a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media

Donate to Harvard Square Library

Sign Up for Updates
Home » Theology & Philosophy » Christianity and Humanism

Christianity and Humanism

Delivered at The University of Iowa in 1937

The world of scientific thought and speculation presents today a remarkable spectacle. After four hundred years of vaunted promising to bring in the kingdom of man through the knowledge that is power, we now find that the sovereignty of man that lieth hid in knowledge, to use a phrase of Francis Bacon, is being threatened by the relentless and brutal application of sheer racial and national power. The blind Samson of power has stalked into the temple of man and is now recklessly tumbling it to the ground. In the face of impending disaster, heresy hunters are rising on all sides and attempting to identify the demon that is taking us down the Gadarene slope. Mr. Mortimer Adler says it is the professors who are to blame, and especially the scientists; Mr. Archibald MacLeish blames the irresponsibles among the novelists and poets; John Haynes Holmes blames governmental leaders who do not carry out the wishes of the populace; Mr. Earl Browder says it is the capitalists; M. Ortega y Gasset says it is the revolt of the masses; and the Pope says it is the refusal of modern man to accept the guidance of Rome.

Whatever the cause for the present debacle, we are all rapidly coming to fear that civilization today possesses more of memory than of promise. As we approach the abyss, the feared eclipse of all that is dear to civilized man, we echo the words of the prophet, “Watchman, tell us of the night.” But whatever the outcome, we are all being forced to ask the question as to what it is that we would have. Like Macbeth we appreciate the dignity of man only when we have become aware that we are losing it, only when we realize that we are in the twilight that may precede death’s dateless night.

In such a situation as this, a discussion of the subject “Christianity and Humanism” acquires a more than academic significance, for there are not a few people who, like Abraham pleading for Sodom, will say that if only two good things, Christianity and humanism, can be shown to be still alive among us, our modern Sodom is still worth saving. Even the news commentators of the radio, men who run as they read, are occasionally to be heard appealing to the enduring values of both Christianity and humanism. And yet, it is doubtful if these two concepts represent anything very definite for a large proportion of those who appeal to them. They are merely blessed words for anyone who wants a prayer-wheel. What it is that would be saved if our civilization were, in the outcome, to be able to transmit Christianity or humanism to another generation is not very clear. Moreover, it is equally unclear what elements in Christianity or humanism would be able to help save civilization. There is something pathetic about the tardy discovery that Christianity is not something for the masses alone and that humanism is not merely an optional luxury for the cultivated few. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid also the impression that there is a note of condescension in the voices of those who in passing give lip service to either Christianity or humanism. We detect the unstated presupposition that if we can only get out of our present predicament with the aid of Christianity and humanism, we shall in good time be able to return to the condition in which we shall not have to be disturbed either by Christianity or by humanism.

The cause of the vagueness that attaches to the average educated man’s references to Christianity and humanism is not mere indolence or the love of catchwords. Christianity and humanism are not easy to identify. Their supporters are themselves divided. Moreover, both movements have had a long history in which a great variety of ideas and activities have appeared. The result is that there are as many types of Christianity or of humanism as there are of anti-Christianity or of anti-humanism. Yet it is not necessary to delineate all of the types of Christianity or of humanism in order to arrive at a working definition of either Christianity or humanism. To delineate adequately all of the types of Christianity or of humanism would be tantamount to classifying most of the types of religion that have appeared in the West within the past thousand years, and to delineate the types of humanism would require that we take into our purview movements of thought that are entirely beyond the boundaries of Western civilization. At all events, we shall assume that neither of these tasks is necessary for our present purpose, and we shall instead attempt to bring into relief only the basic characteristics of these two movements.

First, let us attempt a general definition of Christianity. Christianity is a religion of salvation from sin and death, a salvation ultimately effected by a loving Creator-Redeemer God as the result of the response of man, the child of God, to divine historical revelation. This response takes the form of repentance and conversion, of faith and charity, all of which are signs of the breaking of the kingdom of God into history. Hence, it may be said that thinking in Christian terms means thinking in terms of creation, revelation, and redemption. In other words, all of the categories of Christian theology are theonomous: they point to an Other that is the Beginning and End of all being. Salvation is of the grace of God, not of man. Here, then, we find the leitmotifs of the Christian religion. This religion has come into contact with many other tendencies, religious and secular; it has adjusted itself to the supposed needs of different times and places. As a result, it has successively (and) even simultaneously manifested itself in a great variety of ways. But in spite of this variety it has always aimed to take the primitive Christian faith with its Jewish praeparatio evangelica as in some sense or other normative. It is, therefore, a religion oriented not only to the transcendent but also to events in history. Hence, its character cannot be properly dealt with without reference to a salvatory history.

