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So we can speak of the Christian mythos in the same way as we might talk about an historical novel, though the analogy is not perfect Jennings The Christian mythos is that in Jesus of Nazareth, God became truly human in order that we might become fully human in the image of God.

This is the theological basis for Christian humanism, as Zimmermann has thoroughly articulated in his Incarnational Humanism. But as he tells us, something that I too affirm, we are not seeking 'to invent something new but rather to retrieve an ancient Christian humanism for our time in response to the general demand for a common humanity beyond religious, denominational, and secular divides'.

Yet, both he and I also assert, that 'orthodox Christology provides the most promising source for a common vision of a truly human society' Zimmermann b: This does not mean that what is often taken for 'orthodoxy' has always got it right when it comes to a praxis that is faithful to its Christological source. But if not, what can it mean? As someone who spoke and wrote about the theological justification of apartheid as a heresy, I obviously recognize that there come moments in history when the boundaries that define what it means to be Christian and the church of Jesus Christ have to be drawn.

My understanding of the church as an inclusive community is contingent precisely on the rejection of false boundaries determined by ethnicity, gender, class or sexual orientation.


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I am not suggesting that this is the 'orthodox' way to understand the classical creeds, but I am saying that there are boundaries that determine the character of the church even if there is disagreement as to where and when those boundaries are to be drawn. This was the problem which confronted Bonhoeffer in responding to the German Christians who supported Hitler and promoted the Nazification of the Protestant Church.

Both sides in the Kirchenkampf recited the creeds and affirmed the Lutheran confessions, but Bonhoeffer understood them hermeneutically not literally, christologically and not ideologically. There may have been consensus on, for example, the 'two natures of Christ' but there was clearly disagreement on who Jesus Christ was for them at that historical juncture 6. The Barmen Declaration was a confessional response to that question within that historical context and, as such, assumed credal significance if not status.

Although Bonhoeffer's own response to his question 'who is Jesus Christ for us today' was hermeneutically located within that context, it was undoubtedly in continuity with the ancient creeds, despite the influence of his great liberal teacher Adolf von Harnack, for whom they were highly problematic. For Harnack, following Jesus rather than believing in the 'Christ of the creeds' was the essence of Christianity von Harnack In taking this position, Harnack rightly maintained that discipleship is not the same as believing in a doctrine about Jesus as the Christ.

Yet contrasting discipleship and believing in a doctrine in this way is surely a category mistake. Discipleship and faith as commitment to Jesus as Lord belong together, as Bonhoeffer expressed so powerfully in Discipleship Bonhoeffer Harnack's problem, as Rudolf Bultmann said, was that he did 'not clearly see the difference between the kerygmatic character of the Gospel and an 'Enlightenment doctrine or an ethical appeal' von Harnack Jesus became the timeless truth about God and eternity, about the human soul and the good life, rather than the witness to God's coming kingdom amidst the historical and political realities of his day.

It is true that many seek to follow Jesus without accepting the claim that he is the Christ of Christian faith, but it seems to me that faith in Jesus as 'the Christ' is fundamental to being Christian.

I am not saying that there is no 'Jesus before Christianity', as Albert Nolan portrayed in his book of that title, nor am I saying that Jesus only has significance within Christianity, for Jesus was not a Christian; nor am I saying that you have to be a Christian to follow Jesus, or that many who follow Jesus do not do so much better than many Christians. What I am saying is that Christianity as it evolved already in the apostolic period was Christological not Jesu-logical, and that the doctrine of the Incarnation was already implicit.

To my mind, no one has explored this development more fully than Dunn whose conclusion is that while we 'cannot claim that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnate Son of God', we can say that this conviction was 'an appropriate reflection on and elaboration of Jesus' own sense of sonship and eschatological mission' Dunn In sum, we cannot delete the doctrine of the Incarnation from Christianity without destroying its integrity as Christian faith. Having said that, I would equally say that to believe that 'God was in Christ' is not the same as believing in the doctrine as doctrine.

It is, rather, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics in continuity with what he said in Discipleship but put differently , becoming 'conformed to the Incarnate One'. And this is fundamental to Christian humanism. In fact, nowhere to my knowledge have the humanist ethical implications of the Incarnation been so well expressed as in this section of the Ethics where, inter alia , Bonhoeffer writes: To stress the point, I am not talking about believing in a doctrine, but about life being shaped by the reality to which that doctrine points. For Bonhoeffer this was fundamental to following Jesus and therefore to the Christian mythos.

And, of course, the same applied to being conformed to the 'crucified One' and the 'risen One', that is, living in solidarity with the suffering and struggles of the world, and living and acting in hope of new life and the just transformation of present reality. Christian humanism, as I understand it, then, is founded on a 'high Christology' shaped by a reading of the gospel mythos , but kenotic, not triumphalist in character. By this I mean that when we confess Jesus Christ as 'truly God' we are saying that the God in whom we believe has been revealed in history as the one who, for us , is most truly human.

