Origins of Humanism

Unitarian Universalist Meeting House

October 7, 2018

The first thing I want to say is that I am as saddened and shocked as many of you here at the great trauma we have been through in our national life these last two weeks, and I am deeply saddened to see yet another unfit individual assume an office of great public trust and power. Many of my ministry colleagues have scrapped their prepared remarks; I am simply going to try to address our present situation by going back 500 years to look at the long view.

When I came to the Meeting House ten years ago, the congregational survey that had been done here described this congregation’s theological flavor as about 70% humanist. What does that mean? Today we explore the evolution of the concept of humanist with a little deep history.

Almost a year ago, at the end of October, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the children’s time, I got them to write out a list of complaints, and then I hammered them into a door that I had set up for the occasion, to commemorate Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses at the church in Wittenberg in 1517.

You may think that that ritual was all the recognition that that historical movement deserved, for we live in very different times now; what could be less relevant than events of 500 years ago? I hope in these few minutes to use what happened in that long ago time frame to give us some perspective on where we are today. For there is a tradition in the history of religious ideas that go from then right up to the present day, it goes by the name humanist, and we are located squarely within it.

I am indebted to Judy Reed for bringing my attention to the new book which forms the basis of my reflections this morning: Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight For the Western Mind. Judy met the author Michael Massing while visiting her daughter and found him fascinating. While his book is some 800 pages, I found it very engaging, well-written and well-indexed. I’m sorry that Judy could not be here today.

We all know a bit about Martin Luther, but who was Erasmus? Erasmus was a Dutch scholar who started writing a bit before Luther nailed the theses to the door. In the decades which followed, Erasmus and Luther became adversaries in print, the most widely read authors in the first generation after the invention of printing. But while Luther is well-known as a theologian and the first great spiritual leader of the Reformation, it is not so well-known today that Erasmus was equally eminent in his day.

Erasmus is described as a humanist. What does that mean? How we use the term humanist in our UU churches today is not quite the same as the meaning used in describing thinkers way back in history. The UU Humanist Association defines humanism as

“a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

The key phrase here is “without supernaturalism.” We use humanism as one of the alternative ways of describing people who don’t believe in God or supernatural beings. Probably the most significant feature of our denomination within the religious landscape of America is that we welcome members who don’t believe in God.

Of course, in theological vocabulary, there are other words which may apply to those who don’t believe in God or a supernatural realm: atheist, agnostic, religious naturalist, some forms of Buddhist, Ethical Culturist. But humanism is a popular one because some of those other terms have negative connotations.

Humanism in this modern sense would not apply to Erasmus. Erasmus never said he didn’t believe in God. But in practice, Erasmus emphasized facts over faith. Erasmus is sometimes called a Christian humanist.

Erasmus never doubted the authority of the Pope and remained a member of the Roman Catholic church throughout his life. He was trained as a priest, though he soon forsook that life for a life of scholarship.

Humanism as a movement did not start with Erasmus; it has started two centuries earlier in Italy. It arose in reaction to scholasticism, whose great champion was Thomas Aquinas. The scholastics tried to reconcile Christianity with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. The humanists embraced all of classical antiquity and collected ancient manuscripts, both pagan and Christian. Francesco Petrarch is often called the Father of Humanism, and he lived in Italy two centuries before Erasmus. Petrarch developed a new form of sonnet and collected manuscripts in Greek and Latin.

It may be that the touchstone of humanism is the saying by the ancient Latin playwright Terence: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am human, and nothing which is human is alien to me.”

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes the rationalism of ancient writings as having a tremendous impact on Renaissance scholars:

“Here, one felt no weight of the supernatural pressing on the human mind, demanding homage and allegiance. Humanity—with all its distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities—was the center of interest. It has been said that medieval thinkers philosophized on their knees, but, bolstered by the new studies, they dared to stand up and to rise to full stature.”

While the epicenter of humanism was Italy and the fourteenth century, it also extended to northern Europe and the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth.

The version of the Bible which was in use in the Roman Catholic Church as Erasmus began his studies were called the Vulgate, and it was in Latin. Erasmus was determined to correct the errors of the Vulgate and in that way to rid the Christian faith of errors. By 1516, a year before Luther posted his theses, Erasmus had published a Greek version of the New Testament. Greek was the original language in which the books of the New Testament had been written, but there was no Greek version in circulation until Erasmus. And in order to publish a Greek version, printers had to invent Greek fonts.

