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Being Human : Confessions of a Christian Humanist – J. de Gruchy

October 23, 2015

BHWhen I was chairman of our local Standing Advisory Council on Religious education, I received regular mailings from the British Humanist Association, some of which were addressed to ‘Dear Member’. Some were amused, more were perplexed that a Christian could belong to the BHA but it needs to be pointed out that early humanists like Erasmus were Christians. Indeed, this book was dedicated on ‘The Feast of Thomas More, Humanist and martyr.’

The title echoes the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine’ who was concerned with building the City of God. ‘Thy kingdom come…on earth’?

I feel that I have far more in common with many who work for justice and peace in secular than with many fellow Christians for whom church is the key, if not the only, sphere of activity. The author shows how people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela embody ‘kingdom values’. After all, Christianity is about setting people free and this is what these people committed their lives to.

Christianity has been a tool of oppression as well as liberation, which is why humanist movements like secularism and science have been important in setting people free.

The author is clearly revered in international circles though less well known in the UK. We once did a broadcast service where he preached – new had rehearsed every detail for exact timing but his sermon overran so much that the anthem, for which many former choir members had travelled long distance to perform, was cut! That shows how important this man is.

The author met with other scholars, who concluded: Humanism, it was recognised, has evolved over the centuries within different historical and cultural contexts, driven by various philosophical perspectives, political agendas and religious traditions, and is described in varied terms. The humanist impulse in southern Africa can be traced back to the earliest indigenous peoples who inhabited the land and whose descendents are part of the contemporary South African demographic mosaic. In colonial and post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa it found expression in the writings and speeches of African leaders and intellectuals in the struggle for independence and against apartheid. Underlying African humanism, within the southern African context in particular, has been the concept of ubuntu – a term which generated some critical reflection at the symposia because of its abuse, but one which was acknowledged and affirmed as expressing a genuinely African humanist vision of human dignity that is of global importance. The legacy and development of African humanism and the way in which it has been appropriated, developed and expressed in South Africa is of critical importance for the future. Liberal humanism, present within minority segments of colonial society, energised European missionary opposition to slavery and shaped liberal opposition to the racial segregation of society. A social democratic humanist commitment and vision has also made a major contribution to our constitution. Woven through each of these humanist trajectories are religious perspectives that have often had to counter the misuse of religion in impeding the establishment of democratic values in affirming human dignity and the entrenchment of human rights.

Invariably each form of humanism, whatever its contribution to the common good, has proved inadequate in some respect(s) to the unfolding course of events and new knowledge. Humanism has thus had to be critically reformulated and embodied. From our vantage points we considered these weaknesses and agreed that uncritically adopting any one form of humanism would be inadequate for dealing with the challenges now facing us globally and locally. These challenges have been part of human experience for centuries, but they have become more complex and intense in our time as the frequently repeated litany about war, violence, poverty, injustice, oppression, corruption, economic greed and environmental degradation, constantly reminds us. A further litany of particular challenges facing the humanist ethos poses additional threats to our commitment to a common humanity as enshrined in our constitution: racism, nationalism, tribalism, patriarchialism and fundamentalism – each of which prefers and exalts one group over another. Moreover, we agreed that any humanism which uncritically regards humanity as the measure of all things at the expense of the environment, and is incapable of perceiving the extent to which even well-intentioned humanisms can be self-serving, is woefully short-sighted.


In one of his books, A. M. Hunter, the New Testament scholar, relates the story of a dying man who asked his Christian doctor to tell him something about the place to which he was going. As the doctor fumbled for a reply, he heard a scratching at the door, and he had his answer. “Do you hear that?” he asked his patient. “It’s my dog. I left him downstairs, but he has grown impatient, and has come up and hears my voice. He has no notion what is inside this door, but he knows that I am here. Isn’t it the same with you? You don’t know what lies beyond the Door, but you know that your Master is there.”

Christian fundamentalism, like that of other faiths, shows little respect for difference. As a result, it rides roughshod over issues of human rights, and gives its support to political programmes that are jingoistic and militaristic in character. No one has expressed this more clearly in recent times than Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi in Britain, in his book, The Dignity of Difference. ‘Fundamentalism,’ he writes there, ‘like imperial­ism, is the attempt to impose a single way of life on a plural world. It is the Tower of Babel of our time.’21 In discussing fundamentalism later I will develop this a little more, espe­cially when I refer to my own conversion and experience. But whether fundamentalist or not, much Christianity gives the word ‘Christian’ a bad name. The sad truth is that Christians and churches do not always live up to their calling, alienating many who might still venerate Jesus but who have little time for his representatives.

