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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 2

The Gospel of humanitarianism

In The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018), Daniel J. Mahoney confronts a central heresy of our age, the “remarkably truncated view of human beings” that permeates our culture. This shortsighted approach fails to “acknowledge the hierarchy of goods and values that characterize the moral order and the life of the soul.”

Mahoney traces the genealogy of contemporary humanitarianism and its critics from Auguste Comte through Pope Benedict XVI. Happily, he includes among the critics of humanism two Russian Orthodox thinkers: the nineteenth-century philosopher Vladimir Soloviev and the twentieth-century Soviet dissident and social critic Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

While critical of its secular proponents, Mahoney’s primary concern is with Christians who have uncritically adopted this new creed. Chief among these, he writes, is Pope Francis, “a pontiff at the intersection of authentic Christianity and a misplaced contemporary humanitarianism.” For Mahoney, humanitarian thinking leads Pope Francis to deviate from Catholic tradition on war and peace, e.g., when the pope declares “that ‘no war is just’ and that one ‘always wins with peace.’” In the economic realm, this causes the pope to offer a critique of the free market rooted in a “crude and reductive economism.” Mahoney dubs this view “para-Marxist” rather than Christian, because it shows “no engagement with the rich and varied motives – rooted in pleasure, virtue, the noble, the just, anger at injustice, the ambition to rule or even change the world – that animate the souls of men.”

Whether secular or religious, “contemporary humanitarianism is remarkably passive, allowing its adherents to detach themselves from the great ‘communities of action’, such as nations and churches.

Whether secular or religious, “contemporary humanitarianism is remarkably passive, allowing its adherents to detach themselves from the great ‘communities of action’, such as nations and churches. Instead, they find salvation for themselves in strident affirmations of individual and collective autonomy, and not in deference to the grace and goodness of God.” The adherents of contemporary humanitarianism, whether religious or secular, live in a morally bland and affectively flat world “without heroes or saints, a world in which the capacity to admire what is inherently admirable is deeply undermined.”

The Christian moral tradition has both heroes and saints, because we take seriously the reality of evil. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, heroes and saints don’t remind us that evil exists but that evil can be defeated.

The adherents of humanitarianism wrongly think they can do without heroes and saints, because they fail to acknowledge, much less take seriously, the reality of evil.

Attractive as a world without evil is, it is a deadly illusion. Why? Because frequently I’m not a good person and neither are you.

Like everyone else, there is much about both of us that is noble and admirable. But, again like everyone else, there is also much about us both that is petty, wicked, and sinful.

The demonic genius of humanitarianism is its emphasis on human goodness and its shifting the blame for sin to abstract causes. The latter negates human freedom, while the former exempts us from having to cultivate virtue. Taken together we are robbed of our ability to be charitable.

While “Christians welcome good works such as the admirable efforts of Doctors Without Borders,” Christian charity cannot be reduced “to a means of this-worldly transformation,” Mahoney writes.

The result is, as a pale substitute for charity (“the greatest of the theological virtues”), we settle for “compassion and fellow-feeling.” Embrace humanitarianism, and we cannot do otherwise. Under its spell, we see neither the necessity of virtue nor have the requisite sense of personal responsibility that comes from taking human freedom seriously. We are left unable to escape “from the closed circle of self and other” that charity requires.

In his consideration of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2011 Bundestag address, Mahoney offers us a way to free ourselves from this closed circle. We must cultivate what Pope Benedict calls a “listening heart,” or what Mahoney calls that “cognitive and moral faculty” that “gives us access to an objective moral order that transcends mere subjectivity.”

It is only through a rightly formed conscience, that is a discerning heart formed by, and freely conformed to, the Christian moral tradition that we are able to hold in harmony personal “liberty and judgment with truth and reason.” To the listening heart, human decisions are “never merely arbitrary, bereft of rational moral guidance.” Together with Pope Benedict, Mahoney does not:

understand how … claims made on behalf of human liberty and dignity can be justified without “Solomon’s listening heart, a reason that is open to the language of being.” That phrase beautifully articulates the difference between classical Christian reason and the positivist substitute for it.

As much as I agree with Mahoney (and Pope Emeritus Benedict) on this point, it highlights what is for me a growing concern. There comes a point in which philosophy and even theology must give way to prayer. It is only through a life of prayer that we can cultivate in ourselves “Solomon’s listening heart.”

In our concern to foster a virtuous and free society, we are always tempted to imagine that evidence and arguments are sufficient; they are not and never have been. Limit ourselves to these and, however unintentionally, we will substitute for the Gospel humanitarianism (or some other heresy) about which Mahoney warns us.

As an Eastern Orthodox priest, I cannot but affirm with Pope Benedict that “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true.” It is this to be sure, but it is more than this. Before it is anything else, Christian faith is “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Without discounting the real and myriad harms that Mahoney highlights, the true and lasting evil of humanitarianism is that it allows us to live as if a relationship with Jesus Christ were optional. Our escape from “the closed circle of self and others,” our embrace not simply of compassion but charity, our ability to experience the transforming power of grace as more than this-worldly philanthropic, cultural or political success require a heart open not simply to Being but to Christ.

Forget this and our witness is no longer Christian.

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Fr Gregory Jensen is the pastor of Sts. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission and the Eastern Orthodox chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published articles in psychology, theology, and economics and is the author of The Cure for Consumerism. He is also an instructor in youth ministry at St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, Bound Brook, NJ.  In 2013, he was a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Bozeman, Montana-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC).