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What is Christian Humanism?

Frequently I am asked to try to explain Christian Humanism in a few words, so as I thought how to begin writing again after a long hiatus ...

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Subversion and Treason

My evening routine usually includes watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, one of the more interesting,  insightful  and provocative political commentators on television.  Last week Rachel reported that she and other observers in the West had been looking for some signs in Russia that might hint at confirmation of the U.S. intelligence report last December that unequivocally stated not only was Russia behind the hacks but the hacks were ordered by Putin and the distribution of the resulting  information that was detrimental to Hillary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump was specifically directed by Putin. 

They found the smoking gun.  News sources inside Russia reported that Russian police entered a routine meeting of the security service’s cyber security unit, arrested and dragged out one of its top agents from the meeting and subsequently charged him with treason.  Later an official of the counter intelligence unit disappeared from his position.  Rachel concluded with good reason that the Russian actions confirmed that the Russians had been behind the hack and that Putin was now eliminating the agent who leaked Putin’s involvement to the former British intelligence agent who had assembled the dossier about the hacking and provided it to U.S. officials.

I think the conclusion should go beyond the obvious, that we now have pretty clear circumstantial evidence that Putin ordered and directed interference in the U.S. electoral process to help a candidate favorable to his strategic objectives.  We also have pretty good evidence that not only did Donald Trump and his campaign officials have substantial business and personal ties with Russia and with Putin, but that Trump and his senior advisors were aware of Russian interference but had regular contacts with Russian officials prior to and subsequent to the election. 

There are implications that go beyond the election.  Trump and his cronies have indicated their support for Russian interference in the Ukraine and for removal of sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community.  They have also contended (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that the Russians did not do the hacking and the release of political information damaging to Hillary Clinton.

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that Trump and some of his immediate devotees and supporters are knowingly supporting a foreign power’s interference in our internal affairs and subverting our foreign policy to assist an enemy of the United States?  Isn’t that subversive activity? Isn’t that precisely the definition of treason?

Here is a recapitulation of facts that have been reported widely in the press and assembled from multiple sources and do not appear to be in contention.

Mr. Trump, and several persons close to him who serve as official or unofficial advisors, personal friends and nominees for Cabinet positions are also friends, advisors to, business associates of, or lobbyists for Russia, Russian business entities, Vladimir Putin or his business associates, or others with power and interests in Russia.

A few examples:  

Donald Trump has business relationships with Russian billionaires including Aras Agalarov and other Russian oligarchs including some members of Russian crime families and Russian banks.  Trump has bragged about Russians being the biggest investors in his properties.  He is a partner of the Bayrock Group, an entity owned by wealthy Russian emigres to the U.S. 

Trump has frequently praised Putin for running a strong government and has urged stronger ties to Russia (all the while ignoring the fact that Russia is a long standing enemy of the US who wants to weaken NATO’s resistance to Putin’s seizure of the Crimea from its neighbor Ukraine, for which the US and its European allies have imposed sanctions on Russia).

Donald Trump, Jr., participated in a conference in Paris in October 2016 at which the topic was building closer ties to Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and has publicly stated his support of the position of the Russians and the Syrian dictator, contrary to the U.S. position to support the rebels against al-Assad and his brutal oppressive regime. 

Long-time Trump associate Paul Manafort, his campaign manager until his substantial business ties to Russia became a public embarrassment, was a key advisor to Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's former president, an ally of Putin in the takeover of the Crimea, now residing in Moscow.  

Carter Page, a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, spent years in Moscow where he ran the Merrill Lynch office.

General Michael Flynn, an advisor to the campaign and now National Security Advisor, has been a paid spokesman for Russian propaganda network RT, is an outspoken supporter of Russia and closer US-Russia ties, and has socialized with Vladimir Putin.  

Rex Tillerson, formerly President of Exxon Mobil and a personal friend of Vladimir Putin, is now Trump’s Secretary of State.  Exxon has billions of dollars of business deals in Russia that have been halted as a result of the sanctions on Russia, and Mr. Tillerson has lobbied against the sanctions on Russia.  Does anyone seriously think that Tillerson is not going to do what he can to have the sanctions removed to benefit his friends and associates at Exxon Mobil?

