On Christian Humanism

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For many, the stranger claim of Christianity is that, with the existence of faith and grace, with the Incarnation and its effects, man can be more, not less, human, more, not less, complete in the being he is intended to be.

He is, in short, more himself, provided he lives by reason, faith, and the virtues. If he does not, he will likely turn into the opposite of what he ought to be. Both faith and reason are gifts. In that sense, as we know by introspection, we do not cause ourselves to be or to be what we are.

Terms like “atheist” or “secular” humanism describe the alternatives to Christianity. They generally imply that faith is “alien” to man. Either it demands too much and, therefore, it is inhuman, or it claims that man is not completed by his own powers. He requires something superhuman even to be human. He is therefore a plaything of the gods and not his own master.

No doubt, if we look at human history in every time and place, we see how difficult it is for man to avoid disorders of soul and body. His inhumanity is often more graphic to us than his goodness. One strategy to deal with this unpleasant, yet recurring, fact of human vice is to call vices virtues.

Another way is to blame the disorders on religion itself. This strategy goes back to Epicurus and regularly recurs in human history, including today. Get rid of religion and everything will be dandy.

Experience cautions us, however. The atheisms and secularisms that have gained power have usually turned out to be the most anti-human regimes. This experience ought to deter us, but it does not always seem to. Likewise, not every religion turns out to be also human. Religion is not an univocal term.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a Marine Corps officer. He told me that often in his experience the most vehement opposition to natural law and reason came from chaplains. Some thought that the use and place of reason in religion indicated lack of trust in God or Scripture.

Logically, this view would mean that no Christian “humanism” exists but only Christian faith. Muslim faith is pretty much like this also. If it is not in the Book, it is not relevant. God can always do the opposite of what He commanded before. Human reason and Logos do not mix.

Catholicism, for its part, argues that both reason and faith derive from the same source. They do not contradict each other but reinforce each other. Benedict XVI speaks of faith healing and encouraging reason. Thus, Catholicism manifests a confidence in reason, even when its implications are political and culturally denied.

The pope worked much of this out in his Regensburg Lecture. Christianity was from the beginning directed to the philosophers, not to other religions. Christianity is eager to know what the world makes of itself, how it explains human life and its existence in the cosmos. When it considers such issues, Christianity finds that human life has its own reality that it does not “create” but receives.

The Swiss philosopher, Martin Rhonheimer, argues that Christianity is a salvation ethics and morality. By this he means that we are to observe both the natural law and the prescriptions of faith directed to our reason.

Even if the culture is depraved in one or another way, Christians should still follow, in private and public, the Socratic prescription: “It is never right to do wrong.” Efforts of proportionalism or consequentism to mitigate what Nietzsche called “the tension” between faith and autonomous choice result, not in fostering, but in harming what it is to be human.

When we understand that our ethical and political lives are themselves salvation-oriented, we do not mean to establish a Kingdom of God in this world, but to indicate the real locus and end of each human life. This recognition is why, in agreement with Plato, Benedict keeps reminding us of a final judgment that pronounces on how we have actually lived.

A Christian humanism is one that is directed to the virtues. But living virtuously also is directed to achieving our transcendent end. Intellectually, what Christian thought recognizes is that each case of not living virtuously is, in fact, a deviation from reason fully healed and understood.

All of the things that Christian attention to reason and revelation recommend are in fact what “true humanism,” to recall Jacques Maritain’s phrase, is about. In the public order today, what thinkers like Hadley Arkes, Robert George, J. Budziszewski, Russell Hittinger, and numerous others are noted for is not their faith but their reason.

That is, the logic of opposition to the basic truths of reason and faith turns out to be, at each point, incoherent, unreasonable, not fully human.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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