A brief look at Christian humanism and why it is (still) relevant today

Lectio transit in mores (‘reading shapes moral character’). This adage in Latin by the Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) neatly summarises the historical legacy that the values that have formed Western educational ideals are an amalgam of mostly Christianly transformed Greek and Roman virtues. The twentieth-century historian and Christian humanist Henri Irénée Marrou once called Greek culture a ‘civilization of paideia [Greek for ‘education’]’, that is, ‘an educational effort, pursued beyond the years of schooling and lasting throughout the whole of life, to realize ever more perfectly the human ideal’.[1] That the focus of ancient Greek paideia came to be identified with literature itself greatly influenced early Christian church fathers to translate Greek paideia into Christian paideia by placing biblical literature at the centre of moral-forming education. Thus, as Renaissance humanism was about books, by the 15th century, Erasmus, like a lot of other humanists of his day, focused on the book that was the ‘Book of Books’; that was called, literally, ‘the Book’ – the Bible. As a biblical scholar who promoted the study of the original languages Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, he supported the humanistic slogan Ad fontes, a return ‘to the sources.’ Indeed, Erasmus used the phrase in a 1511 manifesto on humanist learning titled “Upon the Right Method of Instruction”: “Above all, one must hasten to the sources [ad fontes] themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients.”Although thus a vanguard of modern philology and history, Erasmus’s pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament (1516) is emblematic of his conviction that the Greco-Roman sources were not an end in themselves, but rather a means to the end of returning to the living waters of the Scriptures in its originals.

This is why the modern opposition of secular to religious humanism, which is in turn an outgrowth of the false dichotomy made by modern-day secularists between faith and reason, would have not only been foreign to Renaissance humanists, but illogical. Secular humanism, too, would be a contradiction in terms for them: rationality, the distinctive quality of humans in contradistinction to other creatures, was never divorced from the ultimate source of human reason – the divine Logos (Word of God) who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). To be fully human, for Renaissance Christian humanists, meant to be not only made in the image of God (imago Dei), but to strive to be conformed to the image of Christ, the perfect human who was also identified with Israel’s god Yahweh as the embodiment of the Logos. Recognising the importance of deification or theosis enables us to provide a healthy corrective to the false dichotomy, made as much by secularists as Christian apologists, between Christian theocentrism and pagan and later secular forms of anthropocentrism. Perhaps a theo-anthropocentrism, which mirrors ‘Christian humanism’ — with the ‘theo-’ and ‘Christian’, respectively, modifying the type of humanism involved — is a better way forward past this false dichotomy.

To quote philosopher, theologian and contemporary Christian humanist Jens Zimmermann, “The incarnation at the heart of Christian anthropology made possible the correlation of faith and reason that gave birth to the universities and, more generally, to an openness towards all sources of truth…the best cultural achievements of other cultures were taken as God-given insights. The recurring trope of Israel’s plundering the treasures of Egypt captures this basic humanist attitude. Thus, […] ideally (if not always in practice), in the conviction that God is at work in everything true and noble, Christian humanists have always drawn freely on every available learning in their pursuit of human flourishing.”[2]

You may not be a Christian humanist like myself, but you might just have to admit, as atheist historian, philosopher, and statesman Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) did, that “in our moral life and thought we feel ourselves literally the children of Christianity.” For “Christian humanism laid the groundwork for many modern ideas we now take for granted. Humanistic ideals of a common humanity, universal reason, freedom, personhood, human rights, human emancipation and progress, and indeed the very notion of secularity (describing the present saeculum preserved by God until Christ’s return) are literally unthinkable without their Christian humanistic roots.”[3]

But, granted that Christian humanism plays a foundational role in the formation of Western cultures, why should one reflect on this legacy now in the twenty-first century? My initial answer is by way of quoting Martin Heidegger: “Whatever and however we are trying to think, we think within the context of tradition. Tradition does its work when it frees us from mere reflection on the past towards a future-oriented thinking that is no longer planning. Only when we turn thoughtfully (thinkingly) towards what has already been thought will we be used for what remains to be thought.”[4] My more succinctly stated answer is to return to Erasmus’s adage with a slight alteration, incorporating Heidegger’s words: reading about our traditions (“the past”) will give us the self-awareness, individually and collectively, that will lead us to (“future-oriented”) seeking the humanistic ideal of the formation of the human person towards a higher end (telos).

If this won’t give us a utopian heaven-on-earth, at the least it should avert the potential dystopian hell-on-earth that results from religious and anti-religious fundamentalisms; the loss of identity that is the natural corollary of either clinging to tradition or too readily abandoning it. For it is necessary to have a principle of order at work in the flux of events which introduces coherence and harmony into the stream. Set apart from the flux, and yet also in it, it is a power which orders life to a purpose: the Logos, the incarnate Word that necessarily mediates goodness, truth, beauty, meaning through humans, for neither pure reason nor pure revelation is given to human beings.

[1] Henry Irénée Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, trans. George Lamb (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956), p. 98.

[2] ‘Introduction’, in Jens Zimmermann (ed.), Re-envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2016), p. 6

[3] Zimmermann, pp. 6-7.

[4] Heidegger, Identität und Differenz, p. 30

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