Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaching Christian Humanism by Virgil Nemoianu (archived at leaderu)
Louis Bouyer, himself one of the great Christian humanists of our own age, wrote in 1959 a book about Erasmus and his times that remains as good an introduction to later Christian humanism as any I know; another good introduction is the book by Henri de Lubac about the times of Pico della Mirandola. The figures examined in these two studies may well represent the peak of Christian humanism. They include Nicholas of Cusa and Thomas More, the Popes Eugene IV, Nicholas V, Pius II, and Paul III, Cardinals Pole, Contarini, Barberini, Bessarion, and many others. Protestants, particularly in seventeenth-century England, developed their own tradition, informed by John Donne, George Herbert, and Izaak Walton. When historians use the term in a narrow sense, “Christian humanism” refers exclusively to the Renaissance—often presented as a departure from Christianity, or even anti-Christian. The actual histories of the Renaissance thinkers, however, suggest exactly the opposite. Thomas More was ready to die for his beliefs, Pico went so far as to approach Savonarola toward the end of his short life, and Erasmus stubbornly and ingeniously pursued a course between personal independence and a refusal to abandon tradition. In the Renaissance we witness a new attempt at the Cappadocian gambit: an appropriation of the cultural achievements of the Ancient world, of Platonism in particular, as well as a dramatically heightened presence of the Church in the world of culture. The humanism of the Renaissance was in many ways limited to the elite, and thus differs from the more popular sweep of Medieval efforts. But Renaissance humanism strongly affirmed Christianity's capacity to be inclusive and to reclaim areas in which its universality could shine forth again.

At this point in the course, I would want my students to grasp what was just beginning to become clear to the Renaissance humanists themselves: that there are fundamental commonalities between humanistic culture and Christianity that bring them together objectively, irrespective of the wishes and plans of writers, artists, and intellectuals. Christianity's concept of the Trinity posited from the beginning a tremendous abundance of activities inside God's nature and a great variety of relations with the created world. On a closer look, “cultural production” was in its turn trying to do the same: stake out a territory of freedom, openness, and creativity. Or, even better, it was trying to imitate on a finite scale the infinite creative and gratuitous freedom of God. A humanity created in God's “image and likeness” was following the God of Genesis: incessantly creating new possibilities for the universe in architecture, music, verse, and philosophy. The humanity of Christian humanism was trying to supplement in its modest way the majestic gestures of original Creation.

No less suggestive is Holy Tradition, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. Briefly put, there is in the Church's life a special connection between stability and expansion, growth and continuity. This, of course, as much as anything else, could serve as a model for the pursuit and the shaping of the beautiful and of intellectual speculation in the secular world on the basis of common outlines. Other commonalities can be easily enumerated. Suffice it to say that they were all wrapped up in two large realities. The first is that all human societies contain a kind of opening toward transcendence; the relationship between the human person and God is constitutive and unavoidable. The second is the equally incontestable fact that culture is derived from and connected to religion: architecture to temples of worship, drama to religious ritual, universities to acquiring sacred knowledge, music, sculpture and painting to the praise of the divine, indeed science and political economy themselves to categories generated by divine stories.

By the end of the eighteenth century, knowledge of these commonalities was widespread and accepted by nearly everyone, even the emerging skeptics, agnostics, and lukewarm believers. It was thus around this date that Christian humanism took on its current form—due in large measure to Chateaubriand, who invented a modern idiom in which the great harmonies of the world could be spoken. In his Genius of Christianity (1803), the beautiful emerges as an indispensable key to any grasp of the true and the good. The amazing appeal of Chateaubriand derives from his ability to turn the privileging of nature (the great innovation at the end of the eighteenth century) into an argument for sacrality, and to legitimize the spheres of the emotional and the aesthetic as valid replacements for those of the rational and the social. Chateaubriand was, of course, not alone. Many German and some English Romantics, especially Coleridge, worked through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries toward forging this alliance between the beautiful and the world of religion. The Swiss Alois Gugler, today virtually forgotten, argued that biblical writing was the prototype of any sublime expression. The Catalan Jaime Balmes engaged directly the philosophies of history of his time, and his contemporary Donoso Cortes argued that politics derives from theology. The Oxford Tractarians altered the religious landscape of England for almost a century. Schleiermacher reinvented hermeneutic analysis starting from religious principles. Lamennais and Gorres demonstrated how crucial religious concepts could operate in the context of social and national preoccupations.

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