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Incarnational Humanism

Incarnational Humanism, by Jens Zimerman

This work is thoroughly grounded in Christian theology and biblical reflection. At the very heart of Zimmerman’s case is the incarnation of Christ. Possibly the most explicit assertion defended throughout the book is “True humanity is the heart of the Gospel and the goal of Christ’s redemptive work…” This is a truth that is sure to give some Christians, and certainly secularists, pause. Another point that all fundamentalists (Christian or atheist brand) would find troubling in this work is the argument that, “all human knowledge is always interpretive.” Again Zimmermann addresses an important issue without lapsing into relativism.

“Objectivity in theological science, like objectivity in every true science, is achieved through rigorous correlation of thought with its proper object and the self-renunciation, repentance and change of mind that it involves.” In this sweeping work, Zimmerman also explores the relationship between science and religion, but more than that, the relationship between science and the very process of thinking as it is has developed in the Western world.

Frequently, Zimmerman assists the reader by spending crucial time defining terms. After the terms have been clearly defined the reader may move on toward considering the issue from a number of positions. Possibly the best example of this is the definition of the term humanism. At one point Zimmermann explores sixteen various humanisms that have been manifested throughout the Western intellectual and cultural tradition.

A beautiful term used by Zimmerman to describe the teaching of the incarnation among early Christian writers is the term, “God’s enfleshment.” The implications of the incarnation for Christian humanism are indeed wide in scope. When one begins with the incarnation, it alters the Christian view of nature, or all physical matter itself. In other words, if God was willing to become one with humans by putting on human flesh, there is an affirmation of the goodness of nature, as well as the need for redemption of that which has fallen. This redemptive process is understood in terms of healing and restoration to the original glory that God had intended for humanity before human rebellion. Essentially, when properly understood, the incarnation mediates worldliness and otherworldliness in terms that are both biblically and theologically sound. “On the basis of the incarnation and the redemptive work of Christ, the church fathers formulated a deeply optimistic view of human nature that held together reason and faith as necessary correlates for fully orbed view of human knowledge.”

Employing the insights of Paul Ricoeur, Zimmerman makes the case that there is an inseparable relationship between intuition and explanation, or what is often referred to as the existential and explanatory dimensions of interpretation. While some might suggest that this is not very scientific, it appears to be the major way humans interpret reality. Another helpful section at the end of the book calls for a widening of the concept of reason–a wiser shift from objectivism to interpretation while avoiding the spiral into subjective relativism.  Zimmermann brings theologian T.F. Torrance into the conversation where Torrance calls for and recognizes what true objectivity looks like as it relates to a general hermeneutic of humility in light of the human condition rooted in finite epistemology.

By way of conclusion, Zimmerman says, “in addition to being hermeneutical, religious humanism also requires a personalist anthropology in order to resist materialist or collectivist philosophies.” Zimmermann does a unique task of often juxtaposing authors who offer various critiques to respond to other authors. Possibly the best example would be Zimmerman’s juxtaposition of Michael Polanyi on the sociology of knowledge as a response to Jacques Derrida’s anti-humane deconstruction.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Mr. Woods: I find it heartening to read that “all human knowledge is always interpretive” and also the acknowledgement that it’s possible (though not always easy) to believe that “without lapsing into relativism”. Dogmatism–be it theological or scientific, religious or secular–is to be avoided, in favor of a more modest and tentative approach to Truth.

    As to “if God was willing to become one with humans by putting on human flesh, there is an affirmation of the goodness of nature”: isn’t Genesis a sufficient affirmation? And while you’re correct to say that “The implications of the incarnation for Christian humanism are indeed wide in scope,” it’s misleading to imply that those “implications” are either logically obvious or universally accepted. I’m in the process of reading Philip Jenkins’ THE JESUS WARS, and “God’s enfleshment” was a highly (even lethally) contentious subject for at least the first few hundred years of Christianity. Church authorities may have settled the matter so far as orthodoxy is concerned, but orthodoxy and Truth are not necessarily synonymous.

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