Evangelical Christian Humanist, an Oxymoron?

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Perhaps this is what a humanist looked like in 1480, at least Bellini thought so. The slogan that captured the thinking of the Renaissance was “Man is the measure of all things.”  But I think they were more open to matters of faith than we are today.  Modern thought has seemed to crystalize around secular humanism which is polarized against anything that smacks of religious dogma.  I think this is unnecessary.  If “humanists” are people who are unreservedly committed to human life at its fullest, and people deeply pained by human life at its worst, then Evangelical Christians should be at the forefront of what we call humanism. In my wrestling with the gap between the word and the concept, I got curious about what made “humanism” such a negative word in the Christian circles I associate with. So I went to the declaration of humanist principles from “The Amsterdam Declaration 2002” to see where I stood (links are to Wikipedia definitions):

  • Humanism is ethical. Amen. I endorse a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • Humanism is rational. As far as it goes, reason is “A” source of knowledge, but not “THE” source. To exclude the senses and experience and biblical revelation is in my mind to be narrow and much too limited. To me, an epistemology that is not revelatory is severely limited.
  • Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Amen again. I think nothing supports human rights more than Christ’s teaching on the poor and the weak. Paul stood up for his rights as a Roman citizen when he was being flogged illegally (Acts 22:25-29)
  • Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion . Oops. Here it is. The Amsterdam Declaration explicitly states that Humanism rejects dogma and therefore, rejects biblical revelation. To me, to reject something just because it doesn’t make sense to the rational mind is arrogant. As a Christian, I not only believe many things I cannot “understand” but devote my life to the Person of God who revealed them in his Written Word. I am amused at how dogmatic the secular humanists are in rejecting dogma. So I am not a Secular humanist.
  • Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. As far is this goes, I agree. But I would go further to center my focus of ultimate importance on cultivating my personal relationship with God. Ethical and creative living is then the byproduct of my core relationship. If I “abide in Him, I bear much fruit.”

Almost six out of seven principles are in agreement! In this context, Glenn Stanton’s article, The Conservative Humanist,” in Christianity Today does not seem so “far out.” Perhaps we do need to broaden our use of the word “humanist” rather than letting secular humanism reign as the default meaning. Here is Stanton’s complete article. Don’t miss the example of Anita in the last four paragraphs.

The Conservative Humanist

(Those who are pro-life and pro-family should have no problem being pro-human.)
by Glenn T. Stanton.

I have been a lifelong enlistee in the curious thing called the culture war. Both my convictions and my life’s work have planted me squarely in the so-called Religious Right. But only recently have I begun to think of myself as a humanist.

My teen years spanned the turbulent and uncertain 1970s. It was during those years that my mother started volunteering for one of the first crisis pregnancy centers in the country. The literature she brought home, as they say, rocked my world. No one needed to explain to me what I saw in the images there or what I should think about it.

I was haunted by the images of mutilated babies—just as horrified as I had been as a child by documentary footage of black Americans being hosed down in the streets and city parks of Bull Connor’s Birmingham, as well as by pictures of emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood in the camps of Hitler’s Germany. I remember innocently asking my parents if these human horrors I saw on television were real or just melodramatic Hollywood creations. They were real, my parents confirmed, but safely in the past. However, the abortion holocaust was not past history, but present reality. This human injustice was going on today in my generation, in my neighborhood, under a thin rationale supposedly found in my nation’s Constitution. This was not the kind of world I could bear to live in. I had to act; I was elected president of my local Right to Life chapter at the age of 20.

Around the same time, I swapped books with a friend: I gave him the conspiracy book de jour by a leading evangelical writer in exchange for a slim volume by a little man sporting long hair, a goatee, and knickers. I was drawn to the book by the man’s funky appearance. I stayed for the substance of his thoughts and the truth and compassion in his words. I read Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in one sitting, and over the coming years, he reshaped the way I thought and the way I lived. In his book True Spirituality, Schaeffer insisted that Christians could not settle for verbal proclamation. We had to be people of demonstrated, incarnate love.

These two experiences shattered my latent Gnosticism. I could no longer settle for concerning myself only with the eternal destiny or moral behavior of my neighbors. I realized I was called to work for the good of their full humanity: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. The first experience drafted me into the rough-and-tumble of the culture war, and the second prepared me for it. Schaeffer’s writing in particular led me upstream from the abortion issue to the larger pro-family movement, by teaching me to see abortion as a tragic symptom—along with many others—of family disintegration and a sexual revolution that left no winners.

So I began my life’s work. I have now spent my career at Focus on the Family under the leadership of James Dobson, whose conviction, winsomeness, and clarity of vision initially attracted my attention and have continued to command my respect. Now “Doc” has turned over the leadership of this organization to a new generation, represented in our new president, Jim Daly. These days I find myself reflecting on how well contemporary evangelicalism is suited to its mission of incarnating the gospel in public life. “Doc” represents a generation that took fundamentalism beyond its cultural isolation and engaged many sectors of culture: politics, academia, industry, the arts, law, and entertainment. His generation was willing to innovate while remaining faithful to the past. What is the next generation called to do?

Here is my proposal: Just as I had to go “upstream” from the issue of abortion to the family, I propose that we need to go upstream again, this time from the family to humanity itself.

The Pro-Human Movement
What if there were a movement dedicated to the question, What does it mean to be human?

Asking such a question would lead us to explore and demonstrate what it means to live, to feel, to hope, to love, to give, to receive, to be wounded, and to be healed. It would lead us to explore why our families’ failures and rejections hurt us so much and why we desperately need others. It would drive us to ask what dignity means and what its enemies are. Ultimately, it would lead us to ask, What does it really mean to have life abundantly? These are not narrow, issue-based questions. They are not questions for the pro-family movement alone. They are human questions.

I hasten to add that moving upstream does not mean leaving family matters behind. Rather, focusing our attention on the meaning of being human will powerfully illuminate why everything else downstream matters. The pro-family movement is a critical subset of the pro-human movement. But our work needs the context provided by realizing that we have just left the most technologically advanced, but still humanly impoverished, century in history. We must weep at the human death, pain, and alienation caused by genocide, war, global poverty, substance abuse, fatherlessness, aids, and cancer, as well as pornography, human trafficking, child abandonment, commercialization, and radical individualism. Perhaps most of all, we must confront the fact that our knowledge of how to stop many of these scourges has never been greater. We just lack the wisdom and the will.

We must become students of humanity. We must become humanists: people who are unreservedly committed to human life at its fullest, and people deeply pained by human life at its worst. Yes, someone from the Religious Right said we must become humanists.

I don’t primarily mean that the suffering of the modern era should drive us to humanism. As Christ said, the poor will always be among us. Human suffering in all its forms is a tragic reminder of the reality of the Fall. We will only be free when Christ’s redemption is complete. However, we must become serious students of humanity because just as the Fall is real, so too is the Incarnation. The Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity—the Son of God leaving his eternal and divine communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit to become flesh and dwell among us—this is what should draw us to the question of what it means to be human in these inhumane times.

In his essay The Grand Miracle, C. S. Lewis wrote that if the Incarnation happened, “It was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.” The Incarnation is the center of the Christian story, summed up by Jacob Handl in the 16th century:

God has become human. He remained what he was, and what he was not, he became, suffering neither confusion nor division.

The Incarnation is a heavenly declaration that humanity—both flesh and spirit—matters. Humanity matters because what God creates, becomes, and is seeking to redeem cannot escape our fascination.

It’s not just that Christ became human. He lingered in humanity for 33 full years. I sometimes tease my colleagues by saying that if Jesus had been a good evangelical, he would have stayed in a human body for only a day or so, just enough time to get to the important “spiritual” work of saving humanity. If we verge on Gnosticism in our passion for “spiritual things,” our Lord does not. It took him 30 years to get around to what we call his “public ministry.” Christ, always obedient to the Father, was content to linger in daily human life. Perhaps the reason we have little record of his first 30 years is that they were largely unremarkable. Simple humanity was enough for God in the flesh.

The Incarnation means there are no small lives. All of human experience is meaningful. And while the Incarnation may be a distinctly Christian doctrine, it is also the doctrine that commits us most completely to seeking the common good of our non-Christian neighbors. We serve a God who created our humanity, weeps at the fall of our humanity, became our humanity, and is redeeming our humanity.

Rediscovering One Another
True humanism will demolish our gnostic tendencies to believe in a small God who is only interested in our eternal destiny and our moral behavior. If the Incarnation is true, God is intensely interested in every part of human experience, every corner of creation. We, too, should be intensely interested in it, dedicated to showing others the fingerprints of God everywhere, in everything.

True humanism will refuse to see people as things to be used. In the movement where I labor, we too often see our opponents as necessary enemies who serve as a backdrop for the messages we want to proclaim. Some people in the culture war may truly have evil intent, but we can never assume that. We should try to find common ground from which to address our differences, rather than starting with our differences. Human well-being is a starting point we will share with all but the most intractable opponents. We may not agree with our opponents in the end, but at least we will have a common starting point, and seeking such common ground is a small act of grace.

True humanism will vigorously resist the marketing culture that sees people as consumers to be sold to rather than served. A counter sexual revolution will exchange the pursuit of individual satisfaction for the celebration of lifelong, other-focused physical, emotional, and spiritual communion. Children will be conceived not as means to their parents’ fulfillment, but as persons who make profound claims upon their parents for love, education, and protection.

Finally, true humanism will demolish the iPod society—not the device itself, but the social atomization that it represents. When I was young, people held boomboxes on their shoulders, broadcasting to everyone else in their world. If nothing else, you had to interact with the boombox owner to ask him to turn it down. Now we all live in our own, individually selected, iPod worlds. But true humanism will drive us to rediscover community, where we share with each other our fears, joys, and lives.

I have seen true humanism at work in a friend named Anita, whose life is illuminated by the Incarnation. Many years ago, her son announced that he was homosexual. As a Christian mother, she was devastated. Her efforts to “talk her son straight” were to no avail. Years later, she got an evening job waiting tables at a restaurant. Her boss asked her if she realized the diner was a “gay hangout” at night. Feeling that God had led her to the job, she stuck it out. She applied herself to her work and came to love the men that came in every night.

Years later her son, Tony, now a young adult, moved in with his partner, Rick, an older man. Rick was not kind to Anita, saying things to shock and embarrass her polite Christian sensibilities. Anita also learned that Rick had infected her only son with HIV and that they both had contracted full-blown AIDS. She wrestled with hatred and anger, but then she remembered what she had learned years earlier by working with young gay men. Anita explains, “Rick was not the enemy. He was another lost soul created in the image of God, just like my son.”

So Anita committed herself to loving and caring for the man who had given her son a death sentence. In Rick’s last months and weeks, Anita fed and cleaned him, tracked his medications, changed his diapers, and just spent time talking and being with him. Rick came to love Anita, and they shared many sweet moments together before his slow death. Rick is gone, and Tony is still alive. But they both witnessed the remarkable, incarnated grace of Christ through Anita.

I’m proud to count Anita as a colaborer with me in the culture war. But I’m even more proud to consider her my fellow humanist.

Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today.
April 2006, Vol. 50, No. 4, Page 42

 

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