Christian Humanism

The themes keep going through my mind – those of the Romantic’s lament over our passing as humans and our being brought back to a kind of feudal existence under the domination of the strongest. We have to begin with the fact that we are humans – the one writing this piece and those reading it, and then the rest of our species. As in the rest of nature, there is beauty, there is ugliness and there is death. Humanity lives and works like each one of us, creative, exulting, depressive, suicidal and every other mood within us.

Our attitude towards humanity, ourselves and others, will change according to whether we consider man’s greatest achievements and inspirations – or whether humanity is what we see in hospitals, mortuaries, death rows, prisons, corrupt countries and war zones. Our response can be anything from living life to the full, giving the same joy to others – or wishing for a meteor to hit the earth, big enough to send us the way of the dinosaurs.

I do believe that we have the Christian duty of affirming the good and noble in us so that it may overshadow sin and sickness. If that idea is motivated by the philosophy of life Christ set forth, then we are looking at Christian philosophy. The high point of this attitude caused the Renaissance, the reaction against the worst of medieval Augustinianism and the appeal to ancient Greek and Roman culture. The Renaissance was in the blood of Europe much earlier than many of us imagine and it was visible in many of the art forms we call Gothic. This movement was far more advanced in Italy and France than Germany, but the Perpendicular style in England was all part of it. It came to a head in the sixteenth century as Counter-Reformation Catholicism would follow the Renaissance whilst trying to keep it under authoritarian control. Calvinism and Lutheranism would seek to preserve the medieval Augustinian status quo and blame all the corruption on Renaissance idolatry.

Many have written on the passing of the Renaissance and humanism and the advent of a dark age, or an era in which no one knows where we are going. Many signs manifest themselves: the archetype of Frankenstein and the Greek myth of Prometheus, which colludes with the Gnostic narrative of the Demiurge and the Judeo-Christian notion of the fallen angel Lucifer who became Satan or the Devil. This would be the way of technological progress, breaking the taboos one by one. Another sign is the descent to barbarianism represented by Islamic jihadism and the present black stain on the Middle East. At some level, the two are linked by a conviction according to which humanity is but dross – but which is “redeemed” by strength and the lack of pity. Here, we recognise the strains of thought through Nietzsche and the crank philosophers who gave Hitler his archetypes to make his ideology take over the minds and imaginations of the German people. We speak of post-humanism and trans-humanism.

Perhaps one of our duties as Christians is to contribute to a revival of the Renaissance, not necessarily in its appearance, but in its underlying philosophy. Benedict XVI’s lecture at Regensburg in 2006 was a milestone as he brought out the fatal flaw of Islam (and fundamentalist Christianity by analogy) and appealed to Hellenism – to Greek philosophy. This way of thinking has underpinned the whole idea of reason, logical thinking and discussion and metaphysics for almost the entire history of the Church. On this foundation, theological speculation and thought become possible as does a tempering of the blind faith (or adhesion to a leader or an ideology) that can lead to fanaticism and hatred.

I believe that my blog has more or less explicitly been dedicated to such a movement of Christian humanism. It is important to distinguish the Christianity variety from the secular variety, for the Gospel gives the reason or λόγος behind such a consideration of our species and our personal and collective spirit. The secular variety leads to Promethean pride and the move from humanism to post-humanism. The boundaries are somewhat blurred when liberal Christianity colludes with secularism, the accusation thrown against Pope John Paul II and his existential personalism or Jacques Maritain’s ingtegral humanism. The conservative Evangelical or Catholic contends that God is everything and man is nothing, reduced to absolute ruin by sin. The most noble understanding of humanism would be, without qualifying adjective, belief in the intrinsic dignity and value of man, and his cultural creativity.

