Friday 13 November 2015

Christian Humanism Alive and Well

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Pope Francis makes his point (with the endorsement of an angel) in the Cathedral of Florence, the Duomo, this week.

Last year when we prepared the document to outline the College’s strategic plan, the style of the formation we offer was described as an “almost five-century Jesuit educational tradition, forming students in a spirit of Christian humanism”.

One reader of that description was at first a little unsettled by it.  Would that sit well with the Church’s tradition?  It was an understandable anxiety because the humanism we are often accustomed to hear of these days is “secular humanism” – a humanism that is grounded in irreligion or atheism, where the human person is the reference point and an end in itself.  But this is a more recent evolution and shares little in common with the Christian humanism of our tradition.

The early Jesuit companions of Ignatius were swept along in the rising tide of Renaissance humanism after their formation at the University of Paris.  This humanism began as a literary movement – a deepening appreciation of classical literature – which lead to what we now know as the studia humanitatis, the humanities of today.  It was a cultural and educational programme.  Eventually these practitioners, these umanisti, began to despise the dry, medieval way of scholasticism in education and theology.

Renaissance humanism was marked by a number of features.  Firstly, it prioritised the classics of antiquity for teaching grammar and communication.  Such studies also provided stories or histories that presented the triumph of virtue and values.  In addition, the curriculum included studies of scripture and the early Church Fathers.  Secondly, it was concerned with the education of the whole person, the uomo universale, the ‘Renaissance Man’.  Today we would style it ‘holistic education’ – head, heart and hands.  Thirdly, its goal was to inculcate civic virtue, forming people who would shape public opinion for the good – the social conscience of today, our “men and women for others”.  Fourthly, human dignity and freedom was recognised and esteemed.  The Middle Ages had proposed a rather pessimistic view of human nature, largely sinful and damned.  The Renaissance reminded us that we were created in the image and likeness of God (little less than the angels, as the psalmist wrote), blessed with a freedom to shape our destinies.  Beings with a conscience.  Finally, the humanists recognised a unity or universality of truth.  They were eclectic.  They acknowledged that grace built on nature.  That faith and reason were not mutually exclusive.  That the incarnation is a reality and the world is therefore ‘sacred’.  That the boundaries of sacred and secular were porous – hence Jesuits proposed we could “find God in all things”.  Such humanism could cut across religious and national divides.  It saw human freedom, individual conscience and unencumbered rational enquiry as compatible with Christianity, with its philosophy and theology.

This week, during his visit to Florence (the birthplace of the Italian renaissance), Pope Francis addressed a gathering of more than 2,000 people from across all the Italian dioceses.  The theme of the gathering was: “A new humanism in Jesus Christ.”  He spoke of a deeply merciful Catholicism that was not afraid to change.  “We are not living an era of change,” he said, “but a change of era.”  This was renaissance language.

Reflecting the freedom that so characterised Christian humanism, the Holy Father said Catholics must realize the Church is semper reformanda (“always reforming itself”).  He went on to remark that

Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally.

Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives – but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened.  It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.

Meditating on that face of Christ, Pope Francis described it as “the face of a God who is emptied, a God who has assumed the condition of servant, humble and obedient until death.  [A face] similar to that of so many of our humiliated brothers and sisters, made slaves, emptied.  God has assumed their face. And that face looks to us.”

But he then offered a caution:

If we do not lower ourselves we will not see his face.  We will not see anything of his fullness if we do not accept that God has emptied God’s self … Therefore we will not understand anything of Christian humanism and our words will be beautiful … but will not be words of faith.  They will be words that resonate with emptiness.

He went on to express his hope: “May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something … I desire a happy church with the face of a mother, who understands, accompanies, caresses.”

“Dream of this church, believe in it, innovate it with freedom,” he exhorted.

Now that is what I call a renaissance.

Fr Ross Jones SJ