Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Christian Humanism: Some Helpful Explanations

In the current edition of Image, the impeccable quarterly of art, faith, and mystery, editor and publisher Gregory Wolfe suggests that Christians reconsider the value of the Renaissance. In the process, he makes valuable elucidations of central ideas within Christian Humanism. Here are excerpts from Wolfe’s essay:

[I]t has been shown that many of the greatest Renaissance thinkers and artists were already at work trying to find a new synthesis of self and cosmos and bring healing to modern consciousness. The conditions they faced were strikingly like our own.

The rediscovery of pagan culture involved the question of how to approach the dialogue between secular and sacred. As the Christian humanists argued for the importance of learning from pagan culture, they deepened the theology of the Incarnation, attacking the sort of dualism that compartmentalizes experience and denies the unity of truth. “For Erasmus wisdom does not consist in despoiling a humiliated paganism, but in collaborating pedagogically with its highest expression,” writes [Marjorie O’Rourke] Boyle.

The age of exploration began the process of globalization, and while the record of western engagement with other cultures has been checkered at best, the greatest religious order to emerge out of the Renaissance — the Jesuits — offered some of the most humane forms of intercultural exchange on record, including the mission to the Guarani’ in South America, recounted in the film The Mission. The Jesuit missionaries to China dressed as Mandarins and learned both the language and Confucianism before breathing a word about Jesus….

At the risk of some anachronism, I think it can be argued that the struggle between hell-for-leather Reformers and reactionary Catholics during this period can be seen in the light of what have recently been dubbed the “culture wars.” Eventually, these conflicts would erupt into shooting wars that would engulf Europe in an orgy of division and destruction for over a century. What gets lost in dwelling on this conflagration are the achievements of the humanists on both sides of theological divide: the emergence of biblical criticism and philology, the first stirrings of the discipline of history, pleas for tolerance and understanding of Jews, and programs for the education of women.

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