This is the penultimate post in Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group series. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
It is not the best and worst of times, according to Ron Osborn. Rather, we are simply living in a time of worsts—of negative extremes—with a three-way tug of war between secular humanists, secular anti-humanists, and Christian/theistic humanists. The cultural center of the last century or two in the west—occupied largely by secular humanists—is rapidly disintegrating. The center cannot hold—or indeed has already spun apart—because the competing values of our globalized society reveal that the rights and values of secular liberal humanism are really built on the residue of the theistic, religious humanism it has long thought to have discarded.
It seems that our future lies in a knock-down, drag out contest between a secular relativism committed to nothing but the will to power of identity politics versus some kind of return to a medieval, semi-theocratic, religious society. This latter group is probably least developed of the players in Ron’s book, but he alludes to it several times as an unacceptable return to “Christendom” that would violate the “separation of church and state” that he views as important. (Perhaps it is his earlier book, Death Before the Fall, which has more fully critiqued the “fundamentalist” mindset that this group seems to represent. More on this other book later.)
Ron wants to offer us a way out of this death match. But his solution is less clear to me than the effective and, in my view, devastating critiques he offers up of the positions of the secular humanists and anti-humanists. Much has already been written about these critiques. I will just add my view that they are extraordinarily well done. His section on the “slave revolt” and the counter-cultural meaning of the Christ event in the Greco-Roman world is worth the price of the book itself. (And I know it’s an expensive book!) I was very proud as a friend and fellow church member of Ron’s to have an Adventist voice make such a powerful argument for the central meaning of Christianity in history in a manner that has gained a hearing at the top levels of the scholarly world.
His takedown of the philosophical materialism undergirding both the secular humanists and anti-humanists is revelatory, at least for those not broadly familiar with Marx and Nietzsche. The connection between the ideas of these men and the coercion, violence, and oppression of 20th century totalitarian regimes, whether communist, fascist, or that of predatory capitalism, is shown to be quite direct and explicit, if not entirely intended by the thinkers themselves.
I want to affirm that his intellectual genealogy is no esoteric exercise, but has great practical purposes. I wish I had read Ron’s book at the beginning of the summer, rather than at the end; it would have given me greater tools for an argument I was party to with some international religious liberty experts at Princeton University Seminary.
We discussed a thesis advanced by former Harvard Seminary professor David Little that the universal basis of human rights was something he called “the logic of pain.” In brief, Little, who was in attendance, argued that the universal human experience of the unpleasantness of pain, and the obvious injustice of it being inflicted arbitrarily, was the single, demonstrable common denominator among all humans. As such, this experience of pain served as the basis of the right of people to be free from the infliction of arbitrary force. This common experience could serve, Little argued, as a universal foundation for human dignity and all human rights.
Little acknowledged that there were also second tier concerns and insights that could involve transcendental, spiritual, and even religious views; but he viewed these as particular and unique to various cultural and religious groups. Thus, they could only ever add weight to the justification of the first-tier pain principle, but could not expand the substance of that first-tier principle.
A number of us critiqued Little’s logic of pain as correct as far as it went. But we believed it inadequate to support the breadth and robustness of human rights that was needed to protect the full extent of what it meant to be fundamentally human. The pain principle might prevent gross violations, such as genocide, torture, and unjust imprisonment; but it seemed too blunt a tool to protect against less intrusive, but no less real, invasions of human personhood, like freedom of speech, belief, or religious practice, or the right to be free from the state discriminating on these grounds. It is a long distance between torture and genocide to the loss of dignity associated with being defined by the state as a second-class citizen for one’s religious or political views.
Little himself is a dedicated Christian, but it seemed to us that he was too willing to buy into the view that “secular” must mean “materialistic.” This definition in my view buys into the philosophical framework created by Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche critiqued so well by Ron. Though to be fair, Little would have more closely identified with John Mill and his harm principle, rather than the relativism, nihilism, and will to power of Ron’s materialistic trinity.
But Ron’s analysis lays bare the fact provided that a thoroughgoing materialism has inadequate tools to deal with the human person in all its dimensions and complexities. No materialist foundation can do the human justice, because there is so much in the human experience that cannot be contained within or explained by the material. But this is not just a matter of religion, or of faith at all. Ron appeals to the “empirical” evidence of universal human subjective experience in the fields of aesthetics and morality. These experiences include the appreciation of truth and beauty in the musical, poetical, and visual arts, as well as the experience of morality and conscience. These universal facts of human existence show that the “secular,” or our experience and account of this world, should not be limited to purely the material.
Ron’s insights come at a critical time as scholars, human rights thinkers, and government leaders from around the world are re-considering what it means to be human, and what rights are truly universal and integral to human functioning and flourishing. These larger, metaphysical, spiritual questions have become inescapable even in our own country. John Rawls’ overlapping consensus of values has broken down in a manner that shows that questions of metaphysics behind accounts of human rights simply cannot be kept off the table.
On one side we have traditional rights of freedom of speech and religion, on the other, the new generation of rights of gender identity and sexual orientation and expression. Purely materialistic accounts prioritize, somewhat ironically, human desire over the physical world; accounts that acknowledge teleology or transcendent value in the world, look to the physical world, including the biology of sex, as balancing and guiding human desire. (Ron’s unpacking of Nietzsche and his will to power as arbiter of reality helps explains this conundrum, I believe.)
So what does Ron offer to replace, or at least enhance, secular humanism with that does not cause it to slide into a semi-theocratic Christendom? Well, that is where things become somewhat less clear to me. I will finish my critique next week.
Nicholas Miller is Professor of Church History at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University where he is also Director of the International Religious Institute. He recently published a book on the development of religious freedom and civil rights in the west entitled 500 Years of Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights(Pacific Press, 2017).
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