Humanism – Living Faithfully in a Fallen World

Jimmy JoChrist and Culture, SermonsLeave a Comment

One of the things that we’ve mentioned often over the past several years is the Enlightenment, or that we in the 21st century west are living in the post-Enlightenment.  I’m sure everyone is familiar with the term, but for clarity’s sake, what I am referring to is a movement in the 17th – 18th century that was characterized by the rise of reason (that is to say, human reason), by which human beings could advance knowledge, quality of life (and therefore, happiness), freedom, and etc.  One of the more apparent “achievements” of the Enlightenment was the rise of scientific rationalism.  Human beings sought, and believed we could discover, an explanation for the universe, an understanding of how the world is comprised and how it works, purely through the exercise of reason.  Hence, related to what we have been talking about the past couple of weeks, the Enlightenment marked a significant shift in worldview for most of the western world. 

Concurrent with the Enlightenment, which we might characterize as a way of thinking, was the Industrial Revolution (we might say that this was a result of the Enlightenment, contributed to the Enlightenment, or that they were simply partners in the progress of human beings and human societies).  With the industrial revolution, we saw the advancement of all kinds of technologies, vast improvements in productivity, and significant changes in how human beings conceived of how life was to be lived (for example, the understanding of commerce, moving from farms to cities, and etc.). 

Now by and large, this period of time (characterized, as I said, by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and I’m sure all kinds of other social forces) is seen as a huge leap for human societies.  Today, there are varying degrees of agreement or disagreement as to the large-scale and long-term benefits, but for the most part, people seem to agree that these were good things as far as moving the world forward. 

However, what I would argue is that these movements contributed to and coincided with the rise of secular humanism.  Secular humanism (or simply “humanism” for our purposes) posits the primacy of human beings in matters of human flourishing.  To put it another way, secular humanism believes that human beings have the capacity and the ability to (eventually) do everything that’s required for us to be happy, healthy, successful, and etc.  If human beings are unhealthy, it’s because we have yet to find the right medical technologies.  If human beings are unsafe, it’s because we have yet to find the best system of justice or ethics.  If there is wealth inequality, or too many poor people, we need to keep working on our economic or political frameworks.  And on and on it goes.  But humanism believes that as we advance society and the world, we will eventually get it right. 

In short, humanism believes that human beings are fully capable of creating, a meaningful existence, because human beings are the beginning and end of meaningful existence.  Therefore, from a humanist perspective, what need have we of God? 

If it isn’t clear by now, what we are talking about is a significant shift in worldview, which leads to a significant shift in basic beliefs and consequent beliefs.  Which is to say, because of what we believe about the world, this affects what we believe about how we should be in the world.  And last week, we talked about idolatry and false gods, and I hope it’s clear that what we’re talking about here, when we talk about humanism, is the replacing of God (YHWH) in the human worldview with humanity.  We no longer need or want God.  Because we have become our own gods. 

Now it’s important to note that humanism, though it perhaps saw a significant rise during the Enlightenment period, has a much broader origin than the Enlightenment.  Humanist philosophies are seen in ancient Greece (where we get much of western philosophy).  But going even further back, we can see that this kind of perspective flows directly from the first sin, the first temptation in the garden (which we talked about last time). 

So, with that in mind, I want to bring us to the first of our grounding texts from scripture.  Turning to Genesis 11.  There, we read: 

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1-9

Now there are interpretations of this story (from a source criticism perspective – where does the story come from?) that interprets it as a tale that explains why there are different languages and different races in the world (especially if all the people come from one source – i.e. Adam and Eve).  And I’ve also heard reflections on the story that essentially lament God’s actions in punishing the people for essentially making progress.  From this perspective, God is seen as a capricious, arbitrary God who wants to keep human beings under His thumb (it should be apparent that this interpretation is probably coming from a humanist perspective). 