Too often Christians turn this around so that their definitions of God all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. Of course, to say Jesus is the 'truly human One' is a confession of faith that arises out of a reading of the Christian tradition, even though it begs many questions. For example, in what sense is Jesus to be regarded as such? Is Jesus the only truly human One? Are the rest of us humans not truly human and, if not, are we less than human?

How then are we to define being human, and being more truly so?

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Discussion of these requires another lengthy conversation which is beyond the scope of this essay, but some hints as to how that may develop must be given here. What I have said thus far is about the basis for Christian humanism, something premised on a faith claim.

As such it is alien to people of other faiths and secular humanists even though there may be agreement on the importance of its outcomes and acceptance of the need for such a theological strategy. But it is precisely at this point that Schweiker focuses his critique and challenge to my approach. Without denying the importance of historical traditions or Christian confession, he rightly wants theological humanism to be 'tested in the unending work of interpretation and rumination aimed at understanding'.

This is necessary if we are to avoid a triumphalism - even in the name of humanity - that reduces 'the other' to the status of junior partner in the humanist endeavour. In fact it requires a theological humanism fashioned in dialogue and solidarity with those who come to similar conclusions yet from a different perspective.

And that, in turn, may require of us a new, liberating language in which to express our faith in Christ, as Bonhoeffer anticipated. This does not mean ditching the fundamental premise of Christianity, otherwise there is no specifically Christian contribution to the discussion. But if my confessional Christian humanism is, at one level, affirmed by Schweiker, at another he prompts me to go further for the sake of a broader theological humanism in which the integrity of life becomes the key affirmation.

What, then, needs to be considered as we take the Christian humanist or theological neo-humanist project further? A priority must surely be to engage with humanists of other traditions in clarifying both areas of agreement and disagreement and thus, together with them, set an agenda for further discussion and engagement as we did in the New Humanist project at STIAS Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies in which Schweiker participated de Gruchy c. This requires those of us who are Christians to explore in greater depth the theological foundations of our own faith claims and perspectives.

But it will also help us understand better what resources we bring to the table as Christians who seek to be humanists, and as humanists who seek to be Christian. So now, within the parameters of this essay, I want to explore further, with Zimmermann, the genealogy of a genuinely Christian humanism, and its potential for the renewal of culture and the common good, and in doing so reflect a little on the significance of the church. Apart from sharing in a common task, what do we bring to the dialogue table?

Christian humanism

Zimmermann's premise is that Western secularism is exhausted, having lost its roots in the religious tradition that gave birth to secularity and modernity. The resultant vacuum has been filled by the resurgence of religion, chiefly in fundamentalist forms. The consequences are serious and potentially disastrous, especially given the fact that the West is increasingly culturally plural in character due to the influx of many immigrants for whom secularism is alien, humanism threatening and Christianity problematic.

At the same time, for many secularists, religion has not only lost whatever significance it might have had and become the prime target of rebuttal, the enemy of humanism, and the cause of social conflict. This is undoubtedly true of some forms of religion, but not true of all religion. On the contrary, religion, including Christianity, is historically and remains potentially a source of humanism. Examining the Christian humanist tradition is, therefore, an 'essential hermeneutical task' in making possible the renewal of Western culture and 'integrating other religiously formed cultures into Western societies' Zimmermann b: Zimmermann's agenda is focused specifically on the West; Prozesky and I are more global in interest and specifically concerned about South Africa.

But we all share the same concern for the recovery and building of humane values that enable the flourishing of life in building societies and nations, and the role of Christianity as one significant agent in doing so.

Christian humanism - Wikipedia

A preliminary question which must be brought to the fore is whether and to what extent Zimmermann's analysis and prognosis relates meaningfully to our South African context. This was part of the rationale for my initiation of and participation in the project at STIAS in which eventually led to the publication of The Humanist Imperative in South Africa to which I previously referred.

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Two factors suggest that there is a connection between this project and Zimmermann's. The first is that South African culture has been profoundly influenced by the West as a result of colonization, and by Christianity as a result of Christian missionary endeavour, not least the education of those cohorts of African leaders who established the African National Congress. In many respects they were Christian humanists in the sense described by Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and embodied in the likes of Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela.

Their imprint on the Freedom Charter and our present Constitution is part of that humanist legacy, as is our Constitution.

The second has to do with the extent to which Christianity in our context has lost its humanist thrust implicit, if not necessarily explicit, in Christology. The reasons are not unlike those in other contemporary societies dominated by fundamentalism and more susceptible to secularism than previously. So Zimmermann's contribution to the debate, while centered on the West, resonates with the issues as I understand them in our own situation in important respects. Heeding Heidegger's injunction to critically retrieve tradition in order to transform the world, Zimmermann's aim is neither to return to Christendom, within which Christianity attempts to reign supreme over culture, nor to resuscitate previous forms of Christian humanism.

Instead, he goes behind modernity to explore the theological origins of humanism in the West with its foundations already laid in classical culture. Western humanism, he reminds us, is deeply rooted in the biblical assertion that humanity bears the 'image of God'. The Patristic faith-claim that God becomes fully human in Christ in order that humans may become truly like God, and therefore truly human is foundational. So too, is the correlation of faith and reason, with faith being necessary for rationality and self-understanding.