Christian humanists believe that we should join with secu­lar humanists and people of other faiths in the struggle for human rights, freedom, dignity, justice and peace, and sus­tainable policies for the environment. Christian humanists nonetheless affirm a humanism that is distinct because it is shaped by faith in Christ. Being a Christian humanist implies that one is committed to human dignity, rights and freedom, and has some real hope for humanity; and being a Christian humanist suggests that these commitments and this hope are inseparable from one’s faith in Jesus Christ.

Christian humanists believe that the salvation we have in Christ is not about making us more religious but more fully human, reconciling relationships, restoring human wholeness and well-being, and unlocking potential and creativity. Cen­tral to this process of humanization is a spirituality rooted in the Bible, worship and prayer, a spirituality of struggle both personal and social for those things that make for genuine peace.

Christian humanists believe that the Christian Church is called to be a sign of the ‘new humanity’ God has brought into being through the death and resurrection of Christ; and therefore to live, act and hope in ways that contribute to human well-being in all its dimensions, countering the de­humanizing and depersonalizing tendencies of bad religion, secularism and scientism. Christian humanists are ecumen­ical rather than narrowly denominational in their vision, but recognize that the unity of the Church is as much, if not more about overcoming divisions of ethnicity, nationality, class and gender, as it is about resolving ecclesiastical differences.

Christian humanists today, like those of the past, have a love of learning in search of practical wisdom; a respect for difference yet a commitment to truth; a passion for justice and peace that transcends the confines of national loyalties; and a sensibility to the aesthetic that espouses beauty and encour­ages creativity. As such, Christian humanists, like those of the Renaissance, seek to relate Christian faith to the best in human culture, whether classical or cultural, whether local or global, whether European or African or Asian…. Certainly, people of other faith tra­ditions, Jewish or Muslim for example, with whom I have spoken, respond positively to this position in terms of their own faith commitments. And they do so because it represents a timely counter and alternative to the rampant secularism and religious fundamentalisms that surround us. If such con­cerns are kept in the foreground, we may yet find Christian humanism a useful tool rather than one of flawed steel.

We discovered this more in the struggle against apartheid than we did in the classroom as people of different faiths and none at all joined forces in opposing dehumanizing policies and practices. More conservative Christians, as well as those of other religious traditions, may find it difficult to appreciate the extent to which such sharing together in a common strug­gle for human dignity and equality challenges and changes one’s perceptions, and creates awareness of the priority of being human together.

St Augustine, acutely aware of his own faults, described this moral bondage as ‘original sin’, tracing it back to Adam and propounding that it was sexually transmitted to the rest of us. No one to my knowledge believes the latter any longer, and many have difficulty with the notion of ‘original sin’ brought about by some primordial Fall from innocence.

Clearly a literal reading of the Genesis account, something that Augustine himself quite explicitly rejected, cannot be reconciled with what we know of the cosmos and the emergence of human life. After all, how does an initial Fall with all its consequences, literally understood, fit into current views of an expanding universe if it presupposes an initial perfect world, a paradise lost as a result of our first parents’ sin? But the bib­lical authors, despite their pre-scientific world-view, were not as naïve as many who read the story. Their majestic account of our being made from the dust of the earth in the ‘image of God’, of our loss of innocence through ignorance, arro­gant wilfulness, and a desire to ‘play God’, remains a truthful depiction of how we experience the world and ourselves. It also tallies well with the gradual awakening of consciousness and moral responsibility towards each other and the earth. You do not have to believe in ‘total corruption’ to recognize the reality of human nature as ‘fallen’, and therefore in need of healing and wholeness. No matter how good any of us may be, there is always a corner somewhere in our lives that cries out for forgiveness and grace.

While being alone is often something longed for, cherished and sometimes needed, the dread of loneliness and the fear of death are on the same continuum. So, too, is the fear of being forgotten.

Some animals, dolphins for example, also ap­pear more intelligent than humans in certain respects. This I may be corroborated by the fact that few animals died in the Asian Tsunami, suggesting a ‘sixth sense’ that warned them of danger, prompting them to move speedily to higher ground.