Michael Massing describes the impact of this translation in these words:

“Erasmus’s new New Testament, offering scholars and exegetes a comprehensive apparatus for reading the Bible anew and arriving at their own interpretations, set off an explosion across Europe. It was to the study of scripture what Copernicus’s On the Revolution Of the Heavenly Spheres (first printed in 1543) was to the study of astronomy. Just as the Polish astronomer shattered the idea that the earth was the center of the heavens, so did the Dutch humanist seek to bring scripture down from heaven to earth. From that point on, the Bible would be seen by many as a document that, though divinely inspired, had been fashioned by human hands and which could be deconstructed and edited in the same manner as a text by Livy or Seneca.”

Luther read Erasmus’s new translation and was inspired. Later, Luther would use this Greek New Testament in his own attempt to translate the Bible into German. And of course, the program of the Reformation was very much to establish that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority, so it was vital to have a reliable text.

One of Erasmus’s editing decisions was incidentally important to the development of Unitarianism a generation after his translation was published. The word “Unitarian” means many things, but one thing it has always meant in theology is a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. The joke used to be that Unitarians are Christians who couldn’t count to three. Is the doctrine of the Trinity found in the Bible? There was one passage in the New Testament book known as the First Epistle of John (not to be confused with the Gospel according to John). In the Vulgate, the following passage appeared (1 John 5:7):

“There are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Spirit. And these are one.”

Erasmus could not find that passage in the Greek manuscripts of that text, and so omitted the whole sentence in his translation, and subsequent scholars have omitted it as well. It is in a footnote in the New Revised Standard version.

I don’t suspect that Eramsus made that change with the intention of undercutting the doctrine of the Trinity or opening the door to Michael Servetus, the first Unitarian scholar, twenty years later. He was just trying to be true to his ancient sources. But that indicates how crucial, and how controversial was the work of editing the Bible.

For the thrust of the Reformation led by Luther was to dethrone the church as the locus of all authority and truth in Christian life, and to replace that by the Bible, which every Christian could read and interpret for him or her self. Luther conceived of this as a “priesthood of all believers.”

Luther and Erasmus never met in person as far as we know, but they might have turned into allies and friends because they both had an interest in ridding the Christian church of errors. But that was not to be. Luther had very specific theological positions. He had an experience in reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which convinced him that humans could attain salvation through faith alone – sola fides. This became the crux of Luther’s disagreement with the Roman Catholic church. Like that church, Erasmus believed that works – good deeds – were also important in salvation.

Luther’s act of 1517 immediately brought him attention and soon allies. The Reformation was underway. The Catholics wanted to find a champion thinker who could answer Luther. For several years, they urged Erasmus to write against Luther. Finally, in 1524, he did so.

Erasmus’s tract was on free will. Luther, like Calvin after him, took the position that everything that happens is caused by God, and that human free will is an illusion. Luther had taken from Augustine that the whole human race is tainted with original sin from the fall of Adam and Eve, and held that some are predestined to be saved by God’s unmerited grace.

In his tract, Erasmus pointed out that without free will, the punishment of hell would be meaningless and God a cruel monster in that he would sentence people to eternal torment when they had no control over whether they sinned or not.

Massing notes,

“The God whom Erasmus conjures up in The Freedom of the Will is caring, wise, reasonable and, above all, just. In many ways, he seems a Christian Humanist. Erasmus’s God has no divine inscrutability, no hint of a capacity for acting in ways that humans might find incomprehensible or unfair. Some might consider such a deity banal. Erasmus’s real concern, however, was not with God but with man. Facing a movement intent on denying any human dignity or autonomy, he was fighting to keep the divine spark alive. Without it, his whole philosophy of Christ, based as it was on the notion that men and women can choose to imitate him, would collapse.”

Christ the Savior is a supernatural concept; Christ the moral example is not. Erasmus’s idea that Christ can serve as an example is compatible with William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon in 1817 defining American Unitarianism. His idea that God is too loving to allow unjust punishment is compatible with later Universalism.

When Luther read Erasmus’s tract on freedom of the will, he was furious, but he didn’t have the time to respond to it immediately for two reasons. First, he was about to get married. Secondly, Luther’s ideas had by that time sparked a general revolt among the peasantry both in Germany and in Switzerland, and he was compelled to pay attention to that development.