Trump has also nominated Wilbur Ross, a reported business associate of Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire oligarch and Putin ally, to be Commerce Secretary.

However the person we should be most concerned about with respect to subversion of the national interests of the U.S. is “the man behind the throne”—Steve Bannon, former editor of Breitbart News, a flame-throwing ultra right wing periodical that traffics in white nationalism, racism, and conspiracy theories.  Bannon has been described by some who know him as “America’s Rasputin.”  He is a disciple of Lenin and of the modern Russian advisor to Putin, Aleksander Dugin, a political theorist and fascist.  Bannon is an advocate of the destruction of the political class of Western society who has made no secret of his objective in destroying the Republican and Democratic parties.  He seems to have made a good start.

The subversion of the United States is underway.  Its destruction as a major power is being engineered from the top.   Half the nation seems to be in shock and unable to function.  The other half seems to be giddy with the delusion of power and too drunk to realize what is going on is different than the bill of goods it was sold during the election.

Update February 5, 2017: 

[1] Trump has removed sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies imposed on Russia by Obama in response to the hack of the Democrat Party.  It has been widely reported that a notice on the Treasury Department website references elimination of the sanctions initially ordered in 2015 and extended in 2016: “All transactions and activities otherwise prohibited pursuant to Executive Order 13694…as amended by EO 13757, are authorized.”

[2] The Economist reports that on January 29, one day after Trump talked with Putin, Russian troops renewed their attacks in Ukraine.  After the attack, the American ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that the attack was by both Russian troops and separatist forces.  Under the Obama administration there were immediate condemnations of the Russian incursions.  The Trump administration only said it was deeply concerned about fighting in the Ukraine but did not blame Russia.  There is widespread fear in Europe that this is a worrisome sign that Trump is too cozy with Russia and intends to further eliminate sanctions so that U.S. businesses can once again do business with Russia. 

The Economist quotes a Russian spokesman on Trump’s lack of condemnation: “Washington does put the blame on the [separatist] republics, does not express support for Kiev and does not say a word about Russia’s role,” Rossiiskaia Gazeta, the official government newspaper, wrote jubilantly.
In an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News scheduled to be aired prior to the Super Bowl later today, Trump declined to be critical of Putin, saying he admires him.  When pushed by O’Reilly that Putin was a murderer, Trump responded that the U.S. is not innocent of the same behavior. 
Is there any doubt that Trump is undermining the U.S. and European policy of containing Russian aggression in his treasonous pursuit of financial and political gain for himself and his friends?

Update  February 10, 2017:

Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, has lied several times in interviews for the press when he said that his only talks with the Russian Ambassador were to arrange a meeting with the President for after the Inauguration.  Aware that the FBI was investigating him for possible violation of U.S. law, he is now conceding that he “might” have talked about the sanctions being lifted once Trump was in office. That is more than a violation of U.S. law, it is treason to give comfort and aid to an enemy of the U.S. See the full story in the New York Times.

Update  February 11, 2017:

Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York has introduced a Resolution of Inquiry to force a vote of Congress on Trump’s conflicts of interest, ethics violations and ties with Russia.  There are serious violations of law by Trump that need to be investigated by Congress in the interest of our nation.

Not only are Michael Flynn’s ties with Russia under investigation and his actions as national security advisor under question, but one of his top deputies has been denied a security clearance by the CIA that is necessary in order for that deputy to serve on the National Security Council.

Final Update  February 13, 2017:

Michael Flynn was forced to resign this evening.  This is the final update.  Nothing more to be said

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Speaking Truth To Power

Government officials have a duty to be open, honest and truthful to our citizens and to the press--an expectation that has been absent in Donald Trump and his staff--they have repeatedly lied openly in speeches, press conferences and interviews in such a brazen way that it is breath-taking to those of us who have the reasonable expectation of integrity in our officials, whether elected or appointed, regardless of political leanings. This is a new and startling phenomenon not seen before in our history.  It is corrosive to our public discourse, it is intolerable and it must be called out, not only by the press, but also by any of our institutions including churches that care about democracy, Christian values and integrity. 
Sojourners is an important Christian publication with a focus on Christian ethics that routinely speaks truth to power.  The article below, written by Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, was passed along to me by a friend because it raises issues that we as Christians, as humanists, as Americans must take seriously.  The notion that “facts” are what the President says they are, that they are fungible and in the eye of the beholder, that facts are negotiable, undermines rational public discourse.  “Alternative facts” are not facts—they are fiction, they are lies.  Speaking truth to power is an ethical duty of anyone claiming to follow the the teachings and example of Jesus.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

This has become the biggest question in the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, “What is truth?”