Right-wing Christian fundamentalism may not have the same extreme militant character we now associate with radical forms of Islam, but its unqualified support of Western militarism is certainly perceived by many Muslims as a threat to global peace and their own well-being. Many Muslims regard globalization as the means whereby the West is seeking to spread its secularist views, and see Western military enterprises as the new Christian crusade to overthrow Muslim lands. Of course, this contemporary scenario has a long history stretch­ing back into the Middle Ages, so the problem is not simply one that can be laid at the door of Christian fundamentalism today. Most sections of what was called Christendom have been at fault in this respect, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. The litany of their failures makes appalling read­ing when one considers the legacy of inquisition and crusade, and more recently, of holocaust and apartheid, all carried out in the name of Christ. When Christianity is bad, whether fundamentalist or not, like all bad religion of whatever creed, it can be awful.

Such bad religion is ugly, violent and dehumanizing both in its character and its consequences. It leads to hatred, self-righteousness and idolatry. Christianity has at times certainly betrayed its origins and ethos in this way, and it is not alone in doing so. The Lordship of Christ as the suffering servant who gives his life for the sake of the world must surely mean something different from the triumphalist spirit of ideological self-interest wherever it surfaces within the Christian Church. Whereas Muslim extremists engage in acts of violence, shout­ing ‘Allah is great’, Christians too often, like the crusaders of old, do battle against terror, crying ‘Jesus is Lord’. Such triumphalism is certainly not Christian. As George Lind-beck put it, the ‘crusader’s battle cry “Christus est Dominus (Christ is Lord)” … is false when used to authorize cleaving: the skull of an infidel’,”

While reading from the Torah I unwittingly uttered the sacred name for God revealed to Moses beside the burn­ing bush (Exodus 3.14). There are many names for God in the Hebrew Bible, Adonai and Elohim among them, but there is one name that is above all others, a name of such immensity and mystery that it should never be uttered. In the original Hebrew text there are no vowels, so the sacred name simply reads: YHWH, usually translated ‘I am who I am’, though there is uncertainty about its pronunciation. Other Hebrew names for God bring God within our reach; they describe God in terms we can grasp by analogy with our own experi­ence. But YHWH refers to the God beyond our imagination, literally so. To utter the word is unpardonable for it suggests an arrogant familiarity with God, an ability to ‘image God’, and thus a breaking of the First Commandment. In order to convey the sacredness of this Name, many of my later Jewish students wrote ‘G-d’ in their essays.

Having uttered the sacred Name in my Hebrew teacher’s study, there was nothing I could do to reverse the situation. He was deeply disturbed by my indiscretion, not least because he had heard the Name however incorrectly pronounced. He closed the Bible, rose from his desk, left the room to wash his hands and face, and, returning sometime later, ushered me firmly out of the house. Few words were spoken; but those that were made it clear that my Hebrew lessons, with him at least, had now come to an end. He did not dare take the risk of hearing me make the same dreadful mistake. My next teacher at Rhodes University was a Baptist, so the danger of commit­ting the same error of judgement was considerably lessened. But the experience remains vivid. We Christians are often too casual in the way in which we talk about God.

In theistic tradition, God has been and is known by many names. This does not mean that God changes or develops, as though God was once a God of anger and only later be­came compassionate. But there are images of God that have been used to sanction domination, discrimination and de­humanization, and others that speak of God as the God of love, mercy and justice. This ‘naming of God’ is an essential part of the ‘grand narrative’ of a faith community, one from which the community derives its identity, as for example in the development of the Christian doctrine of the triune God. It is also invariably related to the social and political forces that have shaped the particular historical contexts in which a faith community has developed. As David Nicholls reminds us, ‘successive concepts and images of God have been related to political rhetoric’, and ‘have to some degree echoed, or at times heralded changes in the social structure and dynam­ics — in the economic, political and cultural life — of given communities’.124

Even if we do not believe, the images of the God we re­ject are constructed, at least in part, by the cultural contexts in which we live, and by our own experience. None of this implies that all images are of equal merit, or equally reflect what many of us would regard as the core of biblical tradition. Many people who have rejected belief in God have an image of God that often bears little resemblance to God as understood by the great theistic faith communities. There are many idols, images of God that are inadequate, distorting and perverting what the great traditions of faith hold true. Theologians of all traditions are often the best iconoclasts, the breakers of false images, knowing only too well how easily their own religion can become idolatrous.

