A Christian Humanist Manifesto:
God Is Most Satisfied with Us when We Are Most Glorified by Him
Roger E. Olson
Few words provoke such a negative reaction among conservative Christians as “humanism.” Few single words so well summarize secular culture and its anthropocentrism as “humanism.” In the popular imagination, anyway, “humanism” evokes the impression of what media talking heads call “the indomitable human spirit” and conservative Christians call “man-centeredness.” By itself, however, without adjectival qualifications, “humanism” simply means belief in the dignity, worth and cultural creativity of human beings. Add “Renaissance” to “humanism” and you get Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Add “secular” to “humanism” and you get Aldous Huxley and John Dewey. What do you get when you add “Christian” to “humanism” and is that even possible? Or is that an oxymoron?
I once received a fundamentalist denomination’s magazine in the mail and read its lead article entitled “Are You a Christian Humanist?” Having then recently become acquainted with Christian humanism as a life and world view I read the article with interest but growing disappointment and frustration. From it I learned that a “Christian humanist” is someone who spends more time watching television than reading the Bible.
I invited the president of the state’s Humanist Association chapter to speak to and interact with my Christian apologetics class. After his glowing recommendation of secular humanism I asked if he was aware of Christian humanism. He informed me he had never heard of it and it would be an oxymoron.
A theological friend, a passionate Calvinist, took me aside and asked me if I had ever considered the possibility that my Arminian belief in free will might be evidence of “latent humanism” in me. A conservative Calvinist blogger declared that Christian believers in free will are “flaunting humanism.”
Obviously “humanism” is an essentially contested concept; without clarification and even some definition, it can mean many different things. But whatever it might mean, to most conservative Christians it’s bad and to most secularists it’s good. And that’s because of its adoption by secular humanists in the 1930s and 1970s with the Humanist Manifestos I and II. And Christians let them have it. I mean that in both senses—we gave the concept and term over to the secularists and bashed them and it.
During the 1970s “secular humanism” was discovered by fundamentalists in virtually every corner of American society but especially in public schools; that was the beginning of the explosion of the Christian home schooling movement. Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame made his reputation and, I assume, fortune before that by exposing secular humanism as the common coin of American culture. Christians were to abandon it and build their own, separate culture free of the curse of humanism. We dropped the “secular” and called it just “humanism,” forgetting that original humanism was Christian.
Jumping from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century: millions of young Christians are flocking to a new version of an old theology called Calvinism. They have been labeled “Young, Restless and Reformed.” In March, 2009, Time magazine included Calvinism among the top ten “new ideas” changing the world. The guru of this new wave of Calvinism is Minnesota Baptist pastor John Piper, a devotee of Puritan preacher, philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Not since Bill Gothard in the 1970s launched his Basic Youth Conflicts seminars has a single Christian writer and speakers captured the attention of so many conservative Christians.
Piper’s well-known and often quoted motto is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He calls it “Christian hedonism” and it implies a decidedly anti-humanistic message. Human beings are totally depraved, hell-bound, pond scum unless and until they are chosen by God to glorify him by being saved. But salvation, like everything else, is for God’s glory. God alone is glorious; humans are…well, whatever’s the opposite of glorious. Our purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. All glory to God! None to humans.
But Piper’s not the only one spreading this seemingly anti-humanist message. And it’s not unique to Calvinism. In February, 2012, I attended a lecture by the man honored by Time as America’s “best theologian.” When asked to explain his thoughts about humanity the theologian said simply “We’re shit.”
A friend who teaches New Testament at a well-known Christian university loves to tell classes and audiences that humans are “pond scum.”
A deep and pervasive anti-humanism has settled gradually into the bones of conservative Christianity.
I see three reasons for this condition. First, it’s an understandable reaction to the horrors of the twentieth century that was supposed to be “the Christian century” but turned out to be “the genocidal century” instead. Second, it’s an understandable reaction to the insipid optimism about human nature rampant in the popular media and still in some intellectual quarters. Third, it’s an understandable reaction to the waves of positive-thinking, self-esteem boosting popular spirituality promoted by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen that have seeped into evangelical as well as mainstream culture and religion.
Perceptive young people, adherents of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement, are attracted to the stout theology of Jonathan Edwards promoted by Piper and others who swim against these streams. Again, all I can say is “understandable.” But I must add “an over reaction.”
I believe we need to recover a vision of Christianity as the true humanism and not give in to a gnostic-like abhorrence of humanity. I propose a new motto, not to contradict Piper’s Christian hedonist maxim, but to add to it as its good and necessary counter balance: “God is most satisfied with us when we are most glorified by him.”
We… “glorified?” Doesn’t God get all the glory? Isn’t “it” all about him and not at all about us? My motto sounds almost heretical to ears conditioned by the God-centeredness of contemporary evangelical Christianity, especially that portion of it influenced by Piper and his surrogates.
However, I will argue that Christian humanism, properly qualified, is biblical and thoroughly traditional as well as a positive force for cultural engagement.
