Thursday, March 23, 2006

Christianity is the Humanism

The latest New Pantagruel has published a nice scholarly riff on humanism by Dan Knauss titled Christian Humanism, Past and Present.

As if in answer to a phenomenon perplexedly noted on this very blog Knauss informs us how humanism became a pejorative term:
"Influenced in large part by the Dutch philosopher Hermann Dooyeweerd’s critique of western culture, Francis Schaeffer frequently used “humanism” as an unqualified polemical term to refer to thinkers and ideas he objected to from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. In his most acclaimed book, How Shall We Then Live?, which was highly influential in Anglo-American Reformed and Evangelical communities, Schaeffer specifically attacked Renaissance humanism and linked it with modern secular humanism."

Knauss also notes how the elasticity of human nature put forward by thinkers such as Pico Della Mirandola was originally conceived not to justify self-creation, burdening Everyman with the atlantean imperative to become a self-sculpting Pygmalion. Rather, the aim of such plasticity was to humble oneself, to make oneself a blank slate for God and wisdom both Divine and human:
But for humanism, which Grondin links with Augustine, the rejection of a fixed, definitive human nature is embraced as a denial of anthropocentrism and human autonomy. The positive corollary of that denial is a “thankful openness to the enlightening perspectives of others and of those who have preceded us and bequeathed to us the opportunity of their experience.”

Christian humanism finds its basis in humbling oneself before the wisdom of others, that one might find exaltation in love and knowledge. It is the extension of John the Baptist's words "He must increase, but I must decrease" to all of God's creation and all His children.

Nor was this humanism only a Renaissance phenomenon. Socratic ignorance itself has parallels in so-called monkish ignorance, as revealed in this account from the Desert Fathers:
One day some old men came to see Abba Antony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, 'You have not understood it.' Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, 'How would you explain this saying?' And he replied, 'I do not know.' Then Abba Antony said, 'Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: 'I do not know.'''

Likewise, Saint Basil the Great's own opinion of pagan poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance's embrace of classical authors: to the learning to be derived from the poets, that I may begin with them, inasmuch as the subjects they deal with are of every kind, you ought not to give to your attention to all they write without exception; but whenever they recount for you the deeds or words of good men, you ought to cherish and emulate these and try to be as far as possible like them; but when they treat of wicked men, you ought to avoid such imitation, stopping your ears no less than Odysseus did, according to what those same poets say, when he avoided the songs of the Sirens.
"On Reading Greek Literature"

The Renaissance was not without its drawbacks. In many ways, the period spurred on an already well-established practice of self-criticism and self-reformation. Paradoxically, some have become so critical of the West that they have become enamoured of relatively uncritical non-western cultures. However misdirected these thinkers have taken the Western habit of self-critique, such self-criticism is ultimately rooted in the dynamic of shedding the old Adam in order to put on the New Adam, Jesus Christ. It is a confession of sin and error in hopes of restoration to redeemed state of being. It is no accident, I think, that Renaissance is a Christian phenomenon. A cultural renaissance is simply a rebirth writ large, and no other religion so exalts being "born again."

Here's to another rebirth.

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