CHRISTIANITY AND THE HUMANIST TRADITION
by Christopher Dawson
The present age has seen a great slump in humanist values. After
dominating Western culture for four centuries humanism today is on the
retreat on all fronts, and it seems as though the world is moving in the
direction of a non-humanist and even an anti-humanist form of culture.
This tendency is most clearly visible in the totalitarian states. In the
world of concentration camps and mass purges and total war, there is no
room for humanist values, and it is difficult to realize that they have
ever existed. Man is a means and not an end, and he is a means to
economic or political ends which are not really ends in themselves but
means to other ends which in their turn are means and so ad infinitum.
Man who raised himself above nature and became lord of the world has
become reabsorbed into the endless cycle of material change as the blind
servant of the economic process of production and consumption.
But even outside the totalitarian state in the democratic world the
situation of humanism has become precarious in spite of our insistence on
political liberty and our Charters of Human Rights. Here also man has
become the servant of the process of economic production, in spite, and
partly because of, the increase of wealth and material prosperity. And the
advance of technology and scientific specialism has steadily reduced the
prestige and influence of humanism in education.
At the same time Western culture has lost its faith in Man. All the
old idealism and, above all, humanist idealism have become discredited,
and there has been amarked tendency in Western literature and art--in
America no less than in Europe--towards irrationalism, primitivism and the
rejection of all the humanist values.
What is the attitude of Christians towards this anti-humanist
tendency? Clearly there are certain values which are common to
Christianity and humanism, and to a considerable extent the enemies of
humanism are also the enemies of Christianity. On the other hand, there
is no doubt that the anti-humanist reaction has affected Christians as
well as non-Christians, and in some cases Christians have joined in the
attack on humanism and have welcomed its downfall.
THE NEO-CALVINISM OF KARL BARTH
The most striking example of this is to be seen in the neo-Calvinist
movement of Karl Barth and his school which reasserts the traditional
Protestant doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. No doubt
these theologians are primarily concerned with Liberal Protestantism
rather than with humanism, but since they go further than Calvin himself
in their denial of human values, the values of humanism must go down the
drain with the rest.
But the Christian reaction against humanism is not confined to the
Barthians. It has become so contagious that it is now often taken for
granted by public opinion. For example, I recently read an article in the
New Statesman by a well-known historian on Professor Butterfield's book,
"Christianity and Social Relations," in which the writer criticizes
Professor Butterfield's rejection of moral judgment in history. And he
The explanation is not far to seek. Christianity and humanism
are incompatible. Mr. Butterfield believes in God, therefore he
does not believe in man. He holds, no doubt correctly, that
only Christians can be judged according to the rules of
Christianity; and so he does not judge others at all. He does
not discriminate among unregenerate mankind: or rather the only
judgment he makes is that some men are cleverer than others.
No doubt this is a somewhat extreme view and there are still plenty
of Christians who are prepared to defend the humanist position. Notably,
there is M. Jacques Maritain who has written a well-known book in defence
of the ideal of Christian humanism. But when Maritain talks about
humanism he is clearly using the word in a very different sense from that
of Professor Butterfield and his reviewer. So before discussing the
problem it isessential to clarify our ideas and to define the real nature
of humanism. For "humanism" is one of those words like "democracy" that
has been used so loosely during the last fifty years that it can mean
almost anything. If we neglect this task of definition and begin talking
about Integral Humanism or Scientific Humanism or any of the other rival
forms of humanist theory, we are apt to become involved in a fog of
ideological controversy which has little relation to any historical
Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a
philosophy or a religion. It belongs to the sphere of education, not to
that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involved certain moral
values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not
to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral
doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that *humanism is a
tradition of culture and founded on the study of humane letters.*
At first sight this does not carry us very far. It will not satisfy
the philosophers like Maritain who says that "whoever uses the word
[humanism] brings into play at once an entire metaphysic." Nevertheless it
is, for all that, the authentic humanism of the humanists--the historic
movement that has perhaps done more than anything else to establish the
norms of modern European culture during the three centuries between the
Renaissance and the Revolution.
