A guest post by commenter JMSmith:
When we say that Western Civilization is post-Christian, we do not mean that Christianity has become irrelevant. It will not be irrelevant so long as we continue to be defined in a vital way by our answers to the decisive question that Jesus posed to his disciples: “whom say ye that I am?” To this question three basic answers are possible. There is the orthodox Christian answer that he is the Son of the triune God, there is the infidel answer that he was a silver-tongued grifter, and there is the humanitarian answer that he was an exemplary human being and harbinger of what all men will one day become. We are post-Christian because the first answer is not so popular as it once was, but also because the question itself remains vital and decisive.
Today the humanitarian answer is the most respectable, and quite possibly the most popular. It avoids the offensive nastiness of the infidel answer and the metaphysical mysteries of the orthodox answer, so it appeals to people who aspire to be nice and normal. Moreover, it carries the flattering implication that these nice and normal people are also more than a little Christ-like. The question is, are they Christian?
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In 1855 a theologian named Henry B. Smith addressed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which was that year meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Smith’s topic was “the greatest moral, social, political, and especially religious tendencies” that were, as he spoke, vying for control of human affairs, and “out of whose conflict the final issue of human history is to be evolved.”
There were, he said, five competing tendencies: “the Humanitarian, comprising the democratic and social movements; the Scientific, striving to subjugate nature to the service of man; the Speculative, whose aim is to construct a rational account of man’s nature and destiny; the Ritualistic, insisting more upon the external organization and rites; and the Evangelical, instinct with the spiritual life of the Christian system.”
As matters stood in 1855, Smith continued, “all these tendencies are . . . earnest, alert, contesting, striving for the supremacy”; each boasted “its men of thought, its men of fire, its conscious aim”; and each was “at some point opposed to all the others.” However, Smith foresaw a day not too far distant when “the battle seems likely to rage chiefly between three, the Humanitarian, the Ritualistic, and the Evangelical.” Indeed, he saw “significant signs” that the Scientific and Speculative tendencies were already combining with the Humanitarian tendency, “in opposition to both Ritual and Evangelical Christianity, on the basis of pantheism.”
So the “great question,” according to Smith, was “to which of those three great powers . . . is this land to be given.”
This was a perceptive and prescient analysis, erring only in its failure to foresee that Roman Catholics and Evangelicals would one day achieve a degree of comity, and that the ultimate “battle” would range a broad confederacy of Christians against the Humanitarians and their scientific and philosophical enablers.
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When Smith delivered this address, the humanitarian tendency was young. The word humanitarian was scarcely fifty years old. Humanitarianism was one of many newly sprouted doctrines that had sprung up in the ideological seedbed of the early nineteenth century. The self-styled humanitarian (or philanthropist) was, likewise, a novel character, strutting the stage of life and alternately raging and weeping over the wretched of the earth.
This is not to say that the concept of humanity was new, since humanity as traditionally understood was nothing other than a capacity for Christian charity. Humanitarianism was new because it made a fetish of humanity, because it insisted that humanity was most perfectly expressed in great schemes of social reform, and because its apostles were, very often, more than a little vainglorious.
Humanitarianism might be best described as charity without humility.
The word humanity originally denoted the state of being human, in much the same way that “divinity” denotes the state of being divine and “bestiality” denotes the state of being a beast. Humanity was, indeed, a state of being between these two poles. Thus it was that Thomas Elyot wrote in 1537 that humanity denotes “the nature and condition of man, wherein he is less than God almighty, and excelling notwithstanding all other creatures in earth.”
But this was not all. Elyot went on to specify humanity as man’s admirable capacity for “mutual concord and love.” It is, he wrote, the “virtuous disposition” exhibited in any act that confers a “benefit” or is “profitable and good to him that receiveth it.” Depending on the object of such generosity, humanity might be described as benevolence, beneficence, liberality, benignity (gentleness), charity, or amity, but in every case it expressed “a free and glad will to give another that thing which he before lacked.”
In his Utopia Thomas More likewise wrote that humanity causes “man to bring health and comfort to man,” “to mitigate the grief of others, and by taking from them the sorrow and heaviness of life, to restore them to joy.” The mark of humanity was to “withdraw something from thy self to give to [an]other,” in expectation not only of “return of benefits,” but also and more especially in “conscience of the good deed with remembrance of the thankful love and benevolence of those to whom thou hast done it.”
