The more I have worked in the realm where faith and culture meet, the more I have become aware of the tradition of Christian Humanism. I am well aware that the word humanism strikes many people as inherently anti-religious—we’ve all heard the word modified by “secular” for so long.
But this is one of history’s little—or perhaps big—ironies. Because the truth is that the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West gave birth to humanism: to the sense that every individual life is infinitely important, that our humanity is in fact an image of divinity, and that the culture-making capacity of humankind is the key way in which we both understand and express our sense of transcendent mystery.
Not all times and places have been hospitable to Christian Humanism, but it is a vision that has flourished and left us some of the greatest treasures of our civilization. I have found that Christian Humanism tends to arise in times of fierce “culture wars”—as an antidote, a way back from ideology to wholeness and balance.
For me the quintessential moment in the history of Christian Humanism was the Renaissance/Reformation period. I’m particularly interested in the life and work of Desiderius Erasmus—and his circle of friends, who included Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger, Johann Reuchlin, and many of the other leading lights of the time. I am hoping to write a book about this group…one of these days.
I’ve also used the term “religious humanism” which some people may misunderstand. I don’t use that term because I’m promoting the idea of a vague, syncretistic philosophy. In fact, the most vibrant forms of humanism that have grown up in the West emerge out of an intense engagement with their particular traditions. So “religious humanism” really refers to Jewish Humanism, Christian Humanism, and Islamic Humanism. However one might want to argue the truth claims of these faiths, the strands of humanism that run through each of them have much to say to one another. And perhaps never more urgently than in our own time.
“The Erasmus Option”
A recent editorial statement from the pages of Image.
“Follies Worldly and Divine”
An editorial for Image that celebrated The Praise of Folly, the comic masterpiece by the Renaissance humanist Erasmus: click here.
Catholic Encyclopedia Article on Humanism
A comprehensive and balanced article on Humanism: click here.