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!


16 thoughts on “Christian Humanism

  1. Thank you for inviting reflection, especially in terms of water and humanism. Humanism is NEVER old!  And, water is the most precious resource on this blue planet, and indeed in our solar system or the universe itself.  The same can be said of the human soul, or the spirit of humanity, which is ever-young(!).  I love that you emphasize “all genuine believers must be Christian humanists” = not only “should be,” but evidently ARE such, known in deeds, in the beatitudes and attitudes of tenderness.  

    The water symbol arises also in your quote from Erasmus, “the call to return to Ad fontes” which I take to heart while reading closely your words flowing from primordial sources watering the flowers of contemplation and insight.  “Deal kindly with others… support and liberate people… encourage… love and growth…”  Your words apply also for another Samaritan approach: Jesus at the noonday well, alone next to “that Samaritan woman,” asks her for a simple drink of water while she sizes Him up.  In their chat, this man Jesus reveals more insight than she expected from Him, and about herself. 
    Who can live without water, its buoyancy, its cleansing, its slaking, its unfolding of living seeds in Nature, as well as in spiritual reflection — about the soul itself… not to mention the raging waters of doubts and stormy seas where we meet the Presence of Jesus, immune from submerging in shipwrecks of vessels, or of religions, yesterday, today and tomorrow. 

    I like to imagine Peter, out of his depth when off the boat, might have sung “Precious Lord, take my hand” (the hymn by Thomas Dorsey!), then Jesus makes an ambiguous remark about his little faith– doubting himself, and/or doubting the Presence of Jesus, even on the waters of a lake.  The ambiguity in the waters of the soul, too, is not lost symbolically to people in the Benelux region particularly, and to all in peril “currently” from flood and storm across this fragile Earth, our island home.  

    Thank you again for “bridging” the stormy waters of humanism, which is, after all, the context and field of action for the Incarnation, the Epiphany, and the Transfiguration.

  2. Thank you for your usual outstanding scholarship, historical notes and guidance. Your “four points for reflection” are excellent teachings towards a more compassionate world.

  3. John, Of course I agree totally with your speaking of “Christian humanism.” St. Vincent dePaul, the founder of my Congregation of the Mission and other Catholic socially oriented groups was truly a Christian humanist. I am delighted to follow in his footsteps and defy those who would call him simply a humanist. and of course, Frederic Ozanam who was inspired by St. Vincent and founded the Society of St. Vincent dePaul was likewise a Christian humanist. And they were all very prayerful Spirit guided people, along with the women who ministered with and taught them, St. Louise deMarillac, Blessed
    Rosalie Rendu and others, Peace!

  4. Dear Jack,
    You should be highly insulted by the fellow who called you an “old humanist”………you’re not old!! Actually, it struck me as quite a compliment. It seems to me that Jesus was the ultimate humanist. Just read your list of attributes of a humanist as your fourth paragraph describes. Isn’t that what we should all strive to be and do? I would be delighted for someone to call me a humanist if it truly described how I live my life. Jack, just keep on being the humanist that you are. I think Jesus would approve!

  5. Jack – Thanks for adding a new definition to my collection of objects of a new/different evangelization, i.e. the Christian humanist. I guess I am also part of that group. Finding that I am devoting too much attention to my treadmill reading, I just purchased a new tome by another resigned priest who has moved into ecumenical catholic priesthood and the same type of evolving understanding of the sensus fidei and deposit of faith. That, coupled with The 1619 Project should help keep me proportional in my reading/writing. Best! And thanks for this column. Cardinal McElroy/America has begun to be more public in his thinking, sharing possibility (as I did in my initial reaction to recent funeral attendance) for sharing Eucharist with all other Christians! Go figure!!

  6. Excellent – thank you.
    A story comes to mind. I have good friends laboring in the “missions” in Africa. They tell the story of a Dorobo – a hunter gatherer – that was gored by a buffalo – tore his stomach open. He had two safety pins in his ears – he pushed his guts back in, used the safety pins to close things up – and laid down to die. The Dorobo are probably the lowest tribe in Tanzania. A group of Masaai youth were passing by – saw him. They talked about him when they go to their boma. An elder heard them, and said – we have to go get him. The got a cow hide, walked the mile or so to where he was – put him on the hide and dragged him to the hospital in Endulen. On the edge of the Serengeti. The doctor there was amazed. He cleaned the wound – sewed him up and called the Flying Medical Service to take him to Arusha or Moshi for proper stiches. And he said to the Masaai elder – why on earth did you bring him here. He was nearly dead. And the elder said, you must have heard the story of the Good Samaritan – this is what good people do! The man was cared for in the larger hospital. Could not speak with anyone there. So he walked out and walkled home – took him several days. Sometimes the message works.
    Thanks. Stay Safe.

  7. A fine piece Jack. I think there needs to be a shift in Christian education and preaching.

    Of times up to the age of the Baby Boomer, for good reason with purpose, the Church’s Preaching emphasis was on the rewards of Heaven beyond a very uncertain, painful, hurtful existence here on earth. Not to mention its presence within the slow development of social cohesion with mutual benefit rising in human behaviour.
    Modern medicine and wealth of developed nations – especially the West – sees acted out in daily life the healthy and comfortable life, from Crib to Death Bed. The social demand has eroded whilst the lessons of the “good life” – “life to the full” – have been lost in the great exodus into the wasteland.
    So lets see the Church Leaders bring focus to the here and now of the Good Life for all; preach not about God’s Love, rather to live, know and teach God’s Love to be lived by his human worshippers. This is indeed a step up.

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