A Christian Humanist Manifesto: God Is Most Satisfied with Us When We Are Most Glorified by Him (Part 1)

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?)

  • Kevin T. Bauder

    Roger,

    I’m sure you’ve read Machen’s essay on “Christianity and Culture.” Doesn’t it represent a form of Christian (and even Reformed) humanism? Wasn’t Machen himself a humanist, properly speaking? It seems that even “official” humanists like Walter Lippman and H. L. Mencken recognized in Machen a spirit that was to some degree kindred. I’m all on your side when it comes to a legitimately Christian humanism–I’ve been advocating it and writing about it for thirty years. In fact, I believe that ONLY a Christian is in a position to appreciate the true value and dignity of humanity, and that of all people, Christians ought most to revel in the humanities. But I find it perplexing to conflate this issue with the debate over Calvinism and Arminianism.

    • rogereolson

      I find it odd, to say the least, that someone could be thought of as a humanist who believes some significant portion of humanity was created by God for damnation or so unloved by God, so lacking in value to God, that he would refuse to save them when he could (because election to salvation is unconditional). No matter what traditional Calvinists say about humanity’s worth and dignity, what else they say about double predestination undermines it.

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  • Don

    When you gave the above content as a lecture here at Houghton College Monday evening, I was somewhat torn in listening to you expound on your very helpful exposition of a Christian understanding of humanity. On the one hand, I found myself agreeing with most of your descriptions of your understanding of a robust Christian humanism. For decades I have been growing in my understanding of what such a view means in multiple spheres of daily life in the 21st century. However, as part of your talk, and reproduced here in your blog, you described Reformed theology as not embracing such a view of Christian humanism. Frankly, I felt that you were putting up a straw man to knock down, in order to make clearer your own position. While I am not reformed nor Calvinist, I have read much reformed theology and benefited much from people like John Piper and his God focused and God exalting view of scripture. In fact, the description of Christian Humanism that you gave us on Monday evening (and on this blog), was all VERY familiar, in both detail and in broad panoramic perspective, because I first learned of it, and grew to accept and greatly appreciate such a view by reading Reformed theologians and authors. In fact, my experience in Christian communities and writings is that were you to take everything positive you said about a Christian view of humanity, removed some of your disclaimers about the impact of the fall on our human dignity, I think the label “Reformed” would fit very well indeed.

    So, I fully agreed with what you affirmed about a robust Christian understanding of humanity, but found my self puzzled and disagreeing with your unhelpful and exaggerated caricature of Reformed theology. I think you would better serve your own purpose of rightly promoting a robust Christian humanism by stressing that your perspectives are in full alignment with the best Reformed theologians of the past century and more.

    Respectively, Don

    • rogereolson

      My point was that this Christian humanism is being forgotten by contemporary evangelical Christians, not only followers of the young, restless, Reformed movement. I quoted some who are not Reformed in their theology, too (as expressing negative opinions about humanity). My experience with Calvinism in general, though, is that it tends to over emphasize total depravity to the neglect of humanity’s inherent value and worth. I can’t imagine many conservative Calvinists agreeing with my conclusion that God is most satisfied with us when we are being glorified by him. The emphasis falls too much on the glory of God to the neglect of God’s desire to glorify us.

  • Don

    * respectfully

    • rogereolson

      I owe you and others who have raised the same issue (viz., Calvinism as humanism) a better answer. I just added one to another commenter’s question. It seems to me the magisterial reformers were reacting against Christian humanism. I don’t see anything of the spirit of, say, Erasmus in them. (Okay, sure, they used his Greek New Testament and some of them agreed with his call to the sources, but their assessments of humanity’s worth and value to God were different than his and from humanism in general.) Furthermore, my main “foil” was not Reformed theology in general but contemporary “young, restless, Reformed” Christians many of whom I have taught over the last thirty years. Their general impression from their theological gurus is that humanity is of no value to God except that God uses humans, both elect and reprobate, to glorify himself. But they do not seem to realize or agree that God gets enjoyment out of glorifying us. That’s a foreign concept to them.

  • John Mark

    Always willing to go where ‘angels fear to tread.’ :) Thanks for this post.

  • Mark Turner

    Jim Packer, a well known calvinist, sees nothing wrong with the idea of Christian humanism since he wrote a book called: “Christianity: the true Humanism”. Our church once used it as the basis for a series of men’s breakfasts a number of years ago.

  • Mark Turner

    Jim Packer, a well known calvinist, sees nothing wrong with the idea of Christian humanism since he wrote a book called: “Christianity: the true Humanism”. Our church once used it as the basis for a series of men’s breakfasts a number of years ago.

  • Josh

    Dr. Olson,

    Do you think that another factor for the “scum” view of humanity stems for the Reformers? They reacted against a Catholic works salvation and, perhaps, over reacted.

