Christian Humanism


Alright. Time for a philosophically charged post. (I simply can’t go this long without writing something philosophic in nature – I mean, I do have a degree in it for goodness sakes… those 4 years will not have been spent in vain!) OK. Now that I’ve vented, let’s begin.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Wednesday audiences, has been talking a lot recently about the Early Church Fathers. The Fathers – whose number includes such illustrious names as St. Irenaeus, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianze, Tertullian and Origen – were the group of thinkers and writers who provided the first true foundation for Catholic doctrine, way back in the centuries immediately following Christ’s life on earth. Needless to say, patristic study (i.e. of the Fathers) is an immense field of work, and there is no shortage of research left to be done. Of all the ideas we have to consider, though, there seems to be one overarching theme that sticks out, to me, as truly relevant in our current day; Pope Benedict has talked much about it, and I will write a little about it here: “humanism.”

If you aren’t familiar with the term, don’t run and look it up in the dictionary. Ironically enough, Webster seems to have overlooked the true meaning of the word (I never thought I’d be correcting a dictionary). Like most modern interpretations, the approved lexicon of the English language simply states that humanism is the rejection of the divine in favor of the human; that all import is placed on the use of reason, and none on the acceptance of anything other (e.g. revelation). But, alas, this is not what I mean when I say humanism. Nor is it the Holy Father’s intent.

The pope’s understanding on humanism might be best summed up in his recent words on the topic: “Without God, man loses his greatness; without God, there is no true humanism. That’s why we listen to this voice and also try to come to know the face of God.” (cf. Wednesday Audience. 8/8/07) First, let me say that Benedict is no dummy – although most people probably don’t realize this, the Vicar of Christ on Earth happens to also be one of the most intelligent people on earth as well. He is quite well educated, articulate, and straight-up smart, so the above comment is certain to be a product of more than just some artificial philosophic ruminations. In short, what he is saying is that the essence of being truly human is our ability to focus our lives entirely on God. What a beautiful thought…

The history of humanism can be traced from its recognizable roots during the Renaissance (man as a super-exalted being, raising him from the depths of the middle ages), through the 19th Century (man as replacing the need for God, as is evident in Marxist communism) and into Nietzschian nihilism (man’s glory as an objective end in itself). Even today, we find secular, non-Christian humanism at the center of many cultural and societal practices; any exercise that exalts man above God can most likely be termed ‘secular humanism.’ Secular humanism, by its very nature, is nothing short of atheistic humanism – that is, replacing God with non-God, and believing it to be adequate. For those inclined to learn about the historical progression of this school of thought, a terrific book on the subject is Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism, which I would highly recommend.

The goal of Catholic intellectuals – and us mere mortals alike – must not be to scrap humanism wholesale, but rather to understand it in terms of Christianity. There is nothing good about reverting to a purely Scholastic, pre-Renaissance way of thinking (which, I’m inclined to believe, some would just as soon do). Development of thought and doctrine is a good thing. On the contrary, we must strive forward in the disciplines of philosophy and theology, always seeking to learn more and continually tempering our knowledge with the Tradition of the Faith that has been given us for 2000 years. Hopefully, more posts on this topic will come soon – it is something worth looking at, even for those not so schooled in the world of philosophy, since it is undeniably the definitive face of modern society. As long as the Holy Father continues to spend time on it, so must we.

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    # by Freder1ck - August 26, 2007 at 4:16 PM

    Andrew,
    this is a great post. De Lubac's book is great too.

    Fred

    By the way, my sidebar is headed by the same facade that's in your sidebar - but from a different angle...