Thus although the definition appears to reduce humanism from a
philosophy to a form of education, it was a form of education which formed
the mind of Western Europe for more than 300 years without distinction of
philosophy or creed. Whatever we may think about the relations between
Christianity and humanism as a philosophy or metaphysic there can be no
question or conflict between the tradition of humanist education and the
tradition of theological orthodoxy. For the humanist education was also
the education of the theologians. It was practically the only education
that Europe knew, and it was common to all parties and all creeds with a
few insignificant exceptions.
This is not to say that the humanist culture of the post Reformation
world was one and the same in every part of Europe. Religious differences
had an important influence on its development, so that although Catholics
and Protestants were both alike influenced by their humanist education, it
produced different fruits in art and culture and life in the different
BAROQUE CULTURE OF THE SOUTH
In the South the union of humanism and Catholicism gave birth to the
Baroque culture which was the dominant form of European culture in the
first half of the seventeenth century and which maintained its influence
in Austria and Germany and Spain and South America far into the eighteenth
In the North the unity of the Protestant culture is less obvious
owing to the absence of religious unity as between the Lutherans and the
Calvanists. Nevertheless the influence of humanism on the culture of
Northern Europe is no less important than in the South, and it contributed
no less than Protestantism to the formation of the new bourgeois culture
in Holland and England and Scotland which was destined to have such an
immense influence on the future of Western civilization.
Nevertheless Protestant culture was by no means completely humanist.
The educated classes had all undergone the discipline of a humanist
education, but they derived their ethical ideals both from the
philosophers and the humanists but directly from the Bible and above all
from the Old Testament. This element of Hebraism was strongest among the
Puritans who have often been regarded, e.g., by Matthew Arnold, as
responsible for the anti-humanist or Philistine character of the culture
of the middle classes in England and America. But the popular conception
of the Puritan as an illiterate Philistine is a gross caricature. Both in
England and New England the Puritans were very much alive to the value of
humane letters and humanist culture, and some of the most remarkable types
of Christian humanism in England are to be found among the chaplains of
Oliver Cromwell like Peter Sterry and John Goodwin and Jeremy White.
It was rather in the Protestant underworld -- among the lesser sects
which kept alive the traditions of medieval heresy--that the anti-humanist
element was strongest, and though these sects seldom emerged into the
light of history, they nevertheless had a considerable influence on the
religion and life of the English-speaking world. They survive today above
all in the United States, in the Corybantic excesses of Protestant
revivalism and in the obscurantism of traditional sectarianism.
These extravagances are very remote from the authentic Puritan
tradition. Nevertheless, we must admit that in Puritanism as a whole
apart from the small group of Puritan humanists above whom I have
mentioned, thereis a hard core of unassimilated Hebraism which, even in a
man like Milton, produced a sharp dualism between religion and culture and
led him to use his mastery of the humanist style against the humanist
tradition itself, as in his denunciation of classical literature and
philosophy in the fourth book of "Paradise Regained."
It was this dualism of religion and culture which prevented the
development of religious drama and religious art in seventeenth-century
England and destroyed the medieval unity of religion and social life.
In Catholic Europe it was not so. The Baroque culture was far more
deeply penetrated by humanist influences than the culture of the
Protestant world,since they were not confined to the scholars and the men
of letters, but affected the life of the people as a whole through
religious art and music and drama which continued to play the same part in
the Baroque world that they had performed in the Middle Ages.
Thus there was not that same sharp division or antagonism between
religion and culture that we find in Northern Europe. For instance, the
drama, instead of being banned by the Church, was used deliberately as a
means of popular religious instruction, so that in Spain religious and
secular dramas were composed by the same authors, performed by the same
actors, and applauded by the same audiences. In the same way, there was
no sharp dualism in Catholic Europe between humanist and Christian ethics.
