The Christian humanist understands this: that human beings are not Homo sapiens, not wise; but they are Homo in medio, “in the middle of things.” Thus, it falls to us to mediate between the many polarities that define our existence.
The Christian humanist ponders these polarities as already set out in the creation story. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis describes how God makes the cosmos come into being in a series of dramatic contrasts: Creator and creation, being and nothingness, shape and formlessness, heavens and earth, day and night, land and sea, ruler and subject, giver and receiver, work and completion, labor and rest.
In Genesis, before the Fall, the human person was placed in the middle of harmonious polarities: dust and the breath of life, body and soul, man and woman, solitude and marriage, knowledge and mystery. After the Fall, the human person would be pulled this way and that by new and discordant polarities. These are the irreconcilable opposites of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, good and evil, angels and devils, garden and wilderness, shame and honor, integration and alienation, covenant and anarchy, science and ignorance.
The Christian humanist ponders the New Testament’s elaborations on these fundamental polarities, most dramatically in the person of Jesus. The Christmas story tells of how the king of kings was conceived, impossibly, by the Holy Spirit yet carried in a human womb. He was born, improbably, in an animal stall yet would not stand in a palace until his trial. His family was not aristocratic but proletarian. His foster father was not an eminent rabbi but a humble carpenter. He was not raised in luxury at court, but exiled in poverty abroad. His ministry unfolded not in the heart of the world’s greatest empire, but in a remote desert province – the last place a Roman governor would want to be sent.
The Christian humanist believes that the polarity of polarities, the ultimate paradox, is this: that Jesus is fully human and fully God – the mediator who came into the world to reconcile human beings with their creator. Thus, while man in his earthly life is forever assigned to live amid the agon of existence, he is not helpless after the Fall. We human mediators do not work alone but have the assistance of the divine mediator. In God’s divine economy, this assistance manifests in endless acts of grace perfecting nature – yet another polarity.
The record of the Christ’s words and deeds in the four Gospels presents additional polarities that yearn for reconciliation. Jesus taught in parables to capture the mystery. He spoke of the last becoming first, of the bread of this life becoming the bread of eternal life, of bringing peace and a sword, of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, of separating the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats.
A most interesting polarity is made manifest toward the end of the Gospel accounts. After his death on the Cross, the resurrected Jesus is perceived by his disciples to be both a spirit that can pass through walls as well as a body with recognizable flesh. This paradox is precisely what astounded St. Thomas when he put his hand in the risen Christ’s wounds and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” It is the living paradox that all believers hold dear.
After their Lord’s ascension into Heaven, the disciples became fully alive to a dispensation of new polarities: that eternity had invaded time, that salvation history would henceforth mean that Christians had a foot in each of two kingdoms, that of the emperor in the world and that of their God in His Heaven. In this polarity, history would be characterized by the phrase, “already, not yet.” This paradoxical expression means that Jesus has already won the war over evil, death, devils, and decay; but his victory was not yet fully realized because the final battle must still be fought. The situation could be likened to Europe in 1944-1945, after the Allies established a foothold on the Continent and began successfully piercing the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was apparent that the Nazis were already defeated, but they had not yet surrendered; there would be many months of battles to come, some of the most terrible in world history.
Polarity, contrast, paradox, irony, opposites, contradiction, irreconcilability – these are the nouns the Christian humanists use to characterize reality as they perceive and interpret it. For on this Earth we see through a glass darkly until, God willing, we see face to face.
Confront, reconcile, resolve, merge, blend, dovetail, harmonize – these are the verbs the Christian humanists use to describe their task and their hope on this Earth until, God willing, they have run the good race. As my mentor Stephen Tonsor forcefully remarked, the task of confronting the polarities is never finished. The battle is never over. The race is never complete, not on this Earth. Nor is reconciliation tantamount to some absurd Hegelian synthesis that obliterates all previous opposites; that is the way of the zealots, ideologues, and true believers of every generation. No matter what the reductionists preach, the complexity of life, the polarities built into the architecture of God’s creation, endure. And they provide the raw material out of which all our comedies and tragedies are made. Indeed, the struggle with these opposites is ennobling.
I search for a homespun simile to capture the reality of a mediating creature and the polarities he confronts. I turn to Jesus – God with us, being’s ultimate mediator. Jesus is like a weight lifter. He raises, he holds up, and he balances radically uneven but opposite forces: between Creator and creature, God and man, transcendence and immanence, sacred and secular, time and eternity, space and infinity, the individual soul and the community of saints. This is why Jesus was, is, and forever will be the archetype of the Christian humanist.
 Stephen J. Tonsor, “Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 234-35; and Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, pp. 247-48.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.