Authentic Humanism

Renaissance altarpieces were not created only to be monuments to the donors’ taste—although they were that—, nor to glorify the human spirit, nor to celebrate capital-A Art as something transcendent. They are used to bring the subjects, saints and sacred events, into the worshipers’ presence. Or, to put it the other way around, to put the worshiper in the saints’ space. The depict that space by devices of perspective, by the fondo d’oro, or by the monumental poise of the figures. This space is not an optical illusion of some kind, but a sober reality, in its way it is more real than the space occupied by the worshiper in front. From their space the saints bless the whole company of faithful people, even beyond the church, to the town and surrounding fields. There is a radical difference between a generous, godly faith, and the counterreformation histrionics that are meant to elicit the militant sentimentality of that later time—and too often in ours as well.

Renaissance humanism represents, among other things, the discovery that the human figure could be used in painting and sculpture to express divine truth. Michelangelo’s figures in the Sistine ceiling are emphatically not there to glorify man, but to place human life in its proper relation to the creator. Later, in the Enlightenment, humanism comes to mean the human point of view is the only one, nothing else being worthy of discussion. Eventually, Nietzsche sends God into retirement, and undertakes the project of revaluing all values. If God is not exactly dead, at least he is inaccessible to us and we are trapped within our secular horizon. The more we appreciate the gulf and the guilt which separates us from God, the more we are forced to be secular pragmatists. The more we understand ourselves as fallen existentialists, the more God’s values are alien to ours. Paradoxically, the result for modern theology is God’s transcendence; his distance from us redoubled.

In reaction against this, we get a smarmy picture of Jesus as William Holman Hunt painted him in The Light of the World: long white robe, soft curls and beard, smiling benignly over us, waiting patiently outside a door that we may choose to open or not, according to our good pleasure. There has not been a time within my memory when this Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild was not predominant. This caricature is taught to adults from pulpits, and to children in Sunday School. Hunt painted it 1851, but preachers still present it as news.

A Christian need not hold the God of power and might at bay in this way. God still stands over against us in judgment, perhaps more than ever. But this means the human condition, feeling more distant from God than in earlier ages, is one of loss and grief. Our ethics, both private and political, ought to reflect this. We are wounded people caring for others who are similarly lost and estranged. The situation calls for us to be tender, to make allowances. The causes of bad behavior (not entirely synonymous with sin) lie not in sociological or psychological explanations, but in this spiritual fact: we know ourselves, on some suppressed level, to be lost and desperate. No wonder we lash out irrationally, while but it ought not to be toward each other.

A man met in hospital said sometimes his prayer literally takes the form of shaking his fist at God. Truth to tell, there is quite a lot of that in the prophets, and certainly in the book of Job. A wise priest of my acquaintance says, “You’re angry? Good! Give it to God! He’s the one who can take it.”

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