Humanism is not a religion, nor is it, like Christianity, a unique historical movement with a historical figure at its center. Like generic religion it possesses certain general features, but it is always conditioned more by the environing culture than by any particular and decisive historical event. There is no such thing as humanism in general. There is the humanism of Confucius, conditioned by the special historical circumstances and world-views which surrounded it. There is the humanism of Greece and of Rome, colored by the general world-view and religious outlook of paganism. There is a Christian humanism that was not only conditioned by the fact that it developed on Christian soil but also by the fact that it has been openly allied with Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. The Christian elements within the various types of humanism that are to be found in modern Western civilization are in some cases difficult to isolate, but all forms of modern humanism depend upon Christianity as well as upon Hellenism. This is equally true for Christian humanism, for the revolutionary humanism of the seventeenth century and of the late eighteenth century, for the romantic humanism of the twentieth century. Now, although there are Christian elements in all of these types of humanism, there is also in every humanism something that distinguishes it from Christianity. What are these distinguishing features of humanism? That is, what is the essence of humanism? It is the tendency to view human existence without reference to the religious transcendent, that is, as self-sufficient and self-enclosed. In place of salvation as a goal, humanism aims to achieve the development of the self toward human maturity and proportionateness. It seeks to achieve these qualities by means of methodical self-reflection, by taking direct cognizance of the self-enclosed human situation, by maintaining through pedagogy a creative, intuitive relation to the past. Whereas the distinguishing feature of the Christian ethos is humility or creatureliness, the distinguishing feature of the humanist ethos is the poise of mature humaneness. Hence, whereas Christianity aims through the power of God and through fellowship in the church of Christ to effect man’s overcoming of his fallen condition of “living well.” In both Christianity and humanism the necessity of pedagogy is, to be sure, recognized, but in Christianity this pedagogy is theonomous; that is, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in and out of the church, whereas in humanism this pedagogy is from man to man under the guidance of intuition. Moreover, the pedagogy of Christianity has for its material content Christ’s revelation of God’s purpose for man, whereas the pedagogy of humanism gives instruction to man concerning himself, that is, concerning his essence and the perfecting of this essence.

Although modern humanism, as distinguished from ancient humanism, is largely dependent upon Christianity, we may identify certain elements as common to Christianity and ancient humanism. An example is belief in the dignity of man, though Christianity emphasizes the dignity of each individual, and ancient humanism emphasizes the dignity of the rational human essence in general. One may also recognize a certain similarity between Christianity and ancient humanism as, for example, in the Christian concept of conversion, the Platonic concept of becoming like God, and the Aristotelian concept of the divine life in man. But we cannot dwell on these similarities here. Indeed, to do so might give the erroneous impression that the ethos of Greek humanism and of Christianity are more nearly similar than they actually are. It must suffice here to say that there is a fundamental difference between the decisive concepts of the Greek ethos and of the Christian ethos, a difference that is usually symbolized by the terms Eros and Agape.

We must turn our attention to the similarities between the modern forms of humanism and Christianity. This procedure finds its justification in the fact that even when the modern humanist appeals to ancient humanism, he tends to select elements that are compatible with his own conscious or unconscious adherence to certain Christian presuppositions. Indeed, the similarities between modern humanism and Christianity are for the most part the consequence of the dependence of modern humanism upon Christianity, due to the fact that the humanists of the Middle Ages and of the modern era were nurtured on Christian soil.


Let us now turn to a consideration of those elements of the Christian world-view that are shared in varying ways by all major forms of modem humanism, but here confining our attention to the Christian humanism in the Renaissance and the type of modern humanism represented by Irving Babbitt. What are the principal similarities between Christianity and this tradition of modern humanism deriving primarily from the so-called Christian humanism of the Renaissance?

