Humanism vs Kingdom Part 3

In researching and exploring humanism’s conquest of morality, proper terms have proven elusive. Humanism is a broad descriptor, defining everything from “Renaissance” philosophy of man’s latent ability to shape the world via the power of reason, to the political thought processes behind the rise of classical liberalism, to modern secularism that prioritizes the liberty of each individual.

Nevertheless, I’ve stuck with humanism, however insufficient, because I believe it most accurately describes the underlying philosophy that shapes modern ethical thinking. It is the primacy of the individual, the power of the person to shape their life, to chart their course, to chase their dream that drives the emerging morality. Humanism is not inherently secular, as some believe; after all, if your dream is religious then you are welcome to pursue it–whatever works for you. Perhaps this ambivalence to personal faith is what makes the concept so difficult to define and understand.

Humanism tolerates faith, but also introduces a new set of cardinal sins. A judgmental spirit is a particularly grievous heresy for humanists; if the highest aim of man is fulfillment then what right do you have to cast judgment on someone else’s pursuit? Just because a particular lifestyle doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean you have a right to judge its effectiveness for someone else. The social construct is designed to maximize each person’s personal freedom to pursue their own happiness. Boundaries are only erected when they infringe on another person’s liberties (such as murder, rape, or stealing), not because they fail to conform to some ideal that transcends mankind (such as idol worship or pornography).

Most early humanists were not hostile to faith, in fact, the embryonic philosophy sprang out of devout minds. Human reason was seen as the pursuit of understanding creation and thus its perfect Creator. This led to an age of science and art, but not one that was contrary to Christianity.

The American political system was shaped by this early humanism, yet many of its framers were strong Christians. They built a system designed to offset man’s abuse of power through the rule of law and a series of checks and balances. The essential idea is that people have the capacity to rule themselves, but must be protected against the inevitable quest for power pursued by tyrants. This was a stark contrast to the contemporary philosophy found throughout Christian Europe of the divine right of kings that taught certain people were appointed by God to rule others.

Despite its humanist foundations, this was not a reaction against religious belief but rather a bulwark against the sinfulness of man. The deist and the devout could each appreciate the wisdom behind this radical experiment. Though John Stuart Mill and others further developed this philosophy beyond the constraint of Christian ethics, it’s only in modern times that their perspective has finally eclipsed the morality of average, ordinary people.

I’m indebted to Charles Taylor’s book, “A Secular Age,” which I only recently discovered, for refining and broadening my exploration of this topic. This is by the far the most in-depth study of humanism as contrasted to the Christian ethic that I’ve yet discovered (though undoubtedly there is much more out there!). Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” was also deeply insightful in exploring the philosophical notion of the freedom of the individual over all other constraints–both cultural and religious–that underpins virtually all modern political thought. I’ve also enjoyed Rodney Stark’s “The Triumph of Christianity” for much of the historical context behind the rise of humanism.

The topic is complex and the definition of terms feels incomplete, but perhaps this is the reality of trying to describe any massive social change while it is still taking place. It will be the role of later generations to determine the most accurate descriptors. However, I’m a pastor–not a sociologist nor a historian. My motivation is awareness. I want us to wake up to the reality of the seismic changes deep below the foundations of our society, even if I must describe it inadequately.

3 thoughts on “Humanism vs Kingdom Part 3

  1. Rick Bewsher says:

    I’ve read your articles so far, Drew, and they are well written, pertinent and helpful. I agree with your desire to jump into the conversation and not just observe and fret from the sidelines. May the Lord continue to give you revelation and clarity to express His wisdom that can help us all not only to become more aware of the seduction of the prevailing culture but the truth in Jesus that is the only sustainable foundation that actually works for humanity.

  2. TJ Stallo says:

    First and foremost, reading this is extremely inspirational. So many times I have wanted to write in a response to something I read on social media, to the point where I have had to limit my use of these platforms because although the conversations need to be happening, the way they tend to play out is unproductive and the aim is very seldom convergence of ideas. I have started to publish many times on WordPress, only to decide the ideas are not worth the backlash such a post can invite.
    I think your choice of the term humanism is accurate. I find the term existentialism to be appropriate as well. It challenges people to give meaning to life themselves rather than assuming God predestined them with a purpose and that their life inherently has some meaning by divine appointment. There is so much ground to cover especially when we start trying to have dialogue that moves us in the direction of finding a common solution and where we should invest our effort to try and effect change for the Kingdom. I pray for humility and open-mindedness as this topic develops.
    You spoke about the gifts of the Spirit and how the body might be served better if you die to self while others thrive. Nik Ripken wondered if maybe we focus sometimes to much on our own gifting(s) and how we are using them. He proposed setting our focus on the fruits of the Spirit and how those were apparent in our lives. If the gift is there but not the fruit, how useful is it?

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