The “full humanity” that Christ brought

For most of us growing up as conservative Evangelicals, the term humanism was scarcely used apart from the modifier “secular”, and even it when it was, that scary adjective was implied and inferred. For this reason, one of my theology teachers in undergrad liked to try to reclaim humanism from the clutches of secular humanism among his students by describing the great movement of Christian humanism as represented by Erasmus. Dr. Bowdle defined humanism simply as “trying to be the best human you can be,” or the desire to reach one’s full potential as a human being in all areas, physical, mental, emotional, etc. I came to think of humanism as a main goal of Christianity — mine at least.

In a recent post called “Christianity as humanism,” David Withun reproduces part of a summary of Irenaeus‘ thought as described by Paul Tillich. Here’s a bit of it:

“Here we have a profound doctrine of what I call a transcendent humanism, a humanism which says that Christ is the fulfillment of essential man, of the Adamic nature. Such a fulfillment became necessary because a break occurred in the development of man; Adam fell away from what he was to be come. The childish innocence of Adam has been lost; but the second Adam can become what he was to become, fully human. And we can become fully human through participation in this full humanity which has appeared in Christ.”

So in a mystical sense, Christianity has the potential to be humanistic. I do not at all disagree. But I am afraid that even many who champion this understanding of Christian humanism fail to distribute their emphasis in all the necessary places. More on that in a minute.

Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536, Rotterdam Renai...

Erasmus the scholastic humanist

One of the ideals that modern Christians have lost out on after eschewing humanism as dirty, atheistic idolatry (humans are crap — didn’t you get Augustine’s memo?) is the importance of education and the development of the mind. Great institutions of higher learning were begun by those who believed that Christians couldn’t be the best humans they could be without an emphasis upon the life of the mind, whereas the early twentieth century saw the tide of Protestants intent on pitting the life of the mind against the life of the Spirit swelling, warning of the dangers of “overeducation”.

Education is a vital aspect of humanism, obviously. Learning the right stuff is important, no doubt. So is keeping our bodies healthy, producing art, etc. But how about our moral and ethical behavior? Isn’t being as good a human as I can be actually dependent on how I live? Certainly, as good humanists will tell you, because humanism is about a holistic approach to betterment; it’s about a dedication to excel for all the things human can excel in. This means that humanism, at least Christian humanism, is not an end in itself. You don’t become the best human you can be just so you can be proud of yourself. It’s because you recognize humanity as something valuable — and not just your own humanity.

Looking back, I see that the appreciation for humanism that awoke in me during college probably influenced my conviction about the importance of social concern as a necessary feature of Christianity. It might be returned that I’m confusing humanism with humanitarianism, but I would disagree: the latter is a significant element of the former. Integral to valuing humanity and human potential is being interested not only in what it means to be human, but being interested in actual humans. This is especially true of Christian humanism, or Tillich’s “transcendent humanism”, because NT theology teaches us that kenosis is an essential feature of God’s character (John Piper’s warped views notwithstanding). From a Christian perspective, the desire to become the best human you can be necessarily entails becoming more God-centered; becoming as divine as you can be (theosis) necessarily entails becoming more human-centered. “And the second is like it,” said our teacher.

Tragically, because of the lie that works = human effort and a myopic misunderstanding of Christian social concern as “the social gospel”, most conservative American Evangelicals really stink at this stuff. I give these guys are hard time for that. But unfortunately, it’s not just them: there are other faith traditions that despite being keenly aware of the need for orthopraxis as a complement of orthodoxy nonetheless seem to think that worship, whether in ritual/liturgical practices or in emotive song services, satisfies the bulk of the requirement. I asked one believer from the Orthodox tradition what the Christian life was all about, and the response consisted of things like mystic communion with God and following the ritual/liturgical guidelines prescribed by the Church. The Orthodox may affirm “transcendent humanism” all day long, but an attempt to partake of the divine nature and commune with God apart from cultivating the desire to emulate God’s love by substantive efforts to mitigate the suffering of fellow humans is not at all sufficient to be called humanism.

Developing one’s mind and body and contributing to human achievement are valid components of humanism; likewise, praying and communing with the Spirit of God are wonderful. But until we learn to obey God by developing His heart within us, our worship and rituals are nothing at all but clanging cymbals. Your praxis is not truly orthē and your sanctification/theosis is a farce without humanitarianism. In the Gospels, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God frequently took the form of Jesus demonstrating compassion — not just feeling it or passing the buck to God by praying that He intervene. We can’t then “become fully human through participation in this full humanity which has appeared in Christ” without an ever-present sense of compassion that erupts in action. “Oh, those poor suffering people” is a contemptibly selfish sentiment when it’s not followed through on, much like feeling sorry for or simply praying for a woman as you see her being raped in front of you.

Let me put it bluntly, brothers and sisters: you simply cannot live an authentic Christian life without being consumed by the passion that motivated God in Jesus: love and care for humanity. And not just their eternal destinies (which is mostly out of your jurisdiction anyway), but every part about them. We prove our dedication to God by taking care of their material circumstances and let God worry about whether they dedicate themselves to Him.

The brute fact is that people are dying of starvation and preventable disease, and we’re sitting over here in our comfort expecting to commune with God while we take care of our marginal concerns. This should not be so.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Philippians 2.4-7

What makes us think that the “full humanity” which Christ brings with him could look like anything other than full, self-emptying submission to God through service of others?

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