Those of you who have lived long enough will recognize that what I’m saying is not new, but then, there are no new ideas under the sun. What I’m calling for is a renewal, a renaissance of Christian humanism—especially among evangelical Christian young people who have not been exposed to it and who have been indoctrinated by their spiritual gurus to think being anti-human is to be more spiritual.
Excuse me while I talk about history for just a little bit. “Humanism” originally referred to the Renaissance cultural reaction to medieval denigrations of humanity and nature and to the Renaissance flowering of the arts. Throughout much of the Middle Ages it was popular in Christendom to view this life as nothing more than a prelude to the life to come. Life was considered little more than a probation; if you did well you would be rewarded in heaven but if you did poorly you would be punished in hell. Little value was placed on individuals and their cultural achievements. One evidence of that is the fact that we know little about the architects of the great Gothic cathedrals. And most art was iconic rather than realistic.
The Renaissance rediscovered ancient culture and began to place value on artistic prowess. Artists began to sign their work which became more realistic about nature and human subjects. “Humanism” was born in that cultural cradle and it meant a new emphasis on the individual and human cultural creativity. “Christian humanism” was associated especially with those Christians like Desiderius Erasmus who called for “ad fontes”—back to the sources of Christianity—the Greek New Testament and the church fathers. The emphasis of Christian humanism was on the image of God as the source and basis of human beings’ unique dignity and worth above nature. And this life began to be viewed not merely as a prelude or probation but as a gift to be enjoyed.
Erasmus stands out as the premier Christian humanist of the Renaissance and Reformation and it irked Martin Luther to no end. Luther opposed humanism; to him human beings are a disease on the skin of the earth—unless and until God’s “proper righteousness” begins to transform them through faith. Even then, however, he held out no hope of real progress either in individual holiness or civil righteousness. He expected the return of Christ at any moment and saw cultural engagement and creativity as a waste of time. Luther denied the image of God in sinners, saying it is but a broken relic of little or no use. To him the rebelling peasants were but mad dogs to be hunted down and slaughtered.
Erasmus, who laid the Reformation egg that Luther hatched, developed a “philosophy of Christ” to oppose both the medieval Catholic emphasis on scholastic philosophy and theology and the growing Protestant emphasis on total depravity. For him, Jesus’ humanity is the model of true humanity and all persons, due to the image of God in them, are capable of imitating Christ with the assistance of grace. Erasmus called for ends to war and nationalism and criticized both popes and rulers for ignoring the poor. He had an optimistic, but also realistic, vision of a utopia based on the gospel—something shared by Sir Thomas More of England.
Christian humanism was birthed in the Renaissance and Reformation even if its roots, as Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has shown in Atheist Delusions, lie deep in the gospel and teachings of the church fathers. By and large, with some exceptions, Christian humanism was opposed by Protestants who opted for total depravity and appeal to common grace rather than the image of God to explain civic and cultural righteousness in society. Strains of it appeared here and there among Protestants, however, especially among the English where Wesley and the Quakers found a seed of goodness in every corner of creation including human beings.
To a very great extent the Puritans reacted against humanism including Christian humanism and chose instead to represent humanity as pond scum especially compared with the glory of God not shared with humans until the elect arrive in heaven. The Westminster divines gathered in 1648 wrote that the sole end or purpose of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” There is the seed of Piper’s motto “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
I want to make absolutely clear that I agree that God’s glory and our satisfaction go together; to be sure, our purpose as human beings is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And we are affected by original sin; apart from God’s grace we do find it easier to sin than to do good. And nothing we do is really very good compared with God’s goodness.
But that’s not enough. Saying only those things leaves us with a gnostic-like repugnance of humanity that contradicts Scripture and the best of Christian tradition. It can easily lead to Christian rejection of the arts, education and efforts at civic righteousness. I grew up with this attitude of absolute disengagement from “the world” of culture. The fundamentalist college I attended discouraged us from reading non-evangelical authors. All textbooks had to be by evangelical Christian authors. There was no seed of truth outside conservative Protestant faith. Non-Christians were hell-bound candidates for conversion and nothing more. One day the college’s president walked into the library, gathered up all the “secular records” including classical music and took them out to the dumpster. His explanation in chapel was that only sacred music was relevant to our curriculum.
Okay, so that’s extreme. You won’t find that happening among most conservative evangelical Christians. But it’s not uncommon to find something like that attitude toward culture among today’s conservative, especially Reformed, Christians. Why isn’t Mozart available in Christian music stores (besides the fact that music stores are disappearing)? Why is there such widespread disdain for philosophy and the arts among conservative Christians—including many young ones?
In my own Christian youth the reason was the Jesus Movement. We were anti-culture to the core. We read the Bible only and listened exclusively to Keith Green. All but “Jesus freaks” were totally depraved and corrupt and especially philosophers, artists and, yes, even theologians. Dare I say the same spirit is alive and well too often, too much, among today’s Young, Restless and Reformed Christians?
To be continued… (What is the antidote to this anti-humanistic perspective among Christians?)