Libraries & Spaces
Towards a Christian Humanism:
Aspects of the Theology of Education1
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Perhaps my first word should be in explanation of the title of this paper. Naturally it suggests two questions: What is Christian humanism? and: What has theology to do with education? Both are large questions, and consequently my answers to them must be suggested rather in outline than in detail. Moreover, the second question demands a previous answer; it is the more fundamental, and the more controversial.
However, in the circumstances my approach to it must be positive, not controversial. To those who oppose denials to the affirmations I shall make, I shall have to answer in the words of the greatest of Christian controversialists: "You are contending for a partisan view; you are contending in order to remain a partisan. I am contradicting you that you may possess the whole (truth). Understand, this is a dispute for the sake of union, a dispute in charity."2
My starting point, then, is that assumed by the Christian educator when he begins his task, namely, that Christian theology is the architectonic science that furnishes the basic postulates of the theory of Christian education, specifies its objectives, invests the whole process with a distinctive atmosphere, and gives unity and hence intelligibility to its concrete program. In a word, I assume that Christian theology gives to Christian education what Newman would call its "idea." And I am concerned with showing how this is so.
First of all, I shall briefly state the theological premise, or set of premises, on which the theory of Christian education is predi-
cated, and draw some of their consequences; then I shall indicate the total quality or style of life unto which the Christian educator, in consequence of his inspiration, endeavors to form his subjects. From a discussion of these two points, perhaps the idea of Christian humanism may at least begin to emerge.
The first point, namely, the theological inspiration of Christian education, is not easily put. For it is both extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily complex.
As a first step in its exposition I might risk a platitude, and say that the office of the educator is, in general, simply to assist humanity in the realization of itself. The educator is not the master of humanity, but its servant, or, if you will accept the metaphor, its midwife. He assists in bringing humanity to birth in those who freely offer themselves to his ministrations. The educator's effort is simply to evoke and ally himself with energies that are larger than his own, since they are the energies of life itself, existent in the social mass, and surging to absolutely unique expression in each of its component individuals. If he is properly reverent toward his task, he must conceive himself and his activity in essentially instrumental terms. In a word, he is not humanity's creator, but simply its educator. And his words to his charges should properly be these: "My little children, of whatever age, with you I am continually in labor, till humanity be formed in you."
However, it is characteristic of the Christian educator that he feels his instrumental role to be double. He is not only the servant of the life-forces of humanity as suchits desire for truth and beauty and goodness, for personal integrity and social usefulness, for self-mastery and mastery of the human environment; he is also, and primarily, the instrument of a higher energy, a force of the specifically divine order, that is at work in the world. He conceives all his activity in essentially theological terms, as a cooperation with the grace of Christ, as a mingling of his own energies with energeia hagiastike of the Greek Fathers, the sanctifying energy that is the Holy Spirit of God operative on the life of humanity.
And his directive conviction is that only by allying himself strongly with the "power of the Most High" may he hope to achieve his educational objective, the formation of a whole man, ready for the whole of life. This conviction follows natu-
rally from his acceptance of the paradox that expresses the very idea of Christianity, namely, that the Spirit of Christ is the agent properly creative of humanity in the full sense, since he is the agent of its divinization, its regeneration to a new life, higher than human, its reformation into the image of Christ. Consequently the formula that exactly expresses both the meaning of his labors and their anguish is that of St. Paul: "My little children, with you I am continually in labor, till Christ be informed in you" (Gal 4:19).
That is, in truth, a resounding formula, that flings wide echoes. However, it will be sufficient here to single out its central assertion, namely, that to be a whole man, one must be a Christian, baptized into Christ, fashioned in His image, made a member of the Body of which He is Head, brought into the human community that is animated interiorly by His Spirit and organized visibly under the hierarchs to whom His prophetic, priestly, and kingly mission has been historically communicated. "Whole man, Christian, Catholic": the equivalence of these three terms is the basic tenet of the Christian educator.
I am aware, of course, that this assertion of their equivalence is to the secular educator quite fantastic, and highly irritating. Dean Holmes, in the Atlantic Monthly for July, 1940, was the latest to indicate that assertion as the rock of cleavage between non-Catholic and Catholic educational theory.
