A sketch toward a seminar on Christian humanism


Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam,” ca. 1511; wikimedia commons, public domain

Some friends and I are beginning to plan a multi-day seminar on Christian humanism to be given to a group of scholar-teachers from across the country next spring. As we consider themes that might prove both interesting and helpful to such a group, I’ve framed some elements (still well short of an outline) as follows:

Nascent learning outcomes

  • Definitions:  What, simply defined, is Christian humanism (hereafter, “CH”)?
  • Warrants
    • Scriptural warrants:  What are some key scriptural foundations of CH?
    • Doctrinal warrants:  In what key Christian doctrines has CH been grounded?
  • Chronological scope, depth in the tradition:  How has CH been present and active in all periods of Christian history?
    • Patristic roots and forms:  How were the Church Fathers Christian humanists?
    • Medieval roots and forms: How were the scholastics and renaissance thinkers Christian humanists?
    • Reformation roots and forms:  How were the Reformers Christian humanists?
    • 20th century:  CH as a tradition reclaimed during times of crisis:  What social circumstances and intellectual contexts led WW II – era thinkers to attempt to reclaim facets of CH for their time? Are there parallels between the crisis of that era (to which some thinkers responded by looking to re-excavate CH) and our own moment of multifaceted crisis?
    • 21st century:  Application today:  If CH is appropriately considered as a “crisis philosophy” that has something to say to our moment, then do we need to recapture CH today – particularly in contemporary North American culture?
  • Foundational ideas
    See also “key dimensions” below
    • Anthropology (and as embedded in soteriology):  What particular view of the human telos and indeed of salvation/redemption does CH offer? In particular, why has understanding Christ as the “new man” grounded CH as a Christian understanding both of humanity and of human culture, and how does that play out in CH soteriology? Does that make CH soteriology the closest to a historically Eastern Orthodox view? And how much affinity is there between that historically Eastern soteriology and the multiple theological perspectives of Western Christianity today?
      • Theo-anthropocentricity:  What grounds CH’s “theo-anthropocentric” quality – and how does that quality put the lie to stereotypes about renaissance humanism in particular?
    • “Enlightenment values”:  Following from the anthropology described above, what values have been passed down from Christian humanism, through the Enlightenment, to modern Western culture? Examples: the common humanity, equal dignity, and inherent worth of all human persons; universal reason; protection of human rights and freedoms; valuing of human progress. These values are protected in our societies by the rule of law, and they also protect human agency, freedom, and equality of opportunity within marketplace (and other cultural) work settings.
    • Intellectual omnivorousness:  What has CH’s relationship been to non-Christian sources of knowledge? How can that help us today, not only as academics but as pastors and congregants working and struggling out in a world that still feels quite secular to many (though George Marsden and others tell us, is increasingly post-secular)? In other words, can CH help Christian workers who experience their workplaces and their work as alienating because of the apparent secularity of workplace organizations/institutions and their commitments?
    • Understanding(s) of culture:  How has CH been a “philosophy of culture”?
    • Role of the church in the world:  What does CH have to offer to an argument that the church – gathered and scattered – is called by God to be “for the life of the world” (hereafter, “FLOW”)? And how can it support the dismantling of the harmful “sacred-secular divide” in the modern American evangelical church (among others) that has been identified as one of the primary dis-integrators of our work from our faith?
      • Luther on vocation as a CH argument: (1) priesthood of all believers, (2) lay vocations to serve neighbor, (3) a concept of common grace: God meets needs and answers prayers through human work.
      • Schmemann “FLOW” as a CH argument:  In his 1963 series of talks and the book version For the Life of the World, American Orthodox leader Alexander Schmemann argued that the church has always been intended by God as a kind of grand sacrament provided for the life and flourishing of the world. He also links the church’s activities in the world deeply to the liturgy and, in particular, the Eucharist – as does Zimmermann in describing CH. What then are the relationships between Schmemann’s ideas and CH?
  • Historical influence and contemporary usability in cultural sectors
    • CH as formative for (higher) education:  How did CH underwrite the development of the university as a pro-flourishing institution? What has the line of development or influence been between Christian humanism and “the humanities” of the modern university? And how can/should that connection influence how we think about Christian higher education in general, and theological education in particular, today?
    • CH as formative for other sectors:  What about the connections between CH and science? The arts? Law and politics? Healthcare and the rise of the hospital? (etc.) In other words, how did CH in its various phases influence the development and shape of the major sectors of work in which most of us spend most of our time and invest much of our labor?

Key dimensions of CH

The following is “quick and dirty,” needing refinement and correction. It will also need to be integrated with “Foundational Ideas” (framed as questions) above:

  • Anthropology
    • God has created us with a telos—an end, purpose, or perfection—that is manifested fully in the person of Jesus Christ; CH’s anthropology is Christological
    • Redemption in its human (rather than cosmic) dimension is the (re-)gaining of that perfect humanity in Christ
    • The doctrines of creation, incarnation, and new creation (including a resurrection of the body) indicate the holistic (body-soul-spirit-relationality) nature of that telos.
    • CH has derived from the above theological anthropology a conviction that the church and the individual Christian must attend to and support full human flourishing (material, social, spiritual)
  • Reason and education
    • Reason is God’s highest gift to humanity, given for us to perceive and draw flourishing from our understanding of God and the world
      • though animals participate in certain kinds of reason, the ability to judge between ends and refrain from acting on one good end in order to serve another (for instance) separates humans from animals
      • the noetic effects of sin darken but do not abrogate the power of reason to arrive at truth
    • No source of true knowledge is alien to or unhelpful to the Christian: CH has a long history of dialogue with non-Judeo-Christian sources of knowledge – starting most importantly with pagan Greek sources
    • Drawing from its characteristic classical-Christian synthesis, CH has understood that education (in all its forms and levels) must include the dimension of character formation for citizenship
    • The world is stable, intelligible, rational – all God-qualities
    • The historic CH support of scientific exploration (and consequent development of technologies that serve human flourishing) is grounded in all of the above insights about the nature of our reason and of the world
    • Similarly grounded is the historic CH support of all human cultural endeavors (e.g. arts, law, politics, healthcare, economic value-creation and exchange, education)
  • World-sacramentalism
    • God’s grace, love, and presence are manifested sacramentally in the world – a CH teaching that emerges directly from the central doctrine of the Incarnation, in which God joined himself forever to the world in a new way
    • this sacramental principle does two things:
      • it elevates all our activities in the world beyond ethics or transactions (gaining “brownie points with God” or “doing our duty” for neighbor)
      • it leads CH to claim that
        • the active life and the contemplative (“spiritual”) life are joined symbiotically, and
        • all licit human endeavors serve God. There is no “sacred-secular divide.”

One response to “A sketch toward a seminar on Christian humanism

  1. Pingback: Christian humanism seminar outline (follow-up to the “sketch”) | Grateful to the dead

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