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Some Distinctions on Christian and Secular Humanism Some Distinctions on Christian and Secular Humanism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-05-11 12:29:43
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Francesco Petrarca (14th century, father of Humanism), G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, T. S. Eliot, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis, Christopher Fry, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, Martin Luther King Jr., Gabriel Marcel Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, Emmanuel Mounier, John Henry Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Peguy, Dorothy Day, Paul Tillich.

What is the one thing that all these disparate luminaries have in common? They are all Christian Humanists. The modern secular humanists, however, consider the identification of “Christian Humanist” an oxymoron of sorts. They see the slogan of Anaxagoras that “man is the measure of all things” as confirming their belief that humanism and religion are mutually exclusive. I submit that, to the contrary, they are complementary, that they can be synthesized and rather than an oxymoron they ought to be considered a paradox. How so?

In the first place Christianity is the only religion (not a mythology, nor a fairy tale) which declares that God became man, took on human nature and dwelt among us; hence it puts emphasis on the humanity of Jesus the Christ, his social teaching and his proclivity to synthesize human spirituality and materialism. It regards universal human dignity and brotherhood, and freedom, and the primacy of human happiness as quite compatible with the teachings of Jesus. In fact Christian humanism can be interpreted as a philosophical union of Christian ethics and humanistic principles. The father of modern humanism, after all, Francesco Petrarca was a deacon of the Church.

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Francesco Petrarca

But the roots of Christian humanism go further back to the Jewish concept of humans made in the image of God and Christian theologians such as Justin Martyr (The Apology) discovered great value in classical culture, as also did Augustine or the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa; which is at the basis of the appreciation of personal dignity, individual worth, social justice, righteousness, and inalienable rights. The great Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino who wrote “On the dignity of man,” or even Thomas Jefferson did not invent those concepts out of nothing; they gathered them from a Christian tradition which unfortunately was more often than not paid lip service to, but breached in practice, despite the fancy designation of “enlightened modern ideas.”

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St. Augustine

After the fall of the Roman Empire Western Christian clerics controlled education, since only the monasteries remained as seats of learning preserving ancient manuscripts and the remnants of Greco-Roman civilization and in part preparing the Renaissance. Charlemagne requested that scholars set up places of learning that would become universities in the 12th century; the first one opened in Bologna in 1088. Eastern Christians meanwhile continued the late Antique practice of studying in the homes of secular masters, studying the same curriculum of classical Greek authors as their predecessors in the Roman period: Homer's Iliad, Plato's dialogues, Aristotle's Categories, Demosthenes' speeches, Galen, Dioscurides, Strabo, and others. Christian education in the East largely was relegated to learning to read the Bible at the knees of one's parents and the rudiments of grammar in the letters of Basil or the homilies of Gregory Nazianzus.

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Abelard in the 11th century attempted to apply formal aspects of Greek philosophy, namely syllogistic reasoning, to inform the process of theology. Western universities including Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford resulted from the so-called Gregorian Reform, which encouraged a new kind of cleric clustered around cathedrals, the so called secular canon. The cathedral schools meant to train clerics for the growing clerical bureaucracy soon served as training grounds for talented young men to train in medicine, law, and the liberal arts of the quadrivium and trivium, in addition to Christian theology. Classical Latin texts and translations of Greek texts served as the basis of non-theological education. A primitive humanism way before the century of humanism (the 13th century, the age of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante) actually started when the papacy began protecting the Northern Cluniacs and Cistercians and the Church formed a unifying bond. St. Bernard counseled kings. Priests were frequently Lord Chancellors in England and in France. Christian views became present in all aspects of society, and there was an emphasis on serving God and others. Furthermore, there was a view of human nature that was both hopeful and Christian. All offices, including civil ones, and academic works had religious elements. In addition, religion influenced medicine with the Good Samaritan of the Gospel of Luke. The idea of free people under God came from this time and spread from the West to other areas of the world.