Yet this audacious assertion presents itself as a simple logical necessity to one who accepts the fact of the Incarnation; the Christology of Chalcedon is its sole and sufficient justification. In fact, one has only to elaborate the implications of Chalcedon in order to demonstrate the whole idea of Christian education. Naturally enough; for the Person of Christ, who is God and man and One, is the concrete principle of intelligibility in regard to all things Christian.
Consequently, the position of the Christian educator can at least claim the merit of an internal consistency. Ultimately, it is based on the fact that, whether men wish it or not, whether they believe it or not, an event has occurred in history: God, remaining always God, has become man; humanity, in Christ,
has been made one with the Word of God; Christ, in His unity, is all that God is, and all that man is.
As a consequence of this fact, a change has occurred, not only in man's relations to God, but at the interior of humanity itself. The change is manifold, but its essence is this: the fact of the Incarnation effected the sanctification of human nature in its entirety precisely by its elevation to a higher, divine plane of being. Hence it affirmed on the one hand the validity of all things human, while affirming on the other hand their insufficiency. And both affirmations are of far-reaching consequence in the field of human education. Some brief development of the point must be suggested.
First, the fact of Christ affirms the validity of all things human, for Christ was perfectus homo, perfectly human. In Him our nature remained all that it was and all that it could hope to be; the Word of God destroyed nothing in it by making it His own. In Him, then, we too are still men, and we must resolve to be men, human in the word's fullest sense. Indeed, our resolve to be men has now a new and higher motive, the fact that God himself was and is a man, unus ex nobis, of our very kind. Integral humanism is henceforth a primal Christian law. We need not and we must not mutilate our nature, nor reject even the smallest of human values. Christ despised nothing in our nature, but took it all, just as it was, rejecting only that which would diminish it, namely, sin. He assumed a body, a soul, a will, an intelligence, a sensibility; he made his own human nature's total capacity for thought and prayer and love and suffering.
Hence our affirmation of human nature must be equally total and sincere. The soul of a man must be set at the summit of the hierarchy of human values, and the free exercise of his spiritual powers must be protected from tyrannous encroachments. The human personality must be enthroned in a unique sacredness; to subject it to the dominion of matter or of mechanism, or to dedicate it exclusively to the creation of purely temporal values must be regarded as a profanation of its immortal dignity. Human reason must not be debased by concessions to sentimentalism, and the science that it creates, though no longer queen of human life, remains still in her
own order Lady Paramount. Intellectum valde ama is a Christian precept.
Furthermore our affirmation of human nature does not fall only on its spiritual part; we reverence, too, the animal element in our organism. We make the surrender of the body unto humanity's highest act of love the object of a Sacrament, and a channel of holiness. Matter and material goods have their claim to our respect. We recognize that historically the Church's first great doctrinal combat was in defence of matter against Gnostics. Materia capax salutis, we assert with Irenaeus, for God is the Creator of visible things as well as invisible things, and Christ was visibilis in nostris. We put a blessing on man's natural and incessant endeavor to become master of his material environment. We recognize in science and in its interest in empirical phenomena a human and hence a holy impulse. And we know that if it does not stop halfway it can bring man to the Word of God who dwelt among us in a world of harvests and storms and birds and lilies, and who thus made known His will that even the material world should share in the deification He brought to the sons of men. We are not enemies of material progress as such, for we know that it can be integrated into the total purpose of the Incarnation, and we are conscious that since matter touched divinity in the Person of Christ it is itself hallowed, and can sanctify.
Integral humanism, then, is our ideal. We reaffirm with a new note of joy the whole program of the Greeks. Far more than they, we are captured by the splendor of humanity, for we see far more deeply than they into its dignity. We elevate our veneration for man to the status of a religious cult, for in every man we reverence the nature God has taken as His own. And we feel that the first step in our religious effort to become like unto God is to become men, for the Son of God was and is Himself a man.
Nevertheless, together with this new, joyous, great-hearted love for all that is human, Christ imposes also a recognition that the merely human is not enough. By the fact of the Incarnation our nature remained indeed all that it was, but it lost its independence. It is no longer closed in itself, a complete whole, with all its obligations determined and all its possibilities defined by its own intrinsic possibilities. By assuming a human
nature God manifested His idea of what it means to be a man: it means to be more than man. In His own Person He showed that humanity is itself when it is one with God. And henceforth not to dream of being more than man is to refuse to be totally human, for it is to refuse humanity's predestined ennoblement, divinization by the grace of Christ.
