is least expected. As a theological student, I often asked myself what was the point of the Redemption, since it seemed to have failed to change the evil in the world, or that its effect was limited in time. What I failed to understand – as we all fail to understand – was that we expected something that was never to be. The Redemption is situated at another level that abolishing evil in this world.
The power of the Archons continues in its full force. Everything is in our understanding of goodness and truth. Wars and persecutions continue in their fury against us, but we have not to fear those who kill the body, but who can annihilate the soul before sending both body and soul to hell.
It is a spiritual battle, but not only. We are endowed not only with the eternal and transcendent spirit of God, but also with reason and optimism about our lot in life. In the Renaissance, something new emerged, optimistic and filled with light. Human reason can choose to seek truth and goodness. It brought us to another understanding of sin and our dependence on God’s grace. The Enlightenment brought us awareness of our capacity to make ethical judgements, that our humanity may shine forth. Thus we reacted against the notion of the Church being the only ark of salvation, something which was necessary to cast off the evil that had entered its institutions. However, the Enlightenment also had its dark side in pride and arrogance. The foundation of the United States of America was a wonderful opportunity for a New World, but slavery and racism were accepted. When God, spirit and humanity are rejected, there are no moral constraints and only the motivation of pleasure and bestiality remains.
Nietzsche, is his own tormented way, showed us the consequences of nihilism and the loss of any meaning to life. Power and money have no knowledge of good and evil. We live in that nihilism from when our world died in the trenches of World War I, the gas chambers and battlefields of the second, and in the mounting evil of politicians and businessmen. We become no more than brute animals, like in the depiction of an English public school in the 1830’s. Nietzsche was right in that as religion and faith died, they would be replaced by the political ideologies of Soviet communism, Nazism and fascism. What is being concocted in the present British chaos can only lead the same way. When evil grows, it stifles everything, enters our homes and makes our clothes smell like old cigarette smoke. Humanity ceases to have the strength to resist the disease, and life ceases to have any value. It becomes normal for the weak to be killed without compunction by the strong, wealthy and powerful. At the end of World War II, Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was shot and hung upside down by his feet in Milan, Franco died of old age – but the disease remained like bubonic plague in hibernation.
Is there any hope now? It is for us to find it, to be philosophers and prophets and create new values of truth and goodness, to shine like lights in the darkness. We can do something. I am trying to do so by studying and writing, since the pen (or computer keyboard) is mightier than the sword. My vocation is one of education, of taking my humble part in this great movement of spiritual renaissance and humanism.
Whilst we can say that humanity died in the twentieth century, not everything was annihilated. As our world is increasingly absurd, something remains of the old humanity. If I am thinking and writing like this, there is me – and others must be thinking and writing along similar lines. Indeed I know they are, because I read them. What constitutes the difference?
W.H. Auden asked himself in 1947:
If, as I’m convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?
It is a good question, when I read Theresa May’s record on human rights when she worked for the Home Office. There are many threats, and the anxiety is mounting as I write. If the end justifies the means, then anything is allowed like the killing of “undesirables”, the banishment and exploitation of the poor, racism, slavery and everything we keep reading about. What is the source of morality? What happens when self-interest is the only “good”, at the cost of freedom and justice? We don’t seem to want to know. As Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor levels at Christ:
People do not want freedom, they want to be happy; the burden of the choice between good and evil is too heavy. People want to relieve their conscience by submitting to the miraculous, the mysterious, to authority! That is what we, the Church, offer them.
In other words, Huxley’s Brave New World. We go beyond good and evil to modern corporate values: money, efficiency, market, being competitive, etc. This has become the modern “paradise”. Not only is there no morality. There is no truth. We live in a “post-truth” era and language has no value. The next stage is the amalgam of man and machine, the final death of the soul. Reason, technology and science have brought many benefits, but evil is still lurking, and always hidden or disguised. It is easy to understand the populist reaction as nationalism and xenophobia are resurrected. This revolt is utterly unpredictable, until the demagogue goose-steps onto the stage and has them all mesmerised like the guru of a sect. Like in the 1930’s mainstream political parties are discredited and they no longer have any usefulness. They are dinosaurs. Liberalism and social democracy seem to have outlived the usefulness and have to be replaced. By what? This is my concern when people tell me that Macron must go! Mme Le Pen doesn’t convince me! She too is in it for the money.