Since becoming president, Trump — both directly and through his top aides — has made a number of demonstrably false statements. Rather than backing away from these statements when confronted with the truth, he and his team have doubled and tripled down on claims that defy reason, logic, evidence, and just common sense….

Trump’s own narcissistic personality makes him incapable of acknowledging his own unpopularity. More deeply, these lies and Trump’s determination to stick to them show that he is obsessed with the image of his own legitimacy as president, despite having won an electoral victory by the rules in an election that experts and authorities across the political spectrum agree was not tainted by major fraud….

If you are successful in delegitimizing fact checkers and truth-tellers, pretty soon nobody knows what the truth is — and the strongest and most powerful voices, especially the one controlling the highest bully pulpit, get to define the truth as they see it….

This cannot be a political or partisan issue for people of faith. Truth-telling is a matter of faith for us and a fundamental principle of how we hold politics accountable. We cannot let our knowledge of both objective scientific facts and deeper spiritual truths become causalities of this administration. The free press has a critical role to play in protecting the truth — but so do people of faith and conscience….

To read the whole article, click here

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Legal and Political Strategy To Oppose Trump Policies

Trump is a man without experience or integrity who is under the influence of evil and self-serving extremist right wing advisers intent on launching dangerous and destructive policies that are outside the mainstream of American, Christian and humanist values.  He must be stopped.  Here is a brilliant legal and political strategy from the New York Times that can be used to stop Trump's ill-conceived policies:     

How Antonin Scalia’s Ghost Could Block Donald Trump’s Wall
The New York Times JAN. 25, 2017

President Trump may stumble on an unexpected obstacle as he tries to build a wall along the Mexican border: Antonin Scalia.
This may seem surprising, considering that Mr. Trump has called him a “great” justice. But in one of his last opinions, Justice Scalia supplied a powerful weapon to resist Mr. Trump’s plans for a border wall.
Justice Scalia’s June 2015 opinion in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency may not seem helpful at first sight. It blocked an E.P.A. rule that would have limited mercury emissions from power plants. The Clean Air Act instructs the E.P.A. to issue “appropriate and necessary” regulations, and Justice Scalia said that language required the E.P.A. to consider the costs of its proposed rules, which it did not properly do. “No regulation is ‘appropriate’ if it does significantly more harm than good,” Justice Scalia wrote. And even though the final vote in the case was 5-4, all nine members of the court agreed that the E.P.A. could not ignore the costs of its actions when deciding whether or how stringently to regulate.

Read the Article

Monday, January 16, 2017

Religious Freedom Day - January 16

In my youth as a member of a Southern Baptist church in northern Virginia I became acquainted with an organization called Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church and State (now called Americans United), an advocacy group supported by my church to remind us that the Constitutional principle of the separation between Church and State was a key construct of both the Virginia and the Federal constitutions.  

Since Religious Freedom Day occurs today (January 16) and Donald Trump will be inaugurated later this week with Republicans coming to power with threats against our religious freedom, it seems a good time to remind ourselves that our nation was founded on this bedrock principle.  Since the religious right in our country has regularly and intentionally distorted the facts by a stubborn insistence that Christianity was an integral part of our Nation’s founding documents and history, I want to correct the record by extensively quoting from an article entitled “The Christian Right Does Not Want You To Know About This Day” by Frederick Clarkson, originally published December 27, 2014 and just republished in Daily Kos.  I have written on this subject before [See Is The United States a Christian Nation?] and because Mr. Clarkson has stated the issues so clearly I am quoting extensively from his article because there is no point in my writing again when he has stated the issues so clearly.