The Peasant Revolt was a political uprising inspired by the religious movement Luther had started. One might think that Luther would encourage the peasants, for many of the nobles which they were attacking were Catholic. But they were also attacking Protestant nobles. It was a very complicated situation. Luther firmly believed that serfs, like slaves, should obey their masters and subjects should obey their rulers. The nobles and military men fighting these insurrections looked anxiously to Luther for guidance on how to handle them, and he assured them that it was justified to use whatever force was necessary to put down the rebellion. With Luther’s green light, the nobles and their mercenary armies put down the revolt violently, with incredible cruelty and loss of life.

Luther did not like the term Protestant; he preferred to call his movement evangelicals. His actions in the peasant revolt, as well as his stance in answering Erasmus, showed a fundamental difference between the two with regard to sources of truth. Luther felt that his religious views were a revelation straight from God and therefore it would be a betrayal of God for him to compromise at all.

This is shown most iconically in Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms, when he faced the Emperor and refused to back off his opinions sayin “Hic jacet. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

This refusal to yield set the tone for the entire Reformation, and resulted in much bloodshed. It was preferable to have massive loss of life than to compromise. Erasmus, believing that there was more than one side to most questions, believed that truth consisted in the clash of ideas and that dialogue should be encouraged.

Later the Protestant Reformation would plunge Europe onto the Thirty Years’ War.

Erasmus’s humanism led to the Enlightenment, the rediscovery of Reason, the birth of modern science and the beginnings of the United States in the eighteenth century.

It also led to an internationalism, an acceptance of diversity and multiple paths to truth. In many ways, the fanaticism which expressed itself in Naziism and fascism in the nineteen-thirties has direct links to Luther’s intransigence and evangelical zeal. The liberal order which the United States helped to set up after the victory over these forces in World War II is humanistic at its core. Churchill gave a speech in the late 1940s envisioning a United States of Europe, a coming together of old enemies. This was fulfilled as the separate nations formed first a trading bloc, then a common currency and then a governance structure higher than the individual nations.

One small part of the integration of Europe is a program which allows scholars in one nation a chance to study for a year in any of the other member nations. That program is named for Erasmus. It is fitting because Erasmus thought across national boundaries and across doctrinal boundaries.

In order for such cooperation to work, people must hold an allegiance to the whole which is greater than their allegiance to their part of the whole. Humanism, in the long view, is thus opposed not just to evangelicalism but to tribalism.

What is ironic from the point of view of a UU minister is that often the humanists in a congregation will behave tribally. If I spend too much time talking about the Bible or Jesus, I will often get feedback from humanists who are concerned that we are becoming closet Christians. Insterestingly enough, the members who identify as Christians do not make the equivalent complaint if weeks go by without any mention of the historical roots of this faith in Christianity.

I guess this is understandable. People who are orthodox Christians have many other churches they could choose, so if they are coming to a UU church it’s because they enjoy the diversity of opinion and clash of ideas. For the person who has rejected belief in God, and wants to be open about such rejection, the UUs form one of the only alternatives.

So let me wrap this up. Humanism in the historical sense springs from the idea that nothing human is alien; it is a broad and a proud and honorable tradition. Erasmus for his part, dedicated his life to finding middle ground between the evangelicals led by Luther and the corruptions of the Roman Catholics, which led to the inquisition and all-out religious war.

Erasmus should be honored by today’s humanists and we should remind ourselves that in the long view, the essence of humanism is not a rejection of God or the supernatural, but a rejection of tribalism.


Reading Origins of Humanism

While the principles underlying the European Union clearly have many sources, they closely reflect the reform program that Erasmus had spent so many years preparing and promoting. His call for a pan-European identity transcending borders and nationalities as spelled out in A Complaint of Peace: his appeals for tolerance and mutual understanding as expressed in such works as On Mending the Peace of the Church ...; his admonitions to Christian princes to avoid wars and foreign adventures and instead devote themselves to enhancing the welfare of their people; his stress on keeping doctrinal differences to a minimum and emphasizing all that binds humankind together; his statement that he would like to be ‘a citizen of the world, to be a fellow-citizen to all men’ – all are ideals on which the EU is built.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight For the Western Mind by Michael Massing 2018 Harper Collins, p. 797.

2018 Harper Collins

Quoted in wikipedia article, “Renaissance Humanism”

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