We live in anxiety and fear. Fr Jonathan Munn has just written Custard Pies, Spacetime, Joy and Brexit in which he expresses the same concerns as most of us at this time. Like Germans in the 1930’s, we are paralysed by fear and helplessness, and we are faced with the temptation to give in, to accept evil becoming banal. Even the “Remainer” Facebook groups contain many comments advocating the execution by guillotine or hanging or whatever of the chief powers behind Brexit: Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg, etc. A women who watched an execution in France in the early twentieth century expressed her disappointment: “It’s already over?” I find myself having to look away from these groups, because they saturate me with anxiety.
Our historical period seems to be one of the Night, a new middle age of purgation and conversion, a long and hard Lent. I have resolved to read more, good philosophy from past eras and our own times. I get piles of grouped e-mails about the problems in the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope – and see parallels with the government of my country. That said, Pope Francis seems to have a higher moral calibre even though he is not a conservative or a traditionalist. I have to filter the saturation of information and concentrate on what is essential and fundamental to truth, beauty and goodness. Bad news, whether true or false, builds anxiety and bad judgement. Things are not easy to understand, and that is why there are conspiracy theories – some of them as ridiculous as they are absurd. We have to filter and be aware of our own limits. Otherwise we burn out!
Both reactionary politics and technocracy will promise us paradise and a solution against evil. Paradise is not attainable in this world. The battle between good and evil is eternal and never ending. However, we can look within ourselves and make a difference there… It may seem to us that Christianity has been mortally wounded, something I often think about. There may be any amount of evil in churches as in secular politics, but Christ remains as does his message to us all.
Every time my faith seems to be flickering away and dimming, it always bounces back with every spark of goodness and light. The sunny weather of our mid-February is already a sign and an encouragement. A full order book assures me of being able to earn a living. Blessings abound where we look for them and have the gratitude to receive them from the God who is pure love.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Romans xiii, 12.
Last night, I watched the 2005 film of Tom Brown’s Schooldays with Stephen Fry as Dr Arnold. We are very lucky to have the full film available on YouTube. It is worth getting one of those special software packages to download the mp4 file onto your hard disk – either that or buy the DVD.
It is a film with which I can relate, quite different in nature from Lindsay Anderson’s If… The latter is a parody of the English public school intended to convey a different message, one very much in vogue in the late 1960’s.
I was myself formed in the English public school system (St Peter’s York), but I was thankful that I had an enlightened and progressive headmaster by the name of Peter Gardiner (he has just died in his 90’s) who was replacing the old spirit of competition and rule of strength by humanist principles. I went there in 1972 at the age of 13 years after a troubled time and several attempts by my parents to find the right thing for me. Already, the year before, I had experienced the progressive vision of Kenneth Barnes and Brian Hill at Wennington School. In September 1972, off I went with my trunk and tuck box to my place at The Rise, where I had my bed in the dormitory and a desk in the Junior Common Room. I still have the tuck box, which I use as a portable chapel. Peter Gardiner had been appointed headmaster in 1967, so he was still relatively new and youthful. His predecessor J. Dronfield had maintained the old tradition of fagging and flogging, success in competitive sports and masculinity. Gardiner dragged the school kicking and screaming into the 20th century by transforming fagging into a rota system of junior boys performing set tasks in the senior boys’ common rooms. They were simple and light chores like washing pots and cleaning shoes. It was a tremendous improvement on the old system. Fagging was really a relic of the old medieval knights and squires. As for flogging, I was never whacked at St Peter’s but received punishments consisting of copying pompous texts about “discipline” or various restrictions, for infringements of school or house rules. We still had rugby and cricket, but these team sports were only compulsory for my first two years, after which I was allowed more freedom to choose non-competitive outdoor activities. I was teased a little in House for joining the Chapel choir and having organ lessons. Boys were still quite brutal and cruel in the 1970’s but were a universe away from Rugby in the early nineteenth century. Gardiner encouraged the arts, music and drama. We had House singing competitions, musical productions, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and many more. A boy could be as “sissy” as he wanted, and the old brutality was definitely melting. My memories were a world away, but the experience prepared me for independent life away from home and seminary (which was quite “cushy” in the midst of gilded mirrors and silk drapes).
Rugby School in the 1830’s was another world. Dr Thomas Arnold was a visionary for his time. He set the standards from which my headmaster reacted in his modern and progressive way. Boys’ schools in those days were brutal and cruel as pupils were left to their own devices, and tyranny by bullies was the result. Dr Arnold introduced new subjects on the curriculum like history, mathematics and modern languages like French. He did not favour the natural sciences on account of their materialism and his Romantic idealism, but rather favoured philosophy. He introduced the prefect system which gave sixth-form pupils powers over the younger boys. In my school, they were called monitors and had the privilege of wearing blue college gowns. It can work as a system if it is carefully watched, lest bullying and cruelty enter the system. Our tradition of sports entered the picture through being an alternative to fighting and delinquency.
