Christian Humanism Is a Wooden Iron

In the brief respite between total wars, most Christian intellectuals in Europe––from Catholics such as Jacques Maritain and Simon Weil to Protestants such as W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis––professed an allegiance to humanism, as did an array of confessing and non-confessing Communists, Dada-ists, Futurists, liberals, and Marxists. But beyond a general commitment to the human, they tended to agree on little else.

After the Allies dropped the final bombs on Berlin and Dresden, the United States devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the world began to learn that the German National Socialist regime had murdered millions of Jews, disabled persons, homosexuals, political dissidents, and all those people they categorized as not fully human, the moral salience of the human could have collapsed. As Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950, at the end of humanism “there was Hitler.” After Hitler, however, there was yet more humanism.

This essay was first published by Syndicate as part of a symposium devoted to Jennifer Herdt’s Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (Chicago 2019). 

Following the end of the war, intellectuals, politicians, scholars, and scientists across Europe returned to the question of the human. They debated it in periodicals and at conferences devoted to recovering “the human,” “humanism,” and “humanity.” In September of 1949, Karl Barth spent ten days in Geneva at one such event, a conference titled “Pour un nouvel humanisme.” Those invited to Geneva advocated a number of different humanisms, from ontological naturalism and idealism to existentialism and neo-classicism.

Reflecting on the event six months later, Barth described how after he and a French Dominican priest, Pierre Maydieu, had spoken “frankly” as confessing theologians, Karl Jaspers had complained of the “odious pretense to the absolute.” Like the other “respectable modern liberals” in attendance, explained Barth, Jaspers “feared us.”

But these same “liberals” similarly feared Henri Lefebvre, the only communist in attendance. “Since the beginning” of the conference, interjected one attendee according to Barth, “I have felt caught between two jaws: on the one hand Professor Barth and Reverend Father Maydieu who tell us: ‘Repent and everything will be simple!’ And on the other hand, Henri Lefebvre who answers: ‘Imitate the homo sowjeticus.’” Whereas the “modern liberals” offered humanisms that simply consoled, the communists and theologians pointed to humanisms that “call[ed] one to decision and responsibility, to belief and obedience,” to action.

As I read Jennifer Herdt’s Forming Humanity, Barth’s description of the Geneva conference returned again and again. I could hear his refrain: it was all so “menschlich.” We got nowhere, we agreed on nothing, but it was all so nice. In what follows, I want to consider the fears expressed by Jaspers and his fellow “modern liberals” as well as expand on what I take to be Herdt’s own Barthian concerns, doubts even, about Christian Humanism.

Recovering a Christian Humanism with Barth and Hegel

Herdt wants to retrieve a Christian humanism through a reappropriation and reinvention of the German Bildungstradition. She hopes that such a reappropriation will provide a “renovated humanism that accepts the task of the formation of humanity through projects of individual and collective human self-realization as participation in the reditus of creation to a radically transcendent God whose life is overflowing self-gift and invitation into friendship” (9). She calls it a “groping after a form of immanent transcendence” in which Christian love for God leads not to a rejection of this world but sustains a commitment to “universal human solidarity in the face” of this world, this life, and these humans.

Herdt brilliantly succeeds in much of this, showing how elements of the Christian tradition are woven through modern reflections on cultivating, forming, and loving humanity. She shows how the Bildungstradition has been and can continue to be reinvented. She mines it for complex accounts of human agency and finitude; provocative descriptions of the relationship of human development and the natural world; examples of the importance of virtue and tradition in self-consciously modern traditions; instances of the living-on of an imago dei tradition; and, perhaps most clearly, a confidence in the potential of human reason chastened by profound awareness of human finitude and, even, evil.

Although Herdt closely engages an extensive array of historical figures, Barth and Hegel are central to her project. She identifies Hegel as the “culminating figure in the Bildung tradition’s retrieval of a dialogical Christian humanism,” and claims that “as far as the uncompleted theological task of Bildung is concerned, today we remain essentially where Hegel left us” (17). Herdt turns to Barth for what she calls an “immanent critique” of the Bildungstradition. His critique of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century philosophy an theology serves as a check on the Bildungstradition’s tendency to totality, the desire for completion, and the satisfactions that humanity as already been achieved. For Herdt, Barth provides eschatological restraint.

