Understanding Humanism

Creation is its fundamental context



The devil is in the details — and in definitions. For such details we might reflect on the new Vatican-Beijing accords, already in jeopardy, and the not-so-new nuclear weapons treaties now publicly flaunted.

How about definitions? Let’s consider, as a trial run, humanism.

As always, context counts. The French Revolution, among its other follies, promoted a religion of man. Some hailed it as a saving humanism. Soon enough, though, many of its proponents lost their heads. Robert Hugh Benson’s powerful novel, Lord of the World, dramatizes a variation on this theme. A raw secular humanism still appeals to some. No surprise that the Vatican-Beijing accords are in jeopardy.

Today’s secularization, a domesticated humanism, promises health, education, welfare, and the rule of law. But secularizers often break their promises. They break them when “health” becomes a smokescreen for what begins with birth control and morphs into “life control.” They break them when “education” becomes a utilitarian apparatus for training students to be cost efficient producers and consumers of material goods.

Secularizers also break a promise when “welfare” takes the place of real work—and there is always such work—that serves the common good. They break another promise when “the rule of law” undercuts its own authority by repudiating its own foundation in natural law.

Yet we need to explore another context in which humanism is a genuine achievement. Philosophers often speak of “the moral community.” What’s this? Well, it’s not restricted to solid citizens,  much less saints. The idea, instead, is to specify all and only those who have value and thus moral standing. That said, who belongs to the moral community? Tribalists say that all and only members of their tribe belong. Nationalists, perhaps less forthrightly, are inclined to say that all and only members of their nation belong. Racists act as if all and only members of their race belong.

Should we take another step? Should we identify “speciesists” as those who argue that all and only members of their species are members of the moral community? I suppose we might. But note well: humanists argue, and rightly, that all members of the human race are members of the moral community. And constructive humanists have, in the course of history, labored valiantly to win more widespread recognition of this truth. No humanist, as such, need exclude non-humans, e.g., Martians or mermaids, from the moral community. The logical point is this: “all and only” is not equivalent to “all.” Humanism is not speciesist.

And yet constructive humanism doesn’t go far enough. All creation gives glory to God. From this it follows that all creatures are members of the moral community, and so too is every element of creation. To be sure, we needn’t suppose that all creatures, or elements, equally give glory to God. A quick analogy: In a symphony orchestra, the absence of the first violinist is a greater loss than that of the piccolo player…and far greater still than a piccolo gone missing.

St. John Paul II, in On Social Concern (Sollicitudo rei socialis), teaches that out of respect for the beings which constitute the natural world we “must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos” (n. 34).

At the outset of the Gospel of John, we read that “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God…All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made.” It is Creation itself that is the fundamental context for understanding humanism. What matters most in both the beginning and the end is that, with God’s grace, we build a Christo-centric humanism.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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