The title I've given this editorial statement is half-serious, half-ironic. Religious humanists are, by and large, men and women of letters who command no legions, and who go about their work without much taste for manifestos and movements. Throughout history, religious humanists have manifested a keen awareness of the limits of political action and ideological posturing.
But because we live in a time that is already dominated by strident ideologies and suffering from cultural fragmentation, I feel impelled to articulate more explicitly the central ideas of religious humanism. For this is the strand of the Judeo-Christian tradition that animates this journal. To my mind, religious humanism offers the best antidote to the ravages of the "culture wars." And since it is so difficult to focus the public's attention in an era of media overload, I am taking the risk of championing religious humanism as though it were a "cause." In recent years I have encountered hundreds of thoughtful Christians and Jews who have been struggling to embody a vision of religious humanism in their lives and in their work. Perhaps by giving a name to this vision, we can speak more clearly and forcefully to the world around us. That, at least, is my sincere hope.
In the history of the West, religious humanism has made only infrequent appearances and has rarely occupied center stage. It is a mode of thought that tends to arise when religious and cultural cohesion is threatened by social and intellectual upheavals. It is arguable, however, that religious humanists are like the legendary seven good men, without whom the world would come to an end.
What do I mean by religious humanism? The theologian Max Stackhouse recently provided a simple but suggestive definition. "Humanity," Stackhouse wrote, "cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God's revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience."
On the face of it, the term "religious humanism" seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms—between heaven and earth. But it is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. This paradoxical meeting of these two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.
When emphasis is placed on the divine at the expense of the human (the conservative fault), Jesus becomes an ethereal authority figure who is remote from earthly life and experience. When he is thought of as merely human (the liberal error), he becomes nothing more than a superior social worker or popular guru.
The religious humanist refuses to collapse paradox in on itself. This has an important implication for how he or she approaches the world of culture. Those who make a radical opposition between faith and the world hold such a negative view of human nature that the products of culture are seen as inevitably corrupt and worthless. On the other hand, those who are eager to accommodate themselves to the dominant trends of the time baptize nearly everything, even things that may not be compatible with the dictates of the faith. But the distinctive mark of religious humanism is its willingness to adapt and transform culture, following the dictum of an early Church Father, who said that "Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord's." Because religious humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God's design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the religious humanist's vision.
One might ask why the incarnational balance of the human and the divine is not so obvious as to be universally accepted. The truth is that human beings find it difficult to live with paradox. It is far easier to seek a resolution in one direction or the other; indeed, making such a choice often seems to be the most principled option.
Perhaps the best illustration of religious humanism I've come across can be found in the film The Mission. It tells the story of the Jesuit missionaries who attempted to penetrate the rainforests of Brazil and bring the faith to the remote tribes. As the film opens, we see a whole series of missionaries ejected from the tribe in a literal and gruesomely ironic fashion: each of them is tied to a cross and sent over the edge of a huge waterfall. These missionaries had evidently tried to preach to the tribesmen and they had been rejected. But the Jesuit played by Jeremy Irons enters a clearing near where the tribe lives, sits down on a rock, and begins playing a flute. This simple gesture, which appealed directly to the humanity of the tribespeople, enabled them to recognize what was human in him. They arrive with their spears raised but they soon accept him and, ultimately, convert to Christianity. (Another reason to admire The Mission is that it departs from the standard Hollywood stereotype of the missionary as a smug, sexually-repressed fanatic.)
With all these references to paradox and ambiguity the objection might be made that I am speaking in quintessentially liberal terms, refusing to state my allegiance to the particularities of the faith. In fact, the majority of religious humanists through the centuries have been deeply orthodox, though that does not mean they don't struggle with doubt or possess highly skeptical minds. The orthodoxy of the great religious humanists is something that liberals tend to ignore or evade; it doesn't tally with their notion that dogma are somehow lifeless and repressive. But dogma are nothing more—or less—than restatements of the mysteries of faith. Theological systems can become calcified and unreal—they can, in short, give rise to "dogmatism"—but dogma exist to protect and enshrine mystery. Flannery O'Connor, one of the great religious humanists of the twentieth century, wrote of the effect her faith had on her writing: "There is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma [are] an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery." In a similar vein one need only think of the modern Jewish thinkers (Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas among them) who have joined their passionate love of the Hasidic tradition to such modern philosophic schools as personalism and existentialism.
So we arrive at yet another paradox: that the religious humanist combines an intense (if occasionally anguished) attachment to orthodoxy with a profound spirit of openness to the world. This helps to explain why so many of the towering figures of religious humanism—from Gregory of Nyssa, Maimonides, Dante and Erasmus to Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O'Connor—have been writers possessed of powerful imaginations. The intuitive powers of the imagination can leap beyond the sometimes leaden abstractions with which reason must work. Because the imagination is always searching to move from conflict to a higher synthesis, it is the natural ally of religious humanism, which struggles to assimilate the data of the world into a deeper vision of faith.
