Overview:

A recent conversation about Christian humanism illustrates where secular and religious versions of better-world-building can intersect, especially in resisting US Christian nationalism.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Most of the Christians I know are better than their Christ—at least, as he’s described in The New Testament. They would never be as cruel as Christ with the Canaanite woman; never suggest that a person would be better off murdered before they could draw believers away; never talk about an imminent judgment day in which the wheat will be separated from the chaff, and the chaff cast to a “furnace of fire”, to suffer a “great wailing and gnashing of teeth”.

(And on, and on, and on.)

But that’s also not the Christ most of my Christian friends recognize, from the stories given to them in their hopeful, brilliantly striving spiritual communities. They’ll know the Parable of the Good Samaritan, not Christ’s horrible encounter with the Canaanite woman, or how he helps a demonic force kill a herd of pigs. They’ll cite verses in which Christ advocates for presence with one’s neighbor in sickness, poverty, and prison—indeed, for loving one’s neighbor—over verses expressly sowing division through the idea of the chosen, and harsh judgment on those not fated to be saved.

And even when faced with a real mess of a parable, like the Parable of the Sower (in which a “sower” intentionally sows on a range of grounds, only one of which is conducive to flourishing), they’ll lean into the most empathetic readings they can. The sower’s just really optimistic! The sower loves all the grounds he seeds! Yes, even the ones where he knows the Word will never thrive because of the ground’s poor nature, or the Devil’s intervention! It’s all still done with equal love!

Suffice it to say, this is one of my biggest challenges as a big-tent secular humanist: remembering that the fullness of Biblical Christ isn’t the Christ that gives so many Christians I know so much strength in hard times, and so much love and courage and conviction as they do amazing work in their neighborhoods, as in their worlds.

Yes, it’s important to remember that Biblical Christ says and does horrible things, especially if I’m to deepen in understanding for the Christians who choose hateful words and deeds as well. But I also want to celebrate people doing the best they can with the vocabulary they’ve been given—because it’s not humanist to demand that everyone in this world of eight billion share my cosmology instead. Rather than waiting for everyone to switch teams, we need to collaborate with everyone willing, here and now, to build a world of greater dignity for all.

And so, when I came across an excellent interview about Christian humanism, I was delighted to see how much common ground we humanists share. I was also deeply informed, of course, by the ways in which religious and secular versions differ—but hey, humans are a passionate bunch, aren’t we?

It’s what we do with our passions that matters most.

Bretherton and Brooks: A study of contrasts

Comment Magazine recently asked David Brooks to chat with Luke Bretherton about Christian humanism, a topic with which Brooks apparently had little prior familiarity. I find Brooks a frustrating read, by and large, because there are definite tendrils of curiosity in his op-eds for The New York Times, but he also has such a strict fealty to erroneous assumptions that ultimately keep him comfortable in initial points of view.

If anyone could get him to think a little more expansively, though, surely it would be a humanist cut from the same religious cloth. And theologian Luke Bretherton does a fine job in outlining core facets of humanist philosophy. As he notes early on:

All humanist traditions start with the questions: What does it mean to be human? And how do we value the dignity and worth of each human? The answers to those questions have implications for not only how we understand and value the human but also how we evaluate different kinds of political, economic, and social projects. Does this or that way of doing things bring out what is fully human, or does it not?

He then later highlights the importance of seeing our shared humanity in the suffering of fellow human beings, because

[y]ou don’t discover your humanity through transcending pain, tragic loss, or ambiguous, conflicted, difficult relations. It’s not gnosticism. It’s not a movement out and beyond the material conditions and realities of our lives. It’s always a movement into the suffering, trauma, oppressive conditions, and deeply wounded nature of what it means to be human east of Eden.

Which is why

The fully human is the mother tending the child. It’s wiping the bottom of the elderly dementia patient too sick to do it for themselves. … [And] the incarcerated are fully human; they are no less human than the free. [T]he poorest person with no education has full dignity and should be given as full an ability to participate in determining their living and working conditions as the Harvard graduate living in a penthouse.

Most splendidly, too, Bretherton’s humanism is big-tent, because

If I’m only going to treat others with full dignity who are on my ideological wavelength, then I’m not going to treat those I consider enemies with dignity. And that’s part of the polarization we see today, when so many are only prepared to treat others with respect and recognize them as one deserving of care if they follow a narrow ideological checklist. If they don’t, then they are treated in inhuman ways. Even if, as seems to be happening more and more today, they’re your own family.

