Needed: A Renewal of “Christian Humanism”

Needed: A Renewal of “Christian Humanism” July 2, 2012

Confessions of a Christian Humanist and a Call for a Renewal of Christian Humanism

I confess it. I’m a Christian humanist.

Some years ago I saw an article in a fundamentalist denomination’s magazine entitled “Are You a Christian Humanist?” Having long considered myself one, and thinking most fundamentalist Christians probably aren’t, I began reading the article with interest. The author, a pastor, defined “Christian humanist” as a person who (among other things) watches TV more than reads the Bible.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. The phrase “Christian humanism” has a long and honorable pedigree. It was first attached (so far as I know) to the “philosophy of Christ” of Desiderius Erasmus during the Reformation. Later, in response to the rise of secular humanism especially in the 1930s “Christian humanism” was used to label the Christian alternative by, among others, Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain who wrote Integral Humanism in 1936. That book was a response to the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto.” (A version of Maritain’s thought about humanism was published in 1938 in the U.S. under the title True Humanism. According to its Preface it is based on a series of lectures; the preface doesn’t mention the 1936 book.)

Since Maritain’s exposition of Christian humanism, numerous Christian scholars have adopted the phrase and published books and articles on the subject. For evangelicals, one of the most prominent was J. I. Packer’s and Thomas Howard’s Christianity: The True Humanism (1985).

In its January, 1982 issue, Eternity magazine (of blessed memory, may it RIP), published “A Christian Humanist Manifesto” in direct response to the (secular) Humanist Manifesto II of 1973. But also in response to the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical attacks on “humanism” as essentially pernicious throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. (Many of you may not be old enough to remember that campaign to vilify all “humanism” as evil led by the likes of Tim LaHaye and others. According to them, “humanism” is to be found barely hidden in public school textbooks. For several years conservative evangelicals especially sought for and found “humanism” hanging on every doorknob including in Christian colleges. It was a major impetus for the then growing home schooling movement.)

Eternity’s prologue to its Christian Humanist Manifesto noted that secular humanism is a real danger to society and not “a fundamentalist fantasy” even though “some of the attack on secular humanism offered by Christians has been shallow and misinformed.” Its Manifesto was written by Eternity’s editors in consultation with a stellar list of evangelical leaders including Donald Bloesch, Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes, J. I. Packer, James Sire and Richard Bube.

The Christian Humanist Manifesto deserves much wider dissemination and discussion than it received. I think it is still a valuable resource for Christian unity amid diversity in a Western world increasingly dominated by secularism. Unfortunately, in my experience, most Christians still think of “humanism” as essentially bad; they equate it with secular humanism and atheism. Almost completely forgotten except among Christian scholars is that Christianity is the “true humanism” rooted in Scripture (e.g., Psalm 8) and especially in Scripture’s witness to the imago dei.

Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto began with this statement: “In our time the word ‘humanism’ has been claimed by those who explain human existence without reference to God. We are unwilling to yield the term to those views that are least able of finding depth of meaning in the life of mankind. We regret that Christians have rarely offered a clear alternative to secular humanism, and we seek now to set forth the salient points of what for centuries has been called ‘Christian’ humanism. To this we stand committed.”

Following that are thirteen statements of the Christian life and worldview—“generic Christianity”—focused especially on human nature and existence in light of the revelation of God. Juxtaposed with the statements are pictures of leading secular humanists and quotations from them. (For example, the first one is of Carl Sagan with his statement that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” I remember watching that on TV. Sagan was standing on a rock above the ocean. It was the opening statement of his TV show “Cosmos.” I almost fell off my chair when I heard it. Unfortunately, that TV series became required viewing for many public school students. Sagan, of course, was making a philosophical statement in the guise of a scientific one. But neither he nor most public school teachers explained that to viewers or students.)

The thirteen statements of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto are: The Starting Point (God), Who We Are (persons created in God’s own image), Value of Life, Why We Exist, The Human Task, Science and Art, Truth and Error, Evil, Providence, Human Restoration: Reconciled to God, The Kingdom of God Begun, World Crisis, and Pessimism, Optimism, Realism. Each statement consists of a few sentences.

The beauty of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto is that it transcends Christian divisions. Virtually any orthodox Christian (broadly and generously defined) can affirm it.

My concern is that during the last two decades, with the resurgence of fundamentalism in conservative evangelical neo-fundamentalism  (and especially various extreme versions of Calvinism included in that) Christian humanism has been relegated to a back seat (if not thrown out altogether).

Notice that I am NOT saying Calvinism is itself responsible for this situation, but in my humble opinion, for what it is worth, certain recent versions of Calvinism that place extreme emphasis on God’s glory and human depravity at the expense of any emphasis on human dignity and creativity may be partially to blame for the demise of Christian humanism among evangelical Christians.

There is a very worrisome trend in secular philosophy these days. Some philosophers are again, and in new ways, questioning the special dignity of human beings. That’s to be expected once belief in God is dismissed. Secular humanists, without foundation, at least believed in and emphasized human dignity and worth. Now a secular philosopher at a major American university (founded by Christians) argues with impunity that infants may morally be killed up to several weeks after birth if their quality of life is judged inadequate.

Today’s Young, Restless, Reformed Movement (YRRM) does not speak often or loudly enough about human goodness and dignity. It needs to be balanced by a renewed Christian humanism. Too much emphasis on human depravity is dangerous in a cultural context like ours. As Christians we need to avoid saying (as I have heard not only YRRM folks but other Christians as well) that humans are “pond scum” and “shit.” We need to be reminded, as the late Francis Schaeffer liked to say, that “God don’t make no junk.” How that is to be believed consistently with a high Calvinist emphasis on reprobation is unclear to me, but at least Schaeffer and other older Calvinists said it (in various ways). Most of the theological consultants of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto were Reformed.

This is, I confess, one of my main concerns with the current wave of what some are calling “neo-Calvinism” (which doesn’t seem all that “neo-“ to me because it harks back to Edwards if not to Calvin himself). It tends to revel in denigration of human beings EXCEPT insofar as they are “elect.” How does one reconcile that with Christian humanism (viz., that all human beings are created in God’s image and possess infinite value and worth)?

I will never forget one encounter in which a committed evangelical Calvinist Ph.D. (in psychology, author of several best-selling books at least in Christian bookstores) explained to me that the reprobate, the non-elect, are not human beings; they only appear to us to be human beings. (According to him, we are incapable of telling the difference with any certainty; only God knows.) Now, I realize that is NOT what most Calvinists believe. In fact, he might be the only one who believes it. However, it seems to me the only rational way to combine Christian humanism with Calvinist dualism. Dualistic Calvinism that includes belief in eternal reprobation of a definite number of human beings, especially combined with limited atonement, seems to me to open the door to considering some portion of humanity empty of real dignity and worth. Historically, of course, it played out that way in South Africa and North America.

What I would like to see happen is ALL Christians of every tribe and theological orientation re-affirm, with the editors of Eternity in 1982, Christianity as the true humanism with emphasis on the dignity of every human life as well as human beings’ universal unique worth.

Of course, I make no secret of the fact that, in my opinion, ONLY Arminianism is really consistent with that. (Here I use “Arminianism” broadly as including all Protestants who believe in the possibility of every human being’s salvation contingent on their own God-enabled decision.)

Browse Our Archives