The Humanist UK website describes a “humanist” as someone who (1) trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic), (2) makes ethical decisions based on reason, empathy and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals, and (3) believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.
Presumably, this description would be accepted as a representative view by contemporary humanism movements. This view of humanism rejects supernaturalism and reduces human beings to materialistic objects without souls which would be antithetical to Christian beliefs. On the other hand, Christianity affirms virtues like empathy and concern for human beings and the importance of realising meaning and happiness in this life. Many Christian scientists apply reason and science to discover how the universe works, but they also insist that the quest for knowledge and betterment of life on earth should not preclude supernatural reality. These tensions call for a nuanced understanding of the relationship between Christianity and humanism. Perhaps clarity will emerge by analysing the outstanding features of various branches of the humanist movement since it gained prominence during the Renaissance in the 14th century.
Renaissance scholars who judged the contemporary church to be intellectually anaemic and morally inept to address the vices of the age tapped into their idealised memories of the Roman Empire and classical antiquity to serve as a model of cultural excellence and test the authenticity of conventional taste and wisdom. Rich patrons sponsored scholars to collect and restore ancient Latin manuscripts which served as the basis for the “New Learning” that included Roman rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy. The curriculum was expanded with the study of Greek language, literature and philosophy with the arrival of Byzantine scholars in Italy as they fled from the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
What struck the Renaissance scholars was the realisation that the ancient classics depicted the world in a man-centred way, that is, the dignity of man was defended on the basis of his special position within a well-developed metaphysical order. This man-centred focus and concern for the immediate life was a novelty to the zeitgeist of 14th century society which deferred human fulfilment and happiness to the after-life. The new curriculum of “humanism” which aimed at nurturing a universal man who combines intellectual excellence and self-development to master the world was enthusiastically promoted since it was vibrant and life affirming, in contrast to the abstract studies of logic, science and metaphysics of the medieval scholastics. Petrarch, the first great humanist criticised his contemporaries as they admired the mountains and the stars but neglected themselves whereas “nothing is admirable but the soul in comparison to which, if it is great, nothing is great.” Man and his soul are the true standards of intellectual achievements as man is superior to other creatures because of the variety of his arts and skills and his capability for humane feelings of personal virtue and solidarity with fellowmen.
However, the Christians who contributed to the Renaissance did not see any conflict between the New Learning and Christian faith. Erasmus, the renowned Christian intellectual of his time, advocated that the New Learning would bring social reforms when it is based on two foundations, namely the classical concept of humanitas and the Christian concept of pietas. Humanitas meant the love of humankind who alone among God’s creature is endowed with speech and reason. Pietas meant reverence for the Creator and the imitation of his qualities of truth, fortitude and compassion which is vital to bring reforms through persuasion rather than coercion.
The confluence of the two streams of classical culture and Christian faith in the humanist movement continued until they became separated during the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Humanism took a secular turn after it absorbed the ideas of Rousseau, Darwin and Marx. Secular humanism during the Enlightenment continued to view humans as unique and originally good, but his uniqueness soon became lost when man was reduced to just another member of the animal kingdom. For Rousseau, man was originally good but he became corrupted by society. Nonetheless, these flaws could be overcome through a therapeutic process and nurture under tutelage of a benevolent state that sponsors moral religion and promotes virtues, justice and respect for the Social Contract. However, the optimism of secular humanism which envisaged that society would progress from innocent and good-natured primitive communities to moral and just communities through therapeutic education was shattered by the disasters of the French and Bolshevik revolutions and the world wars in the twentieth century, and the social disintegration and moral decadence of contemporary Western society. Perhaps Blaise Pascal witty aphorism is more applicable, “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast. The first half of the thought is unexceptionable: man is indeed neither angel nor beast, but, amphibious as he is between matter and spirit, a hybrid and a riddle to himself.”
Rousseau famously judged Christianity to be unable to redress human corruption as it is a wholly other-worldly and too detached from this world to fight against domestic tyranny. However, Christians would dispute Rousseau’s verdict as they have found in Christianity moral resources for human fulfilment and social renewal. Christianity upholds Jesus Christ as the universal exemplar of an integrated personality and moral perfection since he is not merely human, but fully human even though he is fully divine. The incarnation of Christ affirms that God’s program of redemption not only prepares humans for life in the world to come but also enhances and enriches human life on earth. Christ provides a model of human wholeness in the midst of human brokenness and delivers individuals from isolation and despair by incorporating them into a community that imparts moral and spiritual renewal.
What are the fundamental features of Christianity that contribute to the flourishing of individuals and society?
First, theological anthropology: In contrast to secular humanism, Christianity posits that man benefits from his relationship with God. As the Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To this end, God has created the world and entrusted its care to human beings. The created world is given for human enjoyment. Material reality is cherished as a channel of divine blessings. With this enjoyment comes responsibility. As the Book of Genesis teaches, Adam was given the task of taking care of the Garden of Eden. The appointment of man as God’s vicegerent on earth is one of responsible stewardship. This is in contrast to secular humanism where the absence of transcendent accountability would tend towards exploitation of the earth. G. K. Chesterton puts the matter lucidly, “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
Second, community flourishing: Jacques Maritain applauds the social project of secular humanism aimed at promoting human liberty and equality, but concludes that the project eventually fails because of it being anthropocentric; man is turned in upon himself and is cut off from his Creator. Marx’s great insight was to identify how proletarian man has been estranged from his true nature by being dispossessed of property and reduced to becoming a tool of economic institutions. Maritain suggests that the only adequate foundation is for a humanism that is ultimately theocentric. That is, humans may fully realise themselves only in right relation to God and achieve their fullest human potential developed under the exigencies of a supernatural order which the Bible describes as God’s new creation and God’s new society. The challenge for Christian humanism is to retrieve and integrates the best insights of humanism throughout history and establish a model community of human dignity and freedom, in contrast to the disastrous model of secular humanism based on secular political ideologies.
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.