Arnold’s priorities were the cure of souls (he was a clergyman of the Church of England), moral education and only then intellectual development. It was a philosophy of education akin to German Bildung. In my time at St Peter’s, learning German was encouraged (I did very badly as I also did in French) and some pupils went on exchange programmes to a school in Münster. Already, there was a European dimension that sunk deeply into many of us. Anyway, back to Rugby and Dr Arnold.
In the film, I closely watched the depiction of Flashman the bully and the psychological study of the toxic pathocracy in a society dominated by force and cruelty. The film is a tear-jerker with the death of a young boy who had been tortured by Flashman by being lowered into a well. The extent of Flashman’s evil cruelty is astounding for us in our time. Flashman was a fictional character, but they exist in the real world – and in England’s political establishment. There is an element you might miss if I don’t mention it, that Arnold found Tom Brown being morally poisoned by a school he could not reform quickly enough, and sent him home. Tom Brown returns to school with a strengthened and more noble character, able to face Flashman’s tyranny as a man.
I’m sure most of you know the classic film by Charlie Chaplin made in 1940. It is a caricature of the Hitler regime and there is the mistaken identity between the World War I veteran and Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania. The Leader is arrested by mistake and put in a concentration camp and the Jewish barber is taken to speak to the people. Here is his plea for humanity and peace, which I find intensely moving.
The following is a short article by Rob Riemen. After having nearly finished his second book To Fight Against This Age, I looked him up using Google, found his e-mail address and wrote to him asking him if he would be interested in writing something for my blog. I doubted I would receive a reply or anything substantial. I was wrong. He has been following my blog for some time and sent me this piece as an attached document. I was very moved to have received his warm reply which I found in my e-mail just after I had finished reading the book I mentioned above.
He was also open to my suggestion of studying Aspergers / autism from a philosophical point of view, and this is certainly going to be a great challenge for me to be asked to participate in a symposium at the Nexus Institute in Amsterdam (I don’t speak any Dutch, but I have never met a Dutchman who didn’t speak fluent English). I find the prospect quite thrilling.
Anyway, here is his précis of the book I have just read. There is a way to fight, not with weapons of war or aggression, but bringing back Princess Europa is a matter of caring for our soul. This is the real meaning of Europe.
* * *
What if the world of tomorrow turns out to be the world of yesterday? No, not that world of yesterday of Stefan Zweig’s evocative memoir of the splendor of the world before the first world war, but the era that came after that war, the fascist era?
‘No, not possible’, is what an academic and political class wants us to believe. Populism, yes, but fascism – are you kidding? Yet this kind of denial, as the memoir of Zweig reminds us, is so not much different from the mindset in Europe in the first decade of the 20th century. A World War? Impossible!
And yet it happened.
That was the first chapter of the 20th century.
The second chapter was the rise of fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, the love of millions of a nationalistic, xenophobic, resentful mindset and their hatred against the values of a liberal democracy.
The third chapter was a second world war.
The fourth chapter was based on the premise: ‘Never again!’. And we build a new society, this time a commercial society with economic growth, science and technology as the guardian angels for an enduring peace, progress and prosperity. But with almost blind faith in this new Holy Trinity of Money, Science, Technology, we no longer even wanted to remember what caused a First and Second World War. A political amnesia could get hold of our society.
The fifth chapter of our more recent history, our time, presents already one obvious fact: just one look in the better newspapers will tell us that the idea, the wish of ‘never again’, is simply no longer true. Those who still believe this, are delusional – and ignorant.
Ignorant that with his novel La Peste Albert Camus already warned in 1947: fascism is a political phenomenon that will never disappear, as it is the dark side of every democracy! When democracy degenerates into mass-democracy whereby demagogues, stupidity, propaganda, claptrap, vulgarity, and the lowest of human instincts increase their dominance, that will inevitably give birth to that bastard child of democracy: fascism.
Ignorant about the fact that fascism will never return in black uniforms, and of course it will deny being fascist. But the characteristics of its mindset will be the same: the politics of resentment, the incitement of anger, fear and violence, the vulgar materialism and xenophobia and need of scapegoats, its hatred of the life of the mind; it’s hatred against the democratic spirit.
