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Summer Reading Group: “Beyond Humanism”


This is the sixth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. 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.

“Beyond Humanism” is the aspirational title of Osborn’s climactic chapter. He begins by speaking to a familiar condition (a state of “cross pressure” according to Taylor in A Secular Age) in which those of us sealed in a largely disenchanted, agnostic universe still allow the transcendent to break in through what the late Leonard Cohen called the “crack in everything.” Remaining open to the crack in pure rationalism is vital not just to allow for the in breaking of transcendent meaning through “art and music, beauty in the natural world, intuitions of cosmic wholeness, or hedonic experiences,” (176) but also to protect against closed-minded fundamentalism. And yet, in concluding his opening chapter, Osborn writes, “It should by now be clear, however, that the agnostic or cross-pressured position—vital as it might be in certain ways as a reminder of how little we really know and as a safeguard against fundamentalism—is a precarious one whenever questions of the good and of our obligations to the Other arise” (177).

I recognized in this stirring opening my own precarious position and hoped in the proceeding paragraphs to discover cracks of light to illuminate or even move beyond my gloomy situation. Instead, Osborn himself moves rather quickly onto addressing possible objections to the position he has advanced in the book.

And there are many. I will focus on the first three which Osborn anticipates in the form of questions. “First, hasn’t political liberalism shown that we can have a self-sustaining non-metaphysical, non-religious discourse of human rights while refraining from making any arguments either for or against the ultimate truth of religious beliefs? . . . Second, even if we agree that there are problems with the reductionism of philosophical naturalism or materialism in the traditions of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, doesn’t religion still need to be quarantined from public life lest we rekindle a modern-day equivalent of the European wars of religion? Third . . . is the attempt to trace the wellsprings of contemporary values back to ancient, and particularly Christian, sources anything other than a form of highly selective if not triumphalist picking and choosing of evidence” (177, emphasis mine).

Osborn picks up the first question on excluding religion from human rights by looking through John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” Rawls advocated a theory of justice in which each of us should view society from a position of “ignorance as to our own social, religious, and philosophical status in order to be as impartial as possible toward others” (182). Whether or not this view from nowhere is entirely possible, the attempt would certainly seem illuminating for those in power—from 19th century white slaveholders to 21st century male church leaders. But, as Osborn points out, Rawls’ appeal to this “original position” requires an a priori assumption of universal human rights and human equality. Instead, the a priori ignorance of slaveholders in denying the human rights of their “property” and ordained males in denying the equality of their female colleagues would blind them to the effect of Rawls’ veil.

The corrective lens for this ignorance, according to Rawls, is to promote the sentiments and empathetic feelings that will “cause the human rights culture we have somehow stumbled into to survive.” And yet, the malleability and diversity of culture itself places human rights in jeopardy.  In fact, Rawls himself argued in his 1942 senior philosophy thesis “that naturalism fails to provide the philosophical resources required to sustain society” (183). This suggests to Osborn that religious humanism is a likely and more reliable antecedent of Rawls’ assumption of human equality than the whims of culture.

If this is the case, then universal human rights would seem safest in the hands of religious humanists. However, the abysmal history of religiously sanctioned discrimination—from 19th century Christian slaveholders to 21st century Christian church leaders offers a distressing counter argument. In his essay titled “On My Religion,” Rawls described his abandonment of Christianity and catalogued the historical abuses of Christendom including, the “wars of religion” that terrorized Europe in the 17th century—which leads directly to the second question on the need to quarantine religion from public life.

Osborn acknowledges the validity of Rawls’ rejection of the Protestant culture in which he was raised and yet pushes back gently by suggesting William Cavanaugh as a conversation partner who points out that the “wars of religion” may have been caused as much by secularization and state-building as by religion per se. Rawls’ response may be assumed in Ephraim Radner’s “blistering critique” of Cavanaugh. Radner points out that just because religion was not the sole cause of violence does not absolve its ongoing entanglement in war, genocide, and cultural injustice. I particularly appreciated Osborn’s non-dualistic response to Cavanaugh’s and Radner’s differing accounts of religious violence and the origins of political liberalism which he notes are not as mutually exclusive as they first appear. He writes, “Recovery of the theological origins of humanistic values and human rights, it seems to this reader, requires a vigorous critique of the sustaining myths, binaries, and internal contradictions of the “secular” nation-state, and a strong rejection of all attempts to repristinize church history according to nostalgic narratives about the unity of pre-enlightenment or pre-modern Christianity” (188).

This open-minded view recognizing both sides brings us to the third question we will consider.  Does the fact that Christianity “inspired both champions as well as opponents of humanistic values and human rights make it impossible to say anything affirmative about its role in the genealogy of morals” (177)?  In other words, do the slave holders and bigots negate the abolitionists and egalitarians who all claim the same faith? Osborn turns to Samuel Moyn to explore this conundrum. Moyn maintains that it was only in the 1930s and 1940s that Christians began to embrace the language of human rights in any substantial way. In fact, he goes on to assert that it was not until the 1970s “that human rights came to define people’s hope for the future as the foundation of an international movement and a utopia of international law” (194). However, Osborn seems to suggest that Moyn is playing a game of semantics, downplaying the words and actions of abolitionists and civil rights activists who were undeniably seeking the rights of their fellow humans as not actually engaging in “human rights”—thus piling erasure on injustice.

Ignoring the lineage and connection between current human rights, ancient natural rights, Enlightenment-era revolutionary rights, and the struggle for civil rights is, evidently, just as biased against historical Christianity as a refusal to acknowledge the interrelatedness and evolutionary descent of life on earth is biased against modern science. This provocative analogy leads to a question regarding Osborn’s erudite argument that Christianity represents the most truly coherent philosophical grounding and sustainable moral force for the progression of human rights. As an evolutionary creationist, I see the ongoing process of creation as both fully natural and theologically teleological. From this non-dualistic perspective, the development of human rights could be and has been described in terms of the cultural evolution of group dynamics as well as God’s plan. Is it possible to hold a position of cultural or ethical evolutionary creationism in the same way one can be a biological evolutionary creationist? If so, is it necessary to insist on a Christian foundation for humanism? Could the inverse be true, so that one could appreciate the evolution of human thought and interaction that preceded Judaism, moved forward through Jesus and his radical message of love, and continues to inspire movements toward justice for all?

As I look for light through the cracks in my disenchanted world view, Christianity as the chaplaincy for our scapegoating, unjust, violent culture glows dimmer and dimmer. Christians such as Osborn who prophetically call Christianity back to core cultural values of justice, love, and humility, on the other hand, burn brighter and brighter. The light they shine will be vital as we move beyond humanism and will help to prepare us for what comes next as we face the current clash of cultures generated by globalism, the questions of humanism given the rise of artificial intelligence, and the hope of an earth made new in the face of ecological crisis.


Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He lives with his wife and three children in Shawnee, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), where he practices Pediatric Interventional Radiology.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press


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