    What are your thoughts on Packer’s “Christianity: The True Humanism” ?

    • rogereolson

      I read it a long time ago and was impressed that he was right about Christian humanism being the true humanism but that his endorsement of it is inconsistent with his Calvinism.

  • Amory Ewerdt

    You struck a cord with me on this one. I had been entertaining a thought recently, namely, that God is a humanist. I need to wrestle a bit more with this, but it seems as if yours Piper’s statements aren’t mutually exclusive but that they can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. At any rate, you have me thinking…thanks. And I’m looking forward to part two.

  • Steve Dominy

    I cannot find the source,but love the definition, ““The glory of God is nothing other than the eternal self-giving of the Father who loves and honors the Son and the Son who loves and honors the Father.” I don’t think that is a complete definition of glory but it is accurate in what it addresses. Newbigin said of glory, “The glory of God is a reciprocal relationship: it is something forever freely given.” Jesus makes it pretty clear that he has, “given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23) In short, “God is most satisfied with us when we are most glorified by him” is spot on as far as I am concerned.

  • Steve Dominy

    Oh yeah, I am preaching on John 17:20-26 this week and will make sure that you get credit for the quote!

  • Dean

    Dr. Olson, what at great and timely post (as least for me). I literally had a conversation with my sister just yesterday regarding Matt Chandler’s Explicit Gospel which I’m reading right now. I’m not sure if you have read it, but it’s very popular amoung the YRR and in fact, it was given to a “seeker” friend of mine by someone at the church he is currently attending. A big reason I am having trouble getting through it is because it’s just seeped in Calvinist theology, even as it “explicitly” says the Gospel is NOT TULIP. Ironically, TULIP is ever present in virtually every chapter of the book. But the thing that bothered me the most is the subject you bring up in your post. I get that the YRR are very interested in God’s sovereignty and his glory, I would call it an obsession, and I think that’s great, but they’ve absolutely gone too far. You can definitely see in the Explicit Gospel and I assume other books written by the YRR. I kept asking myself as I read it, if the world is so terrible and man so depraved, and God hates it so much, then why the heck did God create us in the first place? And if God is so sovereign, well, who is ultimately responsible then? Books like these simply skirt these foundational, philosophical questions upon which their entire theological framework is based upon. I don’t see how you can be intellectually truthful in doing that or by punting it to “mystery”. Chandler also talks about “Original Sin” in a way that I simply can’t stomach. He raises the tired example of a crying, selfish newborn as evidence of man’s innate sinfulness and the reason we’re all going to hell from birth (even before birth I gather?). Well, seriously, not only does that not make any sense (what kind of psychopath parent would attribute anything a baby does with any moral value, when I tell non-Christians things like that they don’t believe anyone could say something as crazy as that), and once again, what are the implications for abortions or children who die (eternal conscious torment, must be if it’s predestined right?).

    I’m bummed that my friend read this book, because he was left with precisely the same questions that I raised above, what normal thinking person wouldn’t? Then you actually read the gospels and what it says to me is that God loves you and God loves the world and because God is good, you should love and value the things He does. And that while we were his enemies, He died for US to reconcile US and all of creation to Him. And the Bible was given to US to communicate to US this message. It seems to me, despite what Al Pacino says in The Devil’s Advocate, God was the first humanist!

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for underscoring my point in the lecture/paper. Some who heard it don’t agree. I don’t know if they are reading the literature the YRR people are writing and reading. According to Edwards and Piper and most of the YRR people, God created the world to display his glory which means all his attributes without prejudice to any. Wesley believed that God created out of love–not just for himself and his glory but also for us. To me that’s a huge difference.

  • http://hoxeyville.blogspot.com/ Eric

    Nice, after all, why should the atheists have all the good humanism?

  • Eagle

    Interetsing… since I had a previous background in some of this reformed theology I cringe whenever I hear about “Christian Hedonism.” I have a friend who’se drunk the Sovereign Grace kool-aid and he reminds me of the Mormons I used to know (I flirted with Mormonism in college) in how he does mental gymnastics.

    For me…I can’t understand why the Puritans are looked to as role models. If they really are going to model the Puritans shouldn’t they turn their back on the Enlightenement? For example….since the sceintific theory came from the Enlightenment the next time a YRR couple is expecting…do a birth like they did in the 18th century. No morphine, no doctor involved in the delivery. I would really be fascinated Roger to hear you analysis of the Puritans. From what I’ve read at the Wartburg Watch and other blogs….the Puritans remind me of the Mormons, and I see many similarities.