The synthesis between Christian and Aristotelian ethics which was perhaps
the most important of the achievements of St. Thomas remained the basis of
the Catholic teaching and it provided an ideal foundation for the
construction of a Christian humanism which could integrate the moral
values of the humanist tradition with the super-naturalism of Christian
It may be objected that by bringing in Thomism, I am doing just what
I objected to do in the ideologists of humanism. But apart from the fact
that Aristotle and Plato have always been included in the study of humane
letters, the "Nicomachaen Ethics" embody the essential principles of
humanist ethics and have an incomparable importance in the history of
We must remember that "the study of humane letters" was never
confined to literature and philology. It was understood in the widest
possible sense, as including the whole realm of classical culture. Thus
the tradition of humanism takes us back eventually to the tradition of
Hellenism which was the real source alike of the humanist values and of
the humanist system of education.
Consequently humanism represents something much wider than the
movement with which the name is primarily associated--I mean than the
Renaissance of classical studies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
It stands for a continuous tradition which accompanies thewhole course of
Western culture from its beginnings in ancient Greece down to modern
times. In some ages it has been weakened and obscured, and these are what
the humanists called Dark Ages. But as E.R. Curtius has recently shown in
his great book on European literature and the Latin Middle Ages, the
continuity is much greater than is generally realized; and though the
Italian scholars of the Renaissance were the first to be known as
humanists, we have no right to deny the title to John of Salisbury and the
scholars of Chartres in the twelfth century or even to some of the
Carolingian scholars in the ninth century, like Theodulf of Orleans and
Walafrid Strabo. It is this continuous tradition that makes the unity of
European literature and European thought, so that, as E.R. Curtius
insists, it is hopeless to try to study any of the modern European
literatures as though it were an autonomous whole, since they all form
part of a greater unity and are only fully intelligible when they are
related to the common tradition of Western humanism.
And the same can be said about the different European cultures.
Culture does not arise spontaneously from the soil, it is an artificial
growth which has been diffused from its original source in the Eastern
Mediterranean by a complex process of transplantation and has been
gradually made to bear fruit in a new soil by a long process of careful
cultivation. Drama and prose are like the vine and the olive, and they
are derived from the same homelands. The difference is that they have
spread farther and changed more.
THE MISTAKE OF THE HUMANISTS
This, however, is only one side of Western culture. The mistake of
the humanists of the Renaissance and the men of the eighteenth century,
and to some extent of modern scholars, is that they have regarded the
humanist tradition as the only creative and formative element in Western
culture and have shut their eyes to the existence of other elements or
else have condemned everything else as barbaric, irrational and inhuman.
In reality there is another tradition which is even more important then
humanism in the development of European culture--the Christian tradition.
This, like the tradition of humanism, has come into Western Europe from
outside and has become acclimatized and assimilated by a thousand years of
spiritual labour. It is a more recent importation than the other, but on
the other hand it has gone much deeper, since it has not been limited to
the educated and leisured classes, but has penetrated to the roots of
society--to the peasants--and has deeply influenced the life and thought
of the common people.
First as rivals, then as mistress and servant, then as rivals again,
but sometimes as friends and coadjutors, these two great traditions have
together been the conscious spiritual and intellectual sources of Western
Today both of them are threatened, and threatened on the whole by the
same enemies, but both still exist, and as long as they exist Europe still
Nevertheless this situation does not necessarily lead to a closer
understanding and cooperation between Christians and humanists. There are
many Christians who take an extremely pessimistic view of the prospects of
Western culture. They believe that Europe is done for and that the future
of Christianity lies elsewhere. As Canon Vidler has written:
"Generally speaking, Christians see the European breakdown as
the culmination and disintegration of the tremendous experiment
that began at the Renaissance. That is, the experiment of
European man to build a civilization with himself at the center
and independently of God and his sovereign rule." "Secular
Despair and Christian Faith," p. 82.
