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Schouborg, Gary (1968).

"Secular Humanism and the Christian Faith."

The Catholic World, 208, 69-74.


    Secular Humanism and the Christian Faith


The Challenge


Contemporary Christians are increasingly aware that the most important challenge to their religious lives is secular humanism, but they are still not sufficiently aware of the nature of that threat, At the heart of what some humanists consider the most recent great religion is the belief, not so much atheistic as a-theistic, that man can live a full life of dignity and happiness without reference to God. It is important to note that the belief is in terms of a life without reference to God, not without God. The assertion is psychological, not metaphysical. The metaphysical question of whether or not God objectively exists is no longer of interest. For whether or not he does, man must make of his situation what he can. And the notion of God is irrelevant to his concrete, immediate task. In "Flight," John Updike graphically describes contemporary man as perfectly comfortable with a mental state that does not ask the ultimate questions.


. . . how touchingly gauche our assumption that atheist is a lonely rebel; for mobs of men are united in atheism, and oblivion – the dense lead-like sea that would occasionally sweep over me – is to them a weight as negligible as the faint pressure of their wallets in their hip pockets.


Secular humanists such as Erich Fromm (The Art of Loving) and Abraham Maslow (Toward a Psychology of Being) assert that a person is lovable without any reference to God, an assertion rather convincing in view of the depth of their analyses. From their understanding of human love in terms of human categories alone such writers confront the Christian with his most serious problem: does Christianity offer as profound a notion of love as secular humanism? An increasing number of intellectuals and college students feel that secular humanism has moved beyond Christianity's contribution to Western civilization. Christianity had its effect in the pre-adult era of Western man, but must now make way for a more viable and hu- [70] manly profound religion, secular humanism, The challenge, then, is not that secular humanism resents the moral demands of Christianity and wants to follow it's own fancies. Rather, secular humanism claims to offer men more to live by than does Christianity.


The charge cannot be dismissed easily. For of late it has been the secular humanist and not the Christian theologian who has written most profoundly of human existence and love. Moreover, a brief review of the last two hundred years of Western culture seems to indicate a decrease in specifically Christian contributions to the development of human existence and a corresponding increase in secular humanist influence. It was the Enlightenment that spearheaded freedom of inquiry, Marx who was anxiously and effectively concerned over the plight of the workers, and predominantly humanists who were responsible for the development of the humanistic sciences. Furthermore, this nation's recent sensitivity to long-tolerated racial injustices was promoted more noticeably by humanists than Christians. To the embarrassment of many Christians, official ecclesiastical support came only after work for racial equality was "in." Finally, concern over the morality of the war in Vietnam has been largely a secular movement.


The Christian apologete may be indignant at such a simplistic survey of two centuries of turbulent history. He may insist that there are historical reasons why the church acted as it did in the past, circumstances which were at the very least extenuating and often justifying. Furthermore, he may continue, since Vatican II the Church has adopted a new posture. Even assuming for discussion's sake that the church has reprehensibly lagged in initiating and even supporting the major cultural developments of the past few centuries, there are now signs of energetic imagination and creative determination. However, all of the apologete's protestations are irrelevant. For the humanist's difficulties are with Christianity itself, not just with its members. He takes as essential to Christianity Dostoevski's "If God is dead, everything is allowed." For Erich Fromm, Dostoevski's remark epitomizes Christianity's basic mistake. In Man For Himself, Fromm sets himself the task of developing an ethics without reference to God, based solely on the nature of man as discovered in the humanistic sciences and philosophy. Motivation for any action must come from within man or that action alienates man from himself. Human developments of the recent past were in fact, and could only have been, motivated not by some other-worldly reality but by values and structures totally immanent within human existence.


The church has admittedly contributed to the development of human values by providing men with strong, other-worldly motivation in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. But modern men are increasingly outgrowing such motivation. Prescinding from contemporary philosophical debate over the meaningfulness of other-worldly discourse, such discourse is psychologically and pragmatically irrelevant. For it places the meaning of an action outside the action itself, whereas the mature adult increasingly operates in terms of actions which are humanly self-justifying, actions which are their own meaning. For example, take the student who studies in order to pass tests in order to get a degree in order to live "the good life." Now contrast him with the student who studies to answer real questions, with the worker whose work productively expresses his own personality, and with the man whose "good life" is not only "enjoyable" but also reflective. Admittedly every man engages both in activities that are simply means to something else and in self-justifying (humanly creative and productive) activities. But one criterion for authentic personal development is the increasing role that self-justifying actions play in an individual's life. A human being develops to the degree that he lives realistically and happily in the present. Christianity, on the other hand, takes men away from the present moment by its emphasis on rewards and punishments in some far-off, motivationally abstract, and humanly alienating future. Christianity is therefore something to be outgrown. For the adult, Christianity is regressive.