Here is the crucial point. By the fact of the Incarnation the problem of human life has been posited in new terms. Individuals, it is true, may decline to accept them, but they remain for all that the only valid statement of the problem. The problem is not: How to be human? but: How to be human divinely? Man's aspirations after self-completion must carry him to acceptance of the divinizing grace of Christ, or they are doomed to sterility. Historically man's nature has been opened to a share in divinity; it cannot close itself, and it attempts to do so on peril of self-destruction. The naturalist idea, the idea of human nature as an entity, self-sufficient and all-sufficient, is not only a profanation of the love of God for man, it is an unreality, a contradiction, that nullifies its own affirmation of nature by its denial of anything more than nature. All its achievements, in spite of their multitude and magnificence, have brought it no nearer to its own ideal of humanism; they are but the Augustinian splendida vitia, and their net result has been to make of human life the shell of emptiness that we hear rattling all around us. It is certainly no accident that the century and a half which has witnessed its domination should have culminated in military barbarism, that makes humanity its victim.
For the second great law of human life was laid down in the fact of the Incarnation. The splendor of the humanity of Christ, that has waked the admiration of centuries, was the consequence of its union with the Person of the Word: Christ was perfect man because He was perfect God. And so He is to us the Way to perfect humanity. All our hopes of that grand achievement are conditioned by our willingness to abdicate our own proud self-sufficiency, and to recognize that He is our fulfillment. We must go out of ourselves, out of our natural land, like Abraham, that we may come into the land that we view from afar as our heritage, wherein we shall find humanness at lastour humanity realized by a union with God, through
Christ, in His Holy Spirit, as the humanity of Christ was realized, made existent, by its union with the Person of the Word.
Thus Christology dictates that the first step in our program of humanism must be the great act of self-abnegation which the naturalist refuses to make: we must lose ourselves to find ourselves; we must go out of humanity in order to possess it; to be human we must consent to be made divine. Integral humanism is not solely a personal achievement; it is initially a gift of God, the gift of His own Spirit who sets upon us the seal, the character, of Christ. When Christ is formed in us, then we shall be men.
All this is paradox, certainly. But it cannot be condemned as idle theory by anyone who thoughtfully reviews the course of history. We stand now at the end of what has been aptly termed "the era of good paganism," whose ideal was a humanism closed in itself, and consciously divorced from all religious, much less supernatural, inspiration. Its program has been the restless pursuit of human values for their own sake, and as ends in themselves; above all, it has set itself to remedy the scandal that Rousseau publicized in Emile: "Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains." And we have seen the program come to its ghastly term in a paganism worse than that of Greece and Rome. For the Greek was human enough to aspire after the salvation of his humanity through a deification: soteria and theiosis were to him correlative terms. But the modern pagan has grown too petty for such noble aspiration. And for all his bravado he feels within himself a despair that the Greek never knew. For he has sinned as the Greek never did: he has vowed himself unto himself, and the vow has recoiled as a curse upon his own head. He presumed to make himself the agent of humanity's redemption, and he has doubly damned it. He called unto his aid all the resources and techniques of materialism, and he finds himself the prisoner of matter, the victim of estrangement that matter tends to produce between man and himself, and between man and man. And if you listen closely, you may hear him cry: "Unhappy man that I am, who shall free me from the body of this death?" (Rom 7:24). In fact, so profound is his misery here in America that he is willing to
hearken even to the voice of a political leader, doubtfully competent in the ways of Western civilization, who dares promise to lead him out of "doubt, negation, and disunity."
So much, then, for the theological inspiration of the Christian educational ideal and program; it is incarnate in the Christ of Chalcedon, who is both God and man and One.
And in the light of its inspiration the ideal itself emerges instantly; the Christian educator has to cooperate with the Spirit of Christ in fashioning a human personality whose life will be both divine and human and one. That is by definition the Christian humanist: the man who, in the image of Christ, respects and develops in himself the two natures, divine and human, and who makes of them a unity.
