Guest Post: Christian Humanism and the Foundation of the Liberal Arts

The author of the following piece is Andre Costa, a graduate student at Trinity Western University. Andre’s work focuses on contemporary problems surrounding political correctness and the cultural revolution, but here he offers a summary of Jens Zimmermann’s lecture, “Christian Humanism: The True Foundation of the Liberal Arts.”

CLICK HERE for the full audio of the lecture

Humanism, Zimmermann observes, is an inescapable theme in Western intellectual history.  In fact, only a few intellectual trends do not present themselves as humanism. It combines sacred and secular interests. Regardless of the cosmological perspective that undergirds any given intellectual movement, the perennial questions of “what does it mean to be human” and “what does it mean to live the good life” must be dealt with. Greek education included philosophical training and rhetoric, which found a deeper meaning when facing the reality of the gospel. With the belief that God became man, Zimmermann observes, “the old wineskins were filled with new wine.”

Zimmermann points out that, in facing the postmodern crisis, Christian Humanism becomes a necessary topic because it allows higher ends for cultural activity.  Secular dogmatism presents an irrational fear of religion, reducing it to the irrational state of existence. However, reason as secular humanism understands it is not capable of providing a coherent basis for morality—which can only be anchored by metaphysical truths. For instance, a naturalistic worldview presents itself completely empty of moral boundaries, which becomes evident especially in various projects of eugenics throughout history. In a less sinister but similar vein, higher education focuses on technical training, emptying curriculums of anything resembling transcendence. Zimmermann observes that difficulty: the modern university teaches its students how to make money, but it is unable to make any ethical statement regarding the way people should spend it. Christian Humanism is also important to face the attacks upon human dignity in a secularized world. Once a dogmatic secularism avoids dealing with metaphysical reality, jurisprudence faces an increasing difficulty in legitimizing the concept of human dignity. Quoting C.S. Lewis, Zimmermann affirms that secular humanism leads to “the abolition of man.”

Zimmermann defies secular humanism, arguing that religion should be seen as an element that increases rationality in the intellectual life. Through a Christological interpretation of Genesis 1:26-27, he emphasizes that the idea of freedom and purpose of human life are rooted in Christian Humanism. Hence, the divine plan of creation is completed in Christ. It is only in the light of incarnation that the Greco-Roman humanism, stuck in the abstraction of a distant god, breaks free and gets to know the true face of humanity: Christ himself. Thus, Christian Humanism is born out of the replacement of the terminology of the Greco-Roman logos by the figure of Christ. Since God creates everything through Christ, creation can be seen as an intelligent order—a common world governed by the laws of creation until Christ returns. Christian Humanism continues to be developed in the middle ages. Augustine sees education as a way to use every source of truth so that humans can develop Christlikeness. Scholasticism, in its turn, attempts to repair the fragmented knowledge of divine grace through human knowledge. Scholastics are aware that they are not able to know everything, but they are sure that they are able to know enough to live in the light of Christ. Scholasticism produced the idea of the university and established the fundamentals for science as we know it today.

Although many see the Renaissance as a secular project, Zimmerman reaffirms its Christian origins. He explains that the Renaissance keeps the Patristic language of deification, conceiving of an educational project that seeks to facilitate a fully rounded, rational faith. This rational faith binds fundamentally to Christian morality, since the foundation of morality is in Christ. Thus, all existing wisdom of the world is part of God’s truth.  Far from subverting the tradition of Christianity, the Renaissance pointed to the Bible as a source of poetry, literature and knowledge in general. In addition, it presented the church fathers as a solid example of Christians who are versed in literature and secular knowledge.

Zimmermann argues that in all these periods there were no forbidden topics for analysis and study. Christian scholars were well read, and they mastered the most sophisticated philosophy. In that sense, every truth was worthy of analysis. Zimmermann also counters the accusation that the medieval university suppressed research that contradicted the faith. He explains that they were confident to seek truths, since they believed everything finds its meaning in Christ. Hence, the contradictions between science and faith were only apparent—eventually they all would be resolved. Liberal Arts Education should be seen as a hermeneutics of society. It is constructed on the belief that humanity is a gift that needs to be unfolded and acquired through people. Therefore, hermeneutics occupies a central position in Liberal Arts Education. Zimmermann also highlights that Western concepts of justice, freedom and others are not a mere coincidences, but rather  inspirations which were revealed by a historical process of Christian thought.  In order to keep this legacy, Liberal Arts Education is fundamental as a way to enable one to interpret this cultural heritage today.

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