1. First, there is the similarity of attitude towards nature, an attitude that is either implicit or explicit in modern humanism. The Christian attitude towards nature may most succinctly be characterized by reference to the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, a doctrine that depends ultimately upon an attitude characteristic of the Old Testament. The Christian attitude towards nature grows out of the view that God is the Creator of nature, as well as of man, that the heavens and the hills declare the Glory of God. In substance this view implies a repudiation of the pagan view that the world of nature is demonically hostile to man or basically resistant to the power of God. Here we discover immediately a difference between modern humanism and pagan humanism. The latter, for example in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, views nature or matter as resistant. In their view God in nature has to deal with a recalcitrant material, a material that must be subjected to form. In the Christian view of creatio ex nihilo, on the other hand, matter is itself the result of God’s creative act. Hence, it is asserted in the book of Genesis that God looked upon his creation and saw that it was good. This same view is, of course, to be found also in the New Testament. It is true that nature in the Jewish-Christian view is believed to exist now in a fallen state. Yet, matter is not in itself evil. For this reason the Christian contrast between flesh and spirit does not imply a derogatory judgment of flesh as such. As Augustine and Luther point out, flesh in the Christian view is a perversion of spirit due to man’s corrupt will. Now, it is largely because modern humanism adopted this general attitude towards nature that it must be distinguished from paganism. And that is also the reason why it eschews asceticism. Modern humanism, no less than Christianity, is thus opposed to Manichaeanism and to any view that considers the body the prison of the soul. Hence, we may say that modern humanism accepts the this-worldly implications of the Christian view of the resurrection of the body. Indeed, it is likely that it was largely because of Christianity’s positive estimate of nature that Christians, both Protestant and Catholic—aside from fundamentalists—have so readily adjusted themselves to the scientific method of the investigation of nature. For the Christian as well as the modern humanist, there is no fundamental taboo with regard to nature. Here we find, then, the basis for a certain optimism shared by Christianity and humanism in contrast to a pessimism and melancholy so common in pagan humanism. For in Christianity and humanism there is no fear of nature.

2. The second similarity between Christianity and humanism arises from the fact that modern humanism has taken over the Jewish-Christian idea of monotheism. The basic significance of this idea, a significance that is implicitly recognized today far beyond the confines of the Christian Church, is that it asserts the unity of meaning of all existing things. On this basis, and only on this basis, can the unity of the knowledge of the natural order and the unity of ethical activity directed towards changing the world be maintained. In Christianity and in Christian humanism, all attempts to divide the world up into various spheres that confront each other with absolute claims is rejected. Both the humanist and the Christian reject any interpretation of existence that involves a conflict or a dualism between divine powers. They deny that there is any ultimate demonic enemy. The demonic is subordinated to the ultimate unity of meaning. Hence, the spiritual and social idea of unity as held in the Occident derives from the Christian doctrine of the unity of God. Here, again, we find a motif in modern humanism that weights the balance on the side of optimism and that resists the pessimism and melancholy of pagan humanism.

3. And yet, though nature is not a demonic power for either Christianity or humanism, it is also not worthy of man’s highest interest if he is to be saved or if he is to achieve his human maturity. This brings us to a third similarity between Christianity and humanism. We may characterize this similarity as a common acceptance of a sort of doctrine of incarnation. Whereas the Christian’s salvation involves his becoming a member of the body of Christ and sharing in the new being that comes from living en Christo, humane maturity requires that man shall enter into his inheritance through considering mankind as the proper study of man, and through submitting himself to the general norm derived from this study. Through acquiring the habits that will turn him from triviality to seriousness, from the preponderance of single elements to proportionedness, from eccentricity to highly serious normality, he will ascend to meet his fellow men in the common sharing of the humanly significant. In opposition to Burckhardt’s emphasis upon individualism as the central characteristic of Renaissance humanism, we must recognize that in the Christian humanism of the Renaissance, in the tradition of the courtier and the gentleman, and in the methods of literary and artistic production, a large place was given to the idea of imitation. Thus the Christian idea of the imitation of Christ finds a parallel in the humanist idea of imitation of models. Consequently both humanism and Christianity are opposed to naturism, and they are also opposed to ethical relativism. This means that human destiny is from the humanist and the Christian points of view not to be fulfilled through any immediate coming to terms with the environing reality, as is the case with scientism and naturism. Both views aim to transcend the present moment and to bring about an experience of “filled” or “enriched” or “interpenetrative” time. The past is consciously and selectively carried over from moment to moment in the collective consciousness of the church or of the humanist society. All of these ideas are implicit in varying ways in both the Christian doctrine of the incarnation and in the modern humanist doctrine of imitation.

