Christian humanism

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A form of philosophical humanism. The following exposition of C.H. is excerpted from the section “Christian Humanism” in the book On Being Human: Interpretations of Humanism from the Renaissance to the Present by Salvatore Puledda: “The reinterpretation of Christianity as a humanism developed in the first half of this century as part of a vast and wide-ranging process, which began in the nineteenth century and continues even today, of revising Christian doctrines to adapt them to the modern world – a world toward which the Catholic Church has held since the Counter Reformation a position of clear rejection if not outright condemnation. It is commonly thought that the Church begins to change its attitude following the Rerum Novarum encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (1891)... With this encyclical the Church adopted a social doctrine that could be set against liberalism and socialism... authorizing the formation of mass-scale Christian Democratic or Christian Socialist parties... and presented itself as the bearer of a vision, a faith, and a moral system able to answer to the most profound needs of the modern person. It was out of this attempt to redefine and reintroduce Christian values (appropriately updated for the modern world) that “Christian Humanism” emerged, a current whose first important proponent is often considered to be the French thinker Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). Maritain was first a follower of Henri Bergson and then espoused the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Dissatisfied with both philosophies, in 1906 he converted to Catholicism. He was one of the most notable exponents of what was called “neo-Thomism” – that current of modern Catholic thought that could be traced directly back to Saint Thomas Aquinas and through him to Aristotle, whose philosophy Aquinas had attempted to reconcile with Christian dogmas. Maritain, whose position was radically opposed to the general tendency of modern thought, took a great leap backward, as it were, past the Renaissance, to reconnect with the philosophical thought of the Middle Ages. This was necessary, he believed, because it was within the humanism of the Renaissance that he identified the seeds that had grown into the crisis, indeed the breakdown, of modern society – a crisis of which Nazism and Stalinism were the most terrible expressions. Maritain did not of course explicitly propose to reestablish the values of the Middle Ages and the Christian world view associated with that time; his objective was to reestablish, after all the difficulties experienced in the Middle Ages, the continuation of Christianity’s historical evolution, which, in Maritain’s view, had been interrupted and blocked by modern secular and lay thought. In his 1936 book Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christendom, Maritain examines the evolution of modern thought from the crisis of medieval Christianity to the bourgeois individualism of the nineteenth century and the totalitarianism of the twentieth. In this evolution he sees the tragedy of “anthropocentric humanism” (as he calls it), which has taken shape since the Renaissance. This humanism, which has led to a progressive de-Christianization of the West, is, according to Maritain, a metaphysics of “freedom without grace.”... These are the stages of this progressive decay: As regards man, one can note that in the beginnings of the modern age, with Descartes first and then with Rousseau and Kant, rationalism had raised up a proud and splendid image of the personality of man, inviolable, jealous of his immanence and his autonomy and, last of all, good in essence. (Integral, 28). But this rationalist pride, this arrogance, which first eliminated all traditional and transcendent values and then, with idealism, absorbed into itself even objective reality, bore within it the seeds of its own destruction. First Darwin and then Freud dealt mortal blows to the optimistic vision of perpetual progress of anthropocentric humanism. With Darwin (1809–1882), humanity discovered that no biological disjuncture exists between itself and the ape. Even more, no real metaphysical discontinuity exists between humanity and the ape – that is, there is no radical difference of essence, no true qualitative leap. With Freud (1856–1939), humankind discovered that its deepest motivations are actually dictated by “a radically sexual libido and an instinct for death” (Integral, 29). At the end of this destructive dialectical process, Maritain concluded, the doors had been opened to the modern totalitarianism of fascism and Stalinism: After all the dissociation and dualism in the age of anthropocentric humanism... we are now witnessing a dispersion, a final decomposition. This does not prevent man from claiming sovereignty more than ever. But this claim is no longer made for the individual person, for he no longer knows where to find himself, he sees himself only as torn apart from society and fragmented. Individual man is ripe for abdication … in favor of collective man, in favor of that great historic image of humanity which for Hegel, who gave us the theology of it, consisted in the State with its perfect juridical structure, and which for Marx will consist in Communist society with its immanent dynamism (Integral, 30). Against an anthropocentric humanism that he describes in this way, Maritain sets a c. h., which he defines as “integral” or “theocentric.” He says: We are thus led to distinguish two kinds of humanism: a truly Christian or theocentric humanism; and an anthropocentric humanism, for which the spirit of the Renaissance and that of the Reformation are primarily responsible... The first kind of humanism recognizes that God is the center of man; it implies the Christian conception of man, sinner and redeemed, and the Christian conception of grace and freedom... The second kind... believes that man himself is the center of man, and therefore of all things. It implies a naturalistic conception of man and of freedom... [O]ne understands [why] anthropocentric humanism merits the name of inhuman humanism, and that its dialectic must be regarded as the tragedy of humanism (Integral, 27–28). To theocentric humanism understood in this way Maritain entrusts the task of constructing a “new Christianity” that will be able to return modern secular society to the values and spirit of the Gospel. Maritain’s Christian interpretation of humanism was enthusiastically embraced by certain segments of the Church as well as by various lay groups. It inspired a number of Catholic movements committed to social action and political life and thus turned out to be an effective ideological weapon, especially against Marxism. But this interpretation also received witheringly effective criticism from non confessional philosophical spheres. The first difficulty to be pointed out was that the rationalist tendency that had appeared in post-Renaissance philosophy and that Maritain had denounced in Descartes, Kant, and Hegel could in fact be traced to the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas himself. This tendency, which had led to the crisis and eventual defeat of Reason, was not the product of Renaissance humanism but of Thomism and late Scholasticism; the rationalism of the Cartesian philosophy that lies at the foundation of modern thought is much more closely connected to Saint Thomas than to the Neoplatonism and mystical Hermeticism of the Renaissance. The roots of modern philosophy’s “arrogance of Reason” should be sought instead, these critics pointed out, in the attempt by Thomism to construct an intellectualism and abstract form of theology. In their view, Maritain had carried out a massive work of mystification and camouflage, almost a game of philosophical prestidigitation, attributing to the Renaissance the historical responsibility that in actuality belonged to late-medieval thought. In the second place, the crisis of values, the existential vacuum that had appeared in European thought with Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, was not, argued Maritain’s critics, a consequence of Renaissance humanism, but ―on the contrary― derived from the persistence of medieval Christian ideas within modern society. The tendency toward dualism and dogmatism, the sense of guilt, the rejection of the body and sexuality, the devaluation of women, the fear of death and Hell ― all these things are the remnants of medieval Christianity, which long after the Renaissance continue to exert a powerful influence on Western thought. In fact, critics argued, it was these tendencies, strongly reaffirmed in the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, that have determined the sociocultural environment in which modern thought took shape. The schizophrenia of the present-day world (a schizophrenia upon which Maritain insisted) derived, these critics argued, from the simultaneous coexistence of both human and anti-human values. The “destructive dialectic” of the West could best be explained, then, as a painful and frustrated attempt to free itself from the conflict between these warring values.” (On Being Human, 61-69).