Christian Humanism appeared in the late Middle Ages, became a movement in Catholicism in the Renaissance, and has emerged as an important theme among variants of Christian belief that emerged in the last half of the Twentieth Century from Liberation Theology to the emergence of Fundamentalism, Liberalism and the Social Gospel. Christian Humanism as expounded here is a Christianity that has dispensed with the mythological framework and is therefore a non-theistic religionless Christianity that emphasizes the humanity of Jesus and is guided by a belief in human freedom, individual conscience and rational inquiry.
Christian Humanism today encompasses those who are more
generally at the liberal end of traditional Christianity but want to humanize
it by reducing traditional language and moving toward Jesus’ example of
compassion, to the more extreme position (that I hold) that dispenses with traditional
Christianity entirely and emphasizes ethical conduct following the example of
Jesus’ life and teachings as we understand them (while conceding with modern
scholars that there is little about his life that we can know with any
Christian Humanism is the conjunction of two different and typically unrelated concepts and for some readers these terms and the ideas they represent do not fit together comfortably and may even be seen as incompatible. Christianity is a theological viewpoint that proposes meaning to the world and man’s place in it. Humanism celebrates mankind’s intelligence as the key to understanding and explaining our world without the need for god or any other rationale external to man and affirms our connection with and dependence on each other for mutual support, concern and care.
While it is an uneasy conjunction of terms, a look at history shows that Christianity and Humanism have had interesting interconnections going back at least as far as the Second Century when the writer of the Gospel of John and Justin Martyr (St. Justin) were contemporaries and both introduced the Greek concept of the Logos to the Christianity of their time (c. 125 AD), which they had borrowed from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Gospel of John arguing that the Logos (in Greek thought the divine force that underlies the universe) predated but informed Christianity, and Justin arguing to the Roman authorities that Christian thought and values were consistent with the Logos and that therefore the Empire should not molest this new sect because they merely stated the contemporary understanding of religion in a slightly different way that was not inconsistent with Stoic beliefs and values. In both cases there was an integration of Christianity with the secular beliefs of the time.
There are many sources for the history of Christian Humanism but perhaps the places to start are the New World Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, both of which have good summaries of Christian Humanism. Here we will only mention the Middle Ages when Christian clerics controlled education through the monasteries and Charlemagne ordered centers of learning set up throughout the Empire, with monks and clerics morphing into professors. Subsequently Western universities including Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were established through Papal decree and began teaching law, medicine, philosophy, languages and the classics (and so we have introduced the “humanities” to our curriculum).
In the Renaissance, perhaps the most significant relevant writing was Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) in which he argued that the religious duty of man is to approach learning from the human perspective, a very clear conjunction of Christianity with a humanistic approach. In the Reformation human knowledge advanced with the invention of the printing press and the writings of Erasmus, Martin Luther and John Calvin. The Enlightenment saw further advancement of the connection between humanism and Christianity with the emergence of secularism, liberal philosophy, Deism, bourgeois liberalism, an interest in the historical Jesus, and a non-conformist emphasis on reason and intuition in religious matters.
We come back to our premise as stated at the beginning of this article—that Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief.
How far can we stretch the fabric of the umbrella of Christian Humanism to include the extremes that claim a place under it? It is clear that the movement within Christian Humanism that attempts to humanize Christianity with an emphasis on economic justice and concern for one’s neighbor are legitimate elements of Christian social ethics. It is not at all clear that dispensing with traditional Christian theology and the willingness to live with only Jesus as teacher and guide is sufficiently Christian to still fall within the broader Christian family. As most ideologies, much depends on various interpretations of Christianity and who is doing the interpreting and for what objective.
I stand by my claim, while hearing and taking seriously the objections of those who argue to the contrary, that the version of Christian Humanism for which I argue on this site, a view that dispenses with god and lives with only Jesus as guide, is consistent with the views of other modern Christian thinkers including Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and deserves its place as both Christian and Humanist.
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