4. The fourth similarity between Christianity and humanism is an aspect of the attitude toward history that they share. It is also an implication of their common antipathy for naturism. Ultimately the source of this attitude must be traced back to Hebrew prophetic and Persian eschatological thought. It constitutes one of the basic differences between Greek and Christian ways of thinking, as Augustine so clearly points out in the twelfth book of The City of God. In paganism, reality is viewed unhistorically. Its decisive concept is physics and not history. The conception of nature as eternally repeating itself in cycles is viewed by Augustine as characteristic of this pagan attitude towards the world. In contrast to this attitude, Christianity views the world as historical, as involved in a process of directed time rather than of cyclic time. Man is moving towards a goal. Thus the idea of fate in paganism is replaced by the ideas of the fall, of providence and of the Eschaton in Christianity. Howard R. Patch’s study of the goddess Fortuna in medieval literature provides an instructive account of the gradual subordination of Fate to Providence. It must be conceded that the Christian idea of Providence and of directed time has been carried to an extreme in the pre-millenarian sects of evangelical Protestantism. And likewise we may concede that this sense of the significance of the directedness and meaningfulness of history has received naïve expression in the secular idea of progress. Yet in large measure the optimistic attitude towards human history found in modern humanism is an inheritance from the Christian view of history as the theater of salvation. This element in modern humanism and in Christianity along with the first idea mentioned—namely the idea that creation is fundamentally good rather than demonic or resistant—goes far to explain the world-affirming character of Western civilization, a feature that is a constant source of surprise to the Orient.

5. The fifth similarity between Christianity and humanism is in their estimate of human nature. On this point the various types of humanism differ. Revolutionary humanism possesses an undialectical concept of human nature which is bound up with the idea of human perfectibility. Romantic humanism, as represented by German idealism, overstresses the likeness between the structure of the human mind and that of the absolute mind. It tends thus to minimize the difference between man’s essence and his existence. Christian and modern classical humanism, on the other hand, restates the Christian doctrine of the Fall by asserting and emphasizing a fundamental and enduring difference between man’s essence and his existence. Man has two natures, a higher and a lower, and never the twain shall meet. Thus both classical and Christian humanism are on principle opposed to all forms of Utopianism. The vision of the greatness of man never blurs the vision of the littleness of man. As Professor Douglas Bush says, “It is that simultaneous double vision of man which gives the literature of the English Renaissance its ethical strength and centrality, its heights and its depths of tragic emotion. The Christian religion exalted man’s sense of his divinity and deepened his sense of bestiality; the distance between the two extremes is greater than it is in the most religious and philosophic of the classical authors.”

Consequently, Christianity and Christian humanism place great emphasis upon the need for discipline and upon the primacy of the will over the intellect. For the same reason, they both favor an aristocratic view of human nature. For the humanist, this natural aristocracy depends upon the ethically disciplined will. For the Christian, it depends upon the redemptive love of Christ. Hence, rank, class, vocation, inheritance, race are all deprived of decisive significance. The distinction between the Greek and the barbarian is transcended in this modern humanism as well as in Christianity. Even the formal equality of all men with regard to rationality, as asserted by Stoicism, is transcended. In their place we find in humanism the concept of humanity and in Christianity the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate. Here we have another implication of the idea of monotheism. The criterion of meaningfulness cuts across all artificial or natural boundaries that separate human beings. The basic frame of reference or definition of value is valid for all. And no man is justified except through the grace of God or through the exercise of will.

In this connection, we must mention one other aspect of the Christian-humanist conception of human nature, namely, the assertion of the infinite value of the individual personality. This attitude is expressed in the distinction between man’s external possessions or situation and the quality of his inner life. Hellenism tended to neglect this opposition between inwardness and external situation. And even Roman Catholic Christianity has blunted this distinction by replacing the Jewish law with a church law and a demand for external works (in the sense of ritual). Radically Protestant Christianity and Christian humanism both aim to transcend legalism, the one by asserting the supremacy of the Gospel of love over law, the other by relying upon intuition rather than upon mere convention or external decorum. Something of this attitude is to be discerned in Confucian humanism, with its emphasis upon inner propriety. This general attitude involves the affirmation of the dignity of the individual soul. In radical Protestantism it takes the form of respect for individual conscience (in the fellowship of believers), of denial of the necessity for hierarchical intermediaries, and of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This radical laicism passes over into modern classical humanism and assumes the form of an individualism, disciplined according to a universal norm. In the Christian scheme this individualism is subordinated to charity and in humanism it is checked by the ideal of proportionateness or of complete humanity.

