Christian Humanism

The English vicar and biblical scholar now blogging at clayboy (formerly of Metacatholic) has a brief but very worthwhile post that objects to the surrender of the term “humanist” to the agnostic/atheist camps.

I entirely agree that the term should not be surrendered.

I will say that there are some forms of Christianity that are not humanistic—I’m thinking of certain full-blown apocalyptic versions (see an earlier discussion of apocalypticism here)—but I’d argue that most versions that fall within modern mainline Protestant and Catholic theologies are indeed humanistic especially when viewed through an historical lens. I.e., there are movements today that may not seem humanistic at first blush—except when viewed against truly theocentric or apocalyptic systems from earlier days…

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8 Responses to Christian Humanism

  1. Bill Carroll says:

    Barth once said, alluding to Protagoras, that “Man is the measure of all things, because God has become man.”

    Truly Christian apocalyptic takes its cue from the new heaven and the new earth and Jerusalem descending from the heavens. The road may be rockier than in other forms of Christian eschatology, but the future is the heavenly banquet in the Kingdom of God. This is ultimately a humanistic (and social) vision.

    Apocalyptic emphasizes the discontinuity and the divine no. Christian apocalyptic does this but only for the sake of God’s yes to humanity.

  2. I’m going to disagree, Bill. I think that classical apocalyptic that we see in the 2nd through 10th centuries is not humanistic. (And please note I’m not suggesting that all Christian thinking during those periods is apocalyptic—most patristic authors weren’t…) The focus is on cosmic realities; earthly and human events are important only to the degree that they are reflections of a cosmic battle.

    As far as texts I’d point to the Christian use/appropriation of 1 & 2 Enoch, Apocalypse of Thomas, etc.

  3. Bill Carroll says:

    Derek, I’m not sure that we disagree too much. I’m using the term Christian apocalyptic prescriptively, not descriptively. Many historical examples from the 2nd through 10th centuries are as you say, less humanistic.

    If apocalyptic does not contain a humanistic pole, it is not normatively Christian.

  4. Joe Rawls says:

    As an undergraduate I took electives in Renaissance and Reformation history (from a Lutheran professor no less)and got a good overview of the Christian humanists–Pius II, Pico, Erasmus–and their influence on the reformers. It was years before I realized that “humanism” was a synonym for “atheism” in contemporary parlance.

  5. Christian humanists — makes me think of Dorothy Day, Vida Dutton Scudder, Oscar Romero, William Stringfellow, New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, Pope Paul VI… It’s hard for me to think of “humanist” and “atheist” together.

  6. Lee says:

    I’m a big fan of the Christian humanist tradition–understood as openness to “secular” learning of all sorts and giving a more positive evaluation of human agency than in some traditional (e.g. hardline Augustinian) theologies.

    At the same time, I worry that humanism can quickly become anthropocentrism, where humanity is the measure of all things.

    Maybe the definition just needs to be fleshed out more.

  7. John-Julian, OJN says:

    I remember a book by Louis Bouyer called “Christian Humanism” — and there’s another by Allen which investigates the Christian Humanism of Jac

  8. rick allen says:

    I, too, dislike the contemporary use of the term “humanism” for systems opposing theism. It’s become, I suppose, one of a number of standard meanings, but I hope the original usage isn’t entirely lost.

    Though we speak of, say, Greek humanism, or Confucian humanism, I think the term itself originated with the Renaissance (or in writing seeking to describe the Renaissance). There the contrast was not so much with theism as with the scholastic method.

    Put another way, my understanding was always that Renaissance humanism proposed more a new style of expression, one more in keeping with the discursive style of the ancients, and less given to the meticulous, atomistic analysis of, say, a Thomas Aquinas. The scholastics were masters of logic and achingly subtle analysis. Think Anselm, Thos. Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eckhart. The humanists were sometimes devout Christians and sometimes sceptics, but their style was florid, literary, and historical, with a conscious aim at producing beautiful (and sometimes biting) prose.

    What I find interesting is that, with my limited grasp of Latin, I find Thomas Aquinas’ Latin much easier to read that Thomas More’s. I know where Aquinas is going, know that he is going to set out careful distinctions and apt authorities. More’s humanist prose is considerably more difficult for me to follow, as he attempts dialogue, travelogue, legal rhetoric, moral rhetoric and frequent irony.

    This is an understanding of “humanism” that isn’t an either/or, that uses a particular antique/modern style to critique or bolster Christian claims without itself claiming to be the exclusive approach to understanding man or God or nature. It is part of the apologetic arsenal of the Church, but has obviously been appropriated and used both outside and against.

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