Ah God, dear God, tall friend of my childhood, I will never forget you, though they say dreadful things. They say rose windows in cathedrals are vaginal symbols.


Thus John Updike, with customary Victorian reticence, in "Wife-Wooing." Christianity remains valuable to society to the extent that the majority of men are not emotionally secure enough to live realistically. But it is secular humanism that is leading men in the direction of the future. And [71] that will be the product of values and structures immanent within human history. Whether their metaphysical interpretation of the non-human factors of history be in terms of divine providence or chance, political leaders will still have to plan programs and responsible citizens will have to vote on them and carry them out.


Faith and Friendship


The problem, then, is to express Christ's revelation in existential, pragmatic terms. (To avoid a possible misunderstanding of the word "pragmatic" let me note that the Hebrews were the most pragmatic of peoples. The issue to be met is one between a pragmatism that is insufficient to work out human problems and a pragmatism that really does the job. This issue is never confronted if pragmatism is peremptorily castigated as superficial.) The Christian's response to the challenge of the secular humanist must be in terms that affect the way men live. Any other reply may be theoretically valid, but it is not yet a religious one. Not that theory is simply irrelevant. For a theory with no practical results may possibly be a theory believed in, but it can never be a religious belief. The belief of the primitive Christian community in the already established eschaton apparently meant something to them in terms of their present actions. If we believe with them that the effects of the resurrection are present and not simply future, then we should be able to locate these effects in our present experience. Or, to put the matter in terms of method: any human statement, theological or otherwise, must be verifiable. Statements without reference to experience of any kind are meaningless.


To clarify our approach further, we wish to speak here not simply of belief but of living faith. Michael Scriven, a leading American philosopher of science,, is quite willing to concede the existence of God if by "God" is meant the ground of being. Admittedly, the beings of our experience require some sort of ground, and if that ground is called "God" then "God" exists. Similarly, if "God" is identified with ultimate human values to which people commit themselves, then "God" exists. For people do commit themselves to ultimate values. However, Scriven remains an atheist. For he denies the existence of a personal God who has entered into human history. The Christian must therefore indicate where God or Christ has entered his individual life. Is Christ for him merely metaphysical theory or living reality? If living reality, if he can truly say with St. Paul that Christ lives in him, what does that mean? How is his life significantly, more profoundly, different from that of the secular humanist? Where is God found in human day-to-day living? For this is the sphere of religion. If humanists lead Christians promoting human values, assertions like "Christ lives in me" are sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. However valid purely theoretical assertions may be, can they ever add up to that knowledge with which one cries with Paul, "Abba, Father"? In what way, then, is Christ truly present to me? How do I concretely experience his resurrection? How do I already experience the eschaton? How is it that I can say that I am already redeemed and am being moved by the Spirit toward the parousia? I can say all these things because Christ is personally present to me. This is easily enough asserted, but what precisely can it mean? What is it like to be personally present to another? One way of describing it is to say that I behold the other without focusing on any particular aspect of him. Of course I see him, hear him, know that he has certain characteristics, talents, traits. But it is not to these that I am now attending. All of these objective aspects are seen within the perspective of the person who is now present to me. Of course, there are degrees of this kind of presence. There is a kind of minimal, workaday presence which is a step beyond merely automatic, distracted dealings with others. And there are times in which we see the other with unusual clarity. The following anecdote from a basic-encounter (or sensitivity) group is an exceptionally dramatic instance. One man (let us call him John) was expressing to another (let us call him Bill) his adverse reaction to what he perceived as Bill's pretentiousness. Bill readily admitted the fault, the problem was pursued briefly, then left momentarily as the group went on to something else. Later, in a different context, Bill opened up and told us the story of his childhood and his own consequent sense of inadequacy. The effect of Bill's revelation was as though be had for the first time stepped into the room. John was the first to respond – "Bill, I still think you are pretentious. But I don't give a damn." Bill and John had become present to each other. Objective as- [72] pects did not disappear, but had become irrelevant in the context of two people in deep, personal communion with each other.