Ignorant about the fact that fascism is effective as a secular religion because it offers exactly what Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor knew that a people who live in fear of freedom and devote their life to the pursuit of happiness and likes really want: myths, wonders and authoritarianism.
Ignorant about the fact that a true democracy, a pluralistic society of free people where everybody can life in dignity, is an elitist idea! Elitist in its original meaning: an expression of the best; of what a good society is. But like every expression of “the best” it comes with conditions and demands.
A democratic society demands the cultivation of moral and spiritual values which will set us free and create a culture in which we can try to make life meaningful and find understanding of our world and ourselves.
A true democracy will cultivate the tradition of European humanism, which teaches us that the quest for freedom and a living together of all kinds of people, demands of everybody that they practice: to live in truth, to do justice, to create beauty, to have compassion.
It was Cicero who captures this humanism in just four words: cultura animi philosophia est – the cultivation of the human soul is the quest for wisdom.
This humanism defines European culture and it is the key to a true democratic society. However when this mindset of nobility of spirit is replaced by the kitsch of nowadays money-culture with its idolatry of quantity, and the blind faith in science and technology, just one economic crisis will trigger all those dark instincts with which fascism will return.
Can we stop it? Of course we can. But that demands a fight, a fight against this age – for a human world tomorrow.
Author of Nobility of Spirit. A Forgotten Ideal (Yale UP)
and To Fight Against This Age. On Fascism and Humanism (W.W.Norton, 2018 )
I have just received a new book I ordered, Rob Riemen, To Fight Against This Age, and began to read it in bed with the accompaniment of some music playing quietly on a little portable speaker under my pillow. The vision of this author is amazing, as he analyses an état d’esprit that predisposes some people to a violent and indifferent “don’t care” attitude towards their world. I have had the advantage of reading about this problem of humanity from a psychological point of view – the various personality disorders and psychopathy. Not only do such people have no empathy, they couldn’t care a (you name it) about anything.
In this book, we read about a doctor in Northern Africa during World War II who found a dead rat on his landing. He took no notice. The next day he found three of them, and the caretaker of his block of flats dismissed the problem as a prank. More rats were dying, and then an increasing number of patients came to see the doctor with nasty symptoms leading to death within two days. The epidemic turned out to be bubonic plague. Denial become a situation of absolute emergency. Human nature brushes many things under the carpet until it is too late. In 1947, the French existentialist Albert Camus wrote the novel La Peste (The Plague) as an allegory of Fascism. The Nazis had been ostensibly kicked out of France in 1944, but the germs remained. You can never get rid of plague bacteria. They will go dormant for years and decades, and then they find a new vector to wreak devastation and death.
Riemen dissects and analyses the disease, and there are so many times as I read his words that I exclaim – I knew it! The nefarious potential is within each one of us. Even in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the bacillus would remain virulent in humanity.
I won’t reproduce Riemen’s book here. He deserves his royalties and I advise my readers to buy this slender hard-bound volume that says everything in so few words. I give you above a scene of two rival gangs of Yellow Vests in Lyon this weekend. One side is nationalist and the other is left-wing. Both sides share the same bestiality and violence. As I continued to read, I discovered the notion of the mass-man, the man of the crowd, the rot already detected by Göthe in 1812 and Alexis de Tocqueville who had been to America in the 1830’s to research its attempts at constructing true democracy. Nietzsche was the prophet of the consequences of nihilism. The man who has nothing and who lives for nothing becomes aggressive and violent. The “mass-man”, the man of the masses, has no mind of his own, no critical sense. He follows fashion and refuses any challenge to his certitudes. Man’s social instinct brings him to the lowest common denominator.
I have commented considerably about the British situation and the looming threat of no-deal Brexit. I live in France, but sheltered from the troubles by living in the country. I sympathised with the early Gilet Jaune movement, because the elected authority of a country has a duty to listen to its citizens and institute reforms for the sake of social justice, welfare and humanity. Many of us find it hard to make ends meet and increasing financial pressure makes people very bitter. Even though President Macron showed good will and willingness to dialogue with those expressing these grievances, the breakers and fanatics continued to break, burn and terrorise. Now they are fighting each other. Here in France, the alternatives to Macron are the extreme right Marine Le Pen or the extreme left Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is a kind of “French Corbyn” and as anti-European as his English opposite number. The Plague is no solution to our woes!
