November 29, 2020

Christian Humanism: Beginnings

feet.jpgWhen it comes to ultimate reality and our humanity, there are really very few options.

If there is no God, there is no such thing as the “human” in the classically Judeo-Christian sense. There is an existential human, thrown into existence and forced to determine his own identity by choices that are, ultimately, absurd. There is the pagan human, a struggler against forces that he cannot understand or control, but can only hope to religiously placate or nobly ignore. In this contemporary time, the human is a category in the pages of science, an observation in the notebook of the psychologist, yet these disciplines do not give us our humanity, but increasingly take it from us. They tell us we are dancing to our DNA while being no more than one species among millions briefly occupying a warm rock in a third-rate solar system in a second-rate galaxy in a universe that doesn’t care.

If there is a God, then our humanity stands in reference to God. If it is the God of pantheism, we are God every bit as much as anything else is God. Humanity is a meaningless concept. If it is the God of Deism, we can only look for his fingerprints on the project and hope to derive some significance for our existence from that distant being. So far, the message isn’t promising for our humanity or our future. If it is the God of eastern spirituality, our humanity is one level among many, a place we pass through from one existence to another, and posessing no special significance and, ultimately, illusory.

If it is the God of the great theistic religions who truly exists and has made us to be who and what we are, then humanity has meaning. “Special” meaning. Real, endowed, created meaning. All three religions share the creation accounts in Genesis, and agree that human beings do not just reference God as a social or psychological fact, but in the essence of our identity. Without God, we do not know who we are. Without God, we lose our humanity, and all reference points for what it means to be human.

Which is true? We cannot know for certain. This is the realm of faith, but I have a path, a map, a story that I want you to follow.

This clue is simple and obvious: The greatest evidence for these various reality options is each one of us. The lives we have and share, the persons we are, and the other lives and persons that surround us in experience, culture, time and history. Humanity, collectively and individually, is the great clue to the existence of God. Look at what we are. Listen to us in all our voices. Study us in all our diversity, and then ask, “What does the existence and experience of these persons tell me about the God who creates and sustains them? Humanity is the great clue to God. We are the rock that must be looked under. The puzzle that must be put together. The mission to explore and ascertain the truth must eventually come to us. Human Beings are the greatest evidence and clue for the existence and nature of God.

And the man Jesus of Nazereth is the greatest, most significant, most important clue of all time. He is the ultimate and defining human life, and therefore, the most revealing evidence of ultimate reality, both divine and human.

This is why I will now call myself a Christian Humanist. I must adopt and explore a faith that places the human journey and the human person in proper relation to God. There must be an expression of Christian faith that does not despise the subjective and the indiviudal in human life, but understands the significance of human self-consciousness. I have determined to allow the incarnation itself, that greatest of all creedal and confessional faith assertions, to guide my Christian journey from this point forward.

This morning, my sermon focused on one of the most “human” of Jesus’ experiences- the temptation/testing in the wilderness. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus’ human experience of testing should be a focus for the Christian life: Hebrews 4:15-16 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

This verse is troublesome to many, because it forces an intersection between the divine and the human in ways we are not comfortable contemplating. We are willing for Jesus to appear in human form, to wear human garb, but we are largely unwilling to go all the way and say that Jesus is like us “in every respect….yet without sin.” Human in sexuality, emotion, culture, worldview. Even though scripture says that it is precisely here, in the divine human intersection, that the believer in Jesus will find help in time of need, we look away from the incarnational intersection to the triumph of the divine over the human.

So when we have a Christianity that is not Christian humanism, we pull away from the full implications of the incarnation of Jesus, the ministry of Jesus, and the sufferings of Jesus. In the dearth of creedal Christianity within evangelicalism, this poverty is everywhere. For example, the standard explanation of the hypostatic union of the divine and human in Jesus was set out in the Council of Chalcedon, in 451:

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul {meaning human soul} and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these “last days,” for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ — Son, Lord, only-begotten — in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the “properties” of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one reality {hypostasis}. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word {Logos} of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers {the Nicene Creed} has handed down to us.

Charles Hedrick writes,

In all cases except Christ’s, human beings are independent persons. However Christ is not self-contained in this way: This human being was a vehicle for the Logos to join us in human life, in order to connect us to God. Thus Christian theology says that Christ’s very existence as a person is rooted in God. Or equivalently, in Christ there is a single person, the Logos, who lives both eternally as God and as a human being. It is important to note that the human being has no parts missing: Christ has a human soul, and a human will which is distinct from God’s will. He is really a human being. The difference is that he is not complete in himself, but takes his personal existence from the Logos.

Iraneus statement of how this benefits humanity is still worth remembering.

For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.

These are the hallmarks of Christian humanism: Christ has joined us in our humanity, and shown us both ourselves and the God at the heart of reality at the same time. The Incarnation demands a consideration of the human person in every aspect of human existence. The God beyond the incarnation is a mystery to us, and scripture does not exist to take us to a theology of God beyond the incarnation. Scripture exists to bring us to the incarnation, that, as Paul says, 2 Corinthians 4:6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

We do not know the God of Jesus Christ. We know God in and through Jesus Christ, and we know Jesus through the windows of Holy Scripture and the human experience. To remove the human element from our consideration of God, truth and the Gospel is to do damage to the Christian answer to our greatest questions. We speak of theology, and of God revealed in the Gospel. I propose we speak, as often as we speak of theology, of anthropology, and of the truth of human experience revealed in the Gospel as well.

Therefore, I now call myself a Christian humanist, a tradition that encompasses a vast and diverse tapestry of Christian history, but which also calls into question much of the Christianity of our time. We are increasingly presented with the concept of a God-centered faith that has removed the incarnation from it’s central place, putting there, instead, a kind of ambiguous, tangetial, uncomfortable awareness of human existence, constantly haunted by the tension between the “hallowing” of humanity in the incarnation, and the “polluting” of humanity in the reformed doctrine of total depravity.

