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Saturday, June 4, 2005

'Christian humanism': Broader than liberal Protestantism.

Father Jake (an Episcopal priest) also likes the Christian Century's proposal that we stop talking about "mainline Protestantism" and "liberal mainline churches" and instead promote "Christian humanism."

When I endorsed the phrase last week, I lamented that Unitarian Universalists might feel even more isolated as proponents of theological liberalism if other Protestants shied away from the "L word." In response to some of Father Jake's commenters, though, I offered a different take on the phrase, which I'll repeat here:

One advantage of "Christian humanist" is that it isn't a euphemism for "liberal Protestant": It includes (descriptively, at least) Evangelicals who write for Books & Culture, Roman Catholics who revere people like Erasmus, poets and novelists from Richard Wilbur to Katherine Paterson, etc. (One could develop a very long list of Christian thinkers and artists who exemplify Christian humanism: C.S. Lewis, Czeslaw Milosz, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Madeline L'Engle, and Jane Kenyon come to mind pretty quickly, for example.)

The journal Image is published by the Christian Center for Religious Humanism, which is clearly at odds with the American Humanist Association's brand of secular humanism and is much more clearly aligned with this ecumenically-minded Christian humanism.

But I'd caution my fellow liberal Protestants not to embrace it as a euphemism for our theological liberalism. Liberalism is one expression of Christian humanism — one I'm deeply committed to — but it isn't the only expression. It's a useful label if it helps us enter a broader conversation, not if it's just a rebranding effort. (You know, kind of like the anti-religious Humanists who decided to rebrand themselves as "brights.")

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 4 June 2005 at 4:18 PM

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June 4, 2005 08:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Beliefnet has a lively conversation going on about this, tardily entered by yours truly, here.


June 5, 2005 01:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

Why not just let the work speek for itself, I understand the need to classify and sort but one can quickly back themselves into too rigid a taxonomy which is a great disservice to those expensive and fluid geniuses like Dillard.

Also, since an artist is bound to change and grow over the course of their life a lable which might have fit them in their early days might not apply in their later days.

As for 'Christian humanism' my only real thoughts on that is that 'humanism' has become somewhat of a dirty word with evangelicals - right up their with urban and homosexual


June 5, 2005 06:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

In Europe, the term "Christian humanism" is very much used in Catholic environments, speeches, and books, to refer to a kind of Christianity that cares for the worth and dignity of every person as a part of their calling as Christians. Obviously the term goes back to the Renaissance, but it would also include modern-day thinkers such as Mounier or recently deceased Paul Ricoeur. Today many Catholics and even non-Catholics would say that John Paul II was a leading "Christian humanist". It is very different from what North Americans call "Humanism", and when I first became acquainted with UUism, I had to do some extra reading and interpreting before I understood what the words Humanism and humanist mean in your culture.


June 5, 2005 08:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Sean, you're concerned that I'm imposing some sort of ideology on a very broad range of writers, right? My goal isn't to say that a bunch of writers agree with each other or with my own point of view. My goal is simply to say that Christian faith can be expressed and is being expressed in a variety of ways that exceed the narrow channels of the "Christian" media -- and that it's important for liberal Protestants especially to emphasize the faith dimensions of these expressions. My purpose is two-fold:

"Christian" is at least as broad and confusing a term as "humanist" -- but a very narrow group of Christians applies the term exclusively to themselves and regards all other Christians as, well, something else. I think it's important to find ways to show people who are turned off by aggressively nationalist conservative Evangelical Protestant Christianity that there are other, broader, deeper expressions of Christianity. Naming writers who identify with Christianity but not with this militant Evangelicalism is an important way of helping people expand their horizons.

But the second half of my agenda is to push left-leaning Christians not to look for all of their common ground in a political agenda. The danger of "liberal Protestant" or "progressive Christian" -- despite my identification with both -- is that both terms can seem to embrace a partisan culture within the church as well as in the larger culture; when they do that, they cannot build bridges with Christians who hold different political positions. Worse, they can seem to treat the political implications of the gospel as the only important implications. We need richer ways of recognizing where we have things in common with others -- hopefully ways that go beyond partisan politics. Maybe there are even better terms than Christian humanism for this.

I'm aware that fundamentalists get a lot of traction arguing against "secular humanism." Bully for them. I don't find arguing with fundamentalists interesting or rewarding, and I certainly don't think that promoting Christian humanism to fundamentalists makes any sense. What does make sense is for liberal Protestants to expand their notion of who their kindred spirits are, and to find ways to recognize that kinship.

Looking for fellow "liberals" in other denominations is one way; looking to lower-case humanists -- to people thoughtfully, self-critically engaged with their faith, whether they're orthodox, traditional, liberal, or just trying to make sense of it all -- strikes me as a better way. I suppose I like the phrase because it describes a different kind of territory than "liberal."

Jaume mentioned Paul Ricoeur, whose work I've admired without knowing it well. I've only read two essays by Ricoeur, but they impressed me deeply and opened a way for me to see how my questions were not antithetical to my faith -- or to Christianity -- but could be expressions of my faith. I've always wanted a way to acknowledge my debt to writers like him, and if Christian humanist does it, I'm thrilled.


June 5, 2005 05:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites, I applaud your obvious dedication to expanding popular religious language/labels and the gentle suggestions for liberal religious adherents to stop trying to define specific groups according to - or even against - larger cultural political and/or theological preferences.

Mainline Protestantism - and religious liberalism for that matter - has largely become a political movement. Evangelical Christianity has too, obviously. I agree that there is a large body of communally exiled individuals existing between the two who are searching for a religious home wherein religion is the priority, not partisan politics.

That being said, I think much, much more than a simple label change is going to be required from Mainline Protestantism and religious liberalism in general if we are to authentically prepare a place on this "bridge" for us all to meet, let alone co-exist.

I think a philosophy of ministry will have to be re-cast. Isn't our philosophy of ministry, after all, exactly that which has brought us to this point and to this conversation? A label change is needed, I agree, but a label change is but one expression of a larger philosophy of ministry which requires a larger change and a much larger vision.

In other words, I'm not so sure an "Emerging Christian Church," would contemplate joining "us" as much as it would expect "us" to join them and their superior philosophy & methodology of ministry. Mainline Protestant philosophy of ministry is archaic in comparison to the Emerging Christian Church's. If it (this conversation) is NOT about one or the other joining the other, then why not let things between us remain as they are presently?

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