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Humanism in Scripture and Culture
Recovering a Balance

Dennis Bratcher

In much of evangelical Christianity, the term "humanism" or "humanistic" has come to mean nearly the opposite of "Christian," indicating a person or an attitude that leaves God aside in favor of elevating human reason as the measure of all truth. "Secular humanism" has been associated with the almost totally rationalistic mentality associated with the ascendancy of scientific methodology and naturalism in the first three decades of the twentieth century, a perspective that often did tend to leave God out of consideration.

The term has more recently been popularized by Jerry Falwell in the latter part of the twentieth century who used it to refer to a whole segment of culture that he understood to be in direct opposition to Christianity. However, totally apart from the existence of such a segment of culture, this use of the term "humanism" is not only imprecise, it does not do justice to a balanced understanding of both the Old Testament and the historic Christian faith, as well as an important dimension of Wesleyan theology.

To use the term humanism in this way reveals a misunderstanding of the term and confuses it with secularism or atheism. The term humanism is not interchangeable with either secularism or atheism.

To avoid confusion, we need to nail down some basic meanings. Secularism is the "indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations" (Webster’s). This, by definition, is what would stand opposed to Christianity. Atheism takes this a step further is maintaining "the disbelief in the existence of deity" (Webster’s). Secularism simply does not consider religion or God as a factor in human affairs, while atheism actively denies the existence of God, which would render religion irrelevant (this is slightly different from agnosticism, which holds that we cannot know whether there is a God or not). Although these two terms are of different degrees, in relation to the Christian Faith they mean virtually the same thing: a perspective that does not consider God to be of any concern for how people live their lives.

Humanism, however, in its basic meaning has nothing to say one way or the other about God or religion. Humanism is simply a concern with things human, especially with literature, the arts, and the humanities ("the branches of learning, as philosophy and language, that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes, as physics and chemistry," Webster’s). The emphasis here is "human concerns," which would certainly include religion, but also include a wide range of other endeavors that relate to human existence. In this context, even the study of Scripture and theology are humanistic endeavors, which is why Religion departments in universities often come under a division of humanities.

Humanism arose as a concern and a discipline largely as a reaction against the medieval period in which almost all the emphasis was on the supernatural, mostly in the form of magic and the demonic. (I find it interesting that many of the very people in modern Christianity who want to exclude any humanism, also tend to want a great deal of emphasis on the demonic). Humanism became a central principle of the Renaissance by the fourteenth century and helped foster the Enlightenment in Europe. In fact, it helped lay the foundation for the sixteenth century Reformation, as Luther began to see that people could themselves read and understand Scripture and think theologically apart from the divine authority of the church.

In this sense, a person can be a devoted Christian and be a humanist, as was Erasmus of Rotterdam (late fifteenth century), credited with being one of the first Christian humanists of the "modern" era. Among other things, Erasmus wanted to study the Greek text of the New Testament on the basis of the texts themselves apart from how the church said they ought to read. He was also a vocal opponent of tradition as truth. Erasmus represented a new concern with history and language that focused on the human dimension rather than trying to explain everything in terms of divine decree or by the authority of the church or prevailing political powers.

But even though humanism was a new intellectual movement in the fifteenth century, it was by no means a new perspective on how to view the world. There is a great deal of humanism in Scripture, for example in the Wisdom traditions of Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Job, and Ecclesiastes, as well as in some sections of the torah that deal with social relationships.

We are so used to taking a prophetic perspective in thinking about Scripture, in which a prophet simply speaks for God, or using the authority of Jesus or Paul as the model for the authority of Scripture, that we forget there are other voices and other perspectives in Scripture. The wisdom traditions operate on a different level than a "God said" approach to life (see The Character of Wisdom: An Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom Literature). The basic perspective of Wisdom is that God created the world as a place for human existence. As such, all of human existence is lived under God, under a "sacred canopy." This is simply a metaphor to describe the essence of the theological theme of wisdom: "The reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov 1:7). Since God is Creator, there is nothing that falls outside of God’s domain.

