The idol of Humanism, the betrayal of the ages

Humanism is the betrayal of the ages (Paris Reidhead, “Ten Shekels and a shirt”)

Christians are dumb (Dr. George Yancey lectures on anti-Christian bias in academia, and beyond)


On 2 April, Adrian Leftwich of the Department of Politics at the University of York died at the age of 73 of lung cancer. He was a South African student leader at the University of Cape Town, and very committed to the anti-Apartheid struggle. I was at the University of Cape Town at the same time doing my degree in philosophy (1960-1963). Although, I did not know him personally, he was very visible. Here is an excerpt from his obituary, which describes him having the finest qualities of “humanism.”

“[He had an] extraordinary and genuine interest in and support for others. Adrian was above all a humanist (my italics), wanting to know and understand the people he met and worked with – important leaders and charismatic taxi-drivers alike. Adrian wanted to understand the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ weft and weave of the person, and in doing so invariably left an enduring impression on people. As a mentor Adrian was deeply valued and respected by DLP [Development Leadership Program] researchers and the whole team. He educated and enthused us, had the unique ability to shine a search-light and illuminate complex issues, but also the skill to encourage and bring out the ideas and thoughts of others. There were so many times where I witnessed Adrian’s endless generosity in intellect and time, but what stands out is that, on the day he was diagnosed with cancer, he somehow took time to provide detailed feedback on the draft manuscript of an AusAID [Australian Agency for International Development] colleague. In a word, selfless. To a person DLP friends and former colleagues have said that it was an honour and privilege to have worked with Adrian and that they truly valued his shared wisdom.”

What is Humanism

There exist various definitions of humanism, Here is one:

“…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality (Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”

Paganism and humanism

In ancient Judaism other religions are described as goyim (the nations). In modern Judaism a non-Jew is a goy. Early and Middle-Ages Christianity referred to religions other than itself and Judaism as paganism (from “rural,” “peasant”). In early Christianity, “paganism” comprised the Greco-Roman religions, neoplatonism and gnosticism, and the mystery cults, while in the Middle-Ages there was Germanic and Slavic paganism.

Seventy-five years ago, writes J Gresham Machen, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan. In speaking of ‘paganism,’ we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties” (my italics). And that exactly describes humanism.

The nobler qualities of humanism also have the above qualities as the highest human goal. “Very different , continues Machen, is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart [by which is not meant] continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of ‘Woe is me.’ Christianity begins with the broken heart and the consciousness of sin and ends with its final reality, God in Christ.”

The measure of all things, the pleasure of all things

In humanism “man is the measure of all things.” Plato attributes this saying to Protagoras. Briefly, it means that truth – moral and intellectual – is not something out there, but is the product of individual human minds. Human minds differ, therefore, my truth may not be your truth. A problem: when it comes to water boiling at sea-level, surely all beach-lovers would have to agree that the 100 degrees centigrade they see on their individual pocket thermometers is not a product of their minds. In the philosophy of humanism, many other areas of human life such as the “humanities” – politics, economics, art and ethics – the rigid belief “your truth, my truth” is regarded as the natural order of things.

In humanism, says Francis Schaeffer, “the material or energy shaped by pure chance is the final reality.” In 1982, the United States of America legislated that the only view of reality that can be taught is that matter and energy are the product of chance. This philosophy says Schaeffer, “gives no meaning to life. It gives no value system. It gives no basis for law, and therefore, in this case, man must be the measure of all things. So, Humanism properly defined, in contrast, let us say, to the humanities or humanitarianism, (which is something entirely different and which Christians should be in favor of) being the measure of all things, comes naturally, mathematically, inevitably, certainly. If indeed the final reality is silent about these values, then man must generate them from himself.” So, those in power get together and decide what is good for society in a given place and at a given time, and that becomes law. “TYRANNY! Exclaims Schaeffer (his emphasis); that’s what we face! We face a world view which never would have given us our freedoms. It has been forced upon us by the courts and the government — the men holding this other world view, whether we want it or not, even though it’s destroying the very freedoms which give the freedoms for the excesses and for the things which are wrong.”

Man is not only the measure of all things, but all things are measured for his pleasure, his enjoyment. For the natural man, joy means enjoyment, lots of it – enjoyment of freedom, enjoyment of job, of family, of friends, of sex, of sport, of holidays, of gadgets – and enjoyment of church! “Enjoyment” here does not merely mean amusements, thrills and diversions (French divertissement “entertainment”) but has to do with such things as the relationship between lifestyles and happiness. (See “Enjoyment of life lengthens life: Findings and consequences'” by R. Veenhoven).