It should be clear from this analysis that all forms of modern humanism share in varying degrees and ways in the Christian heritage. It is definitely inaccurate, therefore, to associate Christianity in a narrow way with Hebraism or to associate humanism exclusively with Hellenism. In Christian and in modern classical humanism the Hellenic elements are transformed into something non-pagan, and where there is no transformation there is at least subordination to a Christian ethos. It may be added in this connection that it is misleading to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman as if they were entirely distinguishable. We see also that the familiar characterization of naturism, humanism, and religion as representing three different levels of experience may also conceal as much as it reveals. If not in accomplishment, at least in attitude, modern culture—and especially modern humanism—have absorbed certain important features of the Christian world-view and ethos. Indeed, so deeply have Christian ideas affected modern humanist society that it would require a miraculous self-conscious atavism for it to return to Hellenism. The Christian attitude toward nature, toward the unity of meaning, toward interpenetrative time and directed time, and toward personality, seem rather to be on the verge of destruction at the hands of a post-humanist and post-Christian barbarism of blood and class. Of this we shall speak in our conclusion.


Autonomy vs. Theonomy

Let us turn now to the differences between Christianity and modern classical humanism. The fundamental difference between Christianity and humanism is in their attitude toward the transcendent, toward what might be called the vertical dimension of existence. In the parlance of theology, Christianity is fundamentally theonomous, and humanism is autonomous. As we have already indicated, Christianity with its goal of the salvation of man, relies ultimately upon grace, whereas humanism with its goal of human maturity relies ultimately upon the intuition and ethical will of self-sufficient and independent human nature. It has often been asserted that Christianity is heteronomous and that the humanism that accepts Christianity must also become heteronomous by submitting to an authority “anterior, superior and exterior” to itself. In this connection, a very important distinction must be made, a distinction often overlooked by Roman Catholics and orthodox Protestants and also by many exponents of humanism. The Christian movement arose as a protest against heteronomy, i.e., as a protest against rabbinical legalism and the heteronomy of the Jewish law. It did not call men to the absolute obedience of any earthly authority, any institution, or any man. It confronted men with the necessity of recognizing the inbreaking kingdom of God through its herald, Jesus Christ, and also with the demand for a change of heart in order that this kingdom might be fulfilled. Both the heteronomy of Jewish legalism and the autonomy of the self-sufficient creature were replaced by a relation to the dynamic transcendent action of God in history through His herald, Jesus Christ. The history of Catholicism and of orthodox Protestantism represents a deflection from primitive Christianity through the revival of legalism and heteronomy, through the incursion of the heteronomy of the church in Catholicism and of the church and the Scriptures in orthodox Protestantism. Primitive Christianity with its orientation to the suprahistorical kingdom of God had again cast the light of the divine upon all things finite, breaking them in their self-enclosed power, and revealing their inevitable ambiguity in the existential order. The theonomous view of man and nature thus locates the absolute beyond time rather than in time, and consequently it denies all absolute claims that may be attached to nature, man, institutions, books, and even to events in history. Jesus himself asks a disciple to call no man good, not even Jesus himself.

In the light of these distinctions, we must say that both Christian theologians and humanists have erred in characterizing Christianity as essentially heteronomous. Heteronomous Christianity is a perverted Christianity. It is a form of idolatry in the sense that it presupposes that something finite can exhaust reality. It gives to a finite object the status that belongs only to the transcendent, to God. Hence, any humanist that says he cannot accept Christianity because he cannot surrender his autonomy needs to learn that the real battlefront between himself and Christianity is at another point. In refusing to accept heteronomy, he is actually refusing to accept a perversion of Christianity. The fundamental line of the cleavage between strict humanism and Christianity is thus the difference between autonomy and theonomy. This does not mean, however, that Christianity denies autonomy to man. Rather it only denies absolute autonomy to human nature. It asserts that whether he recognizes it or not, man’s basic power to exist and to fulfill his essence is something given. And it asserts also that this power to exist and to fulfill the human essence is infected with a perversion, a contradiction, that permeates all existence and separates it from its essence. On the other hand, so long as man or anything exists, it manifests in some degree the divine power of being and of integration. If this divine power were not present, existence would itself come to an end. And, conversely, existence can be brought nearer to its essence only through the meaningful incursion of the creative and re-creative power of the transcendent.

