Christian Humanism: A Self-Defeating Approach

1. The Pope's Call to Return to Christian Humanism

Catholic WorldNews, in an article entitled European universities play key role in reviving Christian humanism, reports that Pope Benedict XVI is calling on the universities to help revive Christian humanism in Europe -- a continent steeped in secular humanism.

Pope Benedict XVI met on Saturday, June 23, with a group of professors and administrators of European universities, and told them that they would play a critical role in helping European society through a "massive cultural shift."

Europe today, the Holy Father said, suffers from "a certain social instability and diffidence in the face of traditional values." He said that Europe, where Christian humanism developed, needs to recover from the effects of a newer trend in humanism that aspires to build a new culture separate from the old Christian foundation.

The great universities, the Pope said, were built on "the conviction that faith and reason are meant to cooperate in the search for truth, each respecting the nature and legitimate autonomy of the other, yet working together harmoniously and creatively to serve the fulfillment of the human person." That recognition needs to be revived today, he said.

Moreover, the Pope continued, universities can help to identify the authentic contribution that Christianity can offer to society. "Christianity," he said, "must not be relegated to the world of myth and emotion, but respected for its claim to shed light on the truth about man."

I have mixed feelings about this call from a Pope who I think is turning out to be one of the truly great Christian leaders. On the positive side, I think going to the universities, many of which were begun by various orders in the Roman Catholic Church, reveals a great deal of savvy by the Pope. If his goal, as he says in the last paragraph, is that Christianity should not be relegated to the world of myth and emotion, it is important that the universities be energized to stop teaching Christianity in that light. They should be leaders in standing up for the historicity of the New Testament and the truth of the Bible. I also agree that faith and reason should stand together. Historically, that was the case.

As I read the Pope's comments, it seems that his central call is that Christianity should be moved from the realm of "myth and emotion" to one that has authority to spread truth and wisdom. I don't see how any thinking Christian could disagree. The problem, however, arises because of the means that he has selected to accomplish this goal. He has stressed a return to Christian humanism.

Recently, I have been reading Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?, subtitled "The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture". He spends a great deal of time discussing humanism, including Christian humanism. If Schaeffer is correct, and I think he is on this point, then humanism is a self-defeating means to reach the end that Pope Benedict XVI seeks.

2. Schaeffer's Teaching on the Results of Humanism in the Church

Humanism has many different variations. There is secular humanism, religious humanism, Christian humanism, renaissance humanism, and several more varieties of humanism. But Schaeffer teaches that all of these forms of humanism have a common root: the exaltation of the ability of man to start with created things (i.e., particulars) and arrive at meaning and value. In How Should We Then Live?, Schaeffer teaches that humanism teaches that man, starting with man alone and man's own human wisdom, could arrive at meaning and value in the universe.

Returning to the roots of Christianity, Schaeffer demonstrates that the early church (while it was certainly not pure) did not teach any form of humanism. Rather, the early church understood that the Bible was the revealed word of God. As such, it contained truths about God from God (the transcendent, perfect, personal God) that explained who we are, who God is, and why we are here. IN other words, historic Christianity has taught that man was a created being who gained wisdom and value through God. God is the ultimate source of value and meaning.

Humanism, in contrast, teaches that value and meaning can be gained independent of God or revelation. As Schaeffer wrote, the reliance on human wisdom (which was an offshoot of St. Thomas Aquinas' adoption of an Aristotelian view of the world) resulted in philosophy gradually separating from revelation with the philosophers acting increasingly independent and autonomous. They began to look to pagan and classical thought as independent sources of value and meaning. In the church itself, the values derived from these independent sources began to infiltrate church doctrine which had serious negative repercussions.

This problem is often spoken as the nature-versus-grace problem. Beginning with man alone and only the individual things in the world (the particulars), the problem is how to find any ultimate and adequate meaning for the individual things. The most important individual thing for man is man himself. Without some ultimate meaning for a person (for me, an individual), what is the use of living and what will be the basis for morals, values and law? If one starts from individual acts rather than with an absolute, what gives any real certainty concerning what is right and what is wrong about an individual action? The nature-and-grace tension or problem can be pictured like this:

Grace, the higher: God the creator; heaven and heavenly things; the unseen and its influence on the earth; unity, or universals or absolutes which give existence and morals meaning.
Nature, the lower: the created; earth and earthly things; the visible and what happens normally in the cause-and-effect universe; what man as man does on the earth; diversity, or individual things, the particulars; the individual acts of man.

