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September 24, 2010
Science, Faith and a Distinctly Christian Humanism
By Kevin Clark
Rhetoric I & II, Aesthetics
I have taken the call, Tolle Lege (take it and read), expressed in the title of Geneva’s weekly
literary outlet quite literally in the past few weeks, as I have just begun my doctoral studies at
Georgetown University. I am (and will be for some time) taking up a lot of books and reading
them, and it is in regard to some of that reading that I compose this piece.
The degree toward which I am working is called the Doctor of Liberal Studies (D.L.S.), and is,
if you can believe it, the graduate extension of just the sort of education we aim to provide at
The Geneva School. Interestingly, the folks at Georgetown are seeking to overcome at the
doctoral level the same disintegrating effects of modern education we in the Christian classical
renewal have sought to overcome for years now. In fact, the whole reason I decided to pursue
this program in the first place is that I wanted to study further and more in-depth the problems
and possibilities of an education grounded in real faith and real learning.
That faith and learning are at times in tension is born out in Church history. One thinks
immediately of St. Paul’s inspired observation that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,”
as well, perhaps, of Tertullian’s famous rhetorical question: “What has Athens to do with
Jerusalem, the school of Plato with the school of Christ?” It was not at all obvious to many in
the early church that faith and learning were things reconcilable—at least not until Christian
thinkers started tracing out the implications of certain core Christian doctrines. But when held
together, Church history also bears out that this tension is often very creative. Think of the
written works of St. Chrysostom or St. Augustine; the architectural, artistic, musical,
educational, and cultural explosion of the high middle ages and Renaissance; the doctrinal
reform and missionary enterprise of the Reformation era; and even the scientific and
mathematical advances of the early modern era. It is impossible to account for any of them
apart from the fact that people had a vision for human life and flourishing that was built upon
what the historian F.C. Copleston called real trust in God and the powers of the human mind.
That is to say, holding faith and learning together has often made Christians, well, humanists.
Yet how is this the case, the reader might ask, and what if anything does it have to do with the
reading I have been doing? Allow me to answer the first question and then I will get to the
second as promised.
Central, of course, to the Christian faith is the Incarnation: In the one person Jesus Christ, God
the Son has assumed true humanity while retaining His true divinity, and ever remains as such.
When taken in conjunction with the fact that God created human beings after His own likeness
and in His own image, this doctrine became the foundation for a new way of thinking about
human dignity and of imagining human flourishing. In short, the doctrines of Creation and
Incarnation are foundational for humanism, the belief in the significance and dignity of human
life, as well as in the worthiness of attention to the conditions and quality of human life.
But wait, isn’t humanism bad? Yes, in the particular modern, secular form that has emptied
humanism of its original Christian content. This “secular” humanism is bad, however, not
merely because it has tragically set itself in opposition to Christianity, but because it has
ironically set itself in opposition to humanity as well. Since the Enlightenment, Western
civilization has been largely successful at enjoying the benefits of humanism while ignoring its
foundation in the Christian religion. But as the anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
prophesied more than a century ago, this would not last long. Belief in the dignity and
significance of human life is bound up with belief in a God who created human beings in His
own image and who has redeemed them by assuming their nature to Himself in the
Incarnation. Ours is a “cut flower” culture—the bloom is colorful but short-lived precisely
because it is severed from the plant. Christians from C.S. Lewis to Flannery O’Connor have
been warning us ever since that the twilight of humanism—indeed, the abolition of man, to use
Lewis’ chilling phrase—is fast approaching.
This stark observation brings us at last to the proper subject of this essay, namely, my reading
in the D.L.S program at Georgetown. The framers of this program apparently understand the
tenuous nature of humanism in late modernity, and to judge by the assigned readings they want
us to know that humanism is in peril. The current threat is coming from advances in the
emergent fields of evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, where aspects of what we
have traditionally thought make us uniquely human are in fact (so they argue) results of natural
selection and unconscious brain mechanisms. There have been literally hundreds of books
published in the last five years from major academic presses exploring this subject, but the one
I am currently reading, Naturalism, Evolution, and Mind1, is one of the clearest expositions of
this new anti-humanist philosophy.
In the realm of evolutionary biology, I am currently reading Frans De Waal’s Primates and
Philosophers2. This book, written by bio-ethicists at Princeton, argues that human behavior,
ethics, and morality can be accounted for evolutionarily, that is, as resulting from natural
selection. We are not—as both Christians and secularists have hitherto believed—free
thinking and choosing beings, but evolutionary by-products with very complex and refined
instincts, that’s all.
In the frankly perplexing field of neuroscience, I have just finished reading a book entitled
Neuroscience and Philosophy.3 Don’t let the title fool you, it is really a fascinating book. But
again, the long and short of it is that there is a serious scientific debate over what it means to
be human. Do we have a soul, or just a mind? Neuroscientists largely answer in the negative.
Rather, they conclude that we have brains that function like complex machines to produce the
effects we call reason, will, and emotion.
So what does this have to do with The Geneva School? Nearly everything. If you spend time
around TGS this year you’ll find that humanism—of the distinctly Christian variety, of
course—is wafting through the air, and not just in the familiar haunts. You are still going to
D. M. Walsh, editor. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2001.
Frans De Waal. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 2009
Maxwell Bennett et al. Columbia University Press: New York, 2007.
find the fine and performing arts; classical languages, history and literature; athletic events and
social mixers. Each week’s chapel this year focuses upon the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the
encounters people had with Him in the Gospels. But you might be surprised to find Christian
humanism thriving in the math and science courses as well. For in these courses students are
faced with tough questions about what it means to be human, and how we can maintain our
biblical views and also thoughtfully engage with modern science through study and
experimentation, and research. These are not easy questions, but are essential to face—in my
opinion at least—if we are to build a Christian natural philosophy that will engage critically
and thoughtfully with things like evolutionary biology and neuroscience.
This human focus in the sciences is one of the many reasons why our academic agenda at The
Geneva School is so significant. Where many Christian schools seek to protect their children
from scientific theories that may be opposed to the Christian faith, The Geneva School seeks to
expose the modern day theories and help students form a biblical response to them. We seek
to form a Christian natural philosophy that allows students to enter critically and confidently
into their studies in the sciences. By doing so, we safeguard them from dangerous ideas by
giving them a much larger and more comprehensive view than the reductionistic theories they
often confront.