Hence, the human essence is not the ultimate and creative ground of temporal existence. Man is a creature, and in all meaningful activity he manifests the divine tendency toward integration or re-integration. In other words, man is the Schauplatz of cosmic forces, and not a self-contained, self-sufficient essence. Hence, it would be erroneous to suppose that there obtains a simple opposition between theonomy and autonomy. It is true that formerly this concept of theonomy was used to express divine determination in contrast to self-determination, but this usage presupposes a radical dualism between the divine and the human. In contrast to this usage, we employ the term only to express a transcendent qualification of self-determination. Theonomy is, in opposition to heteronomy, the fulfillment of self-determined forms with transcendent import. Theonomy does not involve the renunciation of autonomy, as does heteronomy in the Catholic theory of authority; it involves, rather, the deepening of autonomy in itself to the point where it goes beyond itself. In other words, theonomy involves the transcending of the autonomous forms of culture and society. It reorientates these autonomous forms to a religious principle that both supports them with the power of being and breaks into them, opening them to transcendent judgment and fulfillment. It does not repudiate autonomy, but it does assert that human nature is not self-sufficient and independent of the creative powers of the cosmos and, also, that the independence or self-sufficiency of humanism eventually brings about the loss of its own creative power and suffers the nemesis of emptiness and blindness. In both of these aspects of theonomy, we find, then, a corrective for humanistic pride.

We must remember, of course, that if the besetting sin of humanism is a pride in humanistic possessions and a consequent tendency to be terribly at ease in Zion, the besetting sin of Christianity is a pride in divine possessions that leads either to fanaticism or to heteronomy. Therefore, the Christian, or at least the radical Protestant, would assert that the only cure for either of these besetting sins is the spirit of penitence which is elicited by a vital theonomous relationship. Although there is a similarity between the besetting sins of Christianity and humanism, the humanist tries to find the cure within himself, but the Christian finds salvation in the new being emanating by grace through Jesus Christ.

There is also another besetting sin of historical Christianity and of humanism which should be mentioned, for it will serve to bring into relief another aspect of the fundamental difference between Christianity and humanism. We have already spoken of the history of Catholicism and orthodox Protestantism as a history of heteronomy overcoming theonomy in religion. This same tendency is to be found in humanism. In its denial of the transcendent, our modern civilization has been largely influenced by secular humanism, but it must be noted that modern civilization, like modern humanism, has not been able to remain strictly secular. Many humanists, recognizing the need for a transcendent relationship, have, instead of accepting a theonomous view, surrendered to Roman Catholic heteronomy. But a still larger number of modern secularists and even of nominal Christians have surrendered autonomy through accepting still other heteronomous authorities. They have become idolators of imperialism, capitalism, Marxian socialism, racism, nationalism. The emptiness of a humanistic society has become intolerable, and as a compensation, there has emerged a frantic attack upon autonomy and an attempt at demonic fulfillment through heteronomy. These repudiations of a humanistic society, then, are to be explained at least in part as deriving from an inadequacy, a besetting sin, of humanism, namely, the tendency to develop first into a state of emptiness and then into a disguised religion of a heteronomous character. We are suggesting that the corrective for this tendency of both Christianity and humanism to become heteronomous is the conception of theonomy, a conception that transcends both heteronomy and autonomy.

Humanist and Christian Views of Institutions

We have characterized a fundamental difference between Christianity and humanism as a difference between theonomy and autonomy, yet, we must make reference to three other major differences between Christianity and humanism.

