Monday, January 4, 2016

The Importance of Humanism to Christianity

Carravaggio's "The
Entombment"--a fruit of
Renaissance humanism  

When Pope Francis announced to the Italian Church at their national synod in Florence this past November that there was a need to bring the idea of humanism to the front again, many of the Katholik Krazies went even more than usually berserk.  To those ignorant of the history of our Christian faith the idea of “humanism” is somehow opposed to authentic Christianity when, in fact, it is an essential component of our Christian faith.  The earliest writer on Christian humanism is no one less than the Apostle Paul himself who in his letters gives us a foundation for a philosophical view on what it means to be truly human.  For Paul we arrive at the fullness of our human nature when we
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8.)
The key to realizing full human potential is found in kenosis, the emptying of self and self-interest in favor of conforming ourselves to Christ.  In orthodox Christianity, we see Christ to be the ideal human person and to the extent that we conform ourselves to him even as he conforms himself in obedience to the Will of the Father, we reach our potential to be truly human.  This is very counter-intuitive and certainly runs contrary to most of the various humanisms advanced by the philosophers of the ancient world.  Christianity has always taken a remarkably unique approach to the human ideal and the understanding of what makes us human.  Both the various secular humanisms that have emerged since the Enlightenment and the perspectives offered by the other great world religions have some similarities with Christian humanism but also are, at the core, essentially different.  This is because Christianity begins with an understanding of the Godhead that differs not only from the religions of the East but from the other two Abrhamic faiths, Judaism and Islam.  Christianity sees the human person as having the potential to share in the Divine Nature.  The Church Fathers, notably Iranaeus and Athanasius, went to far as to speak of our being sharers in the Divine Nature when we so conform ourselves to Christ that we surrender our own selves to indeed become essentially united to Christ with Christ being the life-principle within us.  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ Jesus who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:11).    “God became human so that humans might become God”—a statement which, were it not from the fathers, would seem to be counter to all Christian orthodoxy but which has become a cornerstone of all genuine Christian anthropology or humanism ever since. Beginning with Paul, the authors of the Christian scriptures—both Gospels and Epistles—laid the foundation for a genuine understanding of what it means to be truly human.  The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Publican, Lazarus and the Rich Man, The King and his two debtors, The man whose barn wasn’t big enough, Lowest Seat at the Banquet, The persistent widow, the Last Judgment and others all give us insights into human nature at its best and at its worst. 
It was Origen, and probably even more, Tertullian, the second/third century theologians who organized much Christian thought into a philosophical system, who gave us the more abstract or philosophical view of human nature—though Origen tended to be a bit over-positivist with his belief that all will eventually be reconciled to God, and Tertullian a big over negative with his objection to the idea that sins committed after baptism cannot be forgiven.  Perhaps for us in the West, the great Christian humanist is Saint Augustine. 
Augustine is, at least for us in the Western Church, the great Christian thinker who takes the Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition and tries to weave a coherent Christian theology.  His appreciation for human nature is, I think, spot on—in this regard I am much closer to Pope Benedict than to most other Catholic thinkers.  Augustine is often seen as too negative, even sin-obsessed but sin, for Augustine, is not his topic but only the foil against which we can see Grace.  Augustine is the Doctor Gratiae, (the Doctor of Grace).  While Augustine thinks that the human person without grace (should such a creature be even conceivable much less a reality) is pretty much the bottom of the barrel, transformed by Grace the human person mirrors the God in whose image and likeness we are created.  Augustine was an extensive writer who looked not only at the human person in se (I love Latin except for Mass) but in our place in The City of God and in the context of the City of Man.   What I like about Augustine’s humanism is that it is not iced with that overly sweet frosting of a supposed innate human goodness but recognizes the far more bitter-sweet ambivalence of the human heart as it is caught between our natural concupiscence and supernatural Grace. 
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The answer is not “The Shadow” but Saint Augustine.  My friend, the late theologian Monika Hellwig, used to rag me about my Augustinian leanings but I just find him to be the most honest and soul-searching of Christian writers.  
Over the Middle Ages a number of Christian authors continued to deal with the subject of a Christian humanism.  The Early and Central Middle Ages was not a great time for intellectual life in the West, though Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job is highly significant for our topic.  The Renaissance of the 12 century however opened the flood gates of Christian literature and crucial—but conflicting—approaches to Christian humanism were taken by Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard.  The dispute between Bernard and Abelard also marks the divide between the Fathers and the Scholastics and while Bernard may have won the day it was Abelard who would ultimately win the war.  While Thomas Aquinas and the other Scholastic theologians shied away from embracing Abelard by name or by explicitly affirming his more radical ideas, they embraced his Aristotelian method and did, in fact, come up, as Abelard did, with a much more positivist anthropology than Augustine and most of the Patristic tradition had.  Personally, I think the Scholastics’ positivism regarding the human person have provided the seedbed for the semi-pelagianism that has plagued our Catholic tradition ever since.  But then Monika Hellwig always chided me for my attachment to Saint Augustine. 
Christian humanism exploded in the Renaissance with such figures as Dante Alighieri, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pius II), Nicholas of Cusa, Geert Groote, Desiderius Erasmus, Basilios Bessarion,  Baptist of Mantua, John Colet, Thomas More, Giles of Viterbo and many others.  The impact of these thinkers in turn created the magnificent baroque and rococo art with Donatello, Durer, Ghirlandaio, Grunewald, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Tiepolo, Caravaggio and so many more.  Indeed, without humanism the renaissance would not have hatched and the Tridentine Catholicism which so many hail as the apex of Catholic faith and culture would have been—at best—a pallid and ghostly shadow of the energetic and animated revival it was in its day. 
Hopefully Pope Francis’ call for a new humanism can trigger the same energy that was unleashed in the Renaissance.  I will look at Francis’s suggestion in an upcoming post, but I think my next posting will bring you some recent comments by one “FrankieB”—a Katholik Krazie if there every was one and let you see just what we faithful Catholics have to deal with when the self-appointed magisterium gets on our tail.  


  1. "FrankieB" is just one of his many names.. They are legion!! He and I tangled one evening for hours on a website. He is making absurd claims that he and his group, who he says we will soon hear about on FOX and CNN, will take over the church and the US government. He was particularly over the top when he discovered my website and knew that I had gone to Rome as a free lance with Vatican credentialing this last October. Why, he was going to make sure the Vatican press office only credentialed practicing Catholics. I wished him luck with that one. He tried invading my website but my web mechanic has him stopped so a word to the wise to block him from yours

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