Whereas, if I’ve got some sense of who you are that lies beyond our ideological differences, who you are as more than what is immanent or useful, then you are not reducible to a bundle of ideological commitments. There’s more to you than that. I think that has profound salience for us today.

It does indeed.

Now obviously, Bretherton’s interview caters to Comment‘s Christian audience, in that it hangs all these ideas on a purported necessity of Christ. In his view, it’s through contemplation of Christ that seeing the Other and sitting with suffering are possible. It’s through Christ’s sacrifice that the universality of our humanity is fully realized.

But Bretherton is a Christian humanist, after all, so none of this surprises. If he believes that “the profound gift of Christian humanism” is that it allows for a deeper encounter with Christ by prioritizing “movement into the place of suffering, oppression, and weakness”, well, so be it. The gift for me here is that Bretherton is using the vocabulary of his culture to be present with suffering, oppression, and weakness at all. That’s our common ground.

And the best part? Bretherton’s pretty darned good at using his terms to highlight the anti-humanism in both certain religious communities and secular ideologies. Do I wish that he’d been more generous and upfront about secular humanisms that also have transcendent goals? Absolutely. But the line he walks in this interview with a more judgmental Christian allows him to do good humanist work all the same.

The problem with individual perfection

You can see Bretherton’s cleverness in one answer in particular, when replying to Brooks’ attempt to argue for Christian exceptionalism beyond all other faiths.

As Brooks proposes:

Now that we have some inkling of what Christian humanism starts with—the person of Jesus as the full human—I want to ask you, What does it do for us? I’ll ask it this way: In the Jewish tradition, there are images of the human. And some of them are pretty special humans: Moses, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Naomi. But they’re definitely flawed. The act of admiring and even trying to copy them is not the act of moving beyond the human. Christian humanism seems pretty different, as it’s trying to imitate an actual perfect person, no?

Again, though, Biblical Christ is absolutely not perfect. Christ says and does awful things that are difficult for more compassionate Christians to remediate (much as many of them do, by leaning into the kinder anecdotes in The New Testament). Moreover, perfection would be a terrible thing for any humanist to pretend is feasible. So how does Bretherton reply?

The point about the figure of Christ is that we become more able to inhabit and be present to frail flesh. In Christ’s humanity, we discover our own. It’s not the contemplation of a Zeus, some immortal body that does not suffer. It’s always—and this goes back to John’s Gospel and the presentation of Christ by Pilate just prior to crucifixion—it’s always the contemplation of the broken body of Christ. The one who stands before Pilate and the crowd is someone who is beaten, bound, and about to be executed. We contemplate and copy one who is subject to betrayal, false accusation, imprisonment, and state, judicial killing.

Now, I certainly don’t need to think on Christ to remember to care for others. There are plenty in the world today who live with chronic pain, who spend their whole lives in trash heaps and toxic waste sites, who moulder in prisons unjustly, who are tortured and raped and murdered, who are sold into indentured servitude and live lonely existences there until their bodies are found, discarded, and replaced.

I need no middleman to know to love, grieve, and look out for my fellow human being.

But for a humanist who genuinely believes in a god? And who genuinely believes that this god is in Christ? That’s a solid answer to another Christian’s attempt to act as though the pursuit of perfection is ever more important than showing up—however, wherever, and in whatever form we can—for each other as we are.

Rather than waiting for everyone to switch teams, we need to collaborate with everyone willing, here and now, to build a world of greater dignity for all.

Critiquing selfish Christianities, and secularisms

Bretherton is very careful about what he says. When speaking with someone who essentially dismisses secularism wholesale, and who holds up Machiavelli as the only real alternative to Christly practice, he doesn’t go out of his way to highlight that secular humanism can also offer a path to presence with one another. But he also doesn’t close off that possibility. To this end, he notes that

[the] early modern move to reduce the human to a wholly immanent horizon of reference, focused on the self-interested pursuit of material goals, characterizes libertarianism, and various non-religious forms of anarchism, socialism, and liberalism, as well as many other modern philosophies. These are anthropocentric forms of humanism that have made humans the sole measure of everything.

And also, that

A humanism that is cut off from a transcendent reference point, without a non-material telos or end, is inherently self-contradictory and destructive. You start with efforts to create a Soviet Man and you end up with the gulags. You start with the efforts to create a German Fatherland and you end up with the Holocaust.

All of which is true, because not all secular ideologies are humanist. Did you notice, though, that none of these constructions precludes secularism in its entirety? Just certain anthropocentric models, non-religiosity that lacks a transcendent end.

