As a child of faith raised in a fundamentalist tradition, I regularly heard preachers decrying the evils of “humanism.” They were profoundly disturbed by the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment (longer term) and, more recently, at that stage, the 1960s. The biggest concerns at that time were the evils of Darwinism in the classroom, pushback against prayer in school, and society’s descent into “sex, drugs, and rock n roll.” Humanism was shorthand for what the revivalists often condemned in full as “secular humanism.”
These itinerant doomsayers peddled in fear, condemnation, Armageddon, and hellfire, but that’s not to say they were entirely wrong. Despite their failure to deliver a beautiful gospel sans an oppressive religious yoke, a key aspect of their diagnosis was at least in the ballpark. A type of humanism indeed exists that, boiled down, is the idolatry of man (the sexist language is my recollection of their style). Specifically, this brand of humanism sought to displace God from society, culture, and the individual. It set humankind on the throne with no higher spiritual Reality to answer to. With God removed from the stage, we became gods in our own eyes, replaying Adam’s first great error… in our desire to be divine independently, we turned from Perfect Love, and all hell broke loose ever since.
That’s troubling, but I now recognize their knee-jerk reactions to secularism as doubling down on the same ugly theology that made secular humanism popular. Briefly, Christianity had, over time, generated a dehumanizing anthropology (doctrine of humanity) that was shameful and shaming. It belittled people as “totally depraved,” worthless wretches, spiritual zombies. That hideous “worm theology” opened the door to the misuse of Scripture to abuse those regarded as subhuman.
This nightmare is the aberration the Enlightenment woke up from with a start. People of goodwill were sickened by the corruption and violence employed in God’s name. They had enough. But in fact, the narrative so far has left out an important chapter, well worth revisiting.
Centuries before the Enlightenment and a precursor to it, a theologian by the name of Erasmus was already battling the Roman Catholic and Reformation Church’s misanthrope (a word that means hatred of humankind). Desiderius Erasmus (1469—1536, Basel) was born in Rotterdam and died in Basel.
Through his careful study of the Bible, he recognized two big problems with what we’ll call the church’s “low anthropology.” On the one hand, it sees people as so corrupt that we degrade our neighbor rather than loving them. When we see someone as fundamentally wicked, we inevitably degrade and mistreat them, thus dehumanizing ourselves. And on the other hand, if we imagine humanity as evil, their very wills in bondage, they now have an excuse to live down to that image. The degradation becomes self-fulfilling.
Erasmus saw that the solution was not to erase God from the scene but rather to see humanity through God’s eyes. And what a beautiful vision that is! Remember the Psalmist’s words:
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of their hands,
you put everything under their feet.
Humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. And while our likeness to God is tarnished by our “fall,” we continue to bear the divine image… stamped like a seal on the heart of everyone we meet. Imagine how we might treat “the other” if we always saw them as God’s living image!
But for the Christian, we have more to say: God so loved the world (of people) that he dignified humanity by becoming one of us. By becoming “a little lower than the angels,” he raised us up to be far greater than any angel. Through the Incarnation, Christ is restoring and raising humanity to become truly and fully human in his own image. In other words, we were created and are being recreated in the image of the Image, who is the Son of God.
Christian humanism of Erasmus’ brand trumps both ugly anti-human religion (the elder brother) and the anti-theist ideology of secular humanism. That vision sees in our neighbors not only the vague fingerprint of God but the very face of Jesus. NOW imagine how this might impact the way we think of others, talk to others and treat others. A humanism where we both surrender to God but also know our worth in his eyes is well worth considering once again.