"For all of the shouting about religious liberty — from the landmark Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, to the passage of the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Mississippi, and more — there is barely any mention, let alone any observance, of the official national Religious Freedom Day, enacted by Congress in 1992 and recognized every January 16 by an annual presidential proclamation.

The day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
Why is this seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation so vital? And why doesn’t the Christian Right want you to know anything about it?

The bill, authored by Thomas Jefferson and later pushed through the state legislature by then member of the House of Delegates, James Madison, is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written.

It not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

As a practical matter, this meant that what we believe or don’t believe is not the concern of government and that we are all equal as citizens.

Following the dramatic passage of the Statute in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787. As a Member of Congress in 1789 he was also a principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.
Jefferson was well aware that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration.

So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant. The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

That is a powerful and clear statement. Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refuted the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom not only insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, but that the framers really meant their particular interpretation of Christianity. (And they are sometimes encouraged by a surprisingly wide array of pundits.)

Jefferson further explained that the legislature had specifically rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”

No wonder the Christian Right does not want us to remember the original Statute for Religious Freedom — it doesn’t fit their narrative of history! Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision.

Religious Freedom Day is nothing but bad news for the likes of Religious Right leaders like Tony Perkins, who argue that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. They can believe that if they want, but it can make no difference in the eyes of the law. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what Religious Freedom Day is really about — instead using the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.

This barely commemorated day provides an opportunity for LGBTQ people, and progressives generally, to reclaim a philosophical, legal and constitutional legacy that the Christian Right is busy trying to redefine for their own purposes.

Alright. So the Christian Right really does not want us to know about this day, but if we do, they certainly don't want us thinking about this stuff -- and so the standard fare of faux outrage about president Obama and various conspiracies against faith in general and conservative Christianity in general is likely to dominate our foreseeable future.  

But it doesn't have to be this way. And the Christian Right probably knows it.

When I say that the Christian Right does not want “us” to think about it, I mean everyone who is not the Christian Right and their allies, and especially not LGBTQ people and the otherwise “insufficiently Christian.”  I think that is why the Christian Right is mostly so eerily quiet about it, even though religious freedom is so central to their political program.

But what if we did?

What if we seized this day to think dynamically about the religious freedoms we take for granted at our peril; freedom that is in danger of being redefined beyond recognition.  What if we decided to seize this day to consider our best values as a nation and advance the cause of equal rights for all?

If we did, we might begin by recalling the extraordinary challenge faced by the framers of the Constitution when they gathered in Philadelphia. They met to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire; and contending with a number of powerful and well-established state churches and a growing and religiously diverse population.

Their answer?   Religious equality.  And it is rooted in Jefferson’s bill. Let's remind ourselves about the origins of the bill.

Jefferson wrote the first draft in 1777 — just after having authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  And it was James Madison who finally got the legislation passed through the Virginia legislature in 1786, just months before he traveled to Philadelphia to be a principal author of the Constitution.  The Virginia Statute states that no one can be compelled to attend or support any religious institution, or otherwise be restrained in their beliefs, and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities . . .”

The Constitution, framed according to “The Virginia Plan,” drafted primarily by Madison, contains no mention of God or Christianity.  In fact, the final text’s only mention of religion is in the proscription of “religious tests for public office,” found in Article 6.  
In other words — Jefferson’s words — one’s religious identity, or lack thereof, has no bearing on one’s “civil capacities.”

If we thought about the meaning of Religious Freedom Day, we might start thinking about things like that — and not capitulate to the Christian Right’s effort to redefine religious freedom to include a license for business and institutional leaders (both government and civil) to impose their religious beliefs on employees and the public.

If we thought about things like that, then we might consider them in light of a host of initiatives in recent years, often advanced under the banner of religious freedom, but which, in fact, restrict the religious freedom of others.

We might consider, for example, the recent federal court decision in the case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, which found that North Carolina’s ban on clergy performing marriage ceremonies without first obtaining a civil marriage license, was unconstitutional.

Since state law declared that same-sex couples could not get marriage licenses, this subjected clergy in the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among others, to potential prosecution for performing a religious ceremony.