Look at this video. Is this what we want in our world in the name of populism or opposition to oligarchy and extreme capitalism? A man using “Byzantine” as a part of his handle has sent toxic comments to this blog with personal insults. They were trashed and that e-mail address has never been admitted to freely commenting here. I suppose this man is one of those fanatics who converted to Orthodoxy and in no uncertain manner carries the bacillus of the dead rats. He can’t kill me from where he is (USA) nor can he haul me off to a concentration camp, but I feel pity for him in his blindness, bitterness and anger. Only prayer can do anything good there.
I have no pretensions about my own “holiness” or resistance to the disease, but there are certain things in my life that I consider essential. There are the Transcendentals of Truth, Beauty and Goodness – but also a willingness to be critical about my own certitudes, to be constantly thinking, feeling and caring about others. Another important thing is that I have empathy, even an excessive degree of it thanks to autism which in my case is not “self-diagnosed”. It isn’t a label to absolve me of any responsibility for moral failings, merely a “tool” that helped me come to terms with myself and begin to find knowledge and balance. Three things are especially vital: faith, reason and humanity. Over the past five hundred years, humanity in the Christian west has seen the sublimity of the medieval cathedral, the Renaissance and art, the Enlightenment and science, and then the re-humanisation of both faith and reason by the Romantic movement. Religion without humanity can be truly evil like the atheistic and nihilistic ideologies of Soviet Communism and Nazism. Only humanism will save faith and spiritual life.
Populism and voluntarily contracting the Plague is not the way. Those who catch the germs will die from them. Perhaps this warning comes too late. At Mass this morning, I read the Gospel of St Matthew about the the storm at sea and Jesus sleeping. Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? In one way or another, we will return to the night of the middle ages: darkness and bestiality or light and sublime beauty. The choice is ours.
Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!
In this posting, I will take apart the term I used in Humanist Europe, that term being humanism. Why does this notion interest me apart from the fact of being myself a human being? My overriding thought in the present maelstrom is seeking a positive philosophy of life – for myself and others – in the place of the current trends towards post-humanism, totalitarianism and a new and larger-scale form of feudalism. The very antithesis of humanism is human evil. This notion of evil is something I have often dwelt upon in some articles in this blog. It is one of the most perplexing mysteries of faith, philosophy and science.
I was searching for the word ponerology in Google and came across this article Ponerology, the Science of Evil by a person going by the name Howard. He draws many ideas from the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski, but expands them with research from others who have also studied borderline and narcissistic personality disorders and psychopathy. Howard’s judgement of religion, as with any political ideology, is severe. Is religion an intrinsic cause of evil, any more than atheism going by its own or a neighbouring ideology? Is the notion of humanism vain, passé, nothing more than a delusory dream? I wrote some days ago about Nikolai Berdyaev for whom humanism had come and gone, and that we had to return to the purgation of a new middle ages, only this time without faith or beauty, only the limitless void of the Ungrund. Is there no hope for humanism? Is it a part of an inevitable historical process of man returning to a default condition of evil?
I have just finished reading Graham Vanbergen’s Brexit: A Corporate Coup D’Etat. The present situation, which is nothing to do with any kind of populism, is all about having the UK gutted by big business without any regard to humanity, human rights, the population or any concern other than profit. Considerations of recovering sovereignty from foreign globalist agendas and improving the economic situation are only red herrings. There is plenty of fear-mongering in the media, largely fuelled by the line of the current Prime Minister: my deal or no-deal. The real problem is that the financial resources of the UK are not adequate to maintain a welfare state, and that the choice it faces is the same as that of Hitler in the 1930’s and 40’s. It is a problem of population and Lebensraum. Priority could be given to people and the environment, and solutions could be found to deal with the sick, disabled, unemployed and refugees fleeing war and persecution. But, that would mean something along Socialist lines or some system where people would be voluntarily open to the other. If we are not prepared to open our own homes to strangers and people who might have evil or deceitful intentions, only the solution of survival of the fittest and brutal competition remains. We find ourselves at the same watershed as in the 1930’s. Our consciences are torn apart until we close our eyes and sense of pity.
What do we do? At this stage, the sacrificial victim would have to be the entire political system in the UK. The problem is that the extreme left-wing or right-wing replacement solution would be worse. Whether we crash out or stay in the EU, at this stage, we face something like what Berdyaev saw during the 1930’s in the rise of Nazism. The future is darkness, hatred and death – or God and humanity.