The old dialectic continues from the old Augustinian view of nature and grace, the effects of sin in bringing about corruption and death. In short, is humanity to be judged by the state of Hitler or Ted Bundy, or Shakespeare, Bach, Plato and St Francis of Assisi? Both? Everything in between? Then we have the misery of humanity caused by disease, natural catastrophes and sin. The general way of thinking in Christianity is that man receives his dignity from God, by sanctifying grace by what makes the spirit stand out from the animal soul we all have (we all need to eat, preserve life and reproduce – sharks and crocodiles too!). Is there a default state? Whether man is intrinsically sinful or endowed with rights and dignity will determine whether our response involves strength and force, or compassion and pity for weakness.

History has played out between lust for power and domination with the consequent extermination of the weak. This is the dominant thought of Darwin and Nietzsche, leading to Marxism and Nazism in the twentieth century – a world-view that persists in America in conservative circles. The Protestant Work Ethic is also an example of the victory of force, strength and thrift. You are worth your money, which is a sign of success and God’s electing grace. Reading Charles Dickens with the knowledge of this idea can be very enlightening. Outside the tiny minority of the elect, humanity is dross to be exploited, worked to death and eliminated at will. If they are poor, let them starve. If they are sick, put them down. If a criminal has sinned – an eye for an eye… and make the execution particularly sadistic! Human beings are totally depraved, so therefore are expendable. The only people worth anything are the elect – and they know they are the elect because they are successful and rich. I have the impression that Hitler and his gang of goons were only the tip of the iceberg. Cut off one tentacle and there still remain seven more…

I understand the temptation. If we have strengths and talents, it is too easy to de-humanise the sick and support capital punishment, refuse to help the poor (they don’t help themselves when they are obviously scamming). We hear about yet another Daesh atrocity and wonder when the meteor is going to come and end it all. Our lying politicians disappoint us profoundly, hypocrisy and treachery from our loved ones and friends, the “nozzle of weirdness” as a Canadian journalist mentioned a few years ago.The decision is ours.

We are faced with the worst of human nature as Renaissance culture evaporates away, not only in its artistic expression but also the rational and spiritual faculties of man. I have no need to recite the litany of ills here. It is well known. Apart from crime and the drifts of science, the century of my birth saw two world wars and totalitarianism. It is also understandable when we hear the banalities of liberal talk in politics, the media and academia. As we get older, we generally become more cynical and disbelieving. We approach death and wonder if the all-destroying meteor would not be a good thing! We were once young and hoped. Do the young people of today not have the right to hope and wonder in what is good, noble and beautiful?

Renaissance humanism gave learning and philosophy, or rather a new angle to add to the heritage of medieval thinkers and saints. Erasmus called for a study of the Fathers and the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew. Christian humanism brought in the image of God in humanity as the base and source of the dignity of the human person. Life is a gift to be enjoyed and not merely a preparation for our life after bodily death.

Christian humanism, if it ever returned to churches, would herald creativity and restore compassion and pity. It would see the possibility of redemption even for the most hardened sinner, and would oppose cruel punishment. Eastern Orthodoxy has a greater emphasis on the notion of personhood, certainly derived from its theology of the Trinity. We need to seek what is good, noble and beautiful, encourage the arts, education and courtesy.

The Calvinist temptation is never far, nor is its parallel in Catholicism in the form of Jansenism and other exaggerations of Augustine’s doctrine. One can say that if God created everything only for his own glory, it shows a narcissistic and sinful deity. One wonders about the Gnostic belief that the creator was a lesser entity than God! Wesley, following the Arminian tradition, taught that God created out of love and that he loves all human beings even if they are sinners.

Such optimism about humanity may be a dangerous illusion that has outstayed its welcome. History seems to vindicate power and success, the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the weak and inferior. Man is often brought to believe in his own evolution and triumph, but as technology evolves, morality is perverted and defeated. There are scientific articles claiming that human DNA is degenerating and will eventually lead to the extinction of humanity (if something else doesn’t). It seems clear to me that what gives humanity dignity and worth is the image of God by deifying energy (sanctifying grace), and that our vocation is to come to knowledge of this image through knowledge of our true selves. I am intrigued by the idea of Annihilationism, the notion according to which those  who reject God and his image in us face non-being after their bodily death, something like what atheists believe, the difference being that some would be immortal and others would cease to exist. I do not affirm belief in this theory, since I am attracted to Universalism (conversion and sanctification would be possible after bodily death so that the person has a “second chance”), but I find it intriguing.

