Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

In Defense of Humanism

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I find it odd that Protestant Evangelicals have such a negative view of humanism.

Rick Warren is the founder of Saddleback Church in California and an author of several books, most notably The Purpose Driven Life. In this sermon, Warren discusses various philosophical viewpoints. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says, “Ideas have consequences.” But he goes on, at about 32:00 in the audio, to equate humanism to the belief that:

I am my own god; I am the center of the universe.

One could make the argument that secular humanists believe this, but there are other kinds of humanism.

Gerald Robinson and Bob Sjogren have a non-denominational ministry called UnveilinGLORY. They have published a book, Cat & Dog Theology, based on an insightful observation:

A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, you must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God.”

I think it is rather intuitively obvious which animal has it backwards. However, they maintain that humanism is a “cat” way of looking at life:

Humanism is defined as a system of though or actions concerned with the interests or ideals of people. Translating that definition into simpler terms, we might assert that humanism proclaims that the reason for all existence is humanity’s happiness. It’s all about us and making certain we are happy.
Cat & Dog Theology, p. 152.

They might assert that, but they would be wrong. What they’ve got hold of there is hedonism.

Humanism is the belief that human life on this earth has intrinsic value. Life is not just something to be endured to get to heaven.

No Humanism, No Protestants

Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy in 1320, prior to the introduction of Renaissance ideas. Dante identified corruption and worldliness in the Roman Catholic church, finding several former popes in the eighth circle of hell for corruption. He called out the temporal political activity of the Papacy:

O’er Rome, the world’s great healer, used to shine
Two suns ; and by their several light were shown
Two ways diverse — the Worldly and Divine.

One has the other quenched ; since now in one
Are twinned the Sword and Crozier, needs must be,
That ills arise from such false union,

The two, thus join’d, from mutual fear are free.
— “Purgatorio”, Canto XVI

However, Dante would never have dreamt of a reform movement that would secede from the Roman church. Yes, the church was corrupt, but so what? The popes and bishops will answer for their behavior in the afterlife. This earth is only a way station we pass through, a vale of tears. Put up with it; it’s only three score years and ten, if that.

There was no place for Martin Luther in this worldview. In order for the Reformation to occur, people had to belief that life on earth has intrinsic value. People had to believe that the form and context of their spiritual lives on earth matter to rebel against the worldly power of church authority and risk a gruesome and agonizing death.

I am not saying that Martin Luther was a humanist; this would be a stretch. Luther believed that people were incapable of redeeming themselves without the give of God’s grace. I am saying that Luther would not have had his followers without Renaissance humanism. Without humanism, his 1520 treatises To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian would have made no sense to his readers because spiritual life on earth would not matter. A belief in the intrinsic value of life on earth was a necessary prerequisite to the Reformation.

Without humanism, Rick Warren would at most be a Roman Catholic Monseigneur in charge of a parish wherever the bishops sent him. He would not have had the opportunity to build his megachurches in southern California.

No Humanism, No Freedom

Robinson and Sjogren wrote of the sacrifices made by some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some lived on the run for years. Many were ruined financially. These men were patriots and put “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at risk for what they believed.

But if you repudiate humanism, what is the morality of the American Revolution? So the king is a tyrant — welcome to the real world. Thus it ever has been. You’re going to start a war and bring about death, disease and suffering to your own people as well as the British soldiers who are doing their duty — for what? Absent humanism, this is just something we have to endure, as our forbears have for time out of mind. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Only a belief in humanism gives morality to the idea of fighting a war against tyranny and for self-determination. Only a belief in humanism makes it matter what faith you practice on earth, even it is not the faith of the ruler. Only humanism allows us to say:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I could understand a Roman Catholic theologian attacking humanism. That would at least present some degree of intellectual consistency. But there is a biting-the-hand quality about Protestants who deride humanism.


Written by srojak

February 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm

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