All is permitted unless it interferes with someone else’s enjoyment. If there is no God, all is permissible (Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov – free ebook). Here are two excerpts (the pagination is of the ebook) :

Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.” (p. 134). Immortality implies belief in God. Also from “The Brothers Karamazov:

But God will save Russia, for though the peasants are corrupted and cannot renounce their filthy sin, yet they know it is cursed by God and that they do wrong in sinning. So that our people still believe in righteousness, have faith in God and weep tears of devotion. It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that’s consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime? (pp. 649-50).

The idols of the tribe

In his “The principles of psychology, Chapter 21, “The perception of reality” William James, distinguishes seven “sub-universes” of reality:

1. The world of sense, of physical things, as we apprehend them.

2. The world of science, of physical things, as the learned conceive them.

3. The world of ideal relations and abstract truths believable by all – logical mathematical, ethical, metaphysical propositions.

4. The world of “idols of the tribe”, illusions or prejudices common to all.

5. The various supernatural worlds.

6. The various worlds of individual opinion.

7. The various (and numerous) worlds of “sheer madness”.

James distinguishes between the “idols” of illusions and prejudices and the ” various supernatural worlds.” The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – also distinguish between idols and the supernatural world. Idols in these religions, in contrast to William James, do not refer to illusions and prejudices but to anything that one loves above God. John Calvin, in his preface to the Olivat translation of the New Testament writes:

It is true enough that the Gentiles, astonished and convinced by so many goods and benefits which they saw with their own eyes, have been forced to recognize the hidden Benefactor from whom came so much goodness. But instead of giving the true God the glory which they owed him, they forged a god to their own liking, one dreamt up by their foolish fantasy in its vanity and deceit; and not one god only, but as many as their temerity and conceit enabled them to forge and cast (feindre et fondre); so that there was not a people or place which did not make new gods as seemed good to them. Thus it is that idolatry, that perfidious panderer, was able to exercise dominion, to turn men away from God, and to amuse them with a whole crowd of phantoms to which they themselves had given shape, name, and being itself.

Idols are not only images and statues as described in Romans 1:

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Anything you love more than Jesus the Christ is idolatry. In one culture, the family is an idol; in another culture – Western culture – the individual is an idol. In Western culture it is not polite to hurt someone’s feelings, for example, telling them that they are wrong. When it comes to religion, no one, says the humanist, is wrong.

Your idol may be money or art or your moral rectitude, even your good works, if not done mainly for God. Idols, then, are anything that takes precedence over your Creator; in Christianity, anything that you covet more than Christ is idolatry. John Piper defines covetousness as “desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God” (“Future Grace,” 221). Thus the opposite of covetousness is resting satisfied with God. Covetousness is idolatry “because the contentment that the heart should be getting from God, it starts to get from something else” (221). Covetousness, simply put, “is a heart divided between two gods” (221).”

There is also the idolatry of human reason. The “Enlightenment” made reason an ultimate thing. When it came to the Bible, it threw out anything it could not explain. Our brains, it says, can’t operate without patterns and order. We have to make some order out of what we see and hear. It says, patterns create music, language and thought. We need stories, it says, because they are part of our make-up. Some people, it says, are content with fiction, while others have a need for their stories to be true. It says, some people believe that absolute truth will always elude us, others believe that they know the Truth.

For example, here is a comment someone wrote to me about the Suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 53; the book of Isaiah was written 700 years before Christ was born. “The Old Testament tells of the coming of the Messiah. The Book of Isaiah is not a prophecy. Of course a Messiah, whether Jesus or not, would be spurned, persecuted and martyred. To predict this, all you need is to witness human behaviour. It is the humanist opinion that the bible stems from our longing for order and understanding. We need a beginning, a middle and an end. In the humanist view, the bible story of Adam and Eve is a dramatic, fictional explanation for human nature, suffering and death.”

“Critics of biblical Christianity, writes Michael Kruger have roundly argued that Christians have no rational basis for holding such a belief about the canon. Christians can believe such a thing if they want to, it is argued, but it is irrational and intellectually unjustifiable. It must be taken on blind faith,”(Michael Kruger, Introduction to Canon revisited Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books). This, of course, is silly. This is not the place to say why.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing ( 1729- 1781) is famous for his metaphor of the “ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) between the “accidental truths of history” and “the proof for necessary truths of reason.” For Lessing, religion belongs to the “accidental truths of history.” Christians, Jews and Muslims should not consider one another’s “accidental” beliefs as wrong. Why is this silly? Because, (most) Jews believe that Jesus is not the Messiah and was crucified, Christians also believe jesus was crucified but is indeed the Messiah, while Muslims also believe that Jesus is the Messiah but that he did not die on the cross, indeed, he did not die at all but was taken up into heaven while still alive. Lessing wished that they could look past the “accidents” of religion to the “necessary truths of reason.”

