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christian humanism

It’s quite possible that the mere mention of “humanism” turns the interest of most professing Christians off, not unlikely pushing them away from serious engagement and discussion with anyone willingly employing the word.

To these same people, the idea of modifying Humanism with Christianity probably seems paradoxical at best, oxymoronic somewhere in the middle, and just pure evil at the worst. I have certainly seen many of my own students—quite often extremely bright young women and men at my college—physically cringe the first time encountering the term.

Certainly, the secularists gained much by capturing much of the import and perhaps the present as well as the future of this word with the so-called Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Here are two points from the manifesto:

“Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.”

“In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.”

As just these two paragraphs illustrate, the secularists not only captured, but they essentially raped this noble word.

At its most fundamental level, Christian Humanism is simply a recognition that the humanities find their fulfillment in the Christian, and that Christians—who have been commanded by St. Paul to love things not of this world—employ the liberal arts as the best and most powerful form of education.

At another level, it simply states a reality—that the Christians inherited from the pagans a certain way of defining the human person, a person who is willing to leave the cave, is willing to concern his or her life with virtue in a pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and who is willing, perhaps, to sacrifice his very life for his community, be that community a family, a clan, a republic, or a church.

And, yet, at one more level, Christian Humanism recognizes what St. Paul preached at Mars Hill, what St. John wrote in the first fourteen lines of his Gospel, and what St. Augustine sanctified in recognizing that what Aeneas founded on the Tiber represented only a shadow of the real city: the Republic of God.  It recognizes that the Church—East and West—offered not revolution against the ancient world, but baptism and sanctification of much of what the ancients gave. 

“In Him we move and live and have our being,” St. Paul said in Athens, intentionally misquoting the three-hundred year old Stoic hymn, “In Zeus, we move and live and have our being.”

Just as Jesus fulfilled the Law without destroying it, the Church fulfilled the ancient world without destroying it.  Jesus, after all, came “in the fullness of time”—surrounded by the Jewish religion, a Hellenized culture, and a Roman polity. And, as St. Paul again commanded, “redeem the time.” Or, as the Apostle put it in his letter to the Colossians: Jesus is the first born of all creation, he who reconciles all things through himself on the cross.

For it was on a Friday afternoon at three—at the place of skulls—where all of creation came to its fulfillment, not just the present, but the past, and the future. Not just history, not just what was to come, but all of time.

So, when I say “Christian Humanist” I mean all of these things. If there’s a problem with the term “Christian Humanism,” it’s not that I’m offering the world something tainted; instead, my crime is only that I’m wasting my audience’s time by simply being redundant. 

So, when I speak of inheriting the Christian Humanist tradition of the twentieth century, I am also really speaking about a variety of persons—mostly from liturgically-oriented religions—who attempted to either revive or maintain the humanities in a number of areas, but especially in academia and the arts. 

Their ancestors were Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Cicero, St. Augustine, Thomas More and others.

These people challenged modernity and progressivism in all of its evils—found in the Gulags, the Holocaust Camps, the vast killing fields of the 20th century.

The Christian Humanists  responded to a people, east and west, who had rejected the immense complexity of each individual person, dividing and subdividing and subdividing then deconstructing the human person in some picquassoeque fashion—recreating the new man, a shadow of a shadow, a hollow shade—at least for those who survived the terror of the ideological states.

“Shut your eyes, reader.  Do you hear the thundering of wheels? Those are the [ ] cars rolling on and on. Those are the red cows rolling.  Every minute of the day. And every day of the year.  And you can hear the water gurgling—those are prisoners’ barges moving on and on.  And the motors of the Black Marias roar. They are arresting someone all the time, cramming him in somewhere, moving him about.  And what is that hum you hear? The overcrowded cells of the transit prisons.  And that cry? The complains of those who have been plundered, raped, beaten to with an inch of their lives. We have reviewed and considered all the methods of delivering prisoners, and we have found that they are all. . . worse. We have examined the transit prisons, but we have not found any that were good. And even the last human hope that there is something better ahead, that it will be better in camp, is a false hope. In camp it will be . . . worse.”—End of Volume 1 of the Gulag.

But the western world—fascinated with the immensely complex particularities of Darwin, Marx, and Freud in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lost the whole man–that deep, unfathomable complexity of the human person, each a temple of the Holy Spirit, each a unique bearer of the infinite Image of God.

Man became in the 19th century mind, either merely biological, or merely economic, or merely psychological. Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism ripped the Image of Man to shreds.

Even (or perhaps especially) in the so-called free, civilized world, politics and ideology consumed all things: religion, art, law, ethics, morality, and the list goes on. Most of us, I assume, reject the blond superficiality and seething soundbites of a Fox News–what seem like sonic piercings–but were the 1930s much better—when a color signified an entire view of the world: blue for liberal, pink for socialist, black for conservative, brown for fascist, and red for communist?

We were and are a long way from Christendom.

In a series of letters written in 1946, Dawson explained, how the narrowing of ideas had filtered down into the deepest parts of the West:

  • “One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas during the past 10 years.”
  • “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such.”
  • “Politics seems to be swamping everything and the non-political writer becomes increasingly uprooted and helpless.”
  • The world “won’t improve without new blood and new ideas and I don’t see at present where these are to be found.”

Despite Dawson’s well-founded fears, there were real women and men, those that certainly Cicero would have included among the citizens of the Stoic Cosmopolis, and maybe, if so blessed, would or have become citizens of St. Augustine’s City of God, forever glorious in the Eighth Day.

Among those who continued to carry on the noble tradition of Christian Humanism into the 20th century, we can number: T.E. Hulme; T.S. Eliot; Paul Elmer More; Romano Guardini; Christopher Dawson; J.R.R. Tolkien; Russell Kirk; Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and John Paul II. We can also include: Willa Cather; G.K. Chesterton; Nicholas Berdyaev, C.S. Lewis, Aurel Kolnai, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Peter Milward, Romano Guardini; Ralph McInerny; Wilhelm Roepke; Flannery O’Connor; Josef Pieper; and Hans urs Von Balthasar.

During the previous hundred years, we can also include a number of “fellow travelers”: Irving Babbitt; Leo Strauss; Eric Voegelin; Robert Nisbet; Owen Barfield; Ray Bradbury.

Of our generation, we can happily number: Gleaves Whitney, a scholar and gentleman, who first introduced me to these ideas, our own Vigen Gurion, novelist Gary Gregg, biographer Joseph Pearce, editor Dan McCarthy, Thomas More scholar Steve Smith, political theorist Patrick Deneen, webmeister Carl Olson, theologian and philosopher David Schindler, activist and author Barbara Elliott; cultural critic Stratford Caldecott; and the extremely youthful and vibrant woman of letters Julie Robison (I believe she is here in this audience).

Or, in art, we can turn to: Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki (RIP) in classical music; Kevin McCormick in classical guitar, and Mark Hollis in more popular music (sadly, now retired). 

So, I’d like to discuss three figures, and I’d like to show how the Christian Humanist story repeats itself—that is, that three of the men mentioned above, just merely here three examples, certainly not exclusive ones–the humanities led each to a fulfillment in Christianity.  Much like, as St. Luke records, Dionyius, Damarus, and “a number of others” accepted Paul’s teaching in Athens, so these men went from being essential antique pagans to fully Christian. Specifically, I’d like to look at Paul Elmer More, a Princeton Classicist; T.S. Eliot, the greatest artist, in my opinion, of the previous century; and Russell Kirk, the profound cultural and literary critic and historian from central Michigan.

End part I.

(Given at the Climacus Conference, Louisville, Kentucky February 19, 2010)

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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