Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christian Humanism?

"I believe in man," I have seen a secular humanist write. That was especially ironic from one who said that mankind's horrific evils were reason to reject belief in God. Christianity values humanity made in the image of God, even if that image is now tarnished; but we are at odds with this humanism's naive optimism about the human condition and its faulty evaluation of what brings out the best in mankind. And should mankind have the position on the top of the pedestal where we tend to put ourselves? Here I will sketch out not exactly a Christian humanism but a few points about why following Christ makes for better humans than such humanist systems.

Mankind's problem with evil
Mankind is responsible for more acts of hatred, spite and oppression than can easily be counted. As followers of Christ, we start with an honest acknowledgment that mankind has done horrible things and (contrary to the relativists) that these things are genuinely wrong. We are also instructed to resist the temptation to scapegoat other people, but instead to honestly search our own hearts and minds for the evil that lies there and for our part in the problem of evil.

The relativists who do not acknowledge anything as genuinely good or evil have a problem deciding on a direction away from evil and towards good. How can someone decide what is "better" without a concept of good in the first place? As Christians, we are in a stronger position to make progress by having an objective concept of good and evil. We are also in a better position to assert mankind's worth even in the face of our real problem with evil, already having an understanding of mankind's condition that acknowledges both the good and evil within us. Secular humanists sometimes deny that mankind has a real problem with evil; the problem is often scapegoated onto religion. In the twentieth century, the anti-religious crowd had a larger following than ever before, and the anti-religious leaders (Stalin, Mao) or anti-Christian and anti-Jewish (Hitler) perpetrated some of the worst atrocities the world had yet seen. (Somehow, there are still people who are unaware of Hitler's stated plan to eliminate Christianity, or the systematic persecutions of Christians who resisted his church takeover. To say the least, it is strange that these things are still news to some.) We Christians would be suffering some kind of amnesia if we did not remember the abuses of our own religion at times. We must acknowledge that those named above likewise abused their anti-religious prejudices and/or atheism. The point is this: the facts show that the "blame religion" theory of human evil is nothing but scapegoating, a convenient prejudice dressed up nicely in the hopes of gaining a respectability which has not been earned.

When it comes to our faults, the worst in mankind tends to happen when people have convinced themselves that they could not be part of the problem, so it follows that someone else must be the problem with the world. When such a basic mistake takes place, oppression and atrocities are likely to follow. This temptation affects all camps; but humanism's premise that mankind is essentially good leaves it little defense against that problem within its own ranks. The assumption of mankind's enduring goodness leads people to turn a blind eye to humanity's tendency towards evil, making it especially easy to overlook our own faults. This blindness to our own faults is one of humanity's worst and most enduring problems. In this, Christ's pointed reminder to "first look at the log in your own eye" is a healthy corrective to this human blind spot, one that could be applied even more often with good results. Aside from the blind spot about homegrown evil in our own camps, the premise of mankind's basic goodness also leaves little room to address the more general problem of evil, a problem that is not acknowledged to exist in the first place.

Mankind's highest and best
Though mankind stoops to some horrifying lows, it also soars to some impressive highs. Mankind has painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and an impressive array of sciences to our credit. The best of mankind is motivated by a passion for beauty, for excellence, for the eternal, for truth, for knowledge. To "excel" is to strive to go beyond -- and here is one of the largest weaknesses of humanism. Humanism puts mankind on top of the pedestal already; there is nothing higher so there is little to inspire, little to draw out the best in us. Secular humanism in particular denies that there exists a great quest, a great meaning which is beyond us; relativism denies the objective reality of beauty and truth and goodness. Some humanists imagine that a well-constructed, peaceful system of government and economics is likely inspire the best in us; Christians likewise aim for good systems but do not suppose that peace and prosperity of themselves lead to any great inspiration.

In striving for excellence, again the followers of Christ find ourselves at an advantage. Christ inspires us by the simple fact of being greater than us. It is no accident that Christ is the inspiration behind a vast body of music, literature, architecture, philosophy, painting, and sculpture for the last two thousand years of mankind. It is not just in the field of the arts where Christians have produced significant works. In humanitarian works and innovations, we are inspired by Christ's teachings to love mankind in practice; Christians have led the way from innovations such as Braille to institutions such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross (in which, to be fair, other religions and secular nations have now joined in acting out the teachings of Christ, such is their universal appeal). In mathematics and science, the Christian values of honesty and devotion to truth, along with the Western Christian scholastic emphasis on study, research and systematization, made the Western Christian lands a natural place for the sciences to flourish. The Reformation emphasis on finding the truth by study and research rather than reliance on authority didn't hurt there either.

I know it's a fair criticism that I've barely scratched the surface of what could be said about humanism; I'm trying to keep to a reasonable length for a blog. It would also be a fair criticism that I have only contended that we beat humanists at their own game but have not yet contended for the reality of Christianity or God's own role in our transformation; I have posted on those topics before and plan to again, but it is beyond the scope of what I'm writing today.

In closing I'll ask two questions of humanism: Is man better off with himself at the top of the pedestal? And has he earned that place?

1 comment:

codepoke said...

Humanism puts mankind on top of the pedestal already; there is nothing higher so there is little to inspire, little to draw out the best in us.

Great picture. I see a little guy on a big pedestal, jumping as high as he can, and patting himself on the back with each leap. Climbing the Mountain is much better than starting way up on a dead-end pedestal.

Your call to the "objective" is spot on, too.