Hilary Le Cornu
Humanism is commonly regarded in evangelical Christian circles as a source of many of the evils of modern society. Humanism is considered to foster, embody, and generate a large number of the forces of secularism against which it is the duty of the good Christian to fight. Although the social characteristics through which humanism manifests itself are quickly identified by many people – laymen as well as professionals, the extent to which humanism and secularism not only go hand in hand but represent two sides of the same coin deserves more study. This article examines the conceptual or philosophical aspects of secularism in an attempt to demonstrate how humanism is founded on a set of overtly secular epistemological “grounds of knowledge”. It will do so by using a parable of sorts – a narrative by which we can perhaps better apprehend humanism’s ties with secularism – and the danger to which the radicalization of this process leads.
The parable is told, among others, by Boccaccio in the Decameron (1353), a medieval collection of short stories. Among these is the tale of a magic ring, in whose power it lay to bestow grace upon its owner and goodwill both between God and his fellowmen. This ring was handed down by a father to his most-beloved son for generations. One father in this chain happened to have three sons, all of whom he loved equally. To escape his predicament, the father ordered two counterfeits to be forged. On his death, he distributed a ring to all three sons, each of whom presumed that he was in possession of the true ring.
The earlier versions of “The Parable of the Three Rings” were told for the purpose of indicating that the three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, could not be ranked inferior or superior to one another. To further this point, the parable was adopted by Lessing in his play, Nathan the Wise (1853). Lessing added a finale to the story. The case of the three sons was brought before a judge.
These were the judge’s words: “Bring the father here before me as a witness. I’ll hear his testimony. If you can’t do that, then leave this court of law. I ask you, do you think this court has been set up for solving riddles? Do you expect the true ring will open up its mouth and of its own accord proclaim itself? But – wait a moment! Haven’t I heard the true ring has the magic power to bring both love and grace with God and man to its possessor? Now, then, let’s hear which one of you loves his two brothers best. Come, come, speak up! What? All three of you are silent? The ring’s effect, I fear, goes backward but not outward! If that’s the case, that each son loves himself the most, why then I judge all three of you as traitors and as betrayed as well! The three rings you now have are false. Your father likely lost the genuine ring and, in order to replace it and to hide his loss, had three rings made instead.”
… Continuing, the judge then said: “Don’t seek my counsel, but here you have my verdict! Go, each of you, be content to look upon the matter exactly as it is. If – as you claim – each one of you received his ring from his good father’s hand, then – naturally – each one of you believes his ring to be the true ring. It’s possible, you know, your father wouldn’t any longer let one ring exert such tyranny in his house. It’s obvious enough that he loved all three of you and each one equally. He couldn’t bring himself to injure two and favour one. Now, then, let each son strive with all his might to demonstrate his love devoid of selfishness! Let each son vie with his two brothers to bring to light the promised virtue of the ring he wears upon his finger! Let each son always nourish this great virtue to shine forth through gentleness, a loving spirit, deeds of kindness, and most fervent piety and devotion to his God! Then, in days to come, when the magic powers contained within these rings, worn by your children’s children, will brighten up the world, I’ll call you once again before this seat of judgment after a thousand thousand years have passed. On that day a wiser man will sit upon it and hand down his decision. And now, depart!” So spoke the modest judge.
For our purposes, a parable – not a religious allegory. However, a parable in which the ring stands for Truth; the father for God; the brothers for man. A parable, in other words, in which humanism stands for secularism. A parable, also, which enables us to discern the grounds on which our concept of knowledge is built. This, in the final result, is what we are concerned with – the source of Truth.
Since we shall be dealing with terms which are frequently bandied around but less frequently understood, let us begin with definitions.
Collins English dictionary gives a range of meanings to the word Humanism:
a cultural movement of the Renaissance, based on classic studies an interest in the welfare of people
a philosophical position that stresses the autonomy of human reason in contradistinction to the authority of the Church
the denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of society by its own efforts.
The first two definitions are cultural and humanitarian. We shall ignore them in favour of the philosophical definitions. The last restates the third in different words. The parable puts the process in narrative form.
“Many years ago,” as the parable begins, the Father demonstrated His affection for his creation by giving man His Word. In keeping it (both literally and figuratively), man was made beloved in the eyes of man and God. There came a time, however, when men multiplied, and began to dispute for the Truth. The Father capitulated: He agreed to the forging of truths other than His own. He then handed this Knowledge over into the hands of His sons. Moreover, a human judge was appointed who deemed the Father’s appearance superfluous in determining which ring was “true.” From that point on, man governed the grounds of knowledge according to his own principles.