The second major difference is the difference between the Christian and the humanist attitudes toward the role of institutions in human life. In general, we may say that humanism, because of its academic character, tends either to interpret the institutional problem in a narrow way or to give it only slight emphasis. It interprets the role of institutions in a narrow way by confining its attention primarily to the school. This means that although humanism has emphasized the necessity of both doctrine and discipline, its disciplines are specific only for the youth who are in school and at best very vague and individualistic for the adult section of the community. Growth in grace for the Christian is not possible apart from the fellowship of believers, a fellowship that aims to establish standards and practices that will nourish the individual (and the group) from childhood to old age. These standards and disciplines touch the domestic vocational, political, and social life. The disciplines aim to educate and nourish all sorts and conditions of men, both youth and age, both educated and uneducated, both privileged and underprivileged. And they aim not only to affect the mind but also the ethical will. Not that humanistic education does not affect the will. The point is rather that Christian nurture provides a close-knit community in which ideals and conduct are regularly brought under scrutiny by the group, and in which the disciplines of prayer, worship, and social action offer channels for the exercise of the will. Since humanism, apart from the church, does not possess this close-knit community with its disciplines, its adherents have only a furtive relation to each other and are thus deprived of the constant mutual support that alone can make reason and the will of God prevail. In this respect, humanism possesses a tendency similar to that of pietism: it emphasizes the “tending” of the individual soul to the neglect of communally supported social interests. It would be a gross exaggeration to assert that Christianity has achieved an adequate equilibrium between doctrine and discipline, but we are justified in saying at least that organized Christianity has more fully recognized the problem and more adequately dealt with it than has secular humanism.

Attitudes Toward the Psyche

The third difference between Christianity and humanism is a difference of attitude concerning the nature of the human psyche. It is a difference that is closely related to the one that we have just been discussing. Humanism, and with it much of Liberal Protestantism, has tended to attach great significance to the conscious intellectual life. This is a consequence of the humanist and the liberal Christian concept of personality, a concept that neglects the large role of emotion, association, and imagination in individual and social life. Indeed, the phenomenal rise of the new heteronomies of communism and national socialism, not to speak of the power of nationalism (“man’s other religion”), is partly due to the imaginative and symbolic power of these movements. So great has been this symbolic power that many people from both the humanist and the Christian traditions have been won over. One reason for this mass conversion is to be found in the appeal of these movements to deeper levels of the human psyche. There is a limit to the weight of the burden that can be placed on the human consciousness.

Christianity has not failed to recognize this fact, and it has from the beginning been rooted in something deeper than the human consciousness. Indeed, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit may be cited as an integral part of the significance of the forces beneath and beyond the human consciousness. This is only one example. Christianity in both doctrine and discipline has utilized the symbols and institutions—for example, the ideas of the kingdom of God, the doctrine of the body of Christ and the practice of the Lord’s Supper, not to mention the power of song and the regular discipline of public worship, as well as the symbols and disciplines that enlist the whole man rather than only the mind. In this connection, Irving Babbitt emphasized the large role of the imagination in the human psyche, but it seems to me that the problem of the imagination was left by him to be solved by the individual. At all events, we may assert that secular humanism has not developed imaginative symbols that are generally recognized by humanists to be decisive or constitutive for the transmission or practice of humanism. It might be argued, of course, that the ideal of the gentleman, or of the honnete homme, represents an appeal to the imagination, but this is obviously the sort of symbol that is powerfully effective for only one group in society. Moreover, it has even among gentlemen lost its former spontaneous and decisive force.

Humanist and Christian Attitudes Toward Culture

This brings us to the final difference between Christianity and humanism to be given special mention, the difference between their attitudes toward culture. Here again the relationship is not a simple one. Just as theonomy does not represent an orientation which replaces or exists alongside that of autonomy but rather one which goes through and beyond it, so Christianity does not demand a repudiation of culture but rather a deepening and transcending of it. Christianity does not essentially oppose culture, it only radically disputes its self-sufficiency. Hence, there is no basic feud between Christian theology and culture as such. Christianity is not ascetic, and it does not despise the forms and meanings that are associated with culture. Its quarrel with culture is the same as its quarrel with autonomy: culture in a humanist society is viewed as self-contained, self-sufficient, and at best an expression of man’s orientation toward particular, finite, meaningful objects. It fails to see the transcendent meaning of the finite and thus becomes unaware of the transcendent threat that confronts every self-enclosed entity, the threat to overweening security and self-assurance. It is because of this tendency in humanism that we may say that urbanity kills Christianity.