As religious equality advances, so does equal rights for all. So you can see why the Christian Right might not want people—people like us—thinking like Jefferson. And that is why we must."

© Kos Media, LLC 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Letter to a Fundamentalist Christian on the Futility of Dialogue

From time to time I have conversations with friends in which religion or politics come up.  Usually these conversations go well but sometimes they run afoul of conflicting basic premises.  I avoid conversations about religion unless I sense that there are at least some shared assumptions.

One of those difficult conversations came up in the last few days in an email exchange with a 16-year old intellectual genius, an international performer with his own manager and bodyguards, a boy who is a university student but is now in the hospital after serious injury and illness have sidelined him for months in a hospital where he will likely be for several more months.  He is generally familiar with my views and he raised some issues and defended his views with biblical references.  I had to respond to him in some way that did not damage our friendship so I attempted to explain to him why an ongoing dialogue about religion might be difficult for us.  Here is the relevant part of a much longer conversation:

“….So now to the question of religion.  When so inclined I can argue rather forcefully on topics in which I have an interest and I like a good philosophical argument, but I have been reluctant to get into religion or politics with friends or family because often they have turned out badly.  My wife’s family holds traditionally conservative Christian views and they thought when their daughter married a young man with degrees in religion and ordained into the Christian ministry that they knew what they were getting in a son in law.  I had discussions with them many times and I tried to keep away from sensitive issues but eventually they figured out that my views were not in line with their views and after trying unsuccessfully to “convert” me they pretty much disowned me.  Over the passage of years they mellowed and became loving parents who accepted me despite my heretical views and my mother in law, now 94, has grown to love me unconditionally.  However my wife’s two sisters are rather hostile still, and they are politically to the right of Mussolini and ardent supporters of the horrific Donald Trump, so we do not talk at all any more.

“… my rule for dinner table conversation is that religion and politics are not acceptable for discussion unless they are brought up by others and the tone in which they are brought up leaves some openness for discussion…. I would never let a theological or political point interfere with a friendship.  That is just not my style.  But a fundamental problem I have with some who hold strong religious beliefs is a kind of trump card they play in a discussion at which they assume there is no more discussion possible, specifically, “God says…” or “the Bible says….”  That is never an acceptable answer because it presumes that we agree on the validity of that conversation ending trump card.

“There are a lot of difficulties I have with the way in which the Bible is used in theological discussions that go beyond the conversation-ending assertion that the Bible has the final answers: biblical literalism is a relatively late understanding in church history; which codex or manuscript or translation contains the words of god; the difference in saying that god speaks to us through the bible and the bible is literally the words of god; whose interpretation we use in trying to understand the words; how to deal with conflicts and contradictions; etc.   I don’t want to write a treatise here, just lay out a general sense of the problems we face if we make the assumption (which I do not) that the Bible is in some sense the word of god.  So my point here is that quoting the bible as a response to a question relating to religious understanding just doesn’t work because it is a circular argument that depends on accepting an assumption about the role that the Bible plays in theological discussion that I do not share.

“You asked me if I accept the adage God helps those who help themselves.  Yes and no, and this is where interpretation comes into the discussion and suggests why people of quite different religious understandings can agree on the phrase.  It could be literally true in that if you want god to help you then do your part to help yourself because otherwise you are expecting something to happen with no effort on your part;  OR it could mean, helping yourself and god helping you are essentially the same thing, that is, the adage means there is no help other than what you do to help yourself and it is therefore a mythological way of saying “don’t assume there are any magical answers coming from outside yourself….

"I think people get defensive and angry when discussing religion because those beliefs are identified with who someone is, and if they lack confidence or feel threatened in those basic beliefs they get angry and hostile and want to cut off conversation.

"You frighten people, my friend, because you are a genius intellect … and people don’t know how to handle it.  They think they are talking with a child and they can’t handle it when they are suddenly over their heads in the conversation.  It confuses them.  And, yes, you may alter or threaten their reality.

