In Defense of Hybrids: Part II

by Tom Tredway

In the last issue of this journal I sought to say a word for hybrids in general, hinting as well that I had one in particular in mind. To that particular hybrid I now turn. It is Christian Humanism. I am well aware that in some circles “Humanism” is a dirty word, especially when preceded by the adjective “Secular”! School board elections, church politics, college curricula, and many other activities and areas of American life have been shaped and also undone by the accusation that they involve some kind of Secular Humanism. And there is no doubt that in its starkest form the Humanism we moderns have inherited from the Ancient World and the European Renaissance has been and is in some ways at odds with some aspects of the Christian Gospel.

Tom Tredway

Humanism has been tolerant, some would say too tolerant, of the wide variety of human efforts to make sense of human life and the universe. The Ancient Greeks found it possible to follow the observation and social practice of their own religion and at the same time to entertain a wide range of ideas about the divine as well. The Romans found the insistence of the early Christians that their Gospel was the only way to God objectionable. What was the harm in burning a pinch of incense to honor the Emperor? The fundamental religious disposition of Antiquity was eclectic. On the other hand historic Christianity, while it may in fact have picked and chosen from a variety of sources (Platonism, for example) as well as from the scriptures of the Apostolic Church, sought to remain true to the pure revelation which had been given to the first Christian generation. The orthodox theologians of the first several centuries after Jesus would not have readily admitted to borrowing and embracing the ideas of pagan philosophers and religious figures, though they did at times do so, even when the Bible and the philosophers were not entirely in sync.

In addition to being tolerant of a wide spectrum of religious and philosophical ideas, Humanism is at heart this-worldly. It leaves detailed speculation about the next world to ideologues and zealots. It finds a degree of skepticism concerning the divine and the hereafter to be healthy. By the time of the Renaissance many of the Humanists (Erasmus, for example) who were at first attracted to the religious reforms of the Protestants, were put off by the Reformers’ doctrinal rigidity. And they were also nonplussed by the fact that these Reformers were not often able to agree among themselves on the precise nature of the Revealed Truth which they had rediscovered in the Bible. Debates over baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, obedience to the state, and a host of other issues divided them. Lutherans, for example, were as opposed to the Anabaptists on the left wing of the Reformation as they were to the Roman Catholic Church on the right. By the mid-sixteenth century many Humanists watched these intra-Protestant arguments with a certain disdain that ranged from being appalled to being amused. So to shed blood over theological issues seems to Humanism to be at least silly and often much worse. This world is where the Humanist focuses concern. And it might also be noted that Humanism tends to see Man as the measure of things. The growth of knowledge through experiment, reflection upon experience and investigation, and the improvement of the conditions of human life—these are the methods and values which both the Ancients and the men of the Renaissance followed. To accept and perpetuate the conditions of suffering in this world because, as the medieval Church taught, this world is ultimately only a waiting room to the next, is not the mood of the fourth century before Christ nor of the sixteenth century after him.

In the twentieth century many persons who began their lives in Christian surroundings abandoned the Faith for a kind of Humanism. One thinks, for example, of the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerqvist who went to Uppsala University the son of devout Pietists and through his studies gradually abandoned his family’s faith. His novel The Dwarf is a brilliant depiction of life and thinking in an Italian Renaissance court, where political machination is accompanied by wide ranging intellectual speculation, most of both pagan. It is no wonder that many convinced Christians have been leery of Humanism and that some have found it downright dangerous, something that school children and perhaps even university students ought to be protected from.

My question is whether it is possible to hold a worldview which is both Christian and Humanist. In spite of the differences between them, I think that it is. In fact, I think that often the leading figures in the Swedish-American intellectual world to which many Pietisten readers consider themselves heirs were themselves Christian Humanists. Of the deep Christian conviction of men such as Conrad Bergendoff, Karl Olsson, George Arbaugh, or Zenos Hawkinson there can be little doubt. (North Park-Augustana hybrids will recognize the list of names.) One cannot doubt that these were persons widely and deeply read in the tradition, literature, and thought of our civilization. And much of what they encountered there, whether in Plato or Shakespeare, Emily Dickenson or Albert Einstein, was not Christian. That did not keep them from recommending to us that we read such people carefully and thoughtfully.

Many of us remember the tests they made us submit to in their determined effort to be sure we did the reading. The purpose was not simply to help us understand how the worldview in The Republic or in Hamlet differed from St. Paul or the Gospels and was therefore in error. It was because in the couplets of Dickenson and the thought experiments of Einstein there could be found such grace and such understanding of ourselves and the world, that not to know them would be to miss part of the gift of life itself. And we found in the speech and in the demeanor of our college teachers themselves a grace and an understanding that for many of us represented the truest kind of wisdom. What to do with the less than noble and with the downright evil and wrong they were not always able to tell us; we would have to make up our own minds. Simply labeling a book “poison” would probably only make it more alluring to the callow youths they taught—us.

So many of us, I think, are heirs to a great tradition. That its roots lie deep in the Scriptures is beyond question. But we are hybrids, for we are the happy heirs of literature and thought, of music and history that are not Christian. Like the scholars of the Renaissance who rediscovered the wisdom of the Ancients, we recognize in these works of the human spirit much that can instruct us. The best education leaves it to the student to put together her own worldview. Almost inevitably it will be a hybrid. The conversation between one’s beliefs and one’s investigation of the world of the sciences and the arts is not, of course, one that ends suddenly when you have got it finally all figured out, with a place for everything and everything in its place, as Carroll Peterson once advised me would be a goal for the mess in my dorm room. (I’m pretty certain he was kidding; he was a wise Christian Humanist himself.) The dialog between the disparate elements in one’s background and study is not one that is punctuated with a Final Resolution sometime after you finish schooling. It goes on for all of life. Indeed, it is one of the qualities which bestow upon our lives their true dignity and meaning. Christian Humanism means that all the best of human experience, the revealed and the discovered, deserves to be considered. The process of doing so is itself of lasting meaning. Whatever in the human experience is true, honest, pure, gracious, excellent, worthy of praise—these things should be thought on. The dialog between our faith and our human experience is the core of any good education; it ennobled the lives of the teachers whose faces and voices are still lodged in our memories years after we took their last test and got what grade they assigned to our efforts. They were, I think, Christian Humanists, hybrids if it must be said. We could do worse than to follow in their path. J. R. R. Tolkien, one such student of the Faith and of humanity as well, reminds us that “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Tom Tredway is President Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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