Tuesday, July 21

How does a Christian differentiate himself from a Liberal Humanist?

A growing number of people today identify themselves as liberal humanists embracing an atheistic attitude to life to find how people can live a good life together. 
That means they are atheists in the positive sense since they do not accuse theists for their belief. Liberal Humanist differentiate themselves from the Humanists of European cultural history such as Erasmus and Thomas Moor. They also refuse to align themselves to the various religious or literary humanist groups.  
So simply put liberal humanism, for the purpose of this paper, is an atheistic attitude to life to find out how people can live a good life together. So the question is "How is the endeavour or practice of a Christian to live a good life different from that of a Humanist."?

This may sound an irrelevant question, but it is an important one, as humanism becomes more wide spread. The question arises what Christ told us which stands out from all other philosophies, i.e. humanism.  Of course, faith and the belief in an afterlife are dominant themes but then we can ask how that affects “living a good life” and how is this different to the philosophy of the humanist.

The problem in answering such a question is that all the emphasis in Christianity centres on belief, which is assumed will lead to better outcomes.  But what I propose to do is to examine the early roots of Christianity and their application in modernity to ascertain significant differences to that of the liberal Humanist.  

Christ behind the whitewash of Nicea in AD 325

The problem with elucidating what Christ intended for us as a way to live the good life possibly met its nemesis at Nicea in AD 325. Up until then that question was possibly much more of a hot debate until political consensus was achieved in Nicea. Up until that point there was evidence of flourishing and warring communities as evolving Christianity spread out into the world but not much is known by way of specifics as to how they embraced the teachings of Christ for everyday living.  

At Nicea there was possibly well over 200 bishops in attendance at Constantine’s request for the express purpose of negotiating peace and unity amongst the then disparate groups of Christians. The result was the Nicean Creed and later on adoption of the books that make up the New Testament in 380AD.

Hence our view today of what Jesus said is hidden in the politics and consensus selection that adopted certain texts to be made available in the NT. Even so in the much earlier writings of the apostle St Paul and those attributed to his followers, (which make up nearly half of the New Testament) we have a good idea of how the first early fledgling communities interpreted and applied Christs teaching to living the good life.

Freedom to live life to the fullest  
Paul remains an enigmatically unique character – virtually unknown in a historical sense other than to be remembered in Jewish disagreements amongst followers, but one who professes to be willing to understand all things and become ‘as one’ to all men to further the cause of being “in Christ” which arose from his mystical experience on the road to Damascus. This factor has led many to interpret his work in a more complicated manner than is needed, which I assess to be primarily devoted to championing a freedom from the Jewish law and to shake off shackles of religious ritual. 

Although much has been made of the abstract nature of Pauline theology as a bridge from the more individualistic Judaism into Christianity (with the idea of justification by faith) I rather think the stronger case can be made his primary aim is to champion the new found freedom from the Jewish law.   
In that respect (e.g. as one who has gained a universal freedom) one might say he has something in common with liberal humanism except his freedom to live the good life is rooted in surrender to a mystical master, as in “being in Christ” whereas to  the humanist such freedom is already assumed.

Hence St Paul is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all things and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things.

These rather lofty ideals may be seen also as the province of the humanist, who might argue that existential philosophy does not require any of Paul’s preoccupation with the idea of “bring in Christ” as being implied or necessary to be fulfilled.
The problem, of course, is that in Paul’s communities, it is evident that many fell well short of achieving such lofty ideas. But Paul also acknowledges our humanity and the imperfect cradle of existence which will continue to see communities struggle to straddle the idealism that is encapsulated in their new understanding and freedom from their law only to fall prey to the usual earthly failings.

Paul sends his letters of encouragement and hope in the expectation that the experience of freedom from the law will bring joy to existential living to transcend earthly suffering and sorrow.  This possibly is the key difference to humanism in that the spark of Christs teaching as interpreted by Paul as in the “resurrected Christ” enables one to live to the fullest regardless of circumstance compared to just rational reasoning selected by the liberal humanists. It is hard to see how , being chained to just rational thought can sustain one during the more difficult periods of one life or ensure one continues to find meaning.

That might mean a form of surrender of one’s reliance on the rational to a contemplative state of trust in something bigger- the mystical union in Christ that is of comfort to many which makes the good life more amenable.   
The Gospels and parables as an example of good living.

In the synoptic gospels Jesus is mostly made known to us via the parables and entwined as a charismatic apocalyptic preacher in the story of his public ministry.  Hence the ongoing theme is largely eschatological with continued references to a messianic kingdom yet to come. But what Jesus does leave us with is the idea of a universal ethic of love, some definitive ideas on living as described in the Sermon on the Mount and food for thought in regard to the parables, which continue to offer many different interpretative outcomes.
The key point of difference to the liberal humanist then is more to do with functionality as Christianity places more emphasis on contemplation and renewal in the spiritual sense from reading theses passages. Hence the Christian might be persuaded of the need to give expression to those surviving religious instincts which lie deep within us in contemplation of the parables and how best to be a server in the vineyard. In other words to give expression to vitality for life, both individually and collectively accepting we need not all be slaves within one ideology but to find comfort in the ideals of Christianity. 

