Despite almost continuous employment of the term “Christian Humanist” over the past few centuries, many still scratch their heads (individually and collectively) when encountering the noble ideal. To put it simply, three tenets define Christian humanism.

  1. The Christian Humanist recognizes that man is derivative; God is the true king and has created all; He is the One.
  2. The Christian Humanist recognizes that our model is the Incarnate Word.
  3. Each human much strive for excellence in all that we do; we must sanctify the world, through Grace, and bring all things back to Christ. This can be done only through the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, these three are blatant Christian additions and clarifications to the six canons of conservatism proposed by Russell Kirk (though, Kirk sometimes used four, five, and even, toward the end of his life, 10 canons):

  1. “Belief in the transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.”
  2. “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”
  3. “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ ”
  4. “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.”
  5. “Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.”
  6. “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress”

The American Kirk was certainly not alone in his Christian humanism. One can also count among its adherents Willa Cather (American), Christopher Dawson (English), Jacques Maritain (French), Romano Guardini (Italian/German), Eric Voegelin (Austrian/American), Dorothy Day (American), Etienne Gilson (French), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Russian), J.R.R. Tolkien (English), C.S. Lewis (Northern Irish), Thomas Merton (American), E.I. Watkin (English), Josef Pieper (German), Roy Campbell (English), Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Swiss), Wilhelm Roepke (Austrian/Swiss?), Aurel Thomas Kolnai (Hungarian), and T.S. Eliot (American/English), to name just a few.

All Christian humanism had its roots in the paganism of Socrates, Stoicism, Cicero, and Virgil. They found their fullest Christian expression, though, in the works of St. Augustine, whose barbaric fifth century so much resembled the ideological twentieth century. Augustine’s words are worth quoting at length. From the City of God:

Choose now what you will pursue, that your praise may be not in yourself, but in the true God, in whom there is no error. For of popular glory you have had your share; but by the secret providence of God, the true religion was not offered to your choice. Awake, it is now day; as you have already awaked in the persons of some in whose perfect virtue and sufferings for the true faith we glory: for they, contending on all sides with hostile powers, and conquering them all by bravely dying, have purchased for us this country of ours with their blood; to which country we invite you, and exhort you to add yourselves to the number of citizens of this city.

Again, critically, from the City of God: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self,” St. Augustine argued. Christians live in the City of Man, but exist as pilgrims through this world, as citizens of the City of God. “The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.” St. Augustine wrote, “these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effect their separation.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, secularists, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, hijacked the term, giving it a taint that has now lasted for almost a full century. Perhaps, the best and most blatant example of an atheist humanist was John Dewey, the educational reformer from Columbia University. Along with several other thinkers, Dewey signed the infamous “Humanist Manifesto” of 1933. The manifesto argued that theistic institutions should conform to the concerns of human life qua human life.

Religious humanism [meaning a religion worshiping humanity] maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism. Certainly religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods, and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows, in order to function effectively in the modern world.

Further, society must lose its emotionalism, as manifested in theistic religion. Science should determine all that is to come:

Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

What, then, is the proper understanding of “humanism”? Well, from my perspective and the perspective of The Imaginative Conservative, it is represented best, not surprisingly, by Russell Kirk. As he wrote in the late 1950s:

A truly humane man is a person who knows we were not born yesterday. He is familiar with many of the great books and the great men of the past, and with the best in the thought of his own generation. He has received a training of mind and character that chastens and ennobles and emancipates. He is a man genuinely free; but free only because he obeys the ancient laws, the norms, which govern human nature. He is competent to be a leader, whether in his own little circle or on a national scale—a leader in thought and taste and politics—because he has served an apprenticeship to the priests and the prophets and the philosophers of the generations that have preceded us in our civilization. He knows what it is to be a man—to be truly and fully human. He knows what things a man is forbidden to do. He knows his rights and his corresponding duties. He knows what to do with his leisure. He knows the purpose of his work.

Kirk also succinctly identified three principles that tie together the western humanist.

The first of these is the Christian faith: theological and moral doctrines which inform us, either side of the Atlantic, of the nature of God and man, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, human dignity, the rights and duties of human persons, the nature of charity, and the meaning of hope and resignation. The second of these is the corpus of imaginative literature, humane letters, which is the essence of our high culture: humanism, which, with Christian faith, teaches us our powers and our limitation. . . . The third is a complex of social and political institutions which we may call the reign of law, or ordered liberty: prescription, precedent, impartial justice, private rights, private property, the character of genuine community, the claims of the family of voluntary association. However much these three bodies of conviction have been injured by internecine disputes, nihilism, Benthamism, the cult of Rationalism, Marxism, and other modern afflictions, they remain the rocks upon which our civilization is built.

To find the context of Christian Humanism—its sources of inspiration as well as its animation—one must also look to several profoundly important nineteenth-century and twentieth-century papal encyclicals, the first two issued by Pope Leo: the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris (“On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy”), and the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Condition of Labor”). The former re-examined philosophy in light of progressivist and humanist thought. The latter reaffirmed the church’s position on industry, labor unions, socialism, and capitalism. In particular, it called for an economy based on a humane scale, with family and subsidiarity (what is often called corporatism in Europe). Each of the encyclicals became a call to arms for twentieth-century Christian Humanists—Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran, and various Protestant scholars. The other vital encyclicals were those issued by Pope Pius XI, but especially his 1931 Quadragesimo Anno (“On the Reconstruction of the Social Order”). Though divided between the Augustinians and the Thomists, as mentioned briefly above, each of the Christian Humanists also looked to St. Augustine, especially his Confessions and The City of God and St. Thomas Aquinas’s many works. The Christian Humanists also frequently cited and drew on the works of the greatest British thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, respectively: Edmund Burke and John Henry Cardinal Newman.  From the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, they turned to G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. With these latter two, though, the Christian Humanists had a love-hate relationship. They disliked the Catholic triumphalism of their works, but they greatly respected the fiction and poetry of each, especially Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse,” which Dawson, for example, cited as one of the most important influences on him as it brought “the breath of life” to the early middle ages. Kirk had memorized long passages of it, and he often recited it for his students. Certainly, if for nothing else, the “Ballad of the White Horse” served as a call to arms for Christian Humanists:

The Men of the East may search the scrolls,
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go Singing to their shame

The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad Lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.


Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
from sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.

“And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire:
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.’ “

Then silence sank.

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.

The featured image is “Portraits of the Nine Muses in the Temple of Apollo” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email