Christian humanism and “faith, work, and economics” – notes engaging Jens Zimmermann

Oxford University, George Hodan,

Some key points, drafted by C Armstrong, 2-25-21 in engagement with Jens Zimmermann

The following are some key points I drafted early (Feb 2021) in my exploration of the link between Christian humanism and the “faith, work, and economics” conversation, interacting with the work of Jens Zimmermann, JI Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. These themes are informing my work in that conversation at the Kern Family Foundation (Wisconsin), engaging a national network of seminaries and Christian colleges preparing future pastors (note that the book cited parenthetically as “Re-Envisioning” at a number of points below is the Zimmermann-edited volume Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity):

  • Christian humanism is the foundation of virtues and values affirmed within the secular marketplace and Western culture and institutions more generally (from science to arts to law to government) – therefore, an understanding of Christian humanism is also both a preparation for pro-flourishing action within all spheres of work and public engagement and a pathway to self-understanding for workers in modern Western societies
  • Christian humanism provides a direct, biblical and orthodox affirmation of Christian marketplace activities, broadly conceived (all cultural activity); that is, it grounds its understandings of the full range of human culture-creating activity both in Scripture and in the Christian knowledge tradition, as opposed, for example, to the false dichotomy between anthropology and theology often attributed to renaissance humanism; it does this first, through a broad and high anthropology, and second, through a broad and high understanding of the created (and social) order, as follows:
  • Christian humanism affirms human beings as socially embedded spirit-body beings who are God-loved, eternal bearers of the image of the Creator God and are therefore (1) creative workers at our core, (2) of very high dignity and even glory (e.g. CS Lewis, “Weight of Glory”), and (3) provided with the necessities for full, spiritual-material-social flourishing (e.g. John 10:10) by God himself—understanding that flourishing as not inconsistent with elements of want and suffering (e.g. Phil 4:11-12, and this exploration of the relationship between flourishing and suffering by Dr. Stephen J Pope)
    • Christian humanism therefore pushes back against the super-spiritualizing currents in modern Western Christianity that by their nature diminish the value of all activities in the world that are not explicitly “spiritual”; put positively, it has seen the incarnation of Christ as a person in a specific community and cultural setting and his healing, feeding, and teaching activities as an indication of the dignity of our embodied lives and thus our cultural lives too, in which we meet each other’s (and our own) vital, sensory, aesthetic, and social needs through a wide spectrum of vocational work, including economic work
    • By the same token, Christian humanism pushes back against a gospel that is narrowly spiritual, replacing the old language of “souls to be saved” with a more faithful and world-engaging language of “Christ came to inaugurate a new humanity, and he shows what it means to be human in all dimensions of our being”
    • By the same token, Christian humanism pushes back against versions of Christian eschatology that diminish or ignore the importance of the new creation, the resurrection of the body, the Revelation images of “city,” and the mysterious continuity between our current culture-creating activity and the shape of that new creation—such as the suggestion that somehow human work and responsibility will continue in that new creation (e.g. eschatological understandings affirmed by NT Wright)
    • But finally, Christian humanism does not purvey a prosperity-gospel type of overrealized eschatology; it recognizes the continued reality of fallenness, the autonomy of social sectors, and the futility and indeed idolatry of all human utopian schemes (or to put it differently, the proximacy and contingency of human cultural action)
  • Christian humanism joins to that high anthropology an understanding of the created order as intelligible, stable, and full of resources that support human flourishing—given its origin in a rational, constant, and loving God
    • This is not just a distant, deistic relationship between God and the created order; Christian humanism’s fundamental participatory ontology sees God as sacramentally present throughout the world; there is no sacred-secular divide – no “square inch,” as Kuyper said, over which Christ is not Lord, and in and through which he does not act for the good of the world (as Luther argued). This does not (despite the fears of some conservative Christian critics) mute the particularity of the Gospel or the unique role of the church. But it does mean that the church both participates in and serves “the life of the world.” It cannot wall itself off from the world.
    • Christian humanism therefore has always valued all truths and resources that support human flourishing as God-given and good – which provides a basis for a high valuation (by Christians working in the world) of non-Christian knowledge sources, from theorists and practitioners who do not name the name of Christ
    • This openness to non-Christian knowledge sources, along with the participatory ontology described above, provides a path to vocational identity, belonging, and meaning for those Christians who feel alienated as they work within organizations and sectors that seem to them very “secular”
    • Related to this last point: Christian humanists have understood this God-created orderliness of the world as a moral as well as a rational order; this provides answers for the human quest for meaning—that is, it “provide[s] common reference points for the questions who we are, why we live, and what we live for”; since these are vocational questions, they relate deeply to the desire of modern Christians for a “marketplace theology”; they address what Fuller leadership professor Scott Cormode calls the “longings and losses” of ordinary workers (see also Kaemingk and Willson, Work & Worship) – or what is often called “the human condition,” as manifested in settings of ordinary work