However, such moments are quickly over, and a decided effort is necessary to regain what was achieved in the past. In T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party there is a scene where Edward, abandoned by his wife Lavinia, has just been told by an Unidentified Guest that Lavinia will come back the next day.


UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: . . . it is a serious matter


To bring someone back from the dead.


EDWARD: From the dead?


That figure of speech is somewhat . . . dramatic,


As it was only yesterday that my wife left me.


UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: Ah, but we die to each other daily.


What we know of other people


Is only our memory of the moments


During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.


To pretend that they and we are the same


Is a useful and convenient social convention


Which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember


That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.


[A line further on EDWARD says:]


Then I myself must also be a stranger.


UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: And to yourself as well . . . .


The other is constantly a stranger who has to be met again. Presence is fleeting, and then we are strangers once more.


But even before they experience the need continually to regain what was briefly achieved, there are those who have never significantly achieved, that presence which they unknowingly seek. A surprise unique to twentieth-century man is that he can be alone in a crowd or even in bed with his lover, a favorite dramatic irony of contemporary artists. John Updike's Rabbit in Rabbit, Run is running to escape a vague personal emptiness, but does not have any clear notion where he ought to run or what it is that he is trying to escape. The problem with Diana (Julie Christie) in Darling and Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) in La Dolce Vita is not sexual promiscuity. That is only symptomatic. The problem is that neither is present to anyone and therefore not even to himself. "What's it all about, Alfie?" Contemporary art and psychology seem to indicate that sexual activities are intensely expressive of whatever relationship already exists between two people. Sexual expression can profoundly human and loving. But its very intimacy can also blindingly reveal otherwise unnoticed defenses and hostilities.


There are, then, various aspects to the contemporary problems of loneliness. There are men who experience a vague shallowness in their lives. Some are not conscious of this feeling but betray its existence through the desperate character of their actions. Others are aware that their problem is one of personal loneliness, but cannot overcome blocks to communication that arise from within themselves and from society. The homosexual, hurt and confused by society's disdain, is unsure of the character of his love for other men. Is this love truly destructive of the other, of himself, and of society? Or could he be right in thinking that he has at times experienced authentically human love in homosexual activities? James Baldwin presents David with much the same questions in Giovanni's Room. Will Giovanni's invitation to express their mutual love homosexually deepen their relationship or destroy it? Is society correct in damning such expression as perverse and debilitating, or does Giovanni's genuine regard for David guarantee that such could not be the case? On a less turbulent plane, there are men who are fortunately able to communicate on a deeply personal level but who remain disturbed by further questions. What is the meaning of a human existence in which some men are reasonably happy and others are troubled with loneliness? What is the meaning of a human existence in which personal communication is so difficult to attain even for the most fortunate? Finally, what is the meaning of personal communication and love in the light of death? Maslow describes truly human experiences as making life worthwhile. This is true to an extent. But can such experiences alone make human living meaningful in light of the above questions? Sufficient human fulfillment may make one's own life [73] emotionally acceptable and happy, but can it make life ultimately meaningful in the face of suffering and death? It is to this kind of question that I suspect Christ uniquely speaks. In any case, it is to this kind of question that Christianity must meaningfully speak today.


As a Christian I can proclaim my faith as Christians always have: "Christ lives in me." Today this means that I am not alone. Living faith at least partly involves the experience of a presence that is ineradicable. I can flee it, but it does not itself retire. Although life without trust in other men is unlivable, I can never put unqualified trust in any man. It is unrealistic and unfair to him. But unqualified trust is not therefore impossible. It can be placed in the person I encounter in prayer. Trust in this person is trust that this person will never withdraw from me but will always invite me to be present with him. This is my experience of redemption. Whereas human communication is uncertain and incomplete, with Christ there has been effected in me a friendship which guarantees permanence and unlimited depths. I must still work out my salvation in fear and trembling, for I can be unfaithful. But mercy is God's name, and He remains constantly inviting me to turn to Him. And in fact he has broken through my defenses and become present to me. His presence has been accomplished not through my own reflection and ascetical practices but through His own initiative, to which I have freely responded. Living faith, then, takes its roots from prayer and from personal communion with other human beings. Whatever may be the legitimacy of praying for something, of acting out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, the heart of prayer and Christian life is this personal communion with God and fellow men. Hell is the radical absence from them. Sartre is correct in asserting that hell is other people, but he does so in the context of hatred. Within the context of love we can just as validly assert that heaven is other people, both human and divine. Living faith is the experience of having been saved from radical loneliness. Man's drive for personal communication is not doomed to merely partial, temporary fulfillment. In faith his redeemer is even now present to him. For him the eschaton has already taken place. Redemption is at hand.


