Christian Humanism and Beyond – Western Religion after Kantian Agnosticism

In my IT2 class, we read various interpretations of Gnostic spirituality, including one buy the very famous Princeton University scholar Elaine Pagels. As I read Pagels, I can’t help but notice her numerous references to the earlier scholarship of Adolf von Harnack. He’s not just anyone. Von Harnack was, in fact, the leading figure in 19th-century Protestant Bible scholarship, and a quintessential representative of Christian Liberalism. As such, von Harnack scrutinized the New Testament relentlessly, looking for contradictions, errors and historical accretions. Why? To prove the Bible wrong and Jesus a big lie? Hardly. Von Harnack was in search of the actual historical Jesus, a real person he powerfully believed to be buried somewhere in the Bible, someone he could uncover if only he could dig his way back, philologically, to the original text of the New Testament. Who would this Jesus be? For von Harnack, not a mysterious stranger, and not even a mighty miracle worker, but simply the kindest and wisest of teachers. This view of Christ as the exemplary man, that unique individual who most purely reveals the perfect nobility of our own nature, is part of a general movement called Christian Humanism.

Not that I necessary agree with von Harnack’s position. And, for what it’s worth, Kant would probably have thought it absurd. But perhaps it’s nevertheless impressive to see such a commitment, however strained, simultaneously to uncompromising critical scholarship and earnest Christian faith.

So, where did these Christian Humanist ideas come from?

Below I’ve displayed two classic texts, produced in Germany by two of Hegel’s most brilliant disciples. Both authors were members, along with Karl Marx, of the forward-thinking group known as the Young Hegelians. The first, David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was published in 1835, and the second, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, was published in 1841. Though producing different results, each uses the dialectical method of debunking transcendental and historical illusions to disrupt some of Western culture’s most cherished notions regarding the origin and function of the Christian faith. Both, immediately upon their first appearance, shook the Western Intellectual world.

Interesting to note, too, that the standard English translations still in circulation today were produced, at the wage-slave rate of a few pennies per page, by a young woman, Mary Anne Evans, who later went on to publish, under the pseudonym George Eliot, some of the most important novels in all of English literature.

Last thing I’ll say here: Though many people think of Karl Marx as a great enemy of Capitalism, that’s not an entirely true notion. Nor was Marx for that matter a friend of Communism. Marx was deeply critical of both. Though if recent scholars are correct, Marx, by the time he reaches the most mature stage of this thought, emerges, more than anything, as an enemy of Humanism – a stance he would share, for all their many differences, with Neitzsche. In particular, here, see the work of the notorious French Marxist Louis Althusser.

Marx writes about his thoughts on Communism, in the broadest sense, is a variety of places. I’m certainly not a Marx scholar, so it would be hard for me to track down all of his statements. But in the Communist Manifesto Marx famously declairs that a “specter is haunting Europe” – Communism is popping up everywhere! And under a wide variety of names.

As I said, not all of these individual manifestations of a communist spirit were legitimate as far as Marx was concerned. This is because in many cases these were still tied to the communist experiments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as those started by Fourier and Saint-Simon, both of which were bases in overtly spiritual beliefs. Another version of communism about which Marx was dubious was that promoted by Proudhon, with whom he wrangled over the definition of property, that it should be considered “theft”. Marx found Proudhon’s definition to be too ‘sophistical’, declaring that it turned real-life political concerns into quasi-Nicean debates, into the abstract speculations of early-Christian theology and not at all the materialism necessary to revolutionary consciousness. One could formulate such statements, Marxist asserted, only from within an ideology which still obsessed with the notion of private property. Still mired in such ruminations, one could never take the necessary step beyond thinking about property to acting against property.

Marxism’s reserved larger criticism, however, for the forms of state-sponsored social programs which were arising in his day, in particular in Germany. These he rejects because they are still too largely based in bourgeois Humanism and an related set of obsolete ideas which must be entirely liquidated if the proletariat is to be emancipated – something Marx saw as inevitable. Humanism, as far as Marx was concerned, was just a diluted, and for that reason more insidious form of Idealism, a very clear example of which can be found, again, in the “modern” (i.e., secular Humanist) Christianity of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose writings so deeply influenced the sentimental fiction of the British novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).

All that said, outright and committed theism also continues after the Kantian critique of religion. The most important defender of orthodox Christian faith to emerge after Kant was Søren Kierkegaard, a young Danish theology student, whose thought is references in Martin Luther King Jr,’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”. (You may recall from the beginning of the semester the pivotal role Kierkegaard’s writings played in Leo Steinberg‘s “Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public”. As I said in class, the ‘plight of the public’, and the development of a public Voice on a mass scale, is theme common to both King and Steinberg (who were exact contemporaries), as it was to the leading art movement of the day, Minimalism, which also sought to mold masses of bodies and mass opinion.)

Sol LeWitt
Cube (1969)

Kierkegaard, through his close study of Hegel, whom he soon strenuously rejected, pursued the paradoxes internal to orthodoxy to the point where dogmatic adherence to the tenets of the faith could only appear patently absurd. And it was in wholeheartedly embracing absurdity, through an ungrounded and unjustifiable “leap of faith,” that Kierkegaard became the founder of Existentialism. The notion of reaching a critical moment in thought, and then spontaneously leaping to action, in a way that could well seem utterly absurd, indeed utterly futile; this, along with a powerful faith that only absurd action could lead to redemption; was an aspect of Kierkegaad’s thought that was absolutely central to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, any serious theologian since Kierkegaard (Barth, Bultmann and Tillich, all of whom reject the 19th-century search for the historical Human Jesus, and instead seek Christ through profound literary insight, radical alienation, or symbolic cultural experience) will not have failed to give Kierkegaard’s writings the most serious consideration. If in post-Kantian times Jesus can still remain the Way, then in many respects Kierkegaard is the door to all modern theology.

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