  • http://www.christianhumanist.org Nate

    If only there were a Christian Humanist Blog out there dedicated to these sorts of things… perhaps even a podcast. ;)

  • http://www.christianhumanist.org Nate

    More seriously, Roger, thank you for pointing this up, and know that at the very least there’s a ragtag band of Christian humanists out here celebrating what human beings do well.

  • rvs

    Rock on, Roger Olson. I find myself thinking of Marsilio Ficino: “Know thyself, O divine lineage in mortal guise!” We are made in the image of God and are immortal. We are more than conquerors. I like your question at the end–the antidote. Perhaps for starters Christian humanists need to claim more strategically Lewis, Tolkien, and various other favorites. –George Herbert and the key devotional poets too, all of whom were beloved by Christopher Hitchens. And, of course, we need to explain how fun it is to find God’s truths in the Avengers.

    And now I quote Hank Hill on the topic of THAT sort of Christian rock music: “Can’t you see that you’re not making Christianity better; you’re just making rock and roll worse!”

  • http://tachesterton.blogspot.com Tim Chesterton

    Thank you for this, Roger – I’m very much looking forward to Part Two!

  • http://perthanabaptists.wordpress.com Nathan

    Dear Roger,
    One thing I find so valuable in your work is your patient defining and refining of movements and terms – and here’s another great example. (For example, your discussion of hard vs soft postmodernism in Reformed and Always Reforming was especially helpful – such an important distinction.)
    I wonder if old SH, America’s best, was being hyperbolic? Or stirring?
    Shalom, Nathan.

    • rogereolson

      He just can’t help himself. :) Yes, I think he was being hyperbolic, but I also think his appellation reveals some underlying attitude about humanity that’s going around in various Christian circles these days.

  • John Ayala

    Great post. One of our pastors was giving a sermon a while back where he was trying to teach on that same quote from John Piper. He is a Piper fan (not a “Piper cub” because he is in his 60′s :-)) and I could tell he got it from Piper. His sermon sounded so “forced,” it sounded as though he was trying to fit scripture passages, as well as the whole teaching into that type of theology. I could not really tell what the major point was as it pertained to the scripture passages he used. I honestly don’t think that he himself understood it completely. He only sees “God’s sovereignty” being preached and spoken of in such a authoritative manner, that I believe my pastor only wants to mirror Piper so badly for these reasons. But as you explained so well, it only explains half of the story and leads to a degraded view of humanity. As opposed to the “image of God” view of humanity.
    Thank you for posting this!

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

    I appreciate this. I have considered myself a Christian humanist ever since I studied Erasmus in college. I find Jesus’ words, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” to be a definitive statement of humanism at the core of the Christian faith.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    God is most satisfied when we love most what God loves – God and people.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    One could do a lot worse than reading only the Bible and listening only to Keith Green! It was KJV only, right?

    Maybe a paltry diet, but little poison in it. One could grow up to be a God-fearing and responsible adult consuming that.

    • rogereolson

      It is amazing how many “Jesus freaks” went on to be evangelical theologians and biblical scholars! I know a Christian university/seminary president who started his Christian life in a Christian commune led by Hal Lindsay in Southern California together with Bob Dylan. He has amazing stories to tell about Dylan’s Christian period.

  • Mike J

    what writing did you find this in, “To him [Luther] the rebelling peasants were but mad dogs to be hunted down and slaughtered.” I understand your point, there are those who do take the depravity of man to far and engage more in navel gazing as opposed to the other half of the equation manly Christ’s redemptive work and “how must I then live.” As you look through history in the early church, in the midievel, the reformation and at the YRR we see the main thrust being the giving of ourselves to God and our neighbour, the concept of “the first shall be last and the last first” is and was alive and well in these points in history. If we focus on the the teachings depravity of man among these eras we loose the the great teachings, ones relation to their neighbour, of those in history as I believe is the case with your piece contained above. An example of these great teachings is in Questions and Answers 122-132, in particular 129 and 130. I am afraid your conclusion concerning the Westminster Catechism is rather one sided, a holistic reading of the WC paints a very selfless picture of the christian in relation to his neighbour. We must not forget that even the plowing of the wicked is sin (I feel as though you would comment that I am calling the sinner pond scum at this point), that being the case how should we look upon this man (pond scum)? In this life according to the WC you fall into three categories, a superior, an inferior, and an equel. Questions and Answers 126-132 do a great job calling us not to navel gazing but to a higher calling, that of Christ’s example. We must guard ourselves from another form of navel gazing, that of gazing into others navels….

  • Matt Davis!

    Thanks Dr. Olson,
    I really appreciate what you’re getting at here, I’ve long been dissatisfied with how some speakers discuss depravity in a way that refuses to acknowledge the goodness we possess as God’s creatures. I’ve been a fan of Christian humanism ever since I first heard about Erasmus, and I really appreciate your thoughts on the topic.