The result is 'a profound sense of human dignity, solidarity, and freedom based on a reasonable faith' Zimmermann a: Scholastic humanism in the Middle Ages, Zimmermann observes going further, was built on and developed Patristic humanism in a way that some regard as 'the most important kind of humanism Europe has ever produced' Zimmermann b: Unfortunately scholastic theology was incapable of keeping pace with these developments, and not only became rigid but also fractured.

It thereby undermined the synthesis of faith and reason which Renaissance humanism sought to affirm. That humanism, articulated in the work of Erasmus, the pre-eminent Christian humanist of his day, was more than the forerunner of a post-Enlightenment secular humanism; it was an attempt to recover the Christian humanism of the Patristic period which laid the foundation for Western culture as expressed in education, art and science.

But already in the Renaissance the ontology which provided the basis for Christian humanism was being eroded from within until the synthesis between faith and reason, theology, philosophy and science, collapsed. In a way that is reminiscent of some of Bonhoeffer's key insights in his Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer This movement away from the Patristic tradition radically altered the basis on which Western cultural humanism has to be sustained, not just philosophically but in a world radically changed by historical developments and the dominance of empirical science.

The inevitable result was the birth not just of secular humanism but also anti-humanism typified by Nietzsche and his nihilistic heirs which eventually found devastating expression in the Holocaust. The hermeneutical task confronting us, then, is to re-articulate a religious humanist ethos and praxis based on the conviction that 'this can renew Western identity and its zeal for knowledge subservient to the common good of a full humanity' Zimmermann b: This corresponds with Schweiker's position and leads Zimmermann to a discussion of dominant strands in contemporary Islam which firmly reject Western secularism but seem unable to retrieve their own humanist tradition and avoid the dangers of fundamentalism.

For Zimmermann, this needs to begin specifically with 'the Judeo-Christian roots of values such as human dignity, freedom, hope and social responsibility', in a way that enables both secular and other religious world views to 'unite towards the common goal of becoming most fully human' Zimmermann b: But he is also aware of the need to engage Muslim scholars as well.


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  • This leads him to a discussion of contemporary Islam which firmly rejects Western secularism but is largely unable to retrieve its own humanist tradition and avoid the dangers of fundamentalism. Muslim and Christian scholars, as well as those of other faith traditions, need to engage each other around these issues in order to generate a general humanist ethos capable of tackling the crisis in Western and global culture.

    Critical towards this end is the reintegrating of faith and reason which takes us beyond the deconstruction of fideism and secularism to a widening of the concept of reason, an avoidance of fundamentalism, and a deepening of the meaning of faith. Three axioms should guide such mutual reflection. First , that self-knowledge or truth requires ethical transcendence; second , that such self-knowledge is hermeneutical; and third , that it requires aesthetics.

    Certainly, without the recovery of some sense of transcendence the future of the humanities is unlikely, humanism itself beyond recovery, and the crisis in Western culture irresolvable Schweiker In response to this challenge, Zimmermann engages the work of key Western philosophers of recent times.

    Amongst them are Derrida, Lyotard, Kristeva, Kearney and Vattimo who provide insight though none is able to recover the synthesis between faith and reason of past tradition and therefore provide the philosophical basis for the recovery of Incarnational humanism today. More promising is Gadamer's 'hermeneutic humanism', which recognizes religious dialogue as essential for the future of humanity, and of the renewal of the humanities as key to the renewal of culture, and Levinas' 'humanism of the Other' which provides the 'most striking example of the need of incarnational theology' Zimmermann b: What is needed, Zimmermann insists, is not just a 'transcendental humanism', but one which is incarnational, beyond dualism and rooted in historical experience.

    This brings Zimmermann to the theologians who are his chief interlocutors, Maurice Blondel and especially Bonhoeffer. What unites the Catholic philosopher and the Lutheran theologian is their affirmation of the Incarnation as the basis for correlating faith and reason, philosophy and theology, and therefore the unity of knowledge in the service of humanity. But it is Bonhoeffer's Christological humanism that finally becomes the major resource for the recovery of Christian humanism for today for both Zimmermann and myself.

    The recognition of Bonhoeffer as a Christian humanist is of seminal importance in my own work, though Zimmermann has examined his legacy more thoroughly within the broader narrative of Patristic humanism 7. Bon-hoeffer's Christian humanism, Zimmermann writes: The ground is now prepared for me to re-engage Prozesky's term 'post-ecclesiastical', for Bonhoeffer's Christology is ecclesiological at its core. In his dissertation Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer boldly declared that 'Christ exists as the church-community' Bonhoeffer By this he was not referring to a particular ecclesiastical institution, but to that vicarious representative community in which Christ is present in the world as the beginning of a new humanity, or humanity restored.

    This was a constant theme throughout his theological development, until finally in his prison letters he spoke of 'Jesus's 'being for others' 'as the experience of transcendence', and as consequence, 'the church is only the church when it is there for others' Bonhoeffer In other words, the character of the ecclesia is determined by the way it answers the question: Retrieved 3 September In Copson, Andrew ; Grayling, Anthony.

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