The assimilative power of religious humanism enables it to balance the changing circumstances of history with what T.S. Eliot called the "permanent things." One of the most luminous explanations of this balance was written by John Henry Newman, a Victorian theologian who eventually became a cardinal in the Catholic church. His book on the "development of doctrine" argues that the unfolding of history enables us to see—and respond to—new facets of meaning in the ancient dogma. Newman's concept of doctrinal development has been cited by many scholars as the underlying inspiration for the Second Vatican Council, with its stress on the need for a dialogue between the church and the modern world.
In this issue of Image, Virgil Nemoianu has provided a concise and thought-provoking survey of the history of Christian humanism. Since the roots of religious humanism go so far back into the European past, a skeptic might wonder whether such a mode of thought has ever been deeply grafted onto American culture. After all, America is still a relatively young nation and its puritan and pragmatic strains—neither particularly hospitable to humanism—are ingrained in our history. Without intending to scant the contributions of earlier religious thinkers, I believe that the leading American representatives of religious humanism have been imaginative writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne's insistence on the reality of evil, the inexorable presence of the past, and a tragic sense of life stood in stark contrast to Emerson's optimism and utopianism. Throughout his career, Hawthorne struggled to achieve a more sacramental perspective, which placed the self in relation to the transcendent, and which encompassed a vision of redemptive suffering. It is possible to draw a direct line from Hawthorne to such modern American writers as T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
Despite the harsh cultural climate in which we live, a new generation of religious humanists is making its presence known. The new religious humanists have a number of things going for them. Now that the Baby Boomers have arrived at middle age, fully aware for the first time of their mortality and concerned about their children's moral and physical well-being, we have witnessed a wave of interest in religion, ranging from the pursuit of New Age pantheism to a nostalgia for traditional rites and moral codes. Indeed, religious humanism must compete with the Wal-Mart of spiritual and therapeutic nostrums available today. Even if much of this can be discounted as sentimental religiosity, a spirit of openness that has emerged.
There is no "school" of religious humanism, no centralized office or publication that represents it to the worlds of politics or the media, no platform with readily identifiable political planks. However, there are subtle but powerful threads that link many of the most distinguished minds of our time. In philosophy Alasdair MacIntrye and Charles Taylor have brought the existence of God and the idea of "the good" back into serious discussion. Theologians such as the American Jesuit Avery Dulles, the German Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenburg, and the late Hans Urs von Balthasar and his disciples have demonstrated that faithfulness to the ancient teachings of the church can inspire nuanced and creative thought. There are also a growing number of scholars who have been meditating on the relationship between religion and science, including Stanley Jaki, John Polkinghorne, and Langdon Gilkey.
One clear lesson that these thinkers have learned from the culture wars is that the process of politicization endangers the ability of religion to permeate and renew the very culture that is being fought over. The culture wars might be likened to two gardeners who spend all their time spraying rival brands of pesticide, while forgetting to water the plants and fertilize the soil. Perhaps the most frightening thing about this syndrome is that it seems to betoken a pervasive despair about the very possibility of cultural renewal. To cite just one example of this from my personal experience: the vast majority of conservatives I have encountered are firmly convinced that almost nothing of value has been produced in Western culture for over a hundred years. There is an element of simple Philistinism here, but there is also the despair of those who can only look backward.
Yet another paradox of religious humanism is that it combines a tragic sense of life—an awareness of our fallenness and the limits of human institutions—with a strain of persistent hope. T.S. Eliot once said that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. The religious humanist refuses to give in to apocalyptic fears, believing that grace is always available, and that the life-giving soil of culture is often seeded with suffering. If, as I believe, faith and imagination are the two primary sources of culture, then even in the darkest time it is possible to make poems and prayers out of our travails.
The new religious humanists know that culture shapes and informs politics far more powerfully than the other way around. They recognize that symbolism, imagery, and language play a crucial role in forming attitudes and prejudices, and they have devoted themselves to nourishing the imaginative life. At a time when the model of Enlightenment rationalism is crumbling under the weight of post-modern cynicism and nihilism, the religious imagination can speak meaningfully into the void.
In fact, it is the novelists, poets, artists, and composers who are at the heart of the resurgence of religious humanism in our time. Image exists to chronicle this renaissance and to communicate it to a larger audience. This mission is all the more important because there is a serious "perception gap" in the West today: many people—whether religious or secular—don't know about this renaissance or, what is worse, don't want to believe it is possible. Perhaps that is why religious humanists need to be willing to stand up and issue an occasional manifesto.
In his essay in this issue Virgil Nemoianu singles out the two virtues he believes to be most essential to religious humanism: courage and hope. These are indeed high and holy virtues, like twin mountain peaks. Thinking about these virtues we might do well to compare ourselves to Dante the pilgrim, who looks up to the shining mountains of heaven from his dark wood. We may not be able to attain these peaks without a painful effort of trial and error. But we can keep them ever in our sight.