From this point of view there can be no question of an alliance
between Christianity and Humanism, or rather the de facto alliance that
does in some sort exist is a compromising one from which Christians must
disentangle themselves as quickly and as completely as possible. And yet
this process of disentanglement is not so simple as it seems at first
sight. After 1800 years of intercourse there has been so much mutual
interpenetration that all kinds of patterns of thought and behavior have
been formed which have become a second nature to us, and the average
Christian does not realize how much his moral outlook is conditioned by
THE ORIGINS OF HUMANITARIANISM
Take the case of humanitarianism. No doubt humanitarianism is on the
decline in the modern world, but it is still strong and nowhere is it
stronger than among English and American Christians. Yet humanitarianism
is not a purely Christian movement any more than it is a purely humanist
one. It is a typical example of the impact of the humanist tradition on
Christianity and vice versa. Certainly we cannot regard the humanitarian
achievements of the last two centuries as secure today, but in this matter
at least the secular humanists and the Christians are very closely
united--much more closely united, I think, than the different Christian
bodies are in their defence of the rights of the Church against the
secular state. And if today there was any question of reviving the
practice of judicial torture or the reintroducing of public executions,
there is no doubt that the very Christians who are most critical of
humanism would be loudest in their protests.
The fact is that very few people have a clear idea of what a strictly
non-humanist Christianity would be like. Of course they are aware of the
existence of that type of extreme sectarianism which is content to be as
"ignorantas a mule" but I am sure that is not the kind of thing they want.
It is no doubt possible to find examples of non-humanist Christianity that
are more admirable than this, but they are a long way away. Perhaps the
best example I can quote is that of the Archpriest Avakkum who was burnt
alive in 1682 for his opposition to the reform of the Russian liturgy and
whose autobiography is one of the classics of Russian literature. Now in
some respects the religion of Avakkum seems just what is wanted if
Christianity is to survive in a non-humanist totalitarian order, for he
succeeded in existing and bearing witness to his faith under conditions
which make the ordinary concentration camp seem like a kindergarten. But
on the intellectual side his Christianity has no contact with ordinary
rational life. He was a kind of Christian witch-doctor who could meet the
Siberian shamans on their own ground but whose religion was as narrow as
theirs. His lack of any humanist culture or ethic made him entirely
dependent on a rigid observance of ritual order, such as crossing oneself
with three fingers instead of with two. The latter seemed to him an act
of apostasy far worse than any mere crime or act of immorality.
Now this kind of anti-humanist Christianity is not only contrary to
the traditions of Western Christendom which have admittedly been permeated
by humanist influence, but it is alien from the spirit of Christianity
THE HUMANIST DECISION OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH
The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned
from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and
the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman Hellenistic world. In
spite of his apparent anti-intellectualism, St. Paul was by no means
unconscious of the value of humane letters in the work of evangelization.
In fact he was himself the first Christian humanist and his speech to the
Athenians, with its appeal to the Hellenistic doctrines of the unity of
the human race, of divine providence and of the natural affinity between
the human and divine natures, is the basic document of Christian humanism.
All this is much more than a method of apologetic devised for an
Hellenistic audience. It is an expression of St. Paul's sense of a
certain affinity between Christianity and Hellenism owing to which the
Hellenistic cities of the Eastern Roman Empire provided the necessary
conditions for the propagation of the new faith.
What was the nature of this affinity? On the one hand Hellenism
provided a humane ethos and a philosophy of human nature which were not to
be found among other cultures, while on the other hand Christianity is
distinguished from other religions by its doctrine of the Incarnate Word,
through whom the Divine and Human Natures have been substantially united
in the historic person of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man.
It is clear that this essential Christian doctrine gives a new value
to human nature, to human history and to human life which is not to be
found in the other great oriental religions. The more the latter insist
on the transcendence and absoluteness of the Divine Nature, the more they
widen the gulf between God and Man, so that they tend either to deny the
reality of the material world or to regard it as essentially evil, so that
the body is a prison into which the human soul has got caught. These
ideas were so powerful in the ancient world that they have often
threatened to invade Christianity, and it was only by using the methods of
Hellenic culture and with the help of Christian humanists like St.
Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa that the Church was able to vindicate
the Christian doctrine of man.