It will now become my project, in future essays, to unfold Christian humanism as I understand it, and relate it to the faith of the New Testament and of the Creeds. I invite my readers to join me, to search along with me, to raise issues and questions, but to pray for me as I develop a more honest approach to the one thing we all share and possess with certainty: our humanity, and all the treasures centained therein. Pray that I will be able to help us, as persons made in God’s image, to love God, neighbor and self together in the Trinitarian, incarnational love of Jesus Christ.

Children of men, lift up your hearts. . . .
Praise Him that He hath made man in His own image,
a maker
And craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of His
Triune Majesty.
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly
to match the heavenly
-Michael The Archangel in Zeal For Thy House, by Dorothy Sayers

To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psa 8:1-9)

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience, and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form, perhaps the true form, of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless, and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?), what does that mean for “Christianity?” It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious.” Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity, and even this garment has looked very different at different times, then what is a religionless Christianity?

Barth, who is the only one to have started along this line of thought, did not carry it to completion, but arrived at a positivism of revelation, which in the last analysis is essentially a restoration. For the religionless working man (or any other man) nothing decisive is gained here. The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular” way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians, in what way are we the ??-??????, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer ina religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between the penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb 2:14-18)

True humanism, argued Chesterton, is theocentric and not anthropocentric. Most important, Christian humanism honors the fact that, though created from the dust, the human being is the sole creature that God has made in his very own image and likeness. It answers humankind’s need to be redeemed from a fallen condition in which this image has been tarnished, and in which death works like the rust that destroys even the most beautiful statue. God is at the center of everything, and God in Jesus Christ draws the human race back to that center. That is how human beings become fully human and inherit eternal life.

God in Christ affirms our enfleshed and historical existence and gives meaning to it in spite of death. Within human culture and through the elements of this material world, bread and wine, oil and water, flesh and blood, the incarnate Son, the Only-Begotten of the Father, saves us body and soul from sin and death. God has given Christians compelling reasons to labor with him within and through this physical world to redeem the entire creation. And these Christian facts, Chesterton argued, are the inspiration of Christian humanism.

-Charles Colson, The Christian Humanism of G.K. Chesterton.

Jesus, on the other hand, is content to be just human. He doesn’t like people to focus on him, and he hands back all the masks they offer him to wear, masks that say “Messiah”, or “miracle-worker” or “revolutionary leader”. All the eager faces that turn towards him are pointed instead towards God. And Paul tells us that this is how we know that Jesus is God. He is content to be just a human being, dependent upon God and obedient to God. He wants the spotlight on God’s face, not on his own.

And then, of course, we find out what “just human” means. Jesus, who is content to be only human, is the “image of the invisible God”, the one who shares God’s love and responsibility for the world, just as God always intended, from creation onwards. Jesus, who wants no masks of power or beauty, but simply wants people to look at God, is the face that we see in our salvation, and that we shall see at our judgment. Nothing more, nothing less.

If it is true to say that God made our human faces to reflect his own love, joy and care for the world, then learning to share that human face, learning to recognize it in ourselves and others, learning to see with God’s eyes will make us human, as Jesus was human. To share that humanity, we have to learn to do without the masks, as Jesus did. How many different masks we seem to think we need, masks that make us powerful, invulnerable, beautiful, feared, acceptable, some that we have so deeply internalized that we don’t even know that they are just masks. But the irony is that, without these masks, we are made in the image of God.

We can’t recreate that image in ourselves by sheer force and determination, because that would be to create for ourselves another kind of mask. Instead, we have to keep looking at the only really human face we know, the face of Jesus. We have to gaze at it with intensity, and learn it by heart. We have to keep looking from that face to the faces around us, tracing the likeness, seeing the family resemblances. And God the Holy Spirit will work with us, turning us constantly towards the Son, who reflects the Father. The whole creation is waiting with bated breath, Paul tell us in Romans, to see us learning to be human, learning to share God’s love for the world. The whole creation is longing to see God’s human face in us.

-Jane Williams, Lent Talks

“Sometimes I almost feel on fire with the immensity of this: each of us is a person, alive, growing and relating. From the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep we think, we feel, we choose, we speak, we act, not as isolated individuals but as persons among people. And underneath everything lies trust. From friendships of children to agreements among nations life depends on trust…. The highest reaches of love and life depend on trust. Are there any questions more important to each of us than, Whom can I trust? How can I be sure? This is why when trust goes and doubt comes in such a shadow is cast, such a wound is opened, such a hole is left…. Doubt is not primarily an abstract philosophical or theological question, nor a state of morbid spiritual or psychological anguish. At its most basic, doubt is a matter of truth, trust and trustworthiness. Can we trust God? Are we sure? How can we be sure? Do we trust him enough to rely on him utterly? Are we trusting him enough to enjoy him? Is the whole of living different for that trust?” -Os Guinness


  1. joel hunter says

    A great beginning, indeed. Outstanding selections at the end. VERY pleased to see Bonhoeffer’s undeveloped “religionless Christianity” tied in to this work. Christian humanism today is precisely the exploration and articulation of the contours of what Bonhoeffer foresaw.

  2. Michael,

    I think it’s interesting that you would take this position. One of my recent posts on my blog deals with the Chistian humanism of John Paul II. I think he set a good example of what a Christian humanist might be like.



  3. wow. alot to digest. how do we come together on this, or do we just acknowledge each other from a distance?

  4. Gary….I’m not following you. (And this comment thread isn’t getting checked regularly by me, so you may need to email me if you have questions or comments)