My question for Herdt is whether Barth’s “immanent critique” turns out to be more than a check on undesirable philosophical proclivaties. Is it not, more accurately, an explicit contradiction of the (post-Hegelian) Bildungstradition? And, if this were true, what are the consequences for Herdt’s own project to reinvent a Christian Humanism?

The Catechism of Philosophical History; or, How to Become a Hegelian

In Die Protestantische Theologie im 19 Jahrhundert, Barth wrote that what was “astonishing” about Hegel was not that he considered his own philosophy to be the culmination of the history of philosophy. That was simply an expression of the “self-assurance” Hegel had lent human thought. What was so “astonishing” about Hegel was how quickly he was forgotten, superseded by “the positivism, the pessimism, the materialism, and even neo-Kantianism” that characterized German intellectual life after Hegel. Herdt mostly follows Barth in identifying Hegel as a cesura between the speculative idealism, metaphysical aspirations, and foundationalism that characterized philosophy from Reinhold to Hegel and the anti-foundationalism, empiricism, and sense of crisis that characterized it after the Prussian meister.

Yet, after Hegel these same metaphysical desires and philosophical ideals persisted even as they were reoriented to different ends in ways that prove consequential for Herdt’s reappropriation of the Bildungstradition for a Christian Humanism. This reorientation was especially evident in the transformation of eighteenth-century world or universal history into what I, following Ian Hunter, would call nineteenth-century philosophical history.

In 1789, Friedrich Schiller described world history as a “full and complete view” that enabled certain Europeans to look upon the “long chain of events lead[ing] from the present moment back to the beginning of the human race and link them together like cause and effect.” To “divine” that the

refined European of the eighteenth century is . . . simply a more advanced brother of the contemporary Native North American or the ancient Celt? All these accomplishments, artistic impulses, and experiences, all these creations of reason, have been cultivated and developed in humanity in the space of a few millennia.

Kant, Hegel, and their acolytes endowed Schiller’s world history with a philosophical framework and metaphysical purpose. In so doing, they helped to transform Bildung from a primarily individual process to a civilizational one that proceeded over millennia. In his various essays on race and lectures on anthropology, Kant intimated how his moral ontology of human being––the purported gap between reason and feeling, mind and body––could be overcome in and through history. Hegel transposed this same moral ontology onto history and thought that the reconciliation of reason and its others (feeling, irrationality, myth, religion) would be achieved through historical progress.

Both right and left Hegelians of the 1830s/40s committed themselves to some version of this philosophical history. They believed that instances of particularity––aesthetic, religious, historical, legal, political––would of historical necessity ultimately be translated from their particular language of origin or representation into systematically articulated universalist, rational social structures and norms. Philosophical history linked individual Bildung to species Bildung.

Although the neo-Hegelians, especially those more to the left, largely rejected Hegel’s metaphysics, they believed in the identity of reason and history, the necessity of historical progress, and historical laws. They argued about the degree and form of these rationalizations and translations through the historical process of this intellectual, moral, and social learning process (or Bildung), but they presumed that the ultimate outcome of the history of reason would be a distinctly and identifiable European modernity. This developmental historical account––not intellectual intuition, self-evident principles, or a priori or deductive reasoning––legitimated the norms, ideals, and practices for which they argued. These philosophical histories were meant to alert one to the ubiquity and tragedy of alienation and induce a desire to participate in their reconciliation through history and, thereby, the realization of human autonomy and freedom.

Philosophical history demonstrated, as the left Hegelian Karl Ludwig Michelet put it in 1843, that the “goal of history is the secularization [Verweltlichung] of Christendom.” He also identified the primary agents of this progressive secularization: The “holy flame of Wissenschaft, which will bring life-giving warmth to all nations and lift up the human race in the image of God in reality, will be carried by the Germans, its true conservators.”

Read the full essay at Syndicate.

chad wellmon

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