However, I believe that most biblical theologians agree that if we read this story in the context of the Genesis narrative, what we see is human beings trying to “reach the sky” of their own effort, ingenuity, and willfulness.  At this point in the narrative – post-flood and pre-Abraham – humans have (as far as we can tell) basically forgotten about God.  Therefore, it’s this perspective explains the Babel account as essentially a story about human beings trying to make our own kingdom. 

The tower of Babel story reminds us, I think, of human beings’ inclination to leave God behind, to raise ourselves up to the place of primacy, to decide for ourselves how the world should be, what is right and wrong, and so on.  This story should serve as warning for us and judgement (by which I mean, something by which to measure us). 

The second text that I want to look at today is from 1 Corinthians:

18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. 

1 Corinthians 3:18023

Now I want to remind us that we always have to read scripture in context.  In particular here, Paul is dealing with a problem in the Corinthian congregation.  Without getting into detail, Paul is talking to the church about division in the church here – but the idea that a particular faction (because of their superior teaching, greater understanding, etc) is closer to glory, closer to God, resonates with our theme today.  Simplifying what Paul is pointing to, we don’t follow human beings (in this case, either Paul or Apollos or whomever) we follow Jesus Christ and Christ alone.  It is through the work of Christ, not any human particularism that we are saved and enter into the kingdom of God.

And this leads us to a quick reflection on one final text (today), which points to the reason why we can’t put our trust in human wisdom. 

This final text is only one of many such verses – it’s obviously a significant theme in the biblical narrative.  It’s a verse that we all likely know well, even if we don’t know the entire passage.  Romans 3:10-18 says: 

3:10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10-18

What this passage points to is the fundamental reason for the events in the biblical story – that is, the sinfulness of human beings.  It’s the reason for God’s actions through Abraham, Moses, etc. culminating in the final and complete work of Jesus Christ.  It is precisely because of the sinfulness of human beings that human beings can’t solve the problem of sinfulness (which is the true problem).  The problem requires that God step in – God alone can restore us to who we were meant to be. 

Now a couple of provisos.  Firstly, I should point out that my personal theology tends to lean pretty heavily towards the Reformed tradition.  This is probably obvious to many of you.  And what I mean by that is that I tend to focus on the sovereignty and sufficiency of God.  By the same token, I tend to focus on the sinfulness of human beings which requires the grace of God. 

Now this may not matter much to many of you.  But I point it out because, in our consideration today, I don’t want to give the impression that I think people are terrible.  I do not mean, by any means, to diminish the glory of the image of God in human beings.  I believe that humans are made to create, to work, to discover, to build. 

And by the same token, I don’t mean to suggest that the progress or advancements of human beings in society and in the world are inherently bad.  It’s not as if we should reject computers, electric cars, movies, or anything else because they are the products of human ingenuity.

The other proviso I give is that I do not mean to say that individual human effort (and here, I mean especially in spiritual matters) is neither necessary nor important.  To reject, or be wary of, humanism is not to say that we should do nothing about ourselves or the state of the world.  It is not to say that we should not engage our intellect, our imagination, or our effort.  If nothing else, God calls us to be involved and to use all of our hearts, our minds, and our strength. 

And at this point, I also want to acknowledge that when we start talking about “…isms,” it’s entirely possible that many people don’t care about these things, think that it’s overly theoretical and doesn’t get at the real business of life.  Talking about “…isms” often feels like it’s too much in the clouds and not enough on the ground.  But I think it’s important to think about these things (or at least be aware of them) precisely because we don’t think about them.  When we don’t think about them, the things in the culture around us seep into our being and catch us unawares.

So I believe that the reason this awareness of and critical engagement with humanism, for example, is important is because of our inclination to achieve the Christian life on our own – to leave God out of it.  While we may believe and espouse the importance and sufficiency of grace, we often lament our lack of spiritual growth, the absence of fulfilled prayers, or the decline of Christianity in the western world as a deficiency of effort, ingenuity, or technology. 