Acknowledging the prior input and review by my good friend Dr John Stuyfbergen who is an academic/lecturer at La Trobe University. 

  You can read his article on multiculturalism by clicking here http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=25577#.Va8ixPmqqkq


Tom said...

Hi Lindsay,

A lengthy piece which deserves more attention than I am able to give. That I am not able to do so is not that I do not have time, but rather that I do not have the knowledge readily available. Thus it is that I think I see where you are going here (what you say is familiar), but I wonder whether or not my understanding tallies with your words.

For example, I would agree that one of the key aspects of true Christianity, and an aspect which needs to be revived, is an emphasis on contemplation rather than on meditation on the parables, or anything else come to that. However, I then must ask whether it is valid to separate Christianity from any other religious form of mysticism, or even an irreligious form. What concerns me here is the differentiation between Christianity and any other '-ism'. Why would one wish to set up and give life to such a duality? (or poly-ality?)

I would suspect that a Christian is well aware of what it means to be a Christian. I further suspect that 'outsiders' might well have some sort of grasp of that awareness, whilst at the same time having no idea about liberal humanism, and that group would include me. I further suspect that the need to be separate from the other, opposing(?), group might well be a characteristic of liberal humanism rather than Christianity, unless of course the ego of the Christian set feels under threat!

Re-reading the title of your interesting script, "How does a Christian differentiate himself from a Liberal Humanist?" leads me to ask why a Christian needs to differentiate himself in that way. Is there not the risk that in so doing he also differentiates between himself and his God, or ultimate reality, and thus sinks further into unreality?

A good read, Lindsay!

susan said...

My experience of spirituality over the past decades has guided me into a kind of refined personal practice. If pushed to do so I guess I'd have to call myself a Buddhist Sufi Christian, and that's just for starters. What I can't imagine is living with the firm conviction there is no God or whatever one might call the Ultimate Truth or Being. Atheism has never made sense to me although I do understand that many people profess that disbelief.

Your description of Paul's teaching about how to live a good life as a liberal humanist makes a lot of sense. Thanks for this valuable essay, Lindsay.

Best wishes

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom
Thanks for your input and I think you’re largely in tune with the post. I don’t think we need to separate Christianity from any other religious form of mysticism, or even an irreligious form, except to the extent it is centred on a mystical Christ unity or affinity. I think that affinity will arise from our cultural roots and living environment. Hence it is not so much a duality but more matter of a natural inclination. Raised in India I would probably be a Hindu, but with strong roots pertaining to that religion.
It is true a Christian is well aware of what it means to be a Christian, but mostly predicated on what is believed.
Hence I think it is important to identify how a Christian differentiates himself to live the good life, e.g. to live life to the fullest. The conclusion is Christianity offers practical strength in day to day living as a consequence of that mystical union.
Hence the application of that mystical union realises both our vulnerability and our trust in the unknown which provides comforts and the spark for life. That is very much the reality of our life, privileged as we are to share this tiny spot in this vast majestic universes. The spark ignites the good work of the liberal atheist as well except he is hell bent on denying at any point any influence other than that that arises from rational thought.
Please feel free or come back and make any further comments.
Best wishes

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan
Thanks for your input. I understand that if one converts to other faiths such as Buddhism, it doesn’t mean you have to turn off the cultural and Christian connections under which one is raised.
Best wishes

Tom said...

Hullo Again Lindsay,

I'm sure we would agree that one does not need to be a Christian "to live a good life together." Therefore Christianity has (or should have) something extra to offer, as do the other world religions. The difficulty, if difficulty there is, lies in the interpretation of Christianity as against what Jesus the Christ actually taught, as far as we are able to discern that teaching. Thus although the teachings of the Christ seem to have a more Eastern flavour than we may give credit for, they have been handed down to us through a religion that has been given a particular Western/Greek interpretation.

Much emphasis has been placed on how we live "one with another", and all the morality and so on that has become attached. In short Christianity has become a social contract without much (or any in some quarters) mystical or contemplation content. The accent on the inner life has given way to over-riding considerations of the outer life. In short, Christianity has become, and may well have always been, a religion of the Ego. In that regard there is little to differentiate between Christianity and Liberal Humanism. It is, I believe, the added dimension of mystical contemplation that differentiates between the two systems of belief. And of course that added dimension is shared with Sufism, the Kabalah, and the esoteric aspects of the other world religions.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom
Indeed such a thoughtful and yet (to me anyway) such a valid point of view I can only respond by saying AMEN. It ignites in me the sincere yet earnest hope you will resume your thought-provoking posts at Gwynt for ALAS I no longer have the privilege of reading them.
All I can say is may that same spark of freedom in thought that thousands of years ago inspired so much debate (of which as you say we have only the European/ Grecian world view) may summarily reignite a few posts from Gwynt.
Best wishes

Rachael said...

Thanks for this contemplative piece! I enjoyed reading it.