When the word humanism is used in modern parlance, it is often with reference to what is known as “secular humanism.” As an ideology that rejects religious claims in favor of humanity on its own, secular humanism is very much opposed to orthodox Christianity. For what it is worth, I’m not a fan.
And yet there is another side to humanism that isn’t secular at all. During the age of the Renaissance, what we might call Christian humanism–the recognition of the image of God in humanity and celebration of all the skill God has given us–was both religious in orientation and achieved great accomplishments. This striving for greatness while maintaining awareness of the source of such greatness makes sense. Though not all of this time period would have subscribed to such an approach, in the religious and philosophical climate of the era it makes some sense.
I realize that traditional Christian teaching–especially in the Reformed mode–has always sought to remind us of our finitude and depravity. That our efforts are ashes and dust compared to the majesty of God. I get that. However, I also know that if we are really people into whom God has breathed God’s very Spirit, this means something too. That’s why I’m a Christian humanist.
I reflected on some of this over the past summer. My wife and I were blessed to be able to travel to Italy in July. While there, we experienced cities like Florence and Rome–places where the Renaissance and its elevation of human abilities in art, architecture, and so much more held sway. As we stood before some of the greatest artwork in human history or entered the St. Peter’s Basilica, (the largest church in Christendom), I became aware of one undeniable fact. This was the best we can do. Literally. We often talk about better and worse, good or bad. But not always do we have the opportunity to observe or be a part of the best. Standing in the Sistine Chapel? This was the best humanity has done. Think about that. Amazing.
And we don’t have to travel overseas to experience all of this. Literature can transcend geographical boundaries, and reading the best of it can be open to us so easily. The Olympics will be before us in a few short months, elevating the abilities and potential of the human form. Recorded music of almost any type is often near-free and readily available through the Internet. And, though the effect is sometimes much diminished, even the visual arts and architecture can be experienced through a computer screen.
We have the opportunity to enjoy, without exaggeration, some of the greatest accomplishments in human history.
So when you get a chance, reserve some time to be a humanist. Take a look at or read or experience some of the best we can do. Soak it in. And–of course–celebrate the imago Dei it represents, and remember to Whom it all points.