More importantly, though, is that this baseline criticism of non-transcendent ideologies also extends to Christianities that Bretherton feels make the same mistake. One story of Christianity in particular, “West to the Rest”, merits particular attention. In it, Bretherton outlines a notion of Western exceptionalism, a centering of “European man as the measure of what it means to be human”, that creates

a need to defend Christianity, not in the name of defending the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but in the name of defending Europeanness as the height of humanity over and against what is seen as decadent or anti-Christian elements within. And then there’s a felt need to defend this “Christianity” from that which would overcome it from without—that could be Islam, communism, China, or whatever it is.

You see this exemplified in something like Action Française, which was a movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century and really flowered in the early twentieth, and then fed into the support of the Vichy regime in France in the Second World War, which obviously collaborated with the Nazis and was itself fascist. The leaders of Action Française were not Christian, but they viewed Christianity as a vital cultural anchor to securing the glory of France as a civilization. They claimed to defend family, faith, and flag against the secularizing, liberal, communist, and other forces that were seen to threaten the “greatness” of France. In short, they wanted to make France great again.

And from there? Brooks and Bretherton talk openly, and with strong agreement, about the concerning rise of US Christian nationalism today.

So, no, I don’t agree with everything Bretherton says. His interview grants no recognition to the many forms of secular humanism that pursue a more expansively empowered humanity, and he omits the many forms of secular activism that absolutely have a “place for the fragility and frailty of what it means to be human … [and] for the centrality of mutual care and bearing each other’s burdens.”

But the work he’s doing here isn’t about catering to secular humanists like me. (We’re fine. Again, we don’t need middlemen to understand the importance of being present.) Rather, it’s about reaching a body of Christians who might find themselves consumed, especially in this moment in US politics, in a truly anti-humanist approach to the world. People even like Brooks, who at least had the self-awareness here to acknowledge that his idea of “growing in Christ” was a fixation on “beatitudinal, perfect stuff”, and that he’d do well to consider a faith practice that involves living, working, and learning alongside more of his fellow human beings.

Which is a part of big-tent humanism we could all stand to improve upon: knowing where our struggle is, and showing up to do our part within it.

Because it’s so easy to spend our lives picking on the failings in others’ beliefs.

And yet the world is filled with crises that require our presence with one another right now—today!—with whatever cosmologies we currently hold. In climate change. In war. In disease. Amid rising inflation rates and attendant economic crises. Through the slings and arrows of hate-mongering politics and retributive justices.

We can intellectualize each others’ failed stories until the cows come home. (And even after. Who knows? They might be entertained by all our chatter!)

But the humanists among us know that we have to do better.

And will

By building better stories even from flawed precedents, and sharing them instead.


Parable of the humanist sowers

A sower went forth to sow, as in days of old—but the field was much bigger now, with enough space to nurture eight billion, at least, if nothing went awry.

Except that something always went awry, for the sower had never been good at scattering seed only where it would flourish.

Yet in recognizing their imperfection, the sower was fortified against the worst of it.

So the sower called upon their neighbors for aid. They weren’t all equally seasoned in the work, but everyone who showed up saw the benefit of pitching in.

And the sower started teaching what they knew, though there was much to consider: what to do if the ground was stony, what to do if there were thorns, what to do if seed fell to the wayside. So many good questions and ideas from all the other sowers!

Soon the first sower stopped teaching long enough to listen, and to invite others to share in the teaching, too.

Together, the sowers made many plans to limit loss. To improve the soil where they could. To make the seed more resilient wherever possible. To refine and share tools along the way. And they would not stop at sowing, either—rather, they would stay and protect their growing crops from every conceivable thief, malady, and storm.

The sowers did not always agree, of course. Each came from a different land and custom. Each saw the field, the seed, and other sowers from different points of view.

Sometimes disagreements mounted. Sometimes the sowers wasted seed and damaged soil in quarrels, while other grand ideas simply failed on follow-through.

And yet, they learned from their mistakes—if only long enough to make new ones. For none of them were perfect, and yet, with fuller awareness of all their failings, they stood better prepared each and every season, to mitigate the very worst.

So it went on between these many sowers, and so it keeps on going now: for the field keeps growing, and the number of sowers keeps on growing, too.

But whenever a sower wearies, and lifts their gaze from the local plot, what do you think they see, that then strengthens their resolve?

Fine and robust crops? Maybe.

Desolate patches with meager fruits? Perhaps.

Yet always their fellow sowers. Always their neighbors upon the field.

Each planting in their own way—and not just seeds in the ground. Also, the germ of an extraordinary idea, a revolutionary idea:

That by doing this together, come what may, they’d already reaped a better world.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.