The Christian God, we’re told, delights in human variety and leaves man “in the hands of his own counsel” in many areas. These thinkers therefore pursued their different muses and put their talents at the service of their Lord, their fellow man, country and civilization. There is a second lesson to be found here as well: respect for conscience. These days, however, one needs to add: “informed conscience,” perhaps even “trembling conscience.” These men and woman were acutely aware that they were under their Lord’s judgment. Publicly rendered judgments about war and peace, social order and disorder, the formation and deformation of the human person, were not to be lightly offered. And talents were given to be exercised and to bear fruit. We will be “required to give an account of ourselves” is found twice in the New Testament.
The Christian God thus bestows gifts and freedom and conscience upon his favored creature and Christianity calls its adherents to employ them in tandem for His glory and the salvation of men. Moreover, since Christians belong to two cities, they owe duties to both. And finally, since Western civilization is a civilization deeply bound up with Christianity, having absorbed paganism and spawned modernity, its fate is of concern as well. Hence, something of a first sketch or indication of Christian humanism emerges: it is the thoughtful Christian’s response to his manifold duties and complex vocation.
It needs to be further specified, however. Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself. The rise of fascism, the outbreak of total war, the dangers to and decadence of the democracies—all these were parts of the modern phenomenon. These talented and thoughtful Christians tried to rise to the level of the challenges they posed. To do so, they draw from deep wells, while adapting them to the times.
Hence, Weil’s great essay on “force,” that is, on Homer’s Iliad, which showed the permanently illuminating power of the founding Western epic and its contemporary relevance. Hence too her caveat to her contemporaries not to become the enemy in combatting him. Achilles always needed the lesson that grieving Priam taught about our common mortal lot.
Hence, Eliot’s extolling of Virgil as the definition of “classic” and of Dante’s Comedy as the defining European poem; hence his study of “modernism” as modernity’s latest poetic revelation and as a form that contemporary Christian belief could employ to constructive ends. This would be yet another example of turning the gold and silver of Egypt into objects pleasing to the Lord.
Hence, too, the spirited Maritain’s diatribe against the founders of modernity (Luther, Descartes, Rousseau) in The Three Reformers, but also his coinage, “integral humanism,” to indicate the antidote to modern errors. Hence his efforts at reconnecting Thomism, modern science, and modern democracy on the basis of an updated ideal of wisdom and Christian personalism. Hence, too, his Education at the Crossroads, a critique of “the American system of education.” Man must be considered whole and free and his education, designed for the whole free person. The spiritual nature and destiny of the person must be front and center, even, or especially, in an industrial and technical age.
And, hence Lewis’s 1943 classic, The Abolition of Man, itself a critique of contemporary pedagogy, this time in England. The title indicates the stakes involved in getting education right. If there is a single phrase that sums up the apprehensions of these Christian humanists, this is it. One pedagogical path led to “men without chest,” the other followed “the Tao,” the common moral wisdom of mankind. Grace then would have a dialogue partner that was open to its message of forgiveness and elevation.
I’m fascinated by the foresight the Christian humanists showed in realizing that, despite the necessary nature of World War II, the Western powers weren’t morally prepared for the post-war implications of our victory. And that a descent into a technocratic model of international governance was not a laudable turn of events, for its inevitable interest in further grinding down human distinctiveness in the pursuit of a standardizable social order. I’ll be reading Jacobs’s book before the end of the year to better understand his view on Christian humanism.
“Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself.”