"I understand your views, your humility, your sense of needing forgiveness—it all makes sense to me because I grew up in a religious context where that was the norm.  I found it hard to think when I had to deal with someone who did not share that perspective.  I think that is why I had such a hard time in my years of university and theological school.  I struggled to make sense of a different reality that was intruding into the sanctuary of once held secure views….  Anyway I appreciate you sharing your views with me.  It helps me to understand you better even though I no longer share those views.  It may help you to understand me, too, if you realize that I once shared those views but over time I lost the ability to make sense of the world without a different set of assumptions.

"Anyway, friendship is more important to me than belief, and if god exists (a phrase I hate because logically it does not make sense, to exist is to be a part of this world), then surely he understands that I was created with reason and a rational mind, and I am only operating with what god gave me.”

Friday, September 2, 2016

Protesting The National Anthem

I was surprised at the furor created by Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, when he exercised his right to protest the singing of the National Anthem at a pre-season game.  Before commenting on the issue (I am generally supportive of Kaepernick’s protest) I need to say that I have not been a fan of Kaepernick’s and admit to some prejudice against him because I was put off by his arrogance about his status as a high profile college quarterback as well as his excessive body tattoos that seemed out of place on a college quarterback.  So when Kaepernick first protested by sitting during the playing of the National Anthem, my first instinct was to dismiss him as just another high profile sports figure having a public tantrum about something.

Two events transpired that caused me to rethink the seriousness of Kaepernick’s protest.  First, I heard him speak to the press about the reason he refused to stand for the National Anthem and the lengths to which he was willing to go to continue his right of protest.  Earlier this week I had attended a luncheon and was seated next to the institution’s chaplain who just before he said the traditional prayer of blessing of the food invited the guests to stand and say the “Pledge of Allegiance” because, as he put it, given the event of the past week in which the National Anthem was the subject of disrespect (most everyone understood what he referred to), it was our duty as Americans to stand in support of our flag.  At that moment I wanted to protest his statement by refusing to stand, but I went along with it (although I did not recite the Pledge) because it was neither the time nor the place to make a statement when I would have no opportunity to explain my reason for the silent protest.

Second, I was shocked and dismayed to learn some things relevant to the history of the National Anthem that I had not known until I read an article by Jon Schwarz[1]   in which he discusses in some detail some facts about the War of 1812, the role of the British in supporting the rights of Free Blacks and encouraging both slave and free to join the forces fighting against the Americans (who had started the conflict by trying to seize Canada from the British), and Francis Scott Key’s celebration of the deserved deaths of the Free Blacks supporting the British (as clearly stated in the third stanza[2] of the National Anthem, a stanza we don’t hear sung).  

Francis Scott Key, as I learned in that same article, is not a man deserving of a positive memory in the history of our nation—he was a slave owner and an advocate of treating Blacks as “property” to be owned and sold and with respect to the British, insisting that Blacks who were freed by the British were still “property” and must be returned to their rightful legal owners. 

All that aside we get back to the issue: the right and duty of citizens in our democracy to publicly protest the acts of our government when those actions raise questions of morality or violation of the rights of our citizens, a right that is constitutionally protected.  We should celebrate the exercise of that right even if we do not always agree with the issue being raised by the protestor because supporting their right is also supporting our right when we have an issue that needs to be raised.   

While there are many voices clamoring that he be kicked out of football or worse, we have also seen other brave voices reminding us all that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not only legitimate and commendable, but that by supporting his right to protest we are protecting our own civil rights in a democratic society.

[1] “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery,” The Intercept, August 28, 2016.

[2] No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What is Christian Humanism?

Frequently I am asked to try to explain Christian Humanism in a few words, so as I thought how to begin writing again after a long hiatus due to illness it seemed appropriate to develop a short statement and a longer explanation of the general movement of Christian Humanism, of which I am a small part.  Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. 

A myth has been created by contemporary fundamentalist Christians, who are appparently ignorant of their own history, that humanism is a recent creation of the Twenty First Century anti-theists who are out to destroy Christianity.  Unfortunately they fail to recognize the fact apparent to anyone who has taken a course in world history that humanism has been a part of Christianity since the First Century and a significant factor in its history throughout Western Civilization. Those who fail to learn from history are the fools of our generation who speak without knowledge.