Surely non-existence is the one thing that makes death so frightening to those who believe in “universal annihilation” (atheists). If such an idea is to be believed, then why bother?

I leave this posting open-ended for views and comments, as I have no real certitude in this matter.

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2 Responses to Christian Humanism

  1. Stephen K says:

    Just some thoughts, some responses, to some of these comments. People are of course free to self-express in their own way.

    This will be a time of exploration and communion with nature……… I seek God in the beauty of his creation……….
    I increasingly mistrust the image that my imagination forms from pictures and catechesis as being God, and think that the natural world around me and of which I am a microscopic part is about the most accessible form of whatever is or might be God.

    I do believe that we have the Christian duty of affirming the good and noble in us so that it may overshadow sin and sickness. If that idea is motivated by the philosophy of life Christ set forth, then we are looking at Christian philosophy.
    I think that’s a fair statement. I am currently reading “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a whole world” by the Dalai Lama. In this book he searches for a way of cultivating inner values, the noble spiritual life, in a truly universal way, beyond any limiting religion, including his own (and, of course, Christianity in its different forms).

    Perhaps one of our duties as Christians is to contribute to a revival of the Renaissance, not necessarily in its appearance, but in its underlying philosophy.
    I don’t think this is a particularly ‘Christian’ duty, but rather a very basic, human, one. I’m not convinced the original Renaissance was particularly Christian in the first place, indeed possibly a reaction against what Christianity had become.

    The Protestant Work Ethic (‘PWE’) is also an example of the victory of force, strength and thrift. You are worth your money, which is a sign of success and God’s electing grace.
    The lines become blurred when you realise that the PWE is not confined to a certain class of protestants but is evident in conservative enclaves of self-professing “Catholics” (whether Roman or Anglican or otherwise).

    Life is a gift to be enjoyed and not merely a preparation for our life after bodily death. Indeed, one of the problems may be our historical over-reliance on the idea that there is self-conscious life after death.

    We need to seek what is good, noble and beautiful, encourage the arts, education and courtesy.
    Amen.

    Surely non-existence is the one thing that makes death so frightening to those who believe in “universal annihilation” (atheists). If such an idea is to be believed, then why bother?
    I don’t see this necessarily follows. The Buddha thought eschatological speculation futile, meaning that it was what you did in this life that was important. It may indeed be a great mercy to reflect that death will truly erase all consciousness of one’s failings and regrets. It seems impossible for us to imagine what annihilation would be like, since every thought we think appears predicated on our reflection of our thinking it, and consciousness of a sort, but in fact the truer position may well be that whatever we are made of simply goes back to the essence of God, like organic material turning back to mother earth.

  2. Stephen K says:

    I don’t know if humanism is at the heart of Romanticism but to someone who thinks of himself as both a humanist and romantic, I ask who could not respond to this heart-breaking chant of the Knights Templar – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0d4qM7gCH8 – in which one hears their weary, wise-through-experience, yearning for peace and sustentation by the God they love and long and fight for. We hear, in this chant, the assimilation of Arabic tones into Western Christian sentiment and poetry. It is as eloquent a testimony to the universalism of religious experience as one may easily find.

    Have my co-readers read Umberto Eco’s “Fouceault’s Pendulum”? This took me to the threshold of two years’ study of the Templars and their nemeses, the rapacious Phillip the Fair, and, through cowardice and moral weakness, the Popes.

    The things these chants evoke are true regret for the barbarism of our species in the name of religion and spiritual faith. They do not make me reject either but make me realise that none and nothing is infallible or impeccable. Salvation – however it is conceived – lies within oneself, and not in orthodoxy – under whatever named – is my conclusion.

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