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The explosion of Christian humanism happened in the 14th century with the arrival of the  the Renaissance, emanating from an increased faith in the abilities of Man, married with a still-firm devotion to Christianity, Petrarch(1304–1374) being considered the father of humanism, one of the earliest and most prominent Renaissance figures. In his letter "The Ascent of Mt. Ventoux" he states that his climb of the mountain was inspired by Livy, but found its true meaning in St. Augustine's Confessions. Here is a synthesis of the classical with the Christian which became the hallmark of the subsequent two centuries of the Renaissance (15th and 16th century). His masterful contributions to language and literature triggered the development of studia humanitas which began to formalize the study of ancient languages, namely Greek and Latin, eloquence, classical authors, and rhetoric. Christian humanists also cared about scriptural and patristic writings, Hebrew, ecclesiastical reform, clerical education, and preaching. A Botticelli or a Michelangelo are incomprehensible without considering this synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian which gave a cultural identity to Europe. The Reformation followed carried on by the Catholic Erasmus, the Lutheran Martin Luther (a former Augustinian priest) and John Calvin who studied Scriptures in their original languages (Hebrew, Greek and Latin. That too was in the tradition of Christian Humanism.

It was The Enlightenment of the 18th century that began the separation of religious and secular institutions, to a false rift between Christianity and Humanism. Enter the Deists or rationalists who rejected traditional theology in favor of ‘natural religion’. They sidestep the churches and seek God personally by way of reason and innate moral intuition. A scholarly quest for the historical Jesus to fit him within the precepts of bourgeois liberalism. They gave new currency to Christ’s humanist ethics and spawned a wave of social gospel liberalism in the 20th century. They effectively reasserted the Judeo-Christian ethic which would play an important role in animating the political and social reform movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this liberal Christianity is that it gave rise to the first British movement for the abolition of slavery, which was founded by the Quakers in the late 18th century. However, it was the Evangelical Christian humanism of William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) that led to the successful abolition of the slave trade.

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Closer to our times, after the carnage of World War I shattered liberal optimism and the boundless optimism of the secularist Enlightenment is eclipsed by the dark side of humanity and this prompted a realist backlash amongst Christian scholars and theologians such as Niebhur and Barth. Both were erstwhile political liberals but they now insisted on getting back to ‘basics’. The curse of original sin seemed born out by the horrors of the war and any humanist aspirations would now have to be rooted in a theology of redemption and acceptance of complete human dependence on God. They were called “neo-orthodox.” But by the 1970s a strident social Christianity had re-emerged. Taking root in the fertile soil of rampant injustice in Latin America and the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, Liberation Theology’ aimed at harnessing Christianity to the cause of social justice and even revolutionary socialism. However the title itself was misleading as it was never really a ‘theology’. The legacy of social gospel humanism has been carried forward by notables such as Bonhoeffer, Sayers, Williams, O’Connor, Dawson, Solzhenitsyn.

Since the advent of postmodernism, some radical ‘progressive’ “secularist” “enlightened” Christians have tended to see the Christ of faith as irreconcilable with the Jesus of history, regarding the latter as a mere mortal and a distinctly fallible one at that. Others have made him a mere mythological figure who never existed historically. Since this myth originated in the Middle East it is seen as foreign to the original European culture based on mythological figures such as Zeus, Odin or Thor. They argue for a religion-less non-theistic form of Christianity: the so called Secular Humanist Religion and Ethics for the 21st century. In practice they have substituted the religion of Christ with the religion of soccer games. Since we all go to soccer games we are all Europeans. They take a deconstructionist view that dogmatic theology is suspect and spiritual truth is mainly a personalized and subjective pursuit.

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Christopher Dawson, author of The Making of Europe

There have been various attempts to reclaim a more traditional Christian humanism and reclaim Christianity's rich cultural heritage but so far the omens are not good. This Christian humanism emphasizes Jesus as the incarnate fusing of humanity with the divine—humanity in the image of God—especially as manifested in the sublime, creative achievements of Western civilization. These ideas had previously reached their peak in the Renaissance and the Renaissance humanists that supported the Catholic Church, such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Johann Reuchlin, John Colet and the others above mentioned. So far the religion of soccer games is winning and the Church has been declared dead. But she has an uncanny way of returning to life. So hope springs anew.


   
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