Christian Witness


Questions immediately arise concerning the use of the term "experience." How do I know this "experience" of Christ is not the product of wishful thinking and rhetorical illusion? How do I know that the appeal to pray is not an appeal to talk myself into something of which I am not solidly convinced? The same sort of appeal might very well be given to a student questioning the assertion by his instructor that two plus two is equal to five. His question could conceivably be treated as symptomatic of a skeptical temperament, the cure for which is to be found in praying for deeper faith. No one would accept such a response on a matter so clearly false, but how is it that in some cases we accept the invitation to have faith as unreasonable and irrelevant, whereas in other cases we accept it as good advice? Is the matter of this article one with regard to which an appeal to pray in order to strengthen faith is reasonable or unreasonable? Somehow one suspects that Newman's observation that a thousand questions do not make a doubt is relevant here. But how is it that Newman's point a true? Could it not also be obscurantist?


Unfortunately, although all of the above questions are good ones, it is beyond the scope of this article to answer them adequately. Nevertheless, their importance should be indicated and some suggestions given as to how an answer might be approached. First of all, it is important to note the highly interpretive character of the experience of Christ's personal presence. For our use of the term involved both descriptive, experiential elements and interpretive, explanatory elements. (We might have more accurately spoken of our conviction, rather than experience, of Christ's personal presence.) On the experiential level, a more careful description is necessary to see if this experience is any different from various profound experiences that secular humanists report having. For otherwise the humanist will rightfully suspect that the experience of Christ's presence is no different from his, but that the Christian has merely interpreted it in terms of his own faith. Or, in case the experiences are significantly the same, an investigation of the validity of conflicting interpretations will have to be carried out. It is in these areas, I suspect, that Christians and secularists can most profitably carry on dialogue today.


But important as that dialogue is (for concern [74] for the objective reality of what is believed in is at the heart of at least Roman Catholic dogma), there remains inevitably the priority of living over theory. And it is this priority that causes the importance of Christian witness. For because theory never exhausts the reality with which it is concerned, and because history forces us to act before theory can be adequately developed, non-verbal communication and preconceptual consciousness assume strategic importance in human living and therefore in faith. It is therefore a fact of life that a Christian communicates his faith primarily through his life and only secondarily, through his theology. Consequently, any appeal to pray for the experience of redemption in Christ will have to be made reasonable to the other person through the persuasiveness of my own life. To take an analogy from human love: it of no use talking about love to one who has never experienced it. Such talk never persuades one that he should love, because it radically fails to communicate to him what love is. For language is meaningful to anyone only in terms of that person's experience. Men commonly observe that one is never persuaded to love until he has experienced its reality through being loved first by another. Similarly, a human being will be persuaded to turn to Christ in prayer by two factors. The primary factor is the interior action of the Spirit. But this apparently never takes place totally separated from the secondary, social factor (a fact which is at the heart of the significance of the Son's becoming man). One advised to pray will be reasonably skeptical to the extent that his counselor is himself dishonest, emotionally tied to his convictions and afraid of truths that will possibly demand that they be abandoned; in short, if his life appears to be no better than those of people who deny any validity to prayer. Because of the greater psychological sophistication of men today, the Christian witness must all the more purify his living faith of elements that make his life an improbable and unreasonable motive for emulation Because psychology makes contemporary men increasingly aware of unauthentic motives, specifically Christian motives must be correspondingly more operative. Credible witness is necessary even if all the Christian asks for is a hearing. Unfortunately, many Christians have abused the hearing given them and wasted the time of people who trusted them enough to listen to what they had to say. For that reason, it is quite understandable that many people today listen to Christians with only the slightest patience and greatest skepticism. The Christian's life must be humanly believable so that he will be given the hearing necessary for him to communicate what be really believes. Only until such communication is achieved can Christ through human history confront the non-Christian in his most radical selfhood and invite him to follow Him.