Therefore, a concern with things human, such as literature and poetry, the socialization of children, public manners, propriety and prudence in conduct, the training of public leaders, even human sexuality and family relationships, were important aspects of living in God’s world. Wisdom does not address the human condition from the divine perspective but rather from the perspective of human needs and concerns. It gives expression to the way things are, not how they should be. It is descriptive not prescriptive. Wisdom grapples with understanding the world, and is concerned with choosing the proper course of action for well being in life ("the two ways," cf. Psa 1).

From this perspective, Wisdom is humanistic, but it a sacred or sacral humanism in which every aspect of wisdom thought is undergirded with the fundamental assumption that we live in God’s world, under God’s order, and toward God’s purposes. A modern expression of this, although in a little different direction, is the saying "all truth is God’s truth."

So, while we can speak of a more rational approach of wisdom, even a humanistic approach to truth (meaning "concerned with humanity"), it was never secular. In wisdom thinking, service of God comes by finding out how God has created the world to work, and then living in harmony with that order of creation.

The wisdom writers did not necessarily perceive everything that happened in the world as good. They approached the whole issue of human existence from a different direction. They knew, for example, that a lot of pain comes from interpersonal relationships, such as marriage. Something needed to change to correct that. But their answer was not to impose law, but carefully to instruct the young in what is involved in marriage, the responsibilities it entails, and the consequences of not choosing wisely (cf. Prov 1:8f). On one level, they did not need a "thus says Yahweh" for this. What they needed was people who were sensitive to all those aspects of life, who were willing to listen to the experience and wisdom of others, and people who were willing to teach others. It is in this sense, with the concern for human existence and for the things that affect human life, that the biblical perspectives are humanistic.

Now, as far as the relation between humanism and secularism and atheism, this is where the confusion occurs. Almost all secularism is humanistic; if one assumes there is no God or that he is irrelevant in the world, they are left with only humans as a focal point. But not all humanism is secularism. Humanism can be sacral as well as secular. It is not that humanism itself is bad; only that it can be perverted into a perspective that eliminates God. There is always a danger in humanism that the human can overshadow the divine, that human endeavor and achievement can be seen as the goal of human existence, and therefore the criteria of truth.

But that does not come because it is humanistic. It comes because a secularist or an atheist, or even a Christian who does not really understand the heart of the Faith, eliminates God from consideration and uses it that way.  But when a Christian or a theist who assumes God at work in human affairs from the beginning uses humanism, then it becomes a sacral humanism that sees human life operating under the sacred canopy of God as Creator.

I think it is a mistake and a misreading of culture to label most everything that does not fit within certain definitions of "religion" or "truth" as "humanism." "Humanism" is not in and of itself negative, especially since a significant collection of biblical material takes that approach (Walter Brueggemann, one of Christianity's most well known biblical scholars, entitled a book on the theology of the Wisdom traditions In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith). We could even track here the humanistic perspectives of John Wesley that contrast so readily with his opponents, especially in the dimension of human freedom and the responsibility to live out a holiness of heart in life. It is that very kind of humanism under the sacred canopy that directs our attention as Christians to the needs of the world around us rather than being content with introspection and personal salvation in isolation from the rest of humanity.

So, to use the term humanistic to mean "not-Christian" reflects a misunderstanding of some of the perspectives of Scripture itself.  And even to tag the label "secular" onto humanistic concerns in order to discount them reflects as much ideology as does agnosticism or atheism, or even the misplaced mysticism of modern New Age culture.  It has the effect of settling for labels rather than dealing with the more complicated theological issues, and may even put some at risk of misunderstanding or not being able to hear all of Scripture.

At this point rather than simply using the word humanism as a way to name the "demons" that threaten to posses our children and our culture, we need properly to distinguish whether we are speaking about secularism or atheism, or whether we are referring neutrally to humanism as that which is of concern to human beings. Perhaps our named demons are not as demonic as we like to think. It’s easier to deal with a complex world if everything outside of our own "safe" environment can be named as demonic with labels like humanistic. Recall the notation on medieval maps at the edge of the known world: "Here there be dragons." Now, we know that what lay in that demonic realm was the New World of the Americas. The same may be true with humanism. Understood and used properly, with a proper balance between human effort and God’s work, it may provide us more opportunity than it does threat.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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