The disastrous consequence of humanist self-sufficiency may be better observed if we turn to the sociological area. The general effect of autonomous humanism in modern civilization has been to shunt religion into an area by itself. The religious group has become a separated sociological group in which something different is at stake than in the other sociological groups. Religion is associated with its socological bearers: the institution of the church, the priesthood, the officers and members of the church, the sacraments, and the special disciplines of the church. Then these sociological bearers of religion are repudiated and the humanists make the claim to offer a more palatable substitute. The heteronomous churches have only assisted in encouraging this attitude by claiming to have in their possession peculiar and exclusive media for the dispensing of grace or for approaching the transcendent.

The theonomous point of view that has been suggested in this paper represents a radical denial of both of these views. It denies that religion is one thing alongside others, that the transcendent is accessible only in certain areas of life and that the other areas of life may maintain independence. More than that, the theonomous point of view carries with it a denial that God himself is merely one Being alongside other entities; it is a qualification of the conditioned and finite objects of the world of nature and man. The world and all finite objects point beyond themselves to some unconditioned aspect of reality in which they participate and from which they are at the same time separated. The theonomous consciousness does not hold that there is a separate transcendent world, but rather that all finite objects possess a transcending character, and that when they have entirely lost this character they have also lost their power to exist or to fulfill their essence.

This loss of the sense of the transcending character of all things is the precise cause of the atomism of modern civilization and of the defeatism and emptiness that is in our day making a desperate attempt, through the surrender of autonomy to heteronomy, to regain a vivid and dynamic sense of meaningfulness.

Professor Douglas Bush, in his book on The Renaissance and English Humanism, indicates that he believes “it will be impossible for us to bring back a general belief in a supernatural world,” but he does suggest that something like it will have to be appealed to if we are to avoid the loss of the values of Christianity and humanism incident to the rise of the new religions of nationalism, capitalism, communism, national socialism, and the vitalistic psychology of the unconscious. It would seem that man is incurably religious in a much more ominous fashion than M. Sabatier originally meant to suggest. The choice that lies before man is not Christianity or humanism, but rather Christianity or paganism. The power of humanism derives in the long run from the transcendent orientation of Christianity, and when this power is weakened, one form or other of idolatry will take its place, the idolatry of academic isolationism, or erotic or material possessions, of class, race, or nation.

I recall a conversation I had a few years ago with the famous German philosopher, Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg. I ventured to ask him his view concerning the significance today of humanism and liberalism. I asked the question partly because of the general assumption that he thinks of himself as a humanist and a liberal. His reply was shockingly emphatic for a man of poise and vision. He replied, “Humanism and liberalism have no longer any significance. The only group that in our world has the positive courage of its convictions is that of the orthodox Christians. My advice to any young man is that he return to orthodox Catholicism or Protestantism. Only in these groups is there to be found the Zwang that can resist the rising tide of barbarism in the world.” But it is worthy of note that Dr. Jaspers has not himself returned to orthodox Christianity. I pointed this out to him, and he replied that he was speaking as a sociologist and not giving a confession of his personal faith.

There are many such men of good will around us today who see that the values cherished in common by humanism and Christianity are not eliciting the loyalty needed for their survival, and yet they cannot accept Christian supernaturalism. It is my conviction that they are justified in making this refusal, but they are themselves partially to blame for the stalemate. They have supinely accepted the statements of the supernaturalists and of the authoritarian churches as to the nature of religion and even of God. Having done this, they labor under the erroneous impression that the only alternative to a secular humanism is a heteronomous supernaturalism. What is actually needed is a group of Christians and of humanists who will humbly take up the task of working out a religious conception of life that will at the outset repudiate the projection of an objective divine world behind and alongside the objective natural-human order, who will together take up the hints in this direction that have been thrown out by Christian theologians from the early Middle Ages down through Nicholas of Cusa, Schelling, and Friedrich von Huegel and thus make possible the overcoming of those modern idolatries, political, ecclesiastical, and academic, that are attempting either to bring in the kingdom of heaven by violence or are pining away with anemia. The power of God is not to be despaired. Our sin is that old devil Accidie. Dark night and chaos are upon us only because we cannot hear the summons: Repent ye! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.


Series Navigation<< Pessimism and Optimism in ReligionThe Stabilizer and the Shatterer >>
Categories: Theology & Philosophy