Christian Humanism: An Oxymoron?

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Humanism, the idea that people are capable of bettering themselves or society through effort, has in modern times become a term monopolized by secularists.  That is probably why the words “evangelical humanism” jumped out to me when used to describe Menno Simons.

What does humanism have in common with a leader in centuries ago Christian movement?

Today many Christians (including those claiming “Menno” as their namesake) seem to have a terrible fatalistic streak.  There are token forms of ‘outreach’ that appear only marginally interested in creating real lasting solutions to practical problems.  There is also no shortage of negativity about the world and cynicism about our ability to change it.  It could seem resignation to the current state of affairs is even view as the epitome of faith.

Dreams Beyond the Status Quo

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their own dreams.”  (Eleanor Roosevelt)

It was that quote of the illustrious first lady on a motivational poster that stirred my thoughts again.  What it describes could be both humanistic and evangelical faith.  Secular humanism is motivated by doing good for the sake of good, while religious faith is supposed to be about doing good for the sake of God.  Both are concerned with humanity and aim for a better future.

The difference could be that the religious are too often less practical in aim than their secular counterparts and this could be because the promises of eternity deadens the urge to be an agent of change in the world today.  The secular humanist, on the other hand, is committed to practical change today and attempts to deliver more than just promises of future paradise.

Knocking at doors at 7:30 am to tell people about Jesus might have a ring of faithfulness to it.  However, unless you show up with coffee and an egg sandwich to give, you probably just created another annoyance—a door slammed in your face might be your just reward.  It could be you are getting the cart ahead of the horse.

Eternity Can Wait, Love Practically Today

Without practical love Christianity loses the strongest evangelical tool that it has.  Jesus was extremely practical.  Jesus was so practical that many of those following him thought he would lead a revolt against Rome.  He did practical things like provide beverage for a wedding, healing sick people and feeding thousands.  He promised a kingdom soon at hand that would change practically everything:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…”  (Matthew 4:17 NIV)

The “kingdom of heaven” isn’t just some future ‘pie in the sky‘ ideal.  No, it is something that must be lived out practically today.  And, not as a purely informational campaign or token help either.  Christianity should be about making heaven a literal reality for as many people as we can today and in as many ways as humanly possible.  When we have faith and pray as Jesus did, this is not just wishful thinking:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  (Matthew 6:9-13 NIV)

We act on what we believe is possible.  We should not wait to free ourselves from temptation, we should not hesitate to forgive others if we want to be forgiven and we certainly cannot expect bread to come to us without our own effort.  So why do we assume ourselves powerless to bring to “earth as it is in heaven” and instead practice fatalism as if it is faith? 

We would be much more convincing if we put our money where our mouth is and gave people a taste of heaven rather than give them hell.

Humanist and Christian Hypocrisy

Ironically secular humanism often breaks down the same way religions do, in that adherents become less practically oriented and more ideological only and lazy.  People look to institutions and charismatic leaders to show the way rather than do their part by fully living their ideals.

This is how Al Gore ends up in a sprawling mansion while preaching climate change dogma.  This is how Christians preach Christ Jesus and leave many sharing the same sentiments of Joe Hill or of the quote below:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  (Mahatma Ghandi)

If you want to convince others of your dreams or ideals start first by living them and if you are Christian especially.  If your faith does nothing for real human needs, and is only about future rewards and glory, then it is just theory.  Being like Jesus requires you to change the world for good with the talents you are given.

Be a Human Example of Good

Don’t ask anyone (including God) to do anything on your behalf.  Leadership is not pointing out how others are doing wrong.  Leadership is being an example and laying down our own life for sake of love for humanity and God.  Be a leader for Christ’s sake.

Don’t wait on conditions to improve before acting; act to improve the conditions.  Be an evangelical humanist.  Endeavor to do what is impossible by acting in faith in a power greater and beyond your own comprehending. Bring heaven to earth today.

Christian humanism might or might not be an oxymoron, but faith without practically applied love for humanity is certainly an oxymoron.

Dream big, be practical.

Pie in the sky…when you die…

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The expression “pie in the sky” is used to describe an impractical idea.  It originated in the lyrics of the song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” that was written to the tune of a populis Christian hymn:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and Pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

If you are familiar with Christian hymns, you may recognize it as the same tune as “In the Sweet By and By.”  It was written in 1911 by Joe Hill as a protest song reflecting the frustration of those who were looking for something now. 

Hill pokes fun at Salvation Army street evangelists for their impracticality. His lyrics are cynical, self-interested and agnostic, but honest.

The critique of Christian evangelical efforts is stinging.

True evangelical faith…cannot lie sleeping…

Evangelical Christianity has earned a reputation.  It has frequently centered on condemnation of what those ‘outside the faith’ are doing wrong and yet lacks the introspection to know it is failing to live to the example it claims to promote. 

Jesus did more than sing happy hymns or preach sermons about future glory; he also healed, provided food, wine and urged his followers to give selflessly of themselves. The words of Jesus are reflected in this poem:

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.

It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and the orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.

Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good and return hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.

That is the writing of Menno Simons (1496–1561) urging a Gospel that met real needs today.  It was put to music by Larry Nickel and would be much harder to parody as a message of pie in the sky only.  Each line can be traced to something Jesus told his followers.  It is a evangelicalism of practical value rather than only immaterial abstractions.  It promotes a faith of concrete action in contrast to words-only ministry.

A message that focuses on being a solution…

The mocking words of Hill point to a purely human effort.  While the ‘love’ of too many who profess faith is empty of real sacrifice and true empathy for human need.  Both are an incomplete message.  One piously over-spiritualizes faith while the other is dripping with resentment and bitter carnality.

The true evangelical faith of Jesus is bread today, shelter today and clothe today.  The example is a love of substance and help today rather than of just pleasant words.  It is so much more than impractical pie in the sky promises of something tomorrow.