...since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them up to a disapproved mind, to do the things which are not fitting... - St Paul, Letter to the Romans, 1: 28
No Christian humanism? Big mistake.
Christian humanism is absent from the current thinking of Australian society
by Peter Fleming
You don’t hear too much talk about humanism these days. Humanism was the belief that there is an inherent dignity in a human being, a dignity based on the very fact of being human, not something granted by a deity. It was probably Darwinism - or rather the implications of Darwinism, catching up with humanism at long last - which finally did it in as a basis for human dignity; after all, if humanity is an evolutionary accident and we are “just another animal”, fairly soon the notion of any innate source of dignity evaporates like a morning fog in June.
Humanism was a by-product of Christian humanism. It stemmed from enlightenment notions of a superior order of life, somewhat independent of nature; neo-classical notions of “civilisation” as a moral force; and notions of human progress through the revelations of science, not scripture.
If one goes back about 20, nay, even 10 years, the admirable Philip Adams was often heard and read espousing with some assurance that science would produce a new vision of humanity which would somehow elevate our sense of human dignity and hence, it was hoped, improve our behaviour towards one another. We did not need religion, he said; we have science. He was a humanist of great commitment.
The problem, however, was that science could do little more than simply name things. It could not, in the end, ascribe a value, let alone a dignity, other than that which comes from being somewhat more knowledgeable than the average antelope. No matter how much you dissect and categorise the parts of a chop, it remains a chop.
Further, in the face of the technology-assisted inhumanities of the 20th Century -- mustard gas bombardments of World War One trenches, the Nazi holocaust, nuclear warfare -- it was hard to find a clear pattern of human progress being brought about through the beneficence of science.
But if one hears little about humanism nowadays, one hears even less about Christian humanism.
Christian humanism is the notion that humanity has inherent dignity because God values us and because His Son died to establish the veracity of a universal moral order for us.
Now, Christian humanism has something going for it; principally, it has God going for it. In Christian humanism, we matter a great deal, and so therefore what we do, what we create, what we write and what we think has innate value.
If one has a Christian humanist philosophy, one has a chance for joy; this or that human might disappoint, but they are still in a profound sense cherishable. Also, in Christian humanism one is provided with a rightful sense of shame, for actions and thoughts that demean that same innate human dignity and, while the notion that our dignity is a God-granted attribute prevents us from succumbing to mere self-righteous indignation, we are still able to focus a sense of moral outrage when it needs to be focussed.
One readily finds examples that indicate that Christian humanism is absent from the current thinking of Australian society. For instance, it is remarkable that two plays recently presented by the Sydney Theatre Company, Doubt and The History Boys, posited views that children -- especially homosexually-inclined boys -- should accept paedophiliac advances by teachers as long as the teachers contribute in other ways to their social and educational advancement. Neither play was the subject of moral protest.
In Doubt, a young African-American boy may have been sexually exploited by a parish priest. In a remarkable -- or to use another word, vile -- scene, the boy’s own mother argues to the Mother Superior of the parish school,
“Maybe some of the boys want to get caught. Maybe what you don’t know is my son is... that way... My son needs some man to care about him and see him through to where he wants to go.” (Doubt, John Patrick Shanley; scene 8)
In other words, the mother is saying that paedophilic advances may be tolerable if there are other social benefits to be gained. This scene was much discussed by audience members I encountered, not in terms of moral outrage, but more in terms of admiration of its interesting perspective: life for African-Americans in 1964 -- when the play is set -- is so bad that they are willing to accept aid under any circumstances. It’s worth noting that the mother particularly accepts the suspected behaviour of the priest because her son is already homosexual. Who will that please?
In The History Boys, Hector is a teacher who on the one hand provides his male students with lessons in life-enriching poetry and general knowledge, and on the other hand plays with the boy’s genitals on the back of his motorbike while giving them lifts home. Hector, compared to the other teachers in the play, is presented to the audience as something of a hero by being removed from the school by a petty, attitudinally unattractive headmaster, and by being given the last, uplifting words of the play,
“Pass it on, boys. Pass it on.” (The History Boys, Alan Bennett; final scene)
Thus, both plays have secreted within their wider concerns the notion that paedophilia is acceptable if it comes with attendant advantage for the young men involved. (We can rest assured that pretty soon somebody will be reminding us that Socrates, the model teacher and philosopher, was a paedophile, the practice being an ancient Athenian commonplace.)
And yet there was no outcry. At the same time that there is much outrage on current affairs programs about paedophiles being returned from the prison system into local communities, it must be assumed that arguments for the advancement of paedophilia are well on the way to common or complacent acceptance amongst the kind of educated -- and socially influential -- audiences who attend theatre.
Generally speaking, television -- the most socially conservative of the lively arts -- follows such “advances” in theatre about 10 years later, and so we can expect the outrage eventually to disappear, once it no longer contributes to ratings success and therefore does not attract commercial sponsorship.
next week: There are implications for our society in the disappearance of Christian humanism.
Peter Fleming graduated in Arts and Education from Sydney University, his studies focusing on Classical History, English Literature and American Music Theatre. He is a graduate also of the NIDA Playwrights Studio. He has taught in schools, universities and tertiary colleges, covering subjects such as Ancient History, Religion, English Literature, Theatre History and Arts Administration. He has written plays and musicals and is the recipient of an Australian Writers Guild Award. He lives in Sydney.