Largely because the Christian story emphasizes the love of God and has traditionally given preference to the term ‘Father’, we have often assumed a familiarity with God that too eas­ily reduces our understanding of God to that of a ‘household god’ with whom we occasionally chat. When we do so we lose a sense of God’s transcendent holiness that is so fundamental to Judaism, Islam and also Christian tradition. But there are other ways in which we use the name ‘God’ far too casually, not least when we use it to justify our own agendas

I have long found Irenaeus’ insights among the most helpful in thinking about the process of salvation. Converted to Christ in Asia Minor in the latter half of the second century Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons in Gaul, where he was martyred. A biblical theologian and apologist of considerable stature, his understanding of human sin pre-dates that of Augustine’s doc­trine of the Fall. At the risk of over-simplification, he argued that humanity was not made perfect at creation, but innocent and immature.'” The story of Adam and Eve is the story of every human being, the grand narrative of which all our stories are a part, though our own personal stamp marks each. Sub­ject to hurtful passions, men and women, ungrateful for what they are as human beings, disobey God by trying to be gods.

Irenaeus’ insights relate well to an evolutionary perspec­tive on the growth of consciousness as a result of making bad choices. From this perspective original sin means that each one of us is born into a still un­finished, imperfect universe where there already exist strong pressures — many of them inherited culturally over count­less generations — for us to acquiesce in an indifference to God’s creative cosmic aim of maximizing beauty. Original sin consists of all the forces that lead us away from partici­pation in this most essential and vitalizing pursuit.

We are all contaminated by this human failure, not as a re­sult of some genetic flaw, but as a result of our ‘entering a world in which the banality and ugliness of evil are tolerated so easily’. This is what it means to be ‘in Adam’. Unless we recognize and deal with this ‘shadow side’ to our lives and personalities we won’t be able to journey towards human maturity and wholeness.

By contrast, redemption or salvation, as Irenaeus under­stood it, came about as a result of the reversal of this down­ward spiral in the story of humanity through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the story of the incarna­tion, Jesus born of Mary overcame Adam and Eve’s disobe­dience through obedience. Irenaeus described this process in two different ways. The first was ‘deification’. God became a human being in Jesus Christ in order to make us truly divine; that is, to restore God’s image in us. While few biblical texts speak directly of deification,’ this understanding of salvation is deeply rooted in the writings of the early Church fathers and is central to Eastern Orthodoxy. It refers to a growth in holiness or ‘mystical union’ with God, in which humans come to share in the attributes of God, such as love, self-giving and compassion. Deification is the work of the Spirit changing hu­man nature to reflect the divine nature. As venerable as this description of the process of salvation is, I hesitate to use it. To say someone is ‘divine’ today often means something quite different from holiness. A person who claims ‘divine’ status is invariably a tyrant, a gangster, a pop star or a boxer. I cannot but think that true saints, martyrs and prophets would find it pretentious. Jesus, who had every right to claim such a status, refused even to be called good (Luke 18.19).

The other concept used by Irenaeus to describe the process of salvation was ‘recapitulation’, a term borrowed from the letter to the Ephesians (1:10). Understood in this way, re­demption is the restoration or fulfilment of our humanity as all things are brought to completion in Christ. Reflecting on the doctrine of recapitulation, Tillich wrote: Adam is fulfilled in Christ; this means that Christ is the essential man, the man Adam was to become but did not actually become. Adam was not in a state of fulfilment from the beginning; he lived in childish innocence. Here we have a profound doctrine of what I call a transcendent human­ism, a humanism which says that Christ is the fulfilment of essential man, of the Adamic nature … we can become fully human through participation in this full humanity which has appeared in Christ.

Interpreted in this way, we can say that God became fully human in Christ, not in order to make us divine, but to make us truly human. In effect, and properly understood, this pro­cess of humanization is not ultimately different from deifica­tion because they both refer to the restoration of the ‘image of God’ and our transformation by the Spirit. Yet humanization, a word widely used in ecumenical circles in the 19 Gos and by Buthelezi in connection with evangelism, does seem to be a better, more modest and appropriate way to describe salva­tion. Not only does it tie in better with what I have said about `mature worldliness’ in conformity to the life, death and res­urrection of Jesus, but it also reminds us of what I wrote at the beginning about human well-being and the recovery of innocence.