To the production of Christian humanists the whole of Christian education is directed. In initiating the process, the Christian educator takes into his hands a human personality that is baptized. He must visualize it as a unity; its two aspects, human and baptized, cannot be separated. And his aim is simple in itself, but enormously complex in its achievement. First, he has to assist the grace of baptism, the grace of likeness to Christ, to achieve its own intrinsic finality, the union of this whole personality with God, the transformation of its whole being into that of a child of God, the catching up of all its life in to the life-stream of the Son of God, Christ Jesus, that in Him it may set solely toward the Father.
Secondly, he has to assist this particular bit of humanity realize its uniquely human self in its full, divinely-planned beauty, that it may be a fit vessel of divinity. For it is not to offer to the divinizing action of the Holy Spirit a humanity that is empty, impoverished, discolored.
Finally, he has to assist this human personality in what is unquestionably its most difficult task, the joining of the two elements of its life into an organic unity, into one life, that is humanly divine and divinely human. For the Christian humanist is not to be conceived as a man and a Christian. His Christian life and his human life are not two lives, but one theandric life. His life of grace is simply the life of a human soul, transfigured by grace. In a word, the Christian humanist, in the image of Christ, must be one in selfhood. Hence grace must appear in him, not as something along side of nature, but as
the elevation and perfection of nature; it is not a new soul, a complete substance, that issues in an independent life, quite other than his human life. Rather, it simply a new quality of soul, that shows itself in a new and essentially superior style of human life. As Christ was God and man and One, so Christianity in its inmost idea cannot be otherwise conceived than as a way of being human, divinely. Similarly, humanism must appear in the Christian humanist, not as an isolated phase of his activity, or as an independent sphere of interest, but as the organic complement of his life of grace. It is not a thing apart from grace, an autonomous, second self; it is that which grace inspires and informs, even as the body of man is not a thing apart from the soul, but that which the soul vitalizes and makes human.
To achieve this unity of grace and nature, in the full actuation of both, is the Christian humanist's proper triumph. It is a synthesis infinitely delicate, absolutely unique in each person, constantly resolving and being reconstituted. Blessed is the educator who can assist in its formation in his charges. For to be able to do so is a sign that he has achieved it in himself. And that is the achievement of few.
This paper would have to be expanded far beyond the bounds set, if I were to attempt to develop in fuller outline the three traits of the Christian humanist already indicated: his openness to the world and to all things human; his interior religious life, consciously and constantly turned toward the Father, in Christ, by His Holy Spirit; and his interior unity with himself and with all humanity. Let me, however, put some practical point to this exposition of theory, by stating the challenge that we, as Catholic educators, are compelled to accept, in virtue of the principles we assert and the aspirations we entertain.
It is, of course, true that our faith is susceptible of other demonstration than that afforded by the living arguments for it that we plan to fashion and send into the world. But perhaps our other demonstrations would receive a more sympathetic hearing if our living arguments were more convincing. As Christian educators we make profession of Christian humanism: that is the very essence of our spiritual tradition. And our educational first premise is that on which all Christian
humanism is built, namely, that to be a whole man is to be a Christian and a Catholic.
We cannot, then, resent it when the secularist proposes to test the truth of our premise by the product we turn out. He is not being unfair when he says to our product: "I shall judge the validity of your Christianity by the type of manhood it has wrought in you. Let us see. Are you at peace with yourself? Have you resolved in yourself the interior conflict that tears me apart? Are you abe to resist the attraction of matter, and to save yourself from immersion in it? Do you understand this world? Are you able to see a meaning in its history? Do you love it, and all of us live in it, enough to be willing to die for salvation? Does the salvation of humanity mean anything to you or are you only interested in saving yourself? You say you are a whole manare you?"
Surely a legitimate question. Our products have to meet it. And consequently, do we not have to put it to ourselves? But its formulation, when put to ourselves, must be changed, if we are to be true to our first premise. The world will question the humanity of our product; we must inquire into its Christianity. We want to make whole men; well, then, are we making Christians and Catholics?
I myself have no way of knowing what the answer will be. But I do feel that it is a good question.
(1)Presented at the 17th Annual Convention of the Jesuit Philosophical Association of the Eastern States, September 4–6, 1940. Originally published as 1941b: "Toward a Christian Humanism: Aspects of the Theology of Education," in A Philosophical Symposium on American Catholic Education, 106-15, ed. H. Guthrie and G. Walsh (New York: Fordham University Press, 1941).
(2)St. Augustine, Sermon on the Ordination of a Bishop, No. 11.