The word humanity was also sometimes used to denote the human race in its entirety, but it most often indicated compassion, sympathy, fellow feeling and willingness to do a good turn. And it was generally agreed that the more “humanity” a man exhibited, the more nearly he approached to God. In a sermon delivered towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Anglican bishop John Tillotson said that it was “in these very qualities of charity, kindness, and compassion, which we peculiarly call humanity, we approach nearest to divinity itself, and that the contrary dispositions do transform us into wild beasts and devils.”
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Since humanity was a profoundly Christian concept, identical in fact to the theological virtue of charity, how did it come about that Dr. Henry B. Smith was, in 1855, denouncing the humanitarian tendency as hostile to Christianity?
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It is significant that the word “humanitarian” appears to have been first used as the name of a theological opinion. The first “humanitarians” were men who professed that Jesus had a simple human nature, was in no sense divine, existed not before his birth to Mary, and was unworthy of worship, however admirable he may have been as a teacher and a man. It may have been first used in this sense by an ally of Joseph Priestly, who proposed the term Humanitarian as a substitute for Unitarian; but through the first half of the nineteenth century it properly described only the most rationalist Unitarians. As one writer put it, among the Unitarians “every shade of opinion as to the nature of Christ was held, from high Arianism down to the lowest Humanitarian notions.” In his account of a meeting of the Unitarian clergy of Boston in 1801, Archibald Alexander described one of those clergymen, James Freeman, as “the lowest of all, a mere humanitarian.”
Ernest Renan may have been the most famous humanitarian in this theological sense of the word. Renan famously described Jesus as a man who had “reached a higher religious plain” than any other man, who in so doing had realized a connection to God as intimate as that of a son, and who had thereby founded the “religion of humanity.” This was a “religion of the soul, stripped of everything sacerdotal, of creed, of external ceremonies, accessible to every race, superior to all castes, in a word absolute.”
In his Life of Jesus (1863), Renan maintained that this higher religious plain had been surmounted by all the great men who have “best comprehended God” and “felt the Divine within themselves.” He conceded that, “we must place Jesus in the first rank of this great family of true sons of God,” but nevertheless insisted that this was only because Jesus had entertained “the highest consciousness of God which has existed in humanity.” In so doing Jesus had “founded the religion of humanity,” a “pure spirit of religion” that in its endless quest “excludes nothing, determines nothing,” and contains only “ideas susceptible of infinite interpretation.” Its essential doctrine was “liberty of the soul.”
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At about this same time, the word humanitarian was also used to denote ambitious programs of social reform and their vociferous advocates. The virtue of humanity that had until then been expressed in sympathy and aid for afflicted families and individuals began to be expressed in sympathy and proposed redress for suffering classes of humanity. The humanitarian was not content to comfort grief, palliate suffering and supply want; he was determined to abolish the root causes of grief, suffering and want through grand schemes of social reform. His abolitionism was not confined to the institution of slavery; it embraced a range of condemned institutions that he believed must be abolished for the “good of humanity.” Some proposed the abolition of marriage, others the abolition of private property, government, or religion.
The change in temper is suggested in a line from a county history published in Ohio in 1862. Contrasting the original settlers of the county with the ardent abolitionists of 1862, it remarked, “in those primitive times their attention was not diverted from the real life issues affecting the welfare of themselves and their families to grand humanitarian schemes for the benefit of any other race or people.”
Humanitarians were, indeed, frequently chided for the parsimony of their actual charity; and apparently not without reason, for many friends of humanity were editorialists and orators who preferred agitating for social reform over assisting suffering souls. In the course of a rancorous exchange with a liberal newspaper in the exceptionally severe winter of 1854-1855, the Louisville Daily Journal pointedly asked, “did the light of nature or of rationalism send crowds to visit he hovels and dens of the poor?” and “Where was rationalism in the midst of the destitution, the suffering, and the misery that have been conspicuous this winter in Louisville?”
We begin to see in these quotes a distinction between the two ways in which a man might exercise his humanity. The first was to bestow his humanity thriftily, on his local circle of family and neighbors. This was the traditional Christian way, founded not on grudging selfishness, but on the conviction that men are finite and fallen, and their capacity for charity, kindness, and compassion is consequently small. Humanity was precious and lovely to behold, but no one should expect to give or receive very much of it.
