Tag Archives: Christian humanism

Why we need scholarship on flourishing


“My sister and her baby”
Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US
Creative Commons

A friend asked me to write a short snippet for a new journal on Faith & Flourishing on the question, “Why is the flourishing of the world an important subject for scholarly inquiry?” My response:

Christianity’s absorption and reinterpretation of the classical tradition, as described for example in the work of Robert Louis Wilken, included in every age—from Irenaeus to Augustine to Aquinas to the Reformers to the post-WW II resurgence described by Alan Jacobs in his Year of Our Lord: 1943—a strong commitment to flourishing. This was especially the flourishing of humans in all our dimensions (salvation = wholeness). The evergreen Christian humanism forged in that Christian-classical synthesis—which has amounted, as Jens Zimmermann has said, to a coherent Christian “philosophy of culture”—took different forms in every age but was never seriously challenged until the modern era.

By capitulating to the disenchantment of the world—and of humanity—that was insisted upon in the materialist biology of Darwin, the materialist psychology of Freud, and the materialist social teachings of Marx (among others), we have entered an age when a purely naturalistic “exclusive humanism”—one kind of “closed immanent frame”—to use two of Charles Taylor’s labels, has become convincing to many as a way of understanding humanity and human flourishing. And the church of the 20th and 21st century has no coherent answer. Having lost track of that older tradition of Christian humanism despite strong advocacy on its behalf by writers as diverse as C S Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope John Paul II, we have spiritualized faith beyond all recognition, removing it from the ordinary workings of the world and society.

And now we are surprised when ordinary Americans (for instance) see the truth that this denatured faith has nothing to offer to our ordinary life in the world—and they are leaving the church in droves. We must retrieve our heritage: the long and strong tradition of pro-creation, pro-material, pro-embodiment, pro-social Christian humanism grounded in the claim that the incarnation has inaugurated a new humanity. We must again, to adapt Pierre Hadot’s phrase, practice “theology as a way of life”—not as a disembodied and detached technical pursuit.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part IV (final part)


Protestant Reformers, unknown artist (18th c.), Wikimedia Commons

Social dimensions of Christian humanism – scholastic, renaissance, and Reformation developments

This article continues from part III.

The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.

Scholastic humanism and the social world

For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.[1]

The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”[2]

In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.[3]

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Worth reading: Christian humanist/medieval “retrievalist” Remi Brague


Soon I intend to post part II of the “Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation” article. For now, though, I want to share a scholar who just came onto my radar:

Friend Andrew Hansen at Anselm House Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota passed along to me the name of a scholar I can’t wait to read. For a peek into French historian of philosophy Remi Brague’s work, see this review of Brague’s 2019 book Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (so widely read and well-received that it was reissued in 2022). [Love the subtitle – it has a familiar ring!] A quick excerpt:

“G. K. Chesterton was right: the modern thinkers were thieves and counterfeiters. They lifted truths embedded in medieval culture and articulated by pre-modern thinkers, reworked them, and passed them off as new, emancipatory, and empowering. The stolen ideas were pressed into the service of a vast new enterprise, “the modern project.” Proponents of the project promised that henceforth man could make his own way in the world, without any higher assistance or guidance whatsoever. Brague calls this “exclusive humanism,” because it excludes any higher Instance—cosmos or Creator or binding tradition—in the understanding and fulfillment of the human.”

“. . . It certainly does not mean repudiating the modern world in all its aspects and works. That world has “precious gains” that should be “safeguarded.” However, we must understand the core tenets of the medieval worldview (starting with creation and providence) that gave rise to these positive truths. It means noting what is missing or garbled in the extracted modern versions. It means bringing the two together in a new synthesis, one that neither party could effect in their day. Rather than a reactionary appeal, therefore, “medieval wisdom for the modern age” is a contemporary call for an unprecedented synthesis.”

Having received Andrew’s tip and read the above review, I immediately asked friend and prolific scholar of Christian humanism Jens Zimmermann at Regent College what he thought of Brague. Had he read him? Most certainly! And in fact he compared Brague favorably to one of the most influential philosophers in my own intellectual pedigree, Charles Taylor. Well, that got my attention! I’m eagerly awaiting copies of several of his books and look forward to delving into them.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation


Workers in a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil; by Guilherme Cunha, Unsplash, free use

First, my apologies to regular readers and subscribers for disappearing for a while. For the past 6-9 months (or more), this blog has been offline, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, but seeming to have to do with its attachment to an old email address to which I no longer had access. But even before that, I had for years not updated the blog on any but the most sporadic basis. I intend for that to change now, as I am working on a new book (on which, more anon) and will most likely blog through the process as I did with Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, published back in 2016. So, as a first shot across the bow . . .

[The talk from which the following is excerpted was presented by Dr. Chris R. Armstrong at the Ciceronian Society annual meeting at Grove City College in March, 2022. As always, this material is not to be reproduced or distributed in any form without the express permission of the author.]

Introduction: Disenchantment and the sacred-secular divide

The faith-work problematic

American Christians has been wrestling with a problem for decades. The problem is that many Christians in this country experience a separation in our lives between supposedly sacred activities and supposedly secular activities – and that furthermore our work, which may in the end account for some 100,000 hours of our lives, falls largely in the latter category.

You may say, “Wait a minute – what about the torrent of books, blogs, websites, podcasts, and conferences on this subject in the last few decades? Are we really still unable to resolve this existential issue?” And I would respond, “Yes, because we still have no stable, faithful, well-worked-out theological understanding of what work is and how it relates to central teachings of our faith.”

In other words, despite some excellent scholarly treatments, the faith and work conversation remains largely ungrounded in three ways: philosophically, theologically, and importantly, historically. Having by the mid-nineteenth century discarded much of the Christian knowledge tradition, American Christianity—or at least, American Protestantism—now unsurprisingly finds itself with precious few resources to address what, at the very least, must be seen as a colossal failure of pastoral care.

In this paper, I propose that the longstanding and biblically faithful tradition of Christian humanism—a philosophy of culture that is faithful to central biblically derived doctrines—can and should provide this tripartite grounding, and that scholars who are engaging the faith and work conversation should be recovering and drawing from that tradition today.

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Defining heresy and assessing creeds–a good conversation over at The Christian Humanist


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea

Over at The Christian Humanist, a good, meaty conversation is developing about how we should define “heresy” and how we should assess the role of the ancient creeds today.

A week or so ago I worked through these questions on this blog in my series on early theological controversies (part I of that series is here).

Here’s a bit of the conversation on The Christian Humanist (but I recommend heading over to that blog to reading the rest of Nathan Gilmour’s post and the responses that ensued):

Michial’s working definition of heresy is that which stands against the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, while my own definition was that which, if taught to a generations of Christians, would result in something other than the Christian church. Continue reading