(Cardus) Chad Wellmon–The Year of Whose Lord? Let’s not expect too much of (Christian) humanism

None of [Alan] Jacobs’s Christian humanists would have endorsed Nietzsche’s skepticism about the human or Barth’s distinctively modern theology, least of all Maritain, who would go on to pursue his same project but under the banner of universal human rights. But it is in these moments of intellectual humility and the frank acknowledgment of human finitude, which Jacobs delicately surfaces only ultimately to highlight, that we might find something that the what-is-human? discourse so often lacks: irony. I do not mean in the cultivated-nonchalant manner of certain pragmatists (think Richard Rorty shrugging his shoulders if that helps) or the cynicism of my childhood anti-hero Bart Simpson, but rather in the sense of an acute awareness of how parochial we humans always are. This ironic parochialism, as Charles Mathewes suggests, constrains both what we can know and what we can do; it reminds us of how situationally and historically contingent our forms of knowledge and life activity are, and how they are formed by the time and place allotted to us. Practiced well, such an irony can become a virtue of epistemic and ethical humility that need not necessarily lessen the desire to know or the hopeful expectation of its ultimate fulfillment. Such a parochialism cannot sustain an extension of sympathy to a boundless, universal human being, but it can focus our attention on the world in which we find ourselves. It can encourage a sustained attention to cracks in the universal sheen of sameness and help sustain practices that manage and constrain the compulsion to lose oneself in a void of universal what is humanness.

It can also help us come to terms with what seems to be our lot, namely, that integrity, fullness, or wholeness of human being is neither something to be recovered (a self, a community, a knowledge), nor is it something (a self, a community, a knowledge) to be defended against whatever might threaten it at any given time and place. Such a recovery and renewal––complete, universal, lasting––is not for a world that sits, since the fall and until its redemption, wholly within the saeculum. Our common world is riven by sinful deeds, disordered loves, and the hubris that full knowledge is rightfully ours here and now. And we, Christian or not, have no exclusive claim upon it.

By focusing on a shared world situated squarely in the saeculum, I am not suggesting that those who confess and hope in Christ cannot lead lives different from those who do not, that they ought not cultivate practices that better order their loves and nurture their faith and hope. I am simply arguing that pride may well be the most persistent of vices, a habit that lulls humans into assuming the sufficiency and truth of their own goodness and knowledge. The human, wrote Blaise Pascal, “is nothing but a subject full of error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him.” If we abide the wartime imperative of Jacobs’s Christian humanists to recover what is essentially human, we risk overlooking what knowledge we do have––our all-too-human capacity to mistake proximate for ultimate goods, to mistake our own goodness and knowledge for God’s fullness.

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Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture

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