Several of the ideas in this piece were hashed out in conversations with two friends: Cass Midgley and Matthew Faraday. I am indebted to their thoughtful insights in developing this piece. Any shortcomings are my responsibility alone.
There is a piece being circulated widely in the past few days which appeared in the Opinion pages of the New York Times on Christmas Day. It is entitled, “The Christmas Revolution,” and makes the case that much of what can be considered secular humanist values have grown out of Christian theology and practice.
The piece, by noted conservative political strategist and former George W. Bush speech writer, Peter Wehner, has been roundly criticized for doing what we all do sometimes: compare the best of ours with the worst of theirs. Mr. Wehner briefly touches upon the horrors committed in the name of Christianity but emphasizes the moral progress that has come from his faith. He is also clearly writing from the perspective of a committed Christian working for a conservative think tank, Ethics and Public Policy Center. That, however, is context, not an argument against what he’s saying.
What interests me isn’t whether I think he’s right about the metaphysical claims of Christianity (I don’t), or whether I, broadly speaking, share his political views (I don’t), but whether his claims about Christianity’s influence on secular humanism are sound. If they are, it shouldn’t matter whether they come packaged with some claims that turn out to be false. But if he is wrong, or if he has overstated his case, credit should be given where it is due, not used to shore up the favored myth of American conservatives (and others).
In the opening paragraph of his essay, Wehner claims, “the idea that God would become human and dwell among us, in circumstances both humble and humiliating, shattered previous assumptions. It was through this story of divine enfleshment that much of our humanistic tradition was born.”
First of all, it is true that Christianity offers the incarnation as a theological innovation. Jesus is the only incarnate deity in the history of monotheism. Judaism and Islam explicitly reject the notion of God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Islam, the notion of the incarnation is shirk, or idolatry—a grave heresy. Judaism has long expected the Messiah, but would never expect that Messiah would share divinity with YHWH.
There are religions from the Eastern traditions that have a type of incarnation. Hinduism has 10 avatars of Vishnu, known as the dashavatara. In history, the Pharaohs of Egypt were sometimes considered incarnations of the sun gods and the Roman Emperors at times claimed to be gods, but these examples are quite different from the Christian doctrine of incarnation. And, incidentally, these non-incarnational religions seem to have developed a system of ethics that has developed toward humanist ideas over the centuries without any need for Jesus or Christianity more broadly, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I was a minister I used the theology of incarnation in exactly the way Wehner suggests: to instill values of humility, solidarity with humanity and, more specifically, our local community and it’s needs. The story of the incarnation also gave me the opportunity to talk about the “humility of God.” There is an ancient Christian hymn, recorded by Paul, which says,
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Naturally this text raises a host of other questions about the atonement, but, focusing for the moment on the central message of this hymn, the humility of God in becoming human was meant to inspire worshipers to humility and humanistic concern for the other.
The question remains, however. Is it true that the story of divine enfleshment is “how much of our humanistic tradition was born?” It’s a bold claim, and one that frankly surprises me. When I was a child, I routinely heard that secular humanists were the enemy of Christianity. Now I am being asked to believe that Christianity is the source of humanist ideals. Which is it?
Still, it depends on what Mr. Wehner means, exactly. Clearly Christianity has been enormously important in the development of human moral reasoning in the West. Because Christianity was so dominant in Western Europe, the Enlightenment project itself could be understood as emerging from Christianity—grappling with the emerging scientific worldview as it clashed with traditional religious dogma. It would be very difficult to paint a picture of the evolution of modern ethics without Christianity figuring largely.
This, however, is an historical observation, not a substantive one. The question that must be answered is whether Christianity is primarily “pushing” the ethical or being pulled by it. Is Christianity advancing ethics or is ethics pulling Christianity along? In my view, the latter is more likely. At every turn, Christianity has adapted to catch up to new ethical developments, whether it is feminism, racial justice, or marriage equality. There are exceptions when, for example, some Christians led movements for the abolition of slavery in the United States and the United Kingdom. Christianity does encourage love for neighbor and enemy as well as fostering in-group loyalty and this does at times give rise to progressive social movements (over major objections from the masses, it should be noted).
On the other side of the ledger, Christian theology has largely undermined the humanist project by taking back a large part of the human dignity granted by Jewish theology. The Jewish notion that human beings are sacred beings created in the divine image is seriously undercut by the New Testament emphasis on Platonic dualism and the afterlife. Ludwig Feuerbach identified this problem with Christianity in the mid-19th century.
“Christianity set itself the goal of fulfilling man’s unattainable desires, but for that very reason ignored his attainable desires. By promising man eternal life, it deprived him of temporal life, by teaching him to trust in God’s help it took away his trust in his own powers; by giving him faith in a better life in heaven, it destroyed his faith in a better life on earth and his striving to attain such a life. Christianity gave man what his imagination desires, but for that very reason failed to give him what he really and truly desires.” (Lecture XXX, Lectures on the Essence of Religion)
But there is another problem. In the text of the Bible, the virtues of the incarnation don’t last long. Even Jesus at times participates in the same out-group hostility that is common among religions (see, for example, Matthew 12:30; Mark 7:24-29). Paul’s theology is also problematic, broadening the Jewish covenant to include Gentiles, but still excluding all who do not confess that Jesus is the Messiah.
In the early centuries after Jesus, when Christianity finds fertile ground within Roman culture, the hostility that was once turned toward Christians is now turned outward, by Christians, upon any deemed heretics by the religio-political authorities. This continued unabated for centuries and peaked during the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. From this perspective it appears, as my friend Matthew said, that Mr. Wehner’s glasses are not merely rose-colored; they’re blood stained.
In the end, Mr. Wehner’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny. I understand, and even applaud, his attempt to turn Christianity toward humanism, but he should do that without claiming credit for all of human ethical advances because of the story of the incarnation. Christian theology has no doubt played its part, along with a great many other philosophies, ideologies, and religions. But it is disingenuous for Christians—especially Christians with political agendas—to lay claim to humanism’s advances with one hand, while castigating humanists as the enemy with the other hand. It takes a highly selective view of Christianity and history to see the world as Mr. Wehner does.