The Resurrection of Christian Humanism?

By Birzer, Bradley J. | The American Conservative, September-October 2018 | Go to article overview

The Resurrection of Christian Humanism?


Birzer, Bradley J., The American Conservative


The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, Alan Jacobs, Oxford University Press, 280 pages

Though the term is rarely employed in our time, "Christian humanism" is one of the noblest movements of the last century. It's a concept much older than the 20th century, of course, dating back to St. Paul's visit to Mars Hill in Athens. There, Paul had challenged the Greek Stoics to discover and embrace their "unknown god." A few decades later, St. John the Beloved sanctified the 600-year-old Heraclitean concept, logos (meaning fire, imagination, word), at the beginning of his Christian gospel.

Following this ancient tradition, many of the greatest of Western thinkers--from St. Augustine to Petrarch to Sir Thomas More to Edmund Burke--had inherited and breathed new life into Christian humanism during their own respective ages. In the 20th century, two men--T.E. Hulme in the United Kingdom and Irving Babbitt in the United States--reclaimed the 1,900-year-old concept, believing it the only possible serious challenge to modernity, the exaggeration of the particular, and the rise of ideologies and other inhumane terrors. From the grand efforts of Hulme and Babbitt a whole cast of fascinating characters arose, embracing Christian humanism to one degree or another: T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, Willa Cather, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien, Nicholas Berdyaev, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Theodor Haecker, Aurel Kolnai, Bernard Wall, Sigrid Undset, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Russell Kirk.

After the latter's immense success with the 1953 publication of The Conservative Mind, the young author worried that conservatism could serve only as a critique of the previous age, not as blueprint for a way forward. Conservatism, after all, was the "negation of ideology," challenging more than answering. If one considered himself a conservative, Kirk believed, he must prudently understand what needs conserving. To this, Kirk argued, only human dignity and a well-ordered society--rooted in eternal virtues and principles--were worth preserving. Such vital things, he determined in 1954, could only happen with a revival of "Christian humanism" and not merely through conservatism. Christian humanism alone was timeless, while conservatism was a momentary response to the immediate past. Though Kirk returned once again to "conservatism" as the central focus of his writings in the late 1950s, his books, essays, lectures, and periodicals (Modern Age and The University Bookman) never strayed far from his own understanding of Christian humanism.

It must also be noted that "Christian humanism" could almost as easily and appropriately--at least by its advocates and allies in the 20th-century--be called "Judeo-Christian humanism." It's primary American founder, Irving Babbitt, for example, certainly did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and he wanted thinkers such as Aristotle, Cicero, and the Buddha to have equal standing with the Nazarene. Other essential Christian humanist allies, such as Eric Voegelin, held heterodox views, believing, for example, that St. Paul was a Gnostic and a Manichean, too quick to dismiss the physical side of life. Still others, such as Leo Strauss, were somewhat Jewish and utterly Zionist. A proper Christian humanism could, most of its advocates believed, not only incorporate any who believed in the dignity of the human person, but also transcend whatever differences existed in the name of dignity.

Admittedly, I was absolutely thrilled when I first learned that Baylor University scholar Alan Jacobs would be writing on the subject--and taking it seriously. Indeed, Jacobs is not only serious about Christian humanism, he repeatedly identifies himself personally with the idea. The book becomes so personal at times--with language employed such as

"I suspect" and "I think"--that the reader has the feeling he is sitting in an intimate seminar room with Jacobs as the scholar meditatively pontificates on works he has lovingly read and absorbed over years of careful scholarship. …

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