Beginning from man alone, Renaissance humanism-and humanism ever since-has found no way to arrive at universals or absolutes which give meaning to existence and morals.

Schaeffer explains, however, that humanism gradually spread into the church. Ultimately, the humanism that focused on the created for meaning found its expression in the ideas of Christian philosophers like Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. I have read much of Kierkegaard's work, and I am not certain that it is appropriate to attribute to him all of the differing (and sometimes negative) ideas that are traditionally thought to be part of his thinking. But, at minimum, his ideas led to a dichotomy in theology between the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. As Schaeffer puts it,

Kierkegaardianism did bring to full tide the notion that reason will always lead to pessimism. That is, one must try to find optimistic answers in regard to meaning and values on an "upper level" outside of reason. Through a "leap of faith" one must try to find meaning without reason.

Schaeffer continues to comment on the consequences of the humanism that had crept into Christianity and was reflected in the followers of Kierkegaard (and ultimately, a large portion of the Christian church):

Modern man is a man of dichotomy. By dichotomy we mean a total separation into two reciprocally exclusive orders, with no unity or relationship between them. The dichotomy here is the total separation between the area meaning and value, and the area of reason. Reason leading to despair must be kept totally separate from the blind optimism of non-reason. This makes a lower and an upper story, with the lower story of reason leading to pessimism and men trying to find optimism in an upper story devoid of reason. At this point the older rationalistic thinkers (with their optimistic hope of maintaining unity between the world of reason and that of meaning and values) were left behind. This is the mark of modern man.

Obviously, I have left out a great deal of the history and argument that Schaeffer uses to support these ideas. For those interested in seeing the basis for making these assertions and tying them together in this way I highly recommend reading How Should We Then Live?. But the point that Schaeffer makes repeatedly in his book is that when man begins with humanism -- the belief that man can gain values and meaning starting from man and not starting with revelation from God -- man has always failed. This is true in philosophy, art and Christian theology. In the case of the latter, when man starts with reasoning from particulars (which he himself is), man will ultimately arrive at the point of having to abandon hope in finding meaning absent a leap of faith into the area of non-reason.

3. The Loss of the Miraculous

Following Kierkegaard, theologians seemed to largely adopt the idea of the "leap of faith." Starting with only the created things as being within the realm of reason or rationality, theology began to follow a road that led to a view that only particulars and the laws of nature acting on them can be seen as real. The rest must be rejected as irrational.

One must understand that from the advent of Kierkegaardianism onward there has been a widespread concept of the dichotomy between reason and non-reason, with no interchange between them. The lower story are of reason is totally isolated from the optimistic area of non-reason. * * * There is no interchange, no osmosis between the parts. * * * "Downstairs" in the area of humanistic reason, man is a machine, man is meaningless. There are no values. And "upstairs" optimism about meaning and values is totally separated from reason. Reason has no place here at all; here reason is an outcast.

* * *

The concept of man beginning from himself now began to be expressed in theology and in theological language. Or we can say that these theologians accepted the presuppositions of rationalism. As the Renaissance had tried to synthesize Aristotle and Christianity and then Plato and Christianity, these men were attempting to synthesize the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Christianity. This attempt has often been called religious liberalism.

The rationalistic theological liberalism of the nineteenth century was embarrassed by and denied the supernatural, but still tried to hold on to the historic Jesus by winnowing out of the New Testament all the supernatural elements. * * *

This came to its climax with Albert Schweitzer's (1875-1965) book The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906) in which he tried to hold on to the Jesus of history. * * * The Quest for the Historical Jesus (especially the conclusion of the second edition which was never translated into English) showed the impossibility of ridding the New Testament of the supernatural and yet keeping any historical Jesus. The rationalistic theologians could not separate the historic Jesus from the supernatural events connected with him. History and the supernatural were too interwoven in the New Testament. If one retained any of the historical Jesus, one had to keep some of the supernatural. If one got rid of all the supernatural, one had no historical Jesus.

In other words, because the basis of humanistic thought begins with man and created things (the particulars) and not revelation (universals), it inexorably leads to a separation of the natural from the supernatural (or extra-natural) where the former is thought to be real and the latter to be unreal. This type of thinking, it seems to me, must eventually abandon any concept of the Jesus described in the New Testament as a historic figure about whom the witnesses (the Gospels) are speaking truth. Jesus, then, becomes a mythical or spiritualized figure who has no place in reality. Certainly, the idea that one could rationally come to believe in God through the revelation of Jesus Christ becomes nonsense, and all of religion, including Christianity, becomes nothing more than a leap of faith into the irrational with any choice that gives meaning being equal to any other choice.

