Folks write all the time about the bizarre ads that gmail pops up alongside their messages, and this post is going to be another instance of the same. I was reading my emails this afternoon when, glancing over to the commercials, I saw three consecutive ads asking me to join humanist organizations. Given that I was reading a newsletter from a Christian publication, I assumed that someone this month must have written something against “secular humanism.”
I remember encountering Christian humanism for the first time as a Milligan undergrad and thrilling at the possibilities. Erasmus and More became heroes of mine that year, and I’ve lost little respect for either as years have passed. Insofar as I enjoy learning the language in which ancient people wrote interesting texts (I’m not all that good at any of them, but I can translate Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Old English), I share in their excitement for returning to the sources, and insofar as I try to start with the text of the Bible when I do theology, I find myself pulled mightily towards the hermeneutics of Erasmus, grammarian and translator that he is, when he duels with Martin Luther over human agency and how one should read the Bible.
I suppose that’s why I get so sad when I see that every organization at UGA that calls itself humanist more or less assumes that its constituents will be atheists, and I get sadder still when preachers use the word, assuming that everyone in the audience will assume that they mean atheists. I know that history kept happening after Erasmus and More passed from the world stage, and I don’t begrudge any group’s use of the word, but there’s still part of me that wants to be an Erasmean, to challenge bad theologies with the tools of of philology (not that my tools are anywhere near as sharp as Erasmus’s) and to celebrate those powers of intellect that God has given particularly to human beings.
As people who have actually read Calvin’s Institutes cover to cover to cover to cover (I read Battles’s 2-volume edition) and who know Calvin’s biography are aware, Calvin himself was no enemy of classical learning or of reason in general; in fact, he priases reason early on in his great book, noting that in matters not directly related to revelation, human beings should develop and correct political and economic and philosophic all sorts of other knowledge with that particularly human faculty, and his political sections in book four of the Institutes reveal at least some familiarity with Machiavelli. He started off his career as a translator of Seneca, and he makes copious references to Homer and Cicero as he progresses through the relatively philosophical first book of the Institutes.
I’m not sure why that Google ad inspired this little reflection, but I do hope that in my little sphere, as I commence a career somewhere, I might make a good name, in my corner of the world, for a Christian humanism.