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.]