4. Looking at the Model of Universals First

This "leap of faith" into irrationality to find meaning, however, is not the Biblical model. As 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned {them,} and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The Bible teaches that Christians (all people, actually) are to start with God's revelation as the source of our assurance. That revelation is found in the 66 books of the Bible. The Bible (which can be seen as part of the "universals" in the first dichotomy represented by Schaeffer, above) gives a basis for values and meaning. It answers the questions of who we are, who God is, and why we are here. It gives a basis for ethics and morals. It gives a solid foundation for living. In other words, it leads to exactly the opposite answers than the answers derived from humanism. Where humanism leads to meaninglessness and hopelessness, Biblical Christianity provides a basis for meaning and hope.

Let no one suggest, however, that the call to accept the truth of the Bible is a call to "blind faith" or irrationality. The Biblical approach doesn't call for the abandonment of the intellect in the slightest. In fact, the Biblical model calls on people to study both the universals (the things of God) and the particulars (the created things) with equal fervor.

The Bible is to be studied, and reason and intellect are to be used in understanding its teachings. "'Come now, and let us reason together,' Says the Lord" in Isaiah 1:18a. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," reports Proverbs 1:7a. These are just a few of the many, many verses that call on Christians to love knowledge of God and to seek to know the mind and heart of God more fully. The only way to get to know God's mind and heart is by a combination of the study of his Word and prayer. Yet, intellect is not restricted to the study of God's word. Rather, the intellect is to be used in the study of the whole world. As Schaeffer notes:

[T]he Bible tells us true things about people and about nature. It does not give men and women exhaustive truth about the world and the cosmos, but it does give truth about them. So one can know many true things about nature, especially why things exist and why they have the form they have. Yet, because the Bible does not give exhaustive truth about history and the cosmos, historians and scientists have a job to do, and their work is not meaningless. To be sure, there is a total break between God and his creation, that is, between God and created things; God is infinite -- and created things are finite. But man can know both truth about God and truth about the things of creation because in the Bible God has revealed himself and has given man the key to understanding God's world.

5. Pope Benedict's Call for Renewal of Christian Humanism

On the one hand, Pope Benedict's call may be a perfectly straightforward call to become better vessels for sharing the truth of God in a world that is increasingly humanistic in viewpoint. It may be a call to return to the place where intellect is more a part of being a disciple of Christ.

The problem is that Pope Benedict XVI was very specific in that society "needs to recover from the effects of a newer trend in humanism that aspires to build a new culture separate from the old Christian foundation." From the context, it seems to me that the "old Christian foundation" he references must be Christian humanism. Pope Benedict XVI is a very smart man and a well-educated man. I think he knew exactly what he was saying with his words.

Of course, if Schaeffer is right (and I think he is right), Christian humanism doesn't remove Christianity from the "world of myth and emotion." If Schaeffer is right, it was Christian humanism that led to the upper story being relegated to the area of irrationality in the first place. Thus, while I applaud the overall ideas by Pope Benedict XVI, I think that he is making a mistake in promoting Christian humanism which will defeat his goal of bringing Christianity out of the shadows of myth and emotion.


Peter Bruin said…
You may have been misled by the Pope's use of the word humanism; I do not think the word (as he uses it) means what you think it means. It is true that its meaning has shifted to something like "human-centered worldview" under the influence of secularists, but I think the Pope had a more original meaning in mind. A humanist used to be someone who had been educated in the humanities, such as Desiderius Erasmus, Albrecht Dürer or Thomas More.

Here is a quote from the Pope's address to the participants of the conference (source:

[…] I would mention in the first place the need for a comprehensive study of the crisis of modernity. European culture in recent centuries has been powerfully conditioned by the notion of modernity. The present crisis, however, has less to do with modernity's insistence on the centrality of man and his concerns, than with the problems raised by a "humanism" that claims to build a regnum hominis detached from its necessary ontological foundation. A false dichotomy between theism and authentic humanism, taken to the extreme of positing an irreconcilable conflict between divine law and human freedom, has led to a situation in which humanity, for all its economic and technical advances, feels deeply threatened. As my predecessor, Pope John Paul II, stated, we need to ask "whether in the context of all this progress, man, as man, is becoming truly better, that is to say, more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity, more responsible and more open to others" ("Redemptor Hominis," 15). The anthropocentrism which characterizes modernity can never be detached from an acknowledgment of the full truth about man, which includes his transcendent vocation.