Does our Christianity or adhesion to Christian ideals retain any validity? In most of their expressions, probably not. The Christian ideal has been hollowed out and manipulated to such an extent that our only reaction can be that of Dietrich Bonhöffer as he witnessed the accommodation the state Lutheran Church and other denominations made to Hitler’s regime in Germany. According to some ways of seeing the rise of the Third Reich and World War II, it was all about hidden and obscenely wealthy corporations and individuals depressing the value of everything, buying it all up and reselling at a profit, no matter how many would die. Hitler had to be financed by someone, and he was just a useful idiot – who threw himself on his sword when it was all over for him. What makes humanity so dispensable? In a word – technology.
Mortality is something we all have in common. We are all called to die, at any age and from any cause. Man has always sought and desired a meaning to this finite life, and philosophers from every age have given ideas of transcendentals known as truth, beauty and goodness. Christian philosophy treats the transcendentals as a part of theology. They are described as the desires of man above his animal existence of something that eats, reproduces and defends its life. These transcendentals in these or other words are shared by all human cultures. In the spirit of a desire for these transcendentals, humanism is a philosophical expression that cares for the welfare and needs of humanity. A human being has intrinsic value which gives the basis of rights like those of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Human beings are autonomous, moral and rational. Secular humanism comes in when institutional religion is perceived as opposing this positive notion of humanity, usually through some kind of theocracy motivated by human greed and evil. From its reaction against institutional religious ideology, it rejects the very notion of God and places the emphasis solely on reason and science. However, humanism is recovered on the top of both faith and reason by adding human emotion and imagination. This is the Romantic world view.
Humanism has taken many forms. As a system of thought in the western world, it sought to recover the values of antiquity to temper the harshness of medieval Christianity. This was the new world of the Renaissance, which emphasised aesthetics, freedom and the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature. The Renaissance had a tremendous amount of influence in the European Church in the wake of the Reformation and the Council of Trent. We are brought to think of the early Jesuits and their selfless service to humanity in other parts of the world, exemplary bishops like François de Sales and Charles Borromeo and eccentric “fools for Christ” like St Philip Neri. From this came a whole new paradigm of Christian humanism. Christians also become interested in the sciences and exploration of the world, in discovering new horizons in the desire for a greater degree of human potential. In theology, it encouraged study, reason, free enquiry and the original and pure meaning of liberalism.
A humanist will see humanist ideas in the teachings of Christ recorded in the Gospels, and the whole ideal emerges as something fresh and new in comparison to the way it had all been suppressed under different forms of theocracy and totalitarianism. Some of these ideals emerged in the teachings of some of the Reformers until they imposed their own orthodoxies and tyranny. Christian humanism is constructed on several key notions like man being created in God’s image and likeness. We are created with the image of God or a “spark of divinity”. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves, do to others as we would have them do to us. Our nobility is measured in terms of compassion for the weak and not competition and greed. St Paul attested to the value of a classical education as did Justin the Martyr. Christianity contains a vast kernel of Gnostic notions that were suppressed in later eras. Thus St Paul can be read in a totally new light when we have discovered the wealth of the Nag Hammadi Scriptures and a whole tradition of esoteric wisdom. We find a whole new notion of truth as something we yearn for rather than possess as property.
Christian humanism promotes the arts and everything we do for a cause above and beyond our selfish needs and desires. It is a part of that nobility of spirit which is the highest apologia for Christ and his ideals.
This ideal is mostly rejected in favour of totalitarian theocracy and ideology, seeking to crush all but the wealthiest and most powerful. The Renaissance gave way to Classicism and the abolition of faith in favour of cold rationalism. In its turn, the Enlightenment was darkened by the mob and Jacobinism in the 1790’s. The nineteenth century was blighted and marked by violence and revolution. Romanticism was only ever a tiny beam of light from individual persons, but the general situation of Europe was one of darkness. That current of thought developed into the horrors of the twentieth century, and which continue today.
Against a backdrop of institutional paralysis and greed in the government of my country, we have to turn our eyes to what is positive and healthy, away from the influence of those who lack empathy and care for humanity. To seek the good, true and beautiful, we need a better understanding of evil. Evil is essentially a lack of empathy, which is our ability to respond to the emotions and thoughts of other people. Those who have no empathy treat others as objects to exploit. During the Nuremberg Trials, the army psychologist Captain G. M. Gilbert was assigned to observe the Nazi defendants from a psychological point of view. He summarised all his observations as follows:
In my work with the defendants, I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.
Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as having said:
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall — think of it, always.
And finally Christ himself:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.