  • Christian humanism has fostered an education (paidea) aimed at inculcating civic virtues that are grounded both in Christian scripture/tradition and in the best wisdom of the world (e.g. the classical thinkers, non-Christian sources of civic and political wisdom, etc.) – it therefore has in some forms (the patristic, renaissance, and reformation forms, for example, though not the medieval scholastic form) provided a link between (1) Christian faith, (2) higher education, and (3) shalom-building civic and marketplace vocations
    • To be more specific about the Christian content of that civic emphasis, Christian humanism eschews “mere inner piety or adherence to a belief system,” affirming instead “the transformation of body and soul into true humanity” as “the ultimate telos of the Christian life and thus also of Christian civic responsibility as reflected in all public life.” (Re-Envisioning, 12)
    • Christian humanism is thus also inherently a “politically involved civic humanism.” However, where it stays true to itself it does not ally itself with particular political programs or parties with their most often purely naturalistic, utopian solutions; nor does it seek theocratic rule any more than it affirms a thoroughly secularist order, but rather hews a middle way between those (Re-Envisioning, 12, citing Lee Oser); it provides, instead, “important religious roots for education, tolerance, fair economic practices, philanthropy, and humane politics.” (Re-envisioning, 12)
    • All of this relates to the Kern Family Foundation’s broad understanding of “faith, work, and economics” as not just work in the marketplace, but also Christian engagement and influence within the public square more broadly (“economics” as not just about commerce and money, but as a formerly humanistic discipline that has historically contemplated all arenas of human social action and choice)
    • By the same token, Christian humanists have historically recovered and reaffirmed civic virtues and values rooted in the Christian tradition during times of social crisis—as in Nazi Germany and postwar Europe; it is thus a timely emphasis for this cultural moment especially in the US, which has been identified as a time of polarization/division/fragmentation unprecedented since the Civil War, and also a time in which leading institutions such as the university have abdicated the old Western Christian emphasis on civic virtue (or any virtue), and thus no longer answers our deepest questions and longings for identity, belonging, and purpose
  • Christian humanist ideas that humankind shares the image of God, and that that image includes God’s creative agency and his powerful pro-flourishing work in the creation and sustaining of the world, has led Christians throughout history to do creative, pro-flourishing work in all culture-making sectors, including as founders or re-founders of major modern sectors of work, especially in the West: the hospital and healthcare, the university, science and technology, law, the arts, commerce; in each of these, marks of those Christian humanist origins still linger
    • Of particular interest, perhaps, for Regent’s marketplace theology work:
      • Christian humanism provides an intellectual foundation for vocations in the arts and literature; some of the most prominent Christians in the arts and literature have been Christian humanists or deeply influenced by humanism – e.g. Dante, Boccaccio, many renaissance visual artists, Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis
      • Christian humanism suggests answers to three long-standing Christian objections to involvement in commerce/the marketplace:
        • Against the “monastic purist” objection that the busyness entailed in marketplace engagement interrupts and even prevents the preferred Christian state of contemplation of God, such a proto-humanist as Gregory the Great, and such humanists as Geert Groote and his Brethren of the Common Life, have affirmed that those who practice the active life as love to neighbor can be better off spiritually than those who eschew that life and retreat to pure contemplation
        • Against the Gospels-grounded objection that money itself is toxic, such humanism-informed Christians as John Calvin, John Wesley, and modern Christian economic thinkers from the late medieval scholastic theorists to current authors such as Jeff Van Duzer and members of the Association of Christian Economists have affirmed that money in the hands of the Christian, within modern value-creating economies, can be an instrument of great good for humanity, and thus the creation and handling of wealth is consistent with Christian participation in the mission of God on earth
        • Against the character-and-formation based objection that commercial activities by their nature (e.g. the premium they place at competition and winning at all costs, the temptations to dishonesty to gain one’s advantage, the danger of greed, etc.) draw one into morally questionable activities and thus harm the soul, Christian humanism—especially in its partristic and renaissance forms—affirms the objection’s emphasis on virtue, but refuses to treat commercial activity as inherently corrupt and corrupting, instead proffering a program of paidea toward civic virtue that can help the Christian person engage in commerce in virtuous and godly ways that foster Shalom both in the community and in the individual commercial actor
    • Fundamental values (the “marks of Christian humanist origins” mentioned above) that are still affirmed in secularized cultural sectors and work settings, even in the absence of any understanding of those values’ Christian roots, include ideals of “a common humanity, universal reason, freedom, personhood, human rights, human emancipation and progress” (Re-Envisioning, 6); these values support human agency, freedom, and equality of opportunity within marketplace (and other cultural) work settings—and they can be strongly affirmed and perhaps even more deeply understood by Christian workers (than by secularist workers), owing to these values’ Christian origin

One response to “Christian humanism and “faith, work, and economics” – notes engaging Jens Zimmermann

  1. Pingback: Questions that arise about Christian humanism as foundation for the faith & work conversation | Grateful to the dead

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