Monday, July 2, 2012

Olson, "Confessions of a Christian Humanist"

I confess it. I’m a Christian humanist.

Some years ago I saw an article in a fundamentalist denomination’s magazine entitled “Are You a Christian Humanist?” Having long considered myself one, and thinking most fundamentalist Christians probably aren’t, I began reading the article with interest. The author, a pastor, defined “Christian humanist” as a person who (among other things) watches TV more than reads the Bible. Needless to say, I was disappointed. 

The phrase “Christian humanism” has a long and honorable pedigree. It was first attached (so far as I know) to the “philosophy of Christ” of Desiderius Erasmus during the Reformation. Later, in response to the rise of secular humanism especially in the 1930s “Christian humanism” was used to label the Christian alternative by, among others, Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain who wrote Integral Humanism in 1936. That book was a response to the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto.” (A version of Maritain’s thought about humanism was published in 1938 in the U.S. under the title True Humanism. According to its Preface it is based on a series of lectures; the preface doesn’t mention the 1936 book.)

Since Maritain’s exposition of Christian humanism, numerous Christian scholars have adopted the phrase and published books and articles on the subject. For evangelicals, one of the most prominent was J. I. Packer’s and Thomas Howard’s Christianity: The True Humanism (1985).

In its January, 1982 issue, Eternity magazine (of blessed memory, may it RIP), published “A Christian Humanist Manifesto” in direct response to the (secular) Humanist Manifesto II of 1973. But also in response to the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical attacks on “humanism” as essentially pernicious throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. (Many of you may not be old enough to remember that campaign to vilify all “humanism” as evil led by the likes of Tim LaHaye and others. According to them, “humanism” is to be found barely hidden in public school textbooks. For several years conservative evangelicals especially sought for and found “humanism” hanging on every doorknob including in Christian colleges. It was a major impetus for the then growing home schooling movement.)

Eternity’s prologue to its Christian Humanist Manifesto noted that secular humanism is a real danger to society and not “a fundamentalist fantasy” even though “some of the attack on secular humanism offered by Christians has been shallow and misinformed.” Its Manifesto was written by Eternity’s editors in consultation with a stellar list of evangelical leaders including Donald Bloesch, Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes, J. I. Packer, James Sire and Richard Bube.

The Christian Humanist Manifesto deserves much wider dissemination and discussion than it received. I think it is still a valuable resource for Christian unity amid diversity in a Western world increasingly dominated by secularism. Unfortunately, in my experience, most Christians still think of “humanism” as essentially bad; they equate it with secular humanism and atheism. Almost completely forgotten except among Christian scholars is that Christianity is the “true humanism” rooted in Scripture (e.g., Psalms and especially in Scripture’s witness to the imago dei.
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