Once we’ve denounced the balderdash that all too often passes for teaching in contemporary American colleges, there still remains the question of what we ought to teach instead. Indignation is an insufficient alternative to the brutal secularization of the college curriculum. But some conservative commentators, after narrating all the outrageous anecdotes, seem baffled for a positive program of cultural education, and others even seem positively anticultural—as though willing to admit that the ideologies of the secularists are what constitute the humanities.
The opposite is, of course, the actual case: the humanities were born of (and, by right, still belong to) a Christian religious tradition. They have always had as their goal the reconciliation between human solidarity on the one hand and the dignity of individual, concrete persons, situations, and facts on the other. The possibility of religious transcendence was “always already” (to speak with the deconstructionists) part of the whole project.
This is why we urgently need college courses today on Christian humanism. Some students will undoubtedly mistrust the humanism of such classes, and many more will mistrust their Christianity. But Christian humanism is properly nothing but a reclaiming of the basic inheritance of our history and the natural connection of culture with the religious vistas of the human being. The current separation is the artificial relation, not the other way around. My own suggestions for a syllabus of Christian humanism are certainly not cast in stone. I mean them more as a spur to further reflection than as a map. I, for one, would try to tell my students most of the following.
What came to be called “Christian humanism” is rooted primarily in the Gospels of Luke and John. The Lucan text is addressed to a more cultivated public than the other synoptic gospels; the Johannine Gospel, too, is a highly intellectual text, combining the spiritual, symbolic, and factual. Once it became apparent that the Second Coming was not as near as many early Christians had supposed, it became imperative for Christians to construct a framework for handling the world and its culture, and it was primarily to these Gospels that they turned.
The rudiments of the consequent Christian philosophy, theology, and art were already in place by the late third century: Christians could boast of Origen, for instance, a powerful intellect by any standard. But many Mediterranean intellectuals nonetheless feared that Christianity would endanger the aesthetic amenities and social balances that had been assured by Roman religion, and it is as though the entire Christian world collectively decided to meet its adversaries on their own ground. We witness between the years 350 and 450 an extraordinary explosion of Christian intellectual achievement. While Jerome was translating the Bible into Latin, Athanasius was helping formulate the Profession of Faith, and the first great Church orator, John Chrysostom, was preaching. Toward the end of this century Augustine began to acquire his reputation, while in Milan Ambrose displayed his extraordinary combination of managerial power and spiritual depth. I would have my own students pay special attention to the Cappadocians—Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa—because, more than anyone else, they engaged their polytheistic rivals on their own terrain by appropriating Neoplatonism (the “Summa” of the Ancients, so to speak) and Christianizing it.
This appropriation of Neoplatonism, culminating with the Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, allowed Christian thinkers to incorporate into their thought such Neoplatonic features as the primacy of beauty and the metaphysics of descent and ascent, and thereby to lay the philosophical foundations of nearly all future Christian humanism. But the pattern of appropriation is what I would want my students to notice most, for it is the typical and fundamental gesture of Christian humanism: to respond to the world by taking it over, by embracing it, by showing that no beauty, intelligence, or goodness is alien to Christianity or incompatible with it.
The Middle Ages brought about a great flowering of Christian culture: the cathedrals and the philosophical systems (especially in Thomas Aquinas), as well as Christianity’s development of social structures. One German scholar, Gerhard Nebel, speaks of the kairos of Christian art: the moment of nearest approach between the divine and the artistic, when simultaneously the Romanesque style appeared in the West and the art of the icon appeared in the East. Christian humanism remained vivid, in Albertus Magnus’ encyclopedic mind, for instance, or in the formidable figure of Hildegard of Bingen. I would wish my students to see at least two movements of the Middle Ages—that of the great mystics and that of the Franciscans—as exemplifying Christian humanism in several important features. The mystics (many of them women) brought together the sentimental and the rational in extraordinary ways, while the Franciscans, and Bonaventure in particular, brought to high medieval culture their love of nature and the beautiful.
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.
It would be idle to deny the crisis of Christianity in the twentieth century. But I could not allow my students to overlook the enormous resurgence of original intellectual thought and artistic creativity associated with Romano Guardini, Joseph Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Henry Bremond, Jean Danielou, Lubac, Lonergan, Rahner, Claudel, Peguy, Chesterton, Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy on the Catholic side. Or with Eliot, Auden, C. S. Lewis, Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Vladimir Solovyov, Lossky, and Bulgakov, not to mention Unamuno, Simone Weil, Berdyaev, and Leo Chestov—and these are only a small number among those connected closely with the continuing tradition of Christian humanism. I think, however, that I would concentrate my students’ gaze on Hans Urs von Balthasar. His work offers a kind of summa of this revival of Christian humanism, for he tried to bring together the insights of most of these thinkers. Balthasar provided historical outlines of the Catholic tradition in culture, and he strove toward erecting an explanatory system for ordering the rather individualistic views of many of his predecessors. Significantly, his system resorted to the aesthetic, dramatic, and symphonic to communicate a tentative synthesis of Christian humanism.
For the Christian humanists, culture is a kind of tumbling ground for the spiritual, the social, the historical, and the psychological. Culture mediates in some important way between the creaturely and the divine, and aesthetics is the attempt to articulate the opening toward transcendence. If God is seen as primarily the Creator, then the fullest imitation of God must be in creative activity. One purpose of my course in Christian humanism would be to introduce my students to a fundamental strand of Western intellectual history. But a greater purpose would be to reveal to them—and to allow them to discover in themselves—the foundation of all humanism on the insights of Christian faith.
Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature at the Catholic University of America.