On Humanism

Ne 07 března 2021

I have heard today yet another sermon where the preacher fought against the great evil of humanism (fortunately, this was a tangential comment, the main point of sermon was something else and it was very good). It irked me again as it does anytime (most often) American protestant pastor fights against the evils of humanism. Two reasons:

  1. Calling humanism evil is just using wrong label, the label which means a lot of very good things. Humanism was very strange combination of things which very good and some which were very bad, but making it sound all bad is just great disservice to many things which I hold dear. Humanism means the beginning of the rationalist tradition of modern Europe, it means great movement ad fontes which gave us the modern translations of Bible, modern Biblical hermeneutics, Reformation, revival of the doctrine of the Incarnation, sons of humanism were all great Reformers of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Czech brethren, Jan Ámos Komenský. Yes, it also meant an unsuccessful Florentine revival of the Greek paganism, first weak attempts of atheism, but still I don’t think it was that unequivocally bad.

    Even if the author of such claim admits that it was just a sloppy using of the term humanism for just its modern version, still I am not persuaded I can take this modern humanism as unequivocally evil. I gave today to my Mum as a gift a book “Skoro modlitby” (Almost prayers), a collection of quotations from the books of Karel Čapek, who is one of the most fundamental representative of the Czech humanist tradition (together with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, our first President, whose one of the most fundamental books is “Ideály humanitní” (Ideals of humanity)). Again, I am not completely persuaded about this tradition, there is a lot in it, which is not great, but older I am getting more I am returning to some of its aspects: stress on “práce drobná” (small acts of work, which is usually more important than a great showy accomplishment), humility, patience with us and with others. Again, I cannot say this humanism is the root of all evil of the modern world.

  2. And yet, if we even mention that it is just a wrong label for something which is truly evil, I still don’t know what we are talking about. Whenever I ask what actually is that humanism, which is so evil, I am pointed towards anthropocentrism and statement by the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things”. Wikipedia claims that Plato interpreted it (in the Socratic dialogue named after Protagoras himself) as there is no objective truth.

    First, I have no idea what does it have to do with Erasmus of Rotterdam, Lorenzo Valla, or Karel Čapek.

    Second, and what’s much more important, I still don’t understand how the obscure Socratic dialogue has anything to do with the pains of the current world, and especially what should I do to overcome its ultra-evil influence. The word “humanism” is so incredibly vague, that I really don’t know what specifically I should be worried about, what should I avoid. The term sounds more than useful label for something specific as a shibolet, public declaration of membership in the community, with no meaning whatsoever. “I am a good guy, because I declare my opposition to humanism, whatever it means”.

    What exactly I am supposed to do, or not to do? Would that preacher take the time and make one sermon specifically explaining what exactly he/she means under this term?

Category: faith Tagged: Christianity