But there is another aspect to Irenaeus’ theology that I find helpful, even if speculative, that takes us further along these lines. His understanding of recapitulation is given credence by advances in micro-biology in the recognition that the ‘DNA of any person contains, as well, the DNA history of not only humanity as a whole but of life in general’. John Robinson put this with startling clarity when, in The Human Face of God, he wrote: Jesus must have been linked in his biological tissue to the origin of life on this planet and behind that to the whole inorganic process of reaching back to the star dust and the hydrogen atom … as any other living thing … theologic­ally this has indeed always been asserted by saying that the Incarnation was prepared from the foundation of the world.”

What was lost ‘in Adam’ is retrieved ‘in Christ’; redemption is not the salvation of the soul, but rather the recapitulation of the totality of human life along with the whole of creation. We recall the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans (8.22) about ‘the whole creation’ which ‘has been groaning in tra­vail together until now’ along with the rest of us, awaiting re­demption in Christ. All of this, whether from a theological or biological perspective, indicates a deep connection between human beings and the rest of creation, within an evolutionary/ historical and cosmological framework, as well as that of the history of redemption. Bonhoeffer called recapitulation a ‘magnificent conception, full of promise’. It means, in effect, ‘that nothing is lost, that everything is taken up into Christ, although it is transformed, made transparent, clear and free from all selfish desire’.

In a remarkable vision based on his scientific endeavours but going well beyond them and echoing Paul’s teaching on the ‘cosmic Christ’ (Colossians 1.15-20), Teilhard spoke of evolution as an ongoing process moving towards Christ as the ‘Omega Point’ of all creation. Starting with evolution­ary theory that roots humanity in the earth, connecting us to all other forms of life, Teilhard ends with a vision of all life, including human life, finding its goal or end in the cosmic Christ in and through whom all things are finally brought to fulfilment. From this perspective, to be human has to do both with our connectedness to the earth, and our sharing in a common journey and destiny with ‘Adam’ and ‘Christ’. Or, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans: ‘As in Adam all die; in Christ shall all be made alive’ (5.12-21). The thrust of evolution, in other words, is towards human fulfilment, by which is meant arriving at the point where human beings ‘can share, consciously and fully, in the creative activity of God’.183 Understood in this way, Christian redemption is both the sanctification and humanization of all endeavour, and thus the basis for a new Christian humanism rooted in the earth and expressed in human activity from the humblest to the most sublime.

It may well be, as Jurgen Moltmann pointed out, that Teil­hard failed to recognize the ambiguities, in evolution, and therefore ‘paid no attention to evolution’s victims’. Though impressed by his courage during the First World War, I was dumbfounded by his uncritical patriotism and the optimistic spirit in which he accepted the appallingly inhuman condi­tions in the trenches and the death of comrades, including two of his brothers.”‘ Can this really be justified on the basis of evolutionary progress? I do not think so. Yet as Charles Raven put it, `Teilhard’s full-scale interpretation of cosmic evolution in terms of the universal Christ disposes at once of the versions of creation and fall that depose God from his world and assign to man the power to frustrate God’s purpose …’ In Teilhard’s vision, the old heretical dualisms of ‘matter and mind, body and spirit, God and the devil are plainly tran­scended’. This is not unlike Bonhoeffer’s own understand­ing that in Christ, the separation of the world and of God is overcome.

Jim Forest, former General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, reminds us of the British com­edy film Last Holiday. George Bird, a cautious civil servant, dreads life, is dull and unattractive to women. Persistent headaches send him to a doctor. But as a result of bureaucratic bungling his diagnosis is confused with someone else’s. All he needs is an aspirin, but he is told that he has only six weeks to live. This startling information transforms his life. He imme­diately stops work and embarks on a perpetual holiday, doing things he never dreamt of, spending all his money, and in the process becoming attractive to women. Suddenly important people, bankers, politicians, CEOs, seek his advice, sensing that he has ‘a mysterious quality, a detachment and freedom that make him a figure to be reckoned with’. But all too soon, on one of his errands of mercy, he is killed in a motorcar accident. The doctor’s prediction came true after all. But the recognition of his impending death had set Bird free to live life more fully than he had ever done. ‘Bird’s death sentence has been his liberation

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