Five themes in Christian humanism (IV – final)


A Christian humanist harmonization of truth and beauty: J R R Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle”

Continued from part III

5. Reason and imagination (or maybe better, “truth and beauty”

Because WordPress does not allow for the “read more” section divider (crucial for shortening the part of each post that shows up on this blog’s main page) to be placed in the midst of a numbered list, I’m simply going to say here: this is the last dyad of ideas that (in my opinion) Christian humanism often, in its history, attempted to bring together.

Actually, one more note too: After having proposed this Christian humanist “dyadic harmonization thesis” to our seminar development team, I started (the other day) reading the brilliant, clear, and well-researched account by Australian scholar Tracey Rowland of war-time and post-WW II German Christian humanism, Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism. In that book, I’ve already discovered plenty of evidence of such dyadic harmonization in the German Roman Catholic thinkers whose Christian humanist thought Rowland so clearly and persuasively summarizes. In another post I may note a few of those spots in Rowland’s book. But for now, the list . . .

  1. Even as the secular anti-modernisms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, later chapters) were taking root, and in very early premonition of the late 20th century’s postmodern critics, a generation of Christian literati (see Ian Ker, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845 – 1961 and Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts) turned from rationalist apologetics to imaginative literature to bring their Christian humanist vision for social and individual life well-lived. They looked to myth and art for the kind of “affective formation” argued by Lewis (among others; probably Anscombe too) as necessary for human moral and spiritual development required in the Christian humanist vision.
  2. After the grotesque and massive loss of human moral compass represented in the two world wars, this turn to the arts and literature intensified along with (and hybridized with) attempts to return to an earlier Christian humanism through recovery of sources from that movement’s earlier ages, and gained even secular fellow-travelers, as for example in Oldham’s Moot and the “great books movement” (see Alan Jacobs: The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis—an account of this revival of Christian humanism by a contemporary literary scholar).
  3. Among those representative of that Christian humanist recovery, no English author stands taller than C S Lewis. He was unique in working both within the reason-infused arena of public theology and apologetics and within imaginative writing, during that mid-century period when it was still possible to be a public intellectual (think of the Niebuhrs and MLK Jr on Time magazine covers, as Lewis was as well). (See Samuel Joeckel, The C. S. Lewis Phenomenon: Christianity and the Public Sphere for how those two kinds of work interacted in Lewis’s career, and how he self-consciously used literature and myth to make the case for Christian humanism to those disenchanted with reason after its spectacular failure in the positivistic creeds underwriting wartime totalitarianism.) That Lewis saw imaginative writing as not just a way to “make the case” but indeed a crucial mode of moral, affective character formation is especially clear in the preface to his third “space trilogy” novel That Hideous Strength, which he described as a dramatization, an imaginative rendering, of the arguments of his Abolition of Man.
  4. Note the importance of the concept of myth in this humanist revival; e.g. JRR Tolkien “On Fairy Stories.” As a short, readable expression of this commitment to beauty, see JRR Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” and Tim Keller’s reflection on that story in Every Good Endeavor.
  5. Also can relate this theme to the insights in the “narrative theology” movement, which are still alive in seminary teaching in North America, at least (I’ve seen it a lot at Regent College, e.g.)[1]
  6. Across the ocean from Europe, such American Catholic authors as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy continued Christian humanist themes in their works during this same period. (See Christina Bieber Lake on O’Connor as humanist), trying to recapture and re-narrate the Christian-rooted values lost in the totalitarian cataclysms of the war years.
  7. Margarita Mooney could provide us with something on the visual arts here too – beauty as a key humanist value, and the attempts to return to beauty against the ugliness of modernism.
  8. As for the longer history of Christianity and the arts, see O’Malley, Four Cultures of the West (fourth culture). I suspect we might be able to dig around in Schaeffer’s stuff too for this theme. In any case, it should not be hard to show the Christian humanist dimensions of the Renaissance, for example!
  9. And Dante (who wove the visual arts into his poem) could easily play a role in this unit too. But I think this last unit might best start and keep its center of gravity in the post-war attempts to recover Christian humanism through the arts.

[NOTE I have a full lecture, with sources, on the literary part of this topic that I used to give at the end of my Church History 102 course at Bethel Seminary.]


[1] Postliberal theology (often called narrative theology) is a Christian theological movement that focuses on a narrative presentation of the Christian faith as regulative for the development of a coherent systematic theology. Thus, Christianity is an overarching story, with its own embedded culture, grammar, and practices, which can be understood only with reference to Christianity’s own internal logic.[1]

The movement became popular in the late twentieth century, primarily among scholars associated with Yale Divinity School.[2] Supporters challenge assumptions of the Enlightenment and modernity, such as foundationalism and the belief in universal rationality,[3] by speaking in terms of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games.[4] They argue that the biblical narrative challenges the dominant presuppositions of liberalism and liberal Christianity, including its emphasis on the autonomous individual.[5]

Postliberal theology arose amongst scholars who either taught or studied at Yale Divinity School, such as George LindbeckHans Wilhelm Frei, and alumnus Stanley Hauerwas. It is sometimes referred to as the “Yale school” or “narrative theology.”[6] The term “postliberal theology” came about shortly after the publication of Linbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984).[7]

The movement is theologically influenced by Karl BarthThomas Aquinas, and to some extent, the nouvelle théologie of French Catholics such as Henri de Lubac. The clear philosophical influence, however, was Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s philosophy of language, the moral philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, and the sociological insights of Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger on the nature of communities. Philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and literary theorists such as Erich Auerbach also influenced the new approach.[8]

This movement has influenced other movements, such as radical orthodoxy, scriptural reasoningpaleo-orthodoxy, the emerging church movement, and postliberal expressions of evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Its ecumenical spirit originates from Lindbeck’s work, which was partly animated by his involvement as a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council.[8]

One response to “Five themes in Christian humanism (IV – final)

  1. Pingback: Five themes in Christian humanism (III) | Grateful to the dead

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