    Your post reminds me of the way James McClendon tried to positively describe his location within the streams of Christian tradition.

    “Say then that I am an ecstatic Protestant. ‘Protestant’ – That pays tribute to Calvin and Edwards, and Schleiermacher, and Barth. ‘Protestant’ also says to challenge all pat solutions, all proximate loyalties, as idolatrous. ‘Ecstatic’ – That affirms my continuity with experience-saturated believers: with Puritans so little known, with revivalists and pietists, with Pentecostalists and communal celebrants of many sorts. And that says (as the word ‘Protestant’ alone does not) to appreciate the rich psychic depths available to men of biblical faith, their title to the full diapason of human feelings, wants, hopes, fears, fantasies, imaginings, longings, visions, (to appreciate does not, of course, mean to accept at face value – appreciation means evaluation too.)” -James McClendon, “Biography as Theology.”

    I really appreciate how McClendon tries to embrace the full range of the human experience. His work has been very good at helping me think through my Christian convictions in a much more comprehensive manner.

  • Mike Anderson

    I have a degree in philosophy and the position of employment I most recently applied for was “artist,” so you might expect that I am in favor of building a deeper appreciation for philosophy and the arts in my Christian communities. Actually, I’m skeptical of those who think their role is to “redeem” culture (often my Reformed friends, actually), and I think creating art and expressing myself are not important parts of my Christian witness.

    I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Art Saves Lives.” I don’t know what it meant for them, but for me I imagine all the powerful experiences I’ve had with art–a sense of approaching the profound in a novel, swooning with a major-key denouement in a symphony, my spirit rising with the grandeur of a landscape, empathizing with a painted portrait’s mental state, or just being blown away by a well-crafted movie–and making the pursuit of these my religion. How different is the pursuit of artistic pleasure from the “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy that the Apostle Paul said is the alternative if Christ is not raised? Art may be more enduring and ego-satisfying than the simpler pleasures, but both kinds must be placed on the altar to see how God would use us through them, or else we risk a kind of cultural syncretism or idolatry that doesn’t honor God’s commands.

    One of God’s commands is the “cultural mandate” of Gen 1:26-28, and John Stackhouse reminds us that “we are literally gardeners first. God has never rescinded this commandment.” And yet I feel uneasy making precedence of a commandment given to all humanity when other commandments were later given to the elect: the Great Commandment (love God and your neighbor as yourself), the New Commandment (love the brothers), and the Great Commission (make disciples). The ability to order the world and have dominion over it is a privilege we are thankful for, and something most of us will do as a natural course of life, building homes, families, and communities. But “the world is passing away” (1Jn 2:17) and our selfish works will be burned up at the Day of the Lord (1Co 3:13). Now enters our assumptions about eschatology, whether pre- or a-/post- milennial, which I think is a more proximate and conscious cause of our attitudes toward culture than gnostic dualism.

  • Katie

    This strikes me as entirely sensible. If we think our neighbors are pond scum, we’re hardly likely to love them. And also I don’t think pond scum reflects the image of God nearly as well as the average person does, even an unredeemed one.

  • Derek

    Dr. Olson,

    You have no idea how timely this post is for me. I have been struggling with so many of the issues that you have touched upon in this post.

    I attend a weekly fellowship with a bunch of guys who are all quite Reformed and Puritan-minded, so a lot of issues you have raised here really speak to my situation. I am strongly thinking of linking my friends to this post as I think they need to read this.

    Anyhow, I just want to mention that I certainly do have an issue with an overemphasis on certain Biblical doctrines and I do take issue with Christian’s who regard the present world as little more than a lump awaiting true transformation when Christ returns. I never felt right, even when once upon a time, I too adopted this sort of Gnostic view of the world and ascetic participation in it. Although, I do find that this sort of perspective is more prevalent amongst fundamentalists than those who have a mature, robust reformed worldview.

    I think that a truly reformed Christian would encourage say a Steve Jobs to pursue his technological innovations for the betterment of this world and then take the exposure he would receive as an opportunity to also thank God for all that He has done; whereas the fundamentalist would discourage a Steve Jobs from pursuing his technological pursuits and categorize it as worldly and temporal in comparison to the gospel work that needs to be done because it has eternal implications….that might be more pietistic than fundamentalist…but maybe pietism and fundamentalism are basically the same?

    Thanks again!

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  • Matt Brady

    Thanks for your insight, Roger. I’ve always felt something was missing from Piper’s assertion, and your thoughts on that are helping me understand that better.

  • Mark Polet

    The best integration of humanism and orthodox Christian faith is by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Read his ‘Letters from a Traveller’ to see how natural these two theses merge.

  • Micahela

    Thank you for writing this. Finally, someone who understands this point of view.


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