The Pope does not dismiss the human-centered aspect of humanism, but nuances it. We endanger ourselves if we adopt a `modern' kind of humanism which ultimately makes us realise that we are ultimately worthless, as you note; however, Christian thinking should not deprecate the constructive aspects of an `authentic' form of humanism that does recognise God as its source. Schaeffer's attack on rationalism does not damage a humanist who knows that the foundation of his appreciation for humanity is to be found in God's love for us: "Love one another, like Christ has loved us." Education, science and art are powerful means in the service of humanity and therefore of our individual neighbours; I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to use the term `humanism' for that aspect of Christian thought and practice. It might help in making clear that Christianity is not opposed to humanity, i.e. in exposing the "false dichotomy between theism and authentic humanism" mentioned by the Pope.
BK said…
That certainly helps, Peter. Thanks for the input.
Anonymous said…
Schaeffer is either uninformed or misinformed in his presentation of humanism.

1. He confuses the existentialism of Kierkegaard with the humanism of Aristotle, Aquinas and Adler.

2. That aforementioned humanism describes itself as God's general revelation in creation. It distinquishes between God's special revelation in scripture and God's ongoing revelation in his people. The focus on creation is a focus on human nature.

3. He woefully misunderstands humanism if he claims than humanism does not assert that man cannot apprehend universals from particulars through abstraction. In fact, humanists use that apprehension of universals to assert an immaterial component in the human mind. That which is completely material cannot comprehend the immaterial. Human beings comprehend many immaterial ideas such as God, angels, truth, goodness, beauty, justice, liberty and equality that do not exist as particulars in the physical world. They posit an immaterial being God as endowing all human beings at conception with that capacity. It is not a product of biological evolution since the material does not give rise to the immaterial. Indeed, that immaterial component (soul) may even survive death depending on whether or not perception of physical things is a function of that immaterial component (Aquinas) or the material component (Adler) in the mind.

4. He misunderstands the so-called leap of faith. Humanists describe it more as a step than a leap. They assert reason (the cosmological argument and in particular Aquinas' third and fifth ways) can establish the existence of a supreme being God who is all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good. They further assert reason cannot discern whether God's goodness entails providential care. It is not a leap to the conclusion God is good. It is a step from God's know goodness to a experiential awareness of his providential care as an expression of that goodness.

5. I suspect Schaeffer's Protestantism blinds him to a broader vision of God's revelation and the power of common grace. It is after all an expression of the natural moral law (Romans 2).

6. For those interested in an exploration of Christian humanism, I might recommend Mortimer J. Adler's "Six Great Ideas", "Ten Philosophical Mistakes", "The Ethics of Common Sense", "The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes" and "How to Think About God". Adler happens to be the leading 20th century exponent of humanism. He was Chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica for 50 year.

Robert Sutherland

PS. I am a Senior Fellow and Canadian Director at the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas. Some of his writings are posted on my website accessible through a button on the left hand column.
Anonymous said…

I mistakely wrote: "He woefully misunderstands humanism if he claims than humanism does not assert that man cannot apprehend universals from particulars through abstraction."

I meant to write: "He woefully misunderstands humanism if he claims than humanism does not assert that man can apprehend universals from particulars through abstraction."

The change is from "cannot" to "can". I missed it on the preview.

Robert Sutherland
Weekend Fisher said…
Well, I've been beat to the punch, but I'd suspect the Pope didn't meant the old school Christian humanists. Karl Barth once was a speaker at a humanist conference in Geneva, and there he touched on "the humanism of God" ...
Jason Pratt said…
Accepting the corrections (which I was going to attempt myself, but which, much like WF, I'm glad to see someone has done more pertinently than I could {g}), I believe there is a substantially correct criticism in Bill's article, even if it's misaimed as to its targets. I'll try to get back to this later.

Weekend Fisher said…
Insofar as the criticisms are directed against some of the more misguided pieces of secularist humanism (and the parts of it that rubbed off on some strains of Christian humanism), I'm sympathetic to the criticisms. I'm just waiting to see whether that's what Benedict meant. I think he's smarter than the average bear.

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