Therefore, we think, we have to try harder, think smarter, or build better structures and programs, or hire better pastors and train more volunteers – whatever it may be – in order to build a better kingdom of God. 

Again, I’m not saying any of these things are inherently bad, per se.  But what I am saying is that we have to be aware of the inclination to think that the spiritual life, the kingdom of God, is something that we build.  And what I’m saying is that we live in a world that teaches us this is the way things are and should be, and rewards us when we live according to these principles.  And so instead of seeking God and trusting God, we turn God into our servant to carry out our own plans and purposes.

Now I’m aware of my tendencies towards cynicism in this regard, and I’m also aware that I’m not saying anything new or particularly insightful.  So I want to move on to the, “What do we do now?” part.  (Incidentally, related to our topic today, there’s an interesting thought experiment in homiletics about the obsession that pastors have with providing an application in sermons – are we guilty of technologizing scripture?).  At any rate, we obviously have to think about scripture (looking at how it is God who does the work), repentance (recognizing our own sinfulness and changing our minds, re-orienting ourselves, so that God alone is God), and prayer.  And the specific thing that I want to commend to you today probably makes most sense in relation to prayer (but in truth, it’s related to all of these things). 

In short, what I want to commend to you is the practice or discipline of silence.  We need to learn to be silent in the presence of the Lord so that we can pay attention to His words, to His leading, to His working.  Therefore, by silence, we might interpret what I mean as akin to listening.  But I also relate it to Henri Nouwen’s idea of the practice of solitude.  By solitude, Nouwen means the practice of being alone before God, removing ourselves from the distractions and demands of the world around us, including the people in the world around us, so that we can attend solely to God. 

As we’ve gone through our survey of the Old Testament, one of the patterns that we can pull out is that the heroes of the Old Testament (those we typically think of as the heroes) are only heroes because, and only insofar as they respond to God’s leading.  Noah built the ark because God told him to.  Abraham left his home country because God told him to.  Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt because God told him to.  We saw in the conquest of Canaan that when people tried to take matters into their own hands, they failed.  It’s only as they followed the leading of God that they found success. 

Ruth, as we explored, seems to be an exception as there was no divine intervention, no theophany.  But I would argue that Ruth was responding out of a lived understanding of God, His character, and His purposes.  We talked about this a little bit in our brief study of Ruth, and I don’t want to go on about it, so I’ll leave it at that. 

In one of the books I’m reading – a book on preaching in light of the resurrection – the author relates a story about two people who were invited to lead a missions project.  One of them, someone who had extensive experience and success in the field, immediately began talking about plans and priorities and resources that would be needed to make the project a success.  The other, who was from a country in Africa, remarked, “You are so white.”  Which is a pretty sketchy thing to say.  But he was from a place where people are used to being powerless, dispossessed, and disenfranchised.  From his experience, individual capacity and capability could not be assumed and could not be relied upon precisely because of the culture from which he came (that is, not a western culture).  So his suggestion was that they needed to begin in prayer, looking and waiting for God’s direction. 

Make no mistake about it, both of these people are Godly, faithful people.  But the inclination to take control, to assert power and authority, to use all of our human powers to ensure success is a deeply ingrained western value.  In our culture, in the western culture of the 21st century, we are quick to assume that human involvement is the critical component to success, even in matters of the Kingdom of God.

So, when we plan, do we plan to include God?  And when we pray, are we merely inclined to tell God all of our problems, tell God all of our needs, to essentially give God direction?  How often are we just silent and still before God? 

So, while we are active, while we are involved, we don’t always need to be talking.  We don’t always need to be doing.  We can practice being silent.  We can practice listening for God.  We need to, from time to time, eliminate all the noise and clutter of the world that seeps into our minds and hearts.  God is moving, God has acted, and God will bring about His kingdom according to His purposes.  And we get to be part of that.  We get to participate in God’s mighty works.  But it’s God who accomplishes it.  God is the initiator.  God alone is the fulfiller. 

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46

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