Today there is considerable variance in the positions of those who fall under the umbrella of Christian Humanism, from those who are more generally at the liberal end of traditional Christianity but want to humanize it by refocusing it away from the archaic theological language of tradition and move it the direction of the example of Jesus by exhibiting  compassion to one’s neighbor, to the other extreme where I find myself, which is quite willing to dispense with the traditions and theology of the mysterium tremendum of Christianity altogether, extracting from the studies of Christian ethics what seems appropriate for our contemporary situation and emphasizing modeling one’s life on that of Jesus to the extent practicable.

Put another way, Christian Humanism ranges from the attempt to make Christians less interested in the mysteries of the world beyond and more caring about the world we live in, to dispensing with the superstructure of Christian thought and living in a world without god but with the Jesus of history as our teacher, model and guide.  Each of those extremes offers a full range of implications and problems, which we do not have time or inclination to deal with in this commentary. 

Christian Humanism is the conjunction of two different and typically unrelated conceptual approaches to understanding our world and for some of our contemporaries these terms and the ideas they represent do not fit together comfortably.  Indeed, for some it is an impossible and incompatible pairing of terms.  Christianity exists in the context of an overarching theological framework that informs and gives meaning to our understanding of our world and man’s place in it.  Humanism celebrates mankind’s intelligence as the key to understanding and explaining our world without the need for god or any other agency or rationale external to man, and at the same time it affirms our necessary connection with and dependence on each other for mutual support, concern and care. 

While it is an uneasy conjunction of terms, a look at history shows that Christianity and Humanism have had interesting interconnections going back at least as far as the Second Century when the writer of the Gospel of John and Justin Martyr (St. Justin) were contemporaries and both introduced the Greek concept of the Logos to the Christianity of their time (c. 125 A.D .), which they borrowed from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Gospel of John arguing that the Logos (in Greek thought the divine force that underlies the universe) predated but informed Christianity, and Justin arguing to the Roman authorities that Christian thought and values were consistent with the Logos and that therefore the Empire should leave alone this new sect because they were just stating the contemporary understanding of religion in a slightly different way that was not inconsistent with Stoic beliefs and values.  In both cases there was an integration of Christianity with the secular beliefs of the time.

This is not the place to create the history of the inter-relationships between Humanism and Christianity, or the intermingling of the divine and the human through the pages of history.  There are many sources for understanding that history for those who are interested, and perhaps the places to start are the New World Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, both of which have good summaries of Christian Humanism.  Here we will only mention the Middle Ages when Christian clerics controlled education through the monasteries and Charlemagne ordered centers of learning set up throughout the Empire, with monks and clerics morphing into professors.  Subsequently Western universities including Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were established through Papal decree and began teaching law, medicine, philosophy, languages and the classics (and so we have introduced the “humanities” to our curriculum).

In the Renaissance, perhaps the most significant single writing was Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) in which he argued that the religious duty of man is to approach learning from the human perspective, a very clear conjunction of Christianity with a humanistic approach.  In the Reformation human knowledge advanced with the invention of the printing press and the writings of Erasmus, Martin Luther and John Calvin.  The Enlightenment saw further advancement of the connection between humanism and Christianity with the emergence of secularism, liberal philosophy, Deism, bourgeois liberalism, an interest in the historical Jesus, and a non-conformist emphasis on reason and intuition in religious matters. 

We come back to our premise as stated at the beginning of this article—that Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. 

How far can we stretch the fabric of the umbrella of Christian Humanism to include the extremes that claim a place under its framework?  It is clear that the movement within Christian Humanism that sees itself attempting to humanize Christianity with an emphasis on social concerns such as economic justice and concern for one’s neighbor is a legitimate Christian movement.  It is not at all clear that dispensing with traditional or modern Christian theology, and the willingness to live with only Jesus as teacher and guide, is sufficiently Christian to still fall within the broader Christian family.  As most ideologies, much depends on various interpretations of Christianity and who is doing the interpreting and for what objective.  I stand by my claim, while hearing and taking seriously the objections of those who argue to the contrary, that the version of Christian Humanism for which I argue on this site, a view that is willing to live without god but with only Jesus as our guide, is consistent with the views of other modern Christian thinkers including Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and deserves its place as both Christian and Humanist.

[Informed comments are welcome.]