Religion and humanities: `believing that we may understand'

WE must not overlook religion's great effect on the course of the historical evolution of the United States. From our beginnings, from the likes of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards to 20-century civil rights clergy and televangelists, deep faith has very much moved historical mountains. Nor can we understand earlier periods of European history if we minimize or gloss over Christianity's many-sided effects and influences upon people, values, and institutions. It may be salutary to recall St. Anselm's famous epigram from the dawn of scholasticism, about 1100: ``I believe in order that I may understand.'' That was the harbinger of a constructive if often controversial amalgam of reason and faith which was to be one of Western Christendom's most distinctive characteristics.

Such were my thoughts on reading Judge W. Brevard Hand's pronouncement favoring the plaintiffs in the recent Alabama textbook case, in which his chief criterion was to order their removal from classrooms because they promoted secular humanism. To him these books are on the cutting edge of a religion; presumably, this violates constitutional traditions of church-state separation as well as neglecting our Judeo-Christian heritage.

Opponents of secular humanism see it as a human-centered religion with little or no reference to God. What is it in fact? Did it ever, does it now, exist? It is useful to summarize it historically.

Humanism, secular or not, was part and parcel of the Italian Renaissance; it begins with the work of Petrarch, (1304-74), first of a series of great Renaissance men, mainly Florentines, who so spectacularly symbolized the movement. Medieval scholastics certainly knew and applied some of the classics, but Petrarch and subsequent humanists argued with growing validity and success that their predecessors had distorted them in the course of adapting them to Christianity. Humanists, therefore, literally scrubbed medieval overlays from Greek and Roman works to arrive at their true meanings.

To do this they learned the original languages of antiquity; only thus, they believed fervently, could they correctly apply the ancients' presumably superior ideas to their own lives and communities. In so revitalizing the thoughts of a Cicero and a Plato the humanists also virtually retrieved the ancient belief in the well-rounded citizen - that is to say, through the liberal arts and general education.

Very early on many humanists emphasized human potential through, in great part, such an education. By the later 15th century the Renaissance had moved north and west from Italy, just as it had spread from Florence to other Italian cities earlier. In so spreading, it became Christian humanism, adding Hebrew to classical Greek and Latin as its linguistic platform.

These northerners were attracted to humanist approaches in the belief that they could significantly assist them in correcting Christianity's fundamental canon: the Old and New Testaments and the letters, essays, and books of the church fathers. Only through purifying the documents of the faith and removing from them their medievalisms could the essence of true Christianity shine forth. Then, as Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536), the ``prince of Christian humanists,'' argued, the ``philosophy of Christ'' could be brought to bear gradually, furthered by a better-educated clergy and laity with an ethic of morality based upon the Sermon on the Mount.

For all the differences, I see a broad similarity between past and present as moderns confront essentially the same issue: the dialogue among the faithful over the effects of information and interpretation on religion.

Christian humanists did not repudiate the church's ceremonial and ritualistic elements, but they stressed the spiritual based on a true understanding of Christianity's foundations. To achieve such a Christianity they appealed for support from Christian rulers. Furthermore, most early Protestants, while they had their differences and rejected the Christian humanists' Catholicism and seeming overvaluation of man in some respects, adapted their emphasis on education much along humanist lines for laity and clergy alike. This is of particular relevance for today's evangelicals as they consider these issues.

Many humanists, from Petrarch on, struggled with the temptation of scholarship - and success - in relation to their faith. In ``Petrarch's Secret'' the great poet-scholar debated the issue with an imaginary St. Augustine, greatest of the church fathers, who had himself faced like challenges nearly a millennium before. Was a preoccupation with the pagan classics dangerous to Christians? Or was it an enhancement of religion for both scholastics and humanists?

For all the differences, I see a broad similarity between past and present as moderns confront essentially the same issue: the dialogue among the faithful over the effects of information and interpretation on religion.

Just as the men of the scientific revolution saw themselves as revealing God's handiwork through an understanding of nature, so, too, in their way, did the humanists. That is best represented by Pico della Mirandola's ``Oration on the Dignity of Man'' (1486), in which he viewed man reflecting God's glory; shortly thereafter he joined the circle around the Dominican monk Savonarola, who was to establish an evangelical dictatorship over Florence, the very seat of the Italian Renaissance during the mid-1490s. The rough resemblance to Ayatollah Khomeini scarcely requires comment.

Clearly the term secular humanism is historically inaccurate and has virtually no contemporary validity, either. True, the deists of the 17th and 18th centuries, inspired by the achievements of the scientific revolution, dismissed revealed religion. They believed that after creating the universe according to the kinds of natural laws elaborated by the scientists, God retired from direct involvement in its affairs. But deism cannot be considered a religion in my judgment; it was a religious position.

Historically, much of humanism was in Christianity's service, and secular humanism is not a religion merely because one judge proclaims it to be one. I rest my case.

Paul J. Hauben is a professor and chairman of the history department at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, Calif.

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