The Duty of Man

Christian social ethics in the era of the death of god stands for democratic values, freedom of conscience, rational inquiry as the basis of knowledge, and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to the ethical life, including at the least feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, supporting the poor, comforting the lonely, seeking peace and standing with the powerless against the mighty.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

A short history of Christian Humanism

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 certainty).

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.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Christianity Without God or Religion

Regardless of their religious faith there is no serious doubt among contemporary historians that Jesus was an itinerant Jewish teacher who traveled and taught throughout Palestine in the First Century, gathering disciples around him through the force of his personality and the compelling nature of his message.  There is general agreement that Jesus was perceived by the Roman occupiers of Palestine as a dangerous religious radical and a disturber of the peace, in consequence of which he was arrested by the local authorities and summarily executed by the Romans in a public crucifixion, the standard method used by the Romans to deal with political troublemakers.

There is considerable disagreement among historians about how much of the biblical record can be relied upon as history in the ordinary sense in which we understand history--as contemporaneously verifiable events--given the fact that a fairly long time passed from the days in which Jesus lived and taught in Palestine until the traditional stories about him and his teachings that had been circulating among the early Christian communities began to be collected from the oral tradition and acquired their present form as the canonical gospels.

Once we get beyond the mythological language of the biblical story, it is clear that the death of Jesus resulted in a life-transforming experience among his disciples that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking about what was seriously important in their lives and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings.

His disciples interpreted this life-transforming experience to mean that the spirit of Jesus did not die with him but was alive in them, challenging them to continue what he had started.  They understood this to mean two things: they were to model their lives after his life and they were to carry on his teaching about the kingdom of god and what that implied for the people of the region.

Put another way, once we have worked our way through the mythological and theological baggage that has accumulated through the ages, we are left with a fundamentally important truth—those who had met this itinerant teacher and who heard his teaching were sufficiently captivated by his personality and engaged by his message that they were compelled to take up the cause for which he had been killed and to continue his teaching.

At its core, being a Christian today means exactly the same thing for us as it meant to his first disciples: consciously choosing to be an advocate of Jesus and his teachings. It involves what the medieval theologian Thomas A Kempis called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. It means to live as Jesus lived and to teach as he taught, to honor truth and show compassion, to stand with the victims of this world against their oppressors, to stand with the weak and the powerless against the abusers and the comfortably powerful, and to maintain one’s integrity no matter the cost. In short being a follower of Jesus meant then and now to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus and his teachings. That is both the meaning and the cost of Christian discipleship.

It is that timeless challenge that continues to captivate and motivate contemporary Christians. It is the challenge accepted by the Peace Corps volunteer, the builder of homes for Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer in the homeless shelters and prisons, the helper in the food kitchens and the driver for Meals on Wheels, those who bring joy and healing to a young child, and the Mother Theresas of the world.  There is nothing in that challenge of commitment to the service of humanity that requires us to believe in any particular notion of a divine being or any religious dogma.

This challenge to Christian discipleship seems to have escaped the notice of much of “official” Christianity, particularly the Evangelical Christian movement that has managed to wander quite far from the teachings of Jesus.  This is the fundamental issue over which I part company with those traditional Christians who take the position that being a Christian essentially means believing a particular set of theological statements. My argument with them is not so much with their particular beliefs or with their confusion between mythology and history, but rather with their premise that holding particular beliefs rather than striving to emulate the life of Jesus is what defines what it means to be a Christian.

Those who claim they are Christians should be measured against the ultimate test of Christian values and that means comparing how their words and their actions hold up to the standard of Jesus’ words and actions (so far as we can know what they are) rather than whether they hold correct theology. If their claim is to be understood as more than a claim to believe particular propositions about Jesus that may or may not be true and that cannot in any case be verified, their claim is subject to the litmus test of their lives, their decisions and their actions.

We’ve now arrived at the question whether it is possible to be a Christian without a concept of God; and if so, what that Christianity would look like.  We argue that being a Christian does not require a belief in gods, theological statements, or mythology, and that the test for determining whether or not one is a Christian is a simple one: anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and injured, seeking peace, and holding the hand of a child.

This is the only view of Christianity that makes sense to me.  It is a de-mythologized Christianity, without the necessity for god and freed from the theological and mystical baggage of centuries past, a Christianity that challenges us regardless of our view of god to model our lives after that of Jesus. Being a Christian is not any more complicated than that, but it is at least that.