Christian Humanism

Christian Humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, rational inquiry and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to the ethical life are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. Being a Christian means at the least feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, supporting the poor, comforting the lonely, seeking peace and standing with the powerless against the mighty.

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.]

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Christian Fundamentalist Cruelty To The Transgendered

The State of North Carolina just passed a law that prohibits transgender people from entering any public restroom other than the one conforming to their sex as identified on their birth certificate, prohibits any third restroom not identified as male or female as an attempt to accommodate transgendered people, and further prohibits any city, county or local ordinance that conflicts with that state law, or any school district policy that states otherwise.

It is unfortunate that the right wing social barbarians of North Carolina, who claim this action in the name of their Christian freedom to discriminate, cannot grasp the fact that transgender people do not choose that life style and should not be punished for being true to who they are.

What does it matter which bathroom they use? North Carolina is just making itself look bad and shooting itself in the economic butt.  If a person wearing a dress and possessing a penis (or has had it removed) subsequently enters a women's bathroom and uses a private stall (which is all they have there) how would anyone know or care?  If a person with a vagina but wearing men's clothing enters a men's room and uses a stall (they can't use the urinal) who would notice or care? 


Why compound the issues further by prohibiting public entities from having bathrooms that are private and gender neutral the way they do now for baby changing rooms? Why interfere with local governments who take a more tolerant and compassionate view? When are we going to stop catering to the right wing loonies who deny everyone else the right to move into the 21st Century and claim their presumed religious freedom as their rationale to act like the bigots they are? Why shouldn't the fried chicken people or the golden arches folks be able to build a third bathroom if it makes their customers more comfortable?  Citizens of the modern world that most of us live in should indicate their disgust by boycotting North Carolina until it comes to its senses and stops catering to the fundamentalist Christian bigots who want to run everyone else's lives.