To St. Gregory there is a profound analogy between man's natural
function as a rational being--the ruler of the world and the link between
the intelligible and sensible orders--and the divine mission of the
Incarnate Word which unites humanity with the divine nature and restores
the broken unity of the whole creation. The natural order corresponds
with the supernatural order and both form part of the same divine
all-embracing plan of creation and restoration. The Incarnation restores
human nature to its original integrity and with it the whole material
creation which is raised through man to a higher plane and integrated with
the intelligible or spiritual order.
These doctrines are no doubt fundamentally Pauline, but with St.
Gregory of Nyssa they are explicitly related to the tradition of Greek
thought and to the Hellenic ideal of humanity. Moreover, St. Gregory of
Nyssa with his brother, St. Basil, and their friend, St. Gregory
Naziansen, were also humanists in the more technical sense--great students
and lovers of humane letters who had a decisive influence on the
development of the culture of Orthodox Christendom. Today there is a
tendency to view Eastern Christianity through Russian eyes and to stress
those elements in the Byzantine tradition which are most remote from the
humanist tradition, as we see it, for example, in Avakkum and Khomiakoff
and Dostoevsky. But these represent the spirit of Russia rather than the
Byzantine tradition. The real founders of the Byzantine culture were the
great Cappadocian fathers of whom I have spoken, and behind all the later
developments of Eastern Orthodoxy which found so many different
expressions in different ages and peoples, there lies this Christian
Hellenism of the fourth century, which was also a Christian humanism.
It is true that there is another element in Orthodox Christianity
which is neither Western nor humanist--I mean the tradition of the monks
of the desert. But whereas the Byzantine culture was able to incorporate
and Hellenize this tradition, thanks largely to St. Basil himself, the
purely Oriental element in monasticism as represented by the leaders of
Egyptian monasticism like Bgoul andSchenouti became unorthodox as well as
non-humanist and was one of the driving forces behind the religious revolt
which separated Egypt and Syria from the Orthodox Church.
THE GREAT ORIENTAL REACTION
It is therefore no accident that this great Orientalist reaction
against Hellenic culture should have found its theological justification
in a doctrine which denied the full humanity of Christ. Nor did the
Oriental reaction stop at this point. For Monophysitism is only the first
step in a far-reaching movement which carried the East away from
Christianity and found its final expression in the uncompromising
unitarian absolutism of Islam which rejects the whole idea of Incarnation
and restores an impassable gulf between God and Man.
And thus while it is easy enough to conceive of an Oriental
Christianity which has no affinity with any form of humanist culture, we
must admit that it is very difficult in practice for such a Christianity
to hold its own against the various forms of unorthodox or non-Christian
spirituality--Manichean, Moslem or Monophysite--which make such a profound
appeal to the Oriental mind.
No doubt there is the Christianity of Abyssinia which is Monophysite
more by historical accident than by theological necessity and which has
held its own for a thousand years against the pressure of Islam. And even
in the case of Abyssinia we must not forget how much the national revival
in the sixteenth century owed to the stimulus of Western culture and
It is true that Christianity is not bound up with any particular race
or culture. It is neither of the East or of the West, but has a universal
mission to the human race as a whole. Nevertheless it is precisely in this
universality that the natural bond and affinity between Christianity and
humanism is to be found. For humanism also appeals to man as man. It
seeks to liberate the universal qualities of human nature from the narrow
limitations of blood and soil and class and to create a common language
and a common culture in which men can realize their common humanity.
Humanism is an attempt to overcome the curse of Babel which divides
mankind into a mass of warring tribes hermetically sealed against one
another by their mutual incomprehensibility. If this only means that
humanism is attempting to build a new tower of Babel--a city of Man
founded on pride and self will in ignorance and contempt of God--then no
doubt humanism is anti-Christian. But this is not the only kind of
humanism. As man needs God and nature requires grace for its own
perfecting, so humane culture is the natural foundation and preparation
for spiritual culture. Thus Christian humanism is as indispensable to the
Christian way of life as Christian ethics and a Christian sociology.
Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in theorder of
culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being.
"The Dublin Review", Winter, 1952.
Taken from the Summer 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For
subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box
332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, John J. Mulloy, Editor.