The humanitarian took the other way and bestowed his humanity profusely, perhaps lavishing it on all humanity, or at the very least on some very large suffering segment thereof. He professed a charity that was boundless, a kindness that took in continents, a compassion that extended to millions of men and women he had never seen or spoke to. Humanity was, he believed, an inexhaustible resource that, once tapped, would flow in abundance forever.
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By the 1840s the word humanitarian was also being used in a pejorative sense to denounce ostentatious sentimentality and grandiose utopian schemes. Unsurprisingly, this usage was most common among social conservatives, who turned the word back against the progressives. In a review of the authoress Anna Brownell Jameson, for instance, the conservative American Whig Review remarked, approvingly, that she was “full of human sympathy without being a humanitarian.” Another review in that same journal stated, once again approvingly, that the author under consideration “writes as a poet, and not as a humanitarian preacher, or a socialist lecturer,” and that there was, remarkably, “not a single poem on Labor in the whole book.” On the other hand, it deplored the poems of Eliza Cook as “mere sermons and humanitarian speeches, cut up into set lines of syllables beginning with a capital letter, and ending with a jingle.”
The New Orleans author Marion Southwood described English abolitionists as “officious humanitarians, whose eyes see not at home, and whose heart has only drops of blood for bondage afar off.” A Southern slaveholder leveled this same charge of telescopic philanthropy when, visiting Boston, he found Irish maids scrubbing hotel privies on a Sunday morning and was informed that they were forbidden to attend mass. He remarked that “modern humanitarian Puritans” were apparently “not expected to interest themselves in matters so close at hand, their whole sympathy being absorbed by negro slaves at a distance.”
To its critics, the central charge against humanitarianism was that it peddled counterfeit compassion in pursuit of power. Humanitarians pretended to love strangers who they did not actually love, which was mere sentimentality, and who they could not actually love, which was mere conceit. Herman Melville satirized the humanitarian pretense of universal benevolence in The Confidence Man (1857), his novel about human chicanery and deceit. He said that the “humanitarian spirit” had turned Americans into a nation of hypocrites who affected sham bonhomie and professed bogus brotherhood. Pretending to be the friend of every man, the humanitarian was in fact the friend of no one in particular. In the words of one character, “we golden boys, the moderns, have geniality everywhere—a bounty broadcast like moonlight” (and, one supposes, just as substantial). He anticipates the day when the whole world will have been “genialized,” and even a “genial misanthrope” will feel constrained, “under a affable air,” to “hide a misanthropic heart.”
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Although there is a good deal of humbug in the ostentatious sentimentality, grandiose utopian schemes, and counterfeit compassion of humanitarianism, it is not a tendency we can dismiss with a laugh. As Henry B. Smith said in 1855, it has “its men of thought, its men of fire, its conscious aim,” and it is everywhere “striving for the supremacy.” The religion of humanity is an “absolute religion,” as Ernst Renan and others have said, and this makes it hostile to all rivals. As the humanist philosopher Edward Scribner Ames put it in 1909, it demands an unreserved “participation in the ideal values of the social consciousness,” and it anathematizes all those “who fail to enter vitally into a world of social activity and feeling.”
If you wish to see humanitarianism in all of its ruthless splendor, read through the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” asking yourself who this Lord is who is has “loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” and written his “fiery Gospel . . . in burnished rows of steel.” Don’t be taken in by the allusion to Christ in the fifth verse; that is the Christ who Renan tells us founded the Religion of Humanity.
Julia Ward Howe was, after all, a Unitarian in the far left wing of that confession. She was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Octavius Brooks Frothingham, and once the cause of abolitionism had triumphed, she went to work directly on woman’s liberation. She was a humanitarian of the first water and her rousing song is above all else a humanitarian hymn.
We can see this if we turn to “What is Religion?” an address Howe read to the Parliament of the World’s Religion in New York City in 1893. Howe informed the delegates that Christianity stripped of all superfluous doctrines was nothing more than an “endless fountain of charity.” This flowed in some vague way from the crucifixion of Christ, which had been planned by the “great Spirit,” and which was a model of the sacrifice every man should make for humanity. The crucifixion was “a sacrifice for the whole of humanity,” and it had echoed through the ages in a process of “infinite and endless and joyous inclusion.”
Howe for some reason omitted to mention that this process of infinite, endless, and joyous inclusion required regular flashes of “lightning” from a “terrible swift sword,” not to mention armed promulgation of a “fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.”