In the Christmas holidays, a somewhat critical reader sent me an email that he was now convinced that I am not really a Christian but just “an old humanist.”
Without getting into a long email discussion, I wrote very simply that I try to live following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth: “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). I stressed that humanist principles like universal human dignity and individual freedom are essential components of the life and teachings of Jesus. I stressed, therefore, that I am not just “an old humanist” but a Christian humanist. I stressed as well that all genuine believers must be Christian humanists. But I added in a PS that some of today’s most inhumane actors on the human stage, especially political actors, prance around proclaiming Christ as their savior.
These much in the news actors are good talkers but it stops there. They just talk. They use Jesus’ name in vain. Others claim to be Christian yet prefer to worship him but not to live as he did.
What is missing in so much of today’s religious and political rhetoric is a focus on living basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect.
Christian humanism stresses that in spite of sorrow, pain, and agony, human life is nevertheless saturated with worth and that truly responsible human action draws together that goodness into a complete vision of life with others and for oneself.
While I would emphasize that the early post-Resurrection followers of Jesus were Christian humanists, the term did not come into widespread use until the fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. The Renaissance Christian humanists who come to mind immediately, for me, are Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), Thomas More (1478 – 1535), and Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536). There were of course many others.
In 1486 Pico della Mirandola wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” Unfortunately he was condemned as a heretic by Pope Innocent VIII (1432 – 1492) in 1487. His book was banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. At the age of 31, he died of arsenic poisoning most likely because of his friendship with the Dominican friar and Renaissance activist, Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498), so well known for for his clashes with tyrannical rulers and corrupt clergy. By the way, Savonarola preached at Pico’s funeral.
Thomas More’s most famous book was Utopia, published in 1516 in a print shop very close to the city center of Leuven, Belgium, adjacent to University Hall, which has been the main administrative building for the University of Leuven since 1431. Utopia presents an imaginative Christian humanist island where there were free hospitals, priests were allowed to marry, women were allowed to become priests, and divorce was permitted. But slavery and war were also condoned and supported.
When it came to the Protestant Reformation, however, Thomas More directed strong opposition to the theology of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531), John Calvin (1509 – 1564) , and William Tyndale (1494 – 1536).
Thomas More opposed, as well, King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. When More refused to take his former friend King Henry’s 1534 Oath of Supremacy, Henry had him beheaded on 6 July 1535. Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) is perhaps the most well known of all England’s monarchs, notably for the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them. Henry was also subject to raging mood swings and paranoia. It is estimated that during his 36 years of rule over England Henry had ordered the execution of about 57,000 people, many of whom were either members of the clergy or ordinary citizens and nobles who had taken part in uprisings and protests up and down the country.
Of all the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus is my favorite. Few people these days realize that he was a priest and that his father was a priest. Although his parents were not legally married, his father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in the Dutch city of Gouda. In1517, Erasmus supported the foundation in Leuven of the Collegium Trilingue (College of Three Languages) for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Erasmus did not stay in Leuven very long because the local academics and clergy, at that time, opposed his principles of literary interpretation and religious reform.
I have always been delighted to know that Erasmus lived and worked for a few years at the Norbertine “Park Abbey,” founded in 1129 and not far from my back yard. Sometimes, in my historical daydreams, I picture him walking down the nearby street, on his way to town.
Most importantly, Erasmus embraced the humanistic belief in an individual’s capacity for self-improvement and the fundamental role of education in raising human beings above the level of brute animals. The thrust of Erasmus’ educational focus was the promotion of what he termed the “philosophy of Christ.” As a biblical scholar he supported the call to return to Ad fontes: getting back to primary sources by examining the texts in their original languages. His pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament shows that he had an understanding of the process of textual transmission and had developed text-critical principles. He was developing what today we call “historical criticism.”
In general Erasmus stressed consensus, compromise, and peaceful cooperation. These he recommended to the participants in the Reformation debate, but with little success. In fact Erasmus later broke with Martin Luther. The two men disagreed over an analytical questioning of Scripture and the question of free will, which Erasmus supported.
The circulation of Erasmus’ works was temporarily curtailed when the Catholic Church put them on the Index of Forbidden Books, but his ideas saw a revival during the Enlightenment when he was regarded as a forerunner of rationalism. His most famous work, In Praise of Folly, has remained in print up to the present day. The book, printed in 1511, presents a satirical examination of superstitious and corrupt practices in the Roman Catholic Church. It ends with a straightforward statement about Christian humanist realism: “No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side.”
Thinking about Christian humanism today, the challenges for us are moving beyond distorted vision – beyond our “blind sides.” The historical Jesus says in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Genuine Christian humanists must realize that for Jesus and for us “they” means humanity in all variations: all religions, all genders, all races and nationalities.
Jesus stressed this point in his parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:25 – 37). A traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. First, a Hebrew priest and then a Levite come by. Both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. We should remember that in Jesus’ days most Hebrews looked upon the Samaritans with contempt. They were not simply outcasts. They were considered the despised enemies of the Hebrews. But in Jesus’ parable it is the Samaritan who stops and cares for the injured man, taking him to an inn, where the Samaritan pays for his care.
Thinking as well about “they,” I would stress that genuine Christian humanism must also critique and promote healthy religion regardless whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion, or philosophy acting like a religion. I have four points for reflection:
- Healthy religion encourages all people to deal kindly with others, to overcome personal selfishness, and to create just and caring communities. Perverted religion categorizes certain people as evil and unworthy of life.
- Healthy religion sees religion as a way to support and liberate people. Perverted religion sees religion as a way to use and control and abuse people.
- Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty, questioning, and doubts. Perverted religion condemns the questioner and demands unquestioned loyalty.
- And, of course, healthy religion emphasizes love and growth.
May we be healthy Christian humanists!