On Humanism (and why writers should care)

Literature_MarkosI’ve been reading a great little book – Literature: A Student’s Guide. It’s part of a series of small books from Crossway publishers. This volume was written by Dr. Louis Markos, an English professor at a Christian university.

I don’t think I’ve correctly understood what humanism is until I’ve read this book. Without thinking too deeply about it, I’ve assumed it’s something to be avoided entirely because I’m a Christian. I’ve assumed it’s just another way of saying “live for yourself.”

Dr. Markos has written some helpful and hopeful thoughts, however. They are hopeful for writers (Christian or not) who want to truthfully and wholly express the human experience. And what writer doesn’t want to do that?

Here’s an excerpt from pages 65 and 66:

“But please remember that the “enemy” of Christianity – I prefer to use the phrase “competing worldview” – is not humanism per se, but secular humanism. One can just as well be a Christian humanist (like Dante, Donne, Milton, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis) as a secular humanist (like Marx, Freud, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins).

A humanist is not someone who rejects God or the Christian revelation, but one who believes that man is a free and rational creature – one who possesses innate dignity and value, and whose life and achievements on the earth are of intrinsic and last worth. A humanist believes in the power of human reason and creativity to shape and change the world and the importance of preserving a record, in various mediums, of those shapings and changes. A humanist  believes, to borrow a key humanist phrase, that “the proper study of man is man,” not because God is unimportant or irrelevant but because man’s innate dignity demands such attention. Such humanist beliefs are not, I would argue, inconsistent with Christianity; to the contrary, I would assert that the only true humanist is the Christian (or at least theistic) humanist. If the secular humanists are correct and man is merely the product of undirected time and chance, then he is certainly not worth the attention that the secular humanists lavish on him; but if we are, as the Bible teaches, creatures made in the image of God, then our hopes and fears and desires are supremely worth studying and preserving. Further, if the God who created us thought us of enough value to become one of us and to die for us, then who are we to dismiss man as a poor forked animal evolved out of primordial slime and destined only for extinction?

no one can be a true student of literature unless he is a humanist.* If you reject the notion that man is the proper study of man, and that the things man creates are of value and worth preserving, then why study literature at all? From it you will learn nothing “practical”; it won’t put money in your purse or bread on your table. But from it you will learn to understand yourself and the human race better. You will earn the privilege and the right to participate in the flow of human ideas and to grapple with the major expressions of the human imagination. You will be invited to join the great conversation! No, such a study will not put you back into a right relationship with God (only Christ can do that), but it will help to shape you into a good and noble citizen who seeks both to enrich your society without and to fulfill within the Socratic mandate: Know Thyself.”

This excerpt is one of those horizon-expanding passages for me. As I see it, there’s never been a better time to be a writer, or an artist of any ilk, and at the same time to be a disciple of Jesus. Writing that captures the essence of human experience is telling the story of God’s image bearers. How incredible!

Are you a Christian or an artist – would you call yourself a Christian humanist?
If you are not a Christian – how does this excerpt strike you? Does it, even still, inspire you to write with passion?

*Putting this sentence in bold is my addition.


2 thoughts on “On Humanism (and why writers should care)

  1. Erin Bartels

    This is a great excerpt. As a former English major at a non-Christian university, I often found myself simultaneously tacking with and at odds with my professors. We all agreed that literature and the human condition were worthy of intensive study. We all agreed that there were soaring heights and fathomless depths to which human beings aspired or which they might reach. But as a Christian, my interpretation of texts was always a little at odds with the establishment. I’m proud to say I maintained a vocal and, I think, generous opposition to the kind of deconstructionist, literature-means-what-you-want-it-to-mean-regardless-of-context-or-author-intent perspective that was in vogue. But as a writer now I have personally struggled with the purpose of my writing. I feel no call whatsoever to write “Christian fiction” (despite working in Christian publishing!) and yet I sometimes question my motives in writing stories that are more broadly humanist. This excerpt has helped put that in perspective a bit. Thanks for sharing it.


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