Our modern cultural elite think that science and education, not the Bible, will improve the world. This view has had devastating results. In 1920, H.G. Wells, in his “Outline of history,” praised human progress, which he maintained was due to advances in science and education. Human reason was going from strength to strength, to the end of all war. In his “Shape of things to come” (1933), Wells described how appalled he was by the selfishness of nations. In his last book, at the end of World War II, “Mind at the end of its tether (1945), he wrote ‘Homo sapiens is spent, this is the end.” Homo Sapiens lost all its sap; result you end up a sap.

Here is the problem, which Wells, the great humanist, either ignored or was ignorant of: He had put his great hope in humanity to solve all its problems. Alas, he was forced to face the reality of the inherent depravity of man. He knew nothing of the grace and power of God to change lives.

The inevitable outcome of humanism

What does this individualist autonomy of humanism lead to? Often not to the fine humanistic qualities described in Adrian Leftwich’s obituary but, says Francis Schaeffer, to “things such as over-permissiveness, pornography, the problem of the public schools, the breakdown of the family, abortion, infanticide (the killing of newborn babies), increased emphasis upon the euthanasia of the old and many, many other things…whatever compassion there has ever been, it is rooted in the fact that our culture knows that man is unique, is made in the image of God. Take it away, and I just say gently, the stopper is out of the bathtub for all human life.” (See the recent case of the killing of botched aborted babies). (F. Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto”).

It indeed possible for the generosity and empathy of a humanist to exist side by side with some or all of the evils mentioned by Schaeffer. The above evils (that is what they are) mentioned by Schaeffer are symptoms of the deeper problem of a change in the Western world from a Judeo-Christian standard to a humanistic one. Not only a departure from the Judeo-Christian world view but, says Bavinck, from the “religious supra-naturalistic worldview [which] has universally prevailed among all peoples and in all ages down to our own day, and only in the last hundred and fifty years has given way in some circles to the empirico-scientific” (Herman Bavinck, “The philosophy of Revelation,” 1908). So, for most of human history, East and West, there existed a close connection between religion and civilization, between the world and the other-wordly. Indeed religion was the very foundation of the family and social life.

The Christian should destroy his idols. How to do it? The Bible is ambivalent about the power of idols. In one sense they are nothing, they are not real, because there is, the Bible says, only one God. In another sense, through these idols, the powers and principalities insinuate your soul. How does a Christian disarm these evil powers – the devil and his demons? The only sure way is to be prepared to lose one’s life. The Apostle Paul was prepared to do it, and Jesus actually did it. This is what happened at the cross:

When you [ believers] were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15). When Jesus bowed his head and died, he totally triumphed over the idols. Your career, your wife, your children, your CV cannot die for your sins, only Christ can.

How can God punish those who hate him – a just punishment – and yet bring them back to him. How does Jesus’ objective triumph over idols (at the cross) help one to leave one’s idols? If the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done breaks through to you, it will free you. The only way to understand why Jesus is more important is through the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer and meditation (not of the “transcendental” kind”). When you look into the coffin of a loved one, the real question, says Tim Keller, is: “Is Jesus there in that coffin with you?” (Tim Keller, “The Gospel and Idolatry”).

The Church, of course, has also been infected with the idolatry of humanism. Here is Paris Reidhead:

“Now religion [in the 19th century] then had to exist because there were so many people that made their living at it, so they had to find some way to justify their existence. So back about the time, in 1850, the church divided into two groups. The one group was the liberals, who accepted the philosophy of the humanism and tried to find some relevance by saying something like this to their generation, “Ha, ha, we don’t know there’s a heaven. We don’t know there’s a hell. But we do know this, that you’ve got to live for 70 years! We know there’s a great deal of benefit from poetry, from high thoughts and noble aspirations. Therefore it’s important for you to come to church on Sunday, so that we can read some poetry, that we can give you some little adages and axioms and rules to live by. We can’t say anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we’ll tell you this, if you’ll come every week and pay and help and stay with us, we’ll put springs on your wagon and your trip will be more comfortable. We can’t guarantee anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we say that if you come along with us, we’ll make you happier while you’re alive.” And so this became the essence of liberalism. It has simply nothing more than to try and put a little sugar in the bitter coffee of their journey and sweeten it up for a time. This is all that it could say.”

