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Chapter 34: Christian Life Animated with Hope of Everlasting Life

Question B: What are the implications of the view that human fulfillment will be found exclusively in this world?

1. The problems of the view just criticized generated tensions which eventually led to the split between humanism and fideistic supernaturalism. This split became obvious during the Renaissance and Reformation as well as subsequently. This is not the place to trace these developments in detail. It is clear enough, however, that the qualified humanism of the Renaissance developed through the Enlightenment into the antireligious, secular humanism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.13

2. Radical Protestantism of the Reformation despaired of corrupt human nature. In response, humanism began to assert the autonomy and inherent worth of human life in this world—if necessary, even to the exclusion of the human good of religion. Badly distorted as it is, secular humanism nevertheless retains several elements of the Christian view of the human person. First, every version of secular humanism believes that life has a definite goal, usually thought to be some sort of ideal community in which all people will be fulfilled and individuals will be at liberty to do as they please. Second, secular humanists believe the fulfillment of humankind will be attained; it is not a mere ideal but a goal to be reached by human efforts.14 Third, every secular humanism claims to reverence the dignity of human persons and calls for liberty and justice for all.

In its conception of Christian morality, recent Protestant situation ethics remains faithful to the most questionable aspects of the thought of the Reformation. Rudolf Bultmann provides a concise formulation of the voluntarism inherent in fideistic supernaturalism:

  The liberation which Jesus brings does not consist in teaching man to recognize the good as the law of his own human nature, in preaching autonomy in the modern sense. The good is the will of God, not the self-realization of humanity, not man’s endowment. The divergence of Jesus from Judaism is in thinking out the idea of obedience radically to the end, not in setting it aside. His ethic also is strictly opposed to every humanistic ethic and value ethic; it is an ethic of obedience. He sees the meaning of human action not in the development toward an ideal of man which is founded on the human spirit; nor in the realization of an ideal human society through human action. He has no so-called individual or social ethics; the concept of an ideal or end is foreign to him. The concepts of personality and its virtues and of humanity are also foreign to him; he sees only the individual man standing before the will of God. Conduct moreover is not significant because a value is achieved or realized through action; the action as such is obedience or disobedience; thus Jesus has no system of values [italics in original].15

This view combines truth and error. The truth is that Jesus proclaims something more than the fulfillment proper to human nature and makes it clear that even this will be attained only by God’s grace. The error is Bultmann’s gratuitous exclusion of an authentic Christian humanism. His failure to make room for human fulfillment and to recognize its role in grounding moral truth is typical of radical Protestantism. This failure helped to elicit the antireligious response of the Enlightenment and of post-Enlightenment secular humanism.

3. Since all varieties of secular humanism affirm certain elements of the Christian view of the person denied or ignored by classical Christian piety itself, secular humanism appeals even to faithful Christians, despite its rejection of faith. Ultimately, however, the implications of secular humanism are by no means benign. Its own inherent inadequacies frustrate and often grossly pervert its efforts to create on earth a kingdom of God without God.

4. The goal of every secular humanism is a definite and objective state of affairs: the gradual and continuing perfecting of some aspects of persons in community. The character of this definite goal has led to an ethics of effectiveness: What contributes to the goal is good, what obstructs it is evil. This proportionalism has in turn had two effects. First, even the most basic human goods are attacked if they stand in the way of the approved program of progress. Human life, for example, is destroyed in the name of revolutionary progress in the case of Marxism or, as in the case of the present policy on abortion in the United States, for the sake of individual convenience and social utility. Second, existential goods, those realized in morally upright choices, are either ignored or treated as mere components of the goal to be achieved. When pursued as parts of this goal, they also are often compromised for the sake of its other elements.

5. Still more fundamentally, free choice is denied, because a definite, future goal is taken to be the supreme human good. Only technical choices, those concerned with means to ends, are recognized. People who choose not to pursue the goal are considered ignorant, sick, determined by class bias, religious fanaticism, or the like. Secular humanists uniformly appeal to some sort of deterministic theory to account for those who do not share their views and goals.

6. In combination with the assumption that human fulfillment can be attained by human powers, such an explanation, which excludes free choice, entails the denial of radical evil. Secular humanist theories deny sin, both original and personal. They deny that there is any privation which only healing love can overcome. Evil which cannot be ignored or remedied by education and therapy must be dealt with by force. Thus, for a secular humanist ideology mass murder is the appropriate mode of response to intractable problems.

7. The exclusion of free choice also requires the radical reinterpretation of existential goods, which in reality can be realized only in free choices and community-forming commitments. Secular humanists regularly think of these goods as if they were mere psychological and sociological facts. Friendship, for example, is regarded as a set of psychological dispositions and experiences, rather than a bond of fidelity which can last regardless of such facts. The exclusion of free choice implies the exclusion of moral norms antecedent to human desires, and this leads to the loss of the distinction between authority and power. In consequence, justice is regarded as the product of the political process rather than the antecedent principle for forming, carrying out, and judging policies.

8. Secular humanist ideologies tend to politicize the whole of life. In practice, however, a private sphere of social existence cannot be eliminated. Free choice prevails here, but it is without the direction of any socially accepted norms. Thus secular humanism inclines individuals to pursue their own interests wherever and however they can. Wherever a form of secular humanism becomes dominant, moral subjectivism and hedonism—escape from pressure, pain, and tension—prevail in private life.

For secular humanists the ultimate significance of this life is both absolute and nil. It is absolute in the sense that this life is the only life there is; whatever human fulfillment there ever will be must be had here and now. It is nil in the sense that this life points to nothing beyond itself; it is a tale told by a computer, full of clicks and beeps, signifying nothing.

Secular humanists seek to avoid the ultimate dreadful consequences of their view in one or both of two ways. Sometimes they emphasize the satisfactions people can enjoy here and now. This emphasis leads to hedonism. Hedonism leads to selfishness, to individualism, to hypocrisy, to vanity. As Americans, we can see what hedonism means; it is all around us and like a cancer is destroying our society. At other times, secular humanists seek to avoid the emptiness of life by claiming that the present is important as a means to a brighter future for humanity. They project the new heavens and new earth as a goal, and say that present toil and misery will bring this vision to reality—for example, by violent revolution. This emphasis leads to totalitarianism and brutal repression. Communism illustrates what this form of secular humanism does to human persons.

Either form of secular humanism spells death for humankind. The secular humanist prophet proclaims death and more abundant death. Having ridiculed the good news of Jesus for its promise of eternal life—“pie in the sky when you die”—secular humanism delivers the bad news of death by propaganda and other perverse uses of the media, and carries out the deeds which go with this poison: the destruction of untold millions of people already in this present century, the continuing destruction by abortion of tens of millions of Jesus’ littlest ones every year, and the perpetually threatened poison of atomic warfare, by which the majority of the earth’s population will probably one day die.

13. For a very clear and historically competent tracing of this history in its broad outlines: James Hitchcock, What Is Secular Humanism? Why Humanism Became Secular and How It Is Changing Our World (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1982), 7–60. For a rich treatment of the philosophical development: Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile: Modern Atheism: A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from Its Roots in the Cartesian “Cogito” to the Present Day, trans. and ed. Arthur Gibson (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1968).

14. Although defective in some respects, a powerful critique of utopianism: John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 190–259.

15. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 84. For an impartial summary of this trend of thought with further examples, see Edward LeRoy Long, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 146–57. For a very different interpretation of one central Protestant tradition, that stemming from Luther and Melanchthon: Theodore R. Jungkuntz, “Trinitarian Ethics,” Center Journal, 1 (Spring 1982), 39–52.