Humanism as thus described illustrates the first stages of “secularism.” Again according to Collins, the process of “secularization” refers to “change from religious or sacred to secular functions, etc.” or “to transfer (property) from ecclesiastical possession to civil possession or use.” God’s Word – His “revelation” or “truth” – was initially unique, absolute, and universal. Its ring rang true because there were no other rings to ring false. The sons’ vying to inherit the real ring symbolizes the imitation of Revelation by human Reason. When the judge deemed the father’s motives for making counterfeits to be an irrelevant factor, he acknowledged that the counterfeits were as real as the original. It mattered little whether they were “true” or not as long as they functioned. Thus was human knowledge formed, based on an imitation of the divine, a forgery of the original, a counterfeit of the real.
Liberal churchmen have long declaimed the condemnation of humanism within the ranks of the ecclesiastical community, pointing to the benefits of cultural and humanitarian advancement. The dangers of humanism and secularism lie far deeper, however, in their epistemological and philosophical underpinnings. It took some time for man to recognize that in forging his own knowledge he had made himself in the imitation of God. The counterfeit rings were meant to be indistinguishable from the original. Western society forgets a crucial element in this process, however. It neglected to recall that forgery is stamped with the shape of its mould and, more often than not, also falls prey to the same consequences as its model.
Humanism is a counterfeit imitation of the divine. It puts man in God’s place as the generator of knowledge. It forgets, however, that in usurping the place of the Father it makes man vulnerable to the same circumstances as had “happened” to God. The “death of God” enabled man to be a witness in his own court of law; a dead man’s evidence is unacceptable. Having put himself in God’s place, man exposed himself to the same dangers of becoming deceased.
Western society is in the process of discovering the logical conclusions to which his arguments lead. Modernity, which could perhaps be described as the heyday of humanism, is being replaced by postmodernism. The “death of God” announced by Nietzsche inevitably led to the death of man in His image. As the judge pronounced in his preamble, if the sons demonstrate that their love is only for themselves, he can do no more than conclude that they are “traitors and betrayed.” All knowledge rings false; all rings form false knowledge.
The urge to know Knowledge itself, to comprehend the speech of God, was a human aspiration to replicate God in man’s own form. Man’s struggle to find his own authority forged human duplicity of the divine. Man’s autonomy was the doubling of the Original which slid perceptibly into His replacement. The crisis of humanism, as interpreted by Heidegger, meant that man fell under the same suspicions as he had laid against God. Without God as the centre, and Truth as absolute, unique, and transcendent, Reason had no reason to exist. Truth itself became a forgery – of which there are countless examples, limitless and multiple, none better or worse, more true or false than the next.
Ultimately, therefore, humanism has led the way to a radical form of secularism in which truth is falsified, revelation is unravelled, man is object of his own one-up-manship. Postmodernism is the latest and most fantastical form of man’s unravelling of himself by revelling in his nonsense. The increasing weight accorded to man’s subjective reason and experience lies at the heart of the crisis of humanism upon which the process of “deconstructionism” follows. To the extent which man models himself upon a similar image, forges his own truths, his authorship and authority risk the same “death” into which God fell. God’s death at the hands of man entails the philosophical consequence of the death of humanism. Man, having taken over God’s premises and His place at the centre of the world, is himself evicted by his own dissemblings. Postmodernism reduces the truth by reproducing it in multiples, making fiction of it, fantasying reality into illusion. The more it reflects the less it leaves to reflect on except its own reflexivity. There is no way left to know what rings (are) true, what rings (are) false. The only remains are those tolled by the bell.
The parable thus quite clearly points out the dangers of humanism:
There man lies. The rest in pieces.
Ade, W.C. Lessing: Nathan the Wise (NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1972)
Barthes, R. “The Death of the Author.” In The Discontinuous Universe, 7-12. Edited by S. Sears and G. Lord (NY: Basic Books, 1972) (death of “man” and the plurality of the text)
Bellah, R. Habits of the Heart (NY: Harper and Row, 1985) (humanism and modern society)
Berger, P. The Heretical Imperative (NY: Doubleday, 1973) (secularism and modern society)
Gellner, E. Legitimation of Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974) (epistemology)
Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. by W. Lovitt (NY: Harper and Row, 1977) (crisis of humanism)
Nietzsche, F. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans. by W. Kaufmann. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961) (“death of God”)
Taylor, M. Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)
(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 4, No 1, Humanism, Winter 1995)