“Well now the philosophy of the atmosphere is humanism; the chief end of being is the happiness of man. There’s another group of people that have taken umbrage with the liberals, this group are my people, the fundamentalists. They say, “We believe in the inspiration of the Bible! We believe in the deity of Jesus Christ! We believe in hell! We believe in heaven! We believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ!” But remember the atmosphere is that of humanism. And humanism says the chief end of being is the happiness of man. Humanism is like a miasma out of a pit, it just permeates everyplace. Humanism is like an infection, an epidemic, it just goes everywhere.” (Paris Reidhead, “Ten shekels and a shirt.”

Be careful; it all depends what one means by “happiness.” Here is John Brown: “‘Life,’ in the language of our Lord, implies happiness. When he calls himself, then, the “life-giving bread,” he intimates that he is the author of true happiness; that he, that he alone, can make men truly and permanently happy” (John Brown, “True happiness and the way to secure it: Conversational discourse to the Jews – John 6:26-65”).

Betrayal, forgiveness and redemption

Sin and forgiveness are central motifs in all religions. One of the worst sins is betrayal, especially by those who say they love you. Judas’ betrayal of and Peter’s denial of Jesus are well known. “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me” (Psalm 41:9). I return to Adrian Leftwich. The “Daily Maverick” (11 May, 2013) carries an article entitled, “Adrian Leftwich, the Unforgiven” with the following rubric:

Adrian Leftwich, who died earlier this month, ended his life as a respected politics professor at the University of York, in England. But as a young man in his native South Africa, Leftwich was an anti-Apartheid activist who sold out some of his closest friends and comrades in exchange for his own freedom. Even after almost 50 years, some would never forgive him. Rebecca Davis looks back on a haunting South African story.” The article quotes an excerpt from Leftwich “I gave the names”: “In July 1964, when I was 24, my life in South Africa came to a sudden end. The events which brought this about were of my own making. No one else was to blame.” Davis continues:

“In this slightly abrupt fashion, Adrian Leftwich begins his 2002 essay “I Gave the Names”. It was the first time in 40 years that Leftwich, by that time a successful UK academic, would break his silence in public on the events that had condemned him to a life lived in exile from his home country. It was said later that he had been writing the essay for 15 years. Leftwich, looking back at events which occurred more than 40 years earlier, still revealed traces of bemusement: ‘For reasons which I still do not fully understand, I tried to do things which were far beyond me, and I failed. I tried to help change the world around me but in the process I destroyed my own, I betrayed my friends and colleagues and I damaged the cause which I believed in and had worked for,’ he wrote.”

From the “humanistic” standpoint (as defined in this article), Leftwich, in his student days, did a heinous crime, which resulted in torture and long prison sentences for his associates and close friends. Some eventually forgave him, some half-forgave him, and others could never forgive him. I mentioned earlier, how his later life took an “extraordinary and genuine interest in and support for others. Adrian was above all a humanist (my italics), wanting to know and understand the people he met and worked with – important leaders and charismatic taxi-drivers alike. Adrian wanted to understand the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ weft and weave of the person, and in doing so invariably left an enduring impression on people.” (His obituary at the beginning of this article).

Oh the contrast! The traitor seeking redemption (for surely there must be truth in this inference) in humanistic virtue. Christ, in contrast, teaches that redemption can never be found in turning over a new leaf, or even in turning your body over to be burned for any reason, even for Christ’s sake, if not done without faith in Him, without faith in His sacrifice on the cross. It was on the cross that he was made sin for those who were to believe in Him. Humanists can’t understand how faith can save you. They, like Pontius Pilate, ask, “What is truth? They are asking, if there is no Truth – which they believe is true!– in what truth can they believe? (All knowledge and action is based on belief).

Both the humanist and the Christian agree with the Apostle James:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2).

Adrian Leftwich, in human eyes, did far more good than evil; yet, the Bible says without faith in (trust in) Christ there is no redemption – in this world and the world to come. I say this with great sadness.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20-21)

Related posts: Pantheism, the Enlightenment and Materialism

Finding God in a world full of so many gods

6 thoughts on “The idol of Humanism, the betrayal of the ages

  1. What an interesting march through ideas, personality and books in your critique of humanism in general and thought on Adrian Leftwich. I agree with you–it’s so sad often times to see very humanistic individuals who are so lost and their “good deeds” outwardly becomes the stumbling block to the Gospel.

  2. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 1 HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE? “The Roman Age” (Feature on artist Tracey Emin) | The Daily Hatch
  3. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 5 John Cage (Feature on artist Gerhard Richter) | The Daily Hatch

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