Christian Humanism: a Gospel to Proclaim

Anthony Freeman was prevented by family illness from attending the conference. This is what he had planned to say — Anthony Freeman's book 'God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism' caused him to be sacked as a parish priest. He currently edits the 'Journal of Consciousness Studies'

I use the term Christian Humanism to denote a particular way of interpreting the Christian tradition. I did not decide to embrace humanism and then cast about for the best version of it; I was and remain a Christian, who found that a humanist approach to my religion made more sense than a supernatural one.

The obvious objection to this project is that Christianity has God at its centre, while humanism has no place for God at all. To which I answer: It is Jesus Christ who is at the centre of Christianity, not God. And there is a tradition going back to the New Testament itself that as Christians we know nothing of God except that which we know through Christ, in whom God was made known in a human life. This means that Christianity does not, or at least it ought not, to start off with the term God and turn to scientists and philosophers and other religions in search of a description. It starts off with Jesus Christ and the faith that he will make known anything about God that it is necessary for us to know. As Michael Ramsey once put it, adapting St John, "God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all".

In particular, Christianity does not start off by defining God as a supernatural agent, separate from and prior to the created order, including the human race. We need only think of God in that way if that is required of us by what we learn of God from Jesus Christ. I am persuaded that Christianity does not demand an acceptance of the supernatural. On the contrary, it is better off without it - remaining true to its origins in the human Jesus and able to offer today's world a religious alternative both to superstition and to secularism.

The seeds of this humanistic approach to knowledge of God may be found in the belief, which the Church inherited from Judaism, that humankind was made in God's image, an image that the early Christians believed had been renewed and perfected in the person of Jesus Christ. I am sure that the writers of the New Testament and the framers of the Creeds did believe in God as a supernatural and eternal being. Even so, the pattern of theology that they laid down, with Christ at the centre, makes it possible to shift the emphasis from that preconceived idea of the divine to an understanding of God derived from the human end of things, while staying firmly within the tradition they established. Thus St John wrote "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son [i.e. Jesus Christ], who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1.18). And St Paul roundly declared that "God was in Christ" (2 Cor. 5.19) and elsewhere that "In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col. 1.19). So the New Testament prepares us, indeed it requires us, to develop an understanding of God that is "Christ shaped" and therefore "human shaped".

To anticipate for a moment, I may quote Karl Rahner, a leading twentieth century Catholic theologian, who demonstrates this point: "Only someone who forgets that the essence of man is to be unbounded... can suppose that it is impossible for there to be a man, who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense... is God's existence in the world" (Theological Investigations, Vol 1, p.184, Dartman Longman & Todd, 1961 - emphasis added). On this basis, you could almost say that Christianity is humanist by definition.

I want to consider what a humanist doctrine of God-in-Christ might look like today. To do this, we need to look at how our ideas about the human person have changed since the classic christological formulae were hammered out in the fifth century. Despite the holistic model in the Hebrew scriptures, the early church was dominated by dualistic Greek philosophy. With minor variations, a living human being was thought of as a fusion of two separate parts, a non-material soul or mind and a physical body. These came together at conception or birth and were separated at death.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when many other religious ideas came under fire from the scholars of the Enlightenment, mind/body dualism received a boost from the widely accepted distinction made by Descartes between "body stuff", which was physical, measurable, and locatable in space, and "mind stuff", which was none of these things. Today the situation is quite different. Among philosophers of mind, psychologists and neurophysiologists, Descartes is normally mentioned only to be scorned or refuted, and "dualist" is almost a term of abuse.

So where does that leave us? If our conscious mind (or soul) is not a separate entity that comes in some way to be associated with our body, what is it? And where does it come from? The most general answer, on which most scholars would agree, is that it comes from our physical body. Beyond that, opinions differ. Some people say that our state of mind at any particular moment simply is the state of our brain, without remainder. The conscious mind is not something extra to or different from the brain - there is no ghost in the machine - the mind is simply "the brain seen from the inside" as it were.

In its most extreme version, this physicalist view eliminates the reality of the mind altogether. It holds that subjective mental states are illusory, and that the physical brain is all there really is. Probably the best-known popular writer to espouse this view is Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Penguin, 1993). A more moderate account - known as the "double aspect" theory - goes back at least to Spinoza in the seventeenth century, and was championed also by Bertrand Russell, who called it "neutral monism" (An Outline of Philosophy, Routledge, 1970). This holds that the material and the mental are two different aspects of some underlying and more fundamental reality. It would not say that the mind adds anything to what is provided by the physical brain, but it does concede that the first-hand mental experience of the subject and the physical state of the brain observed by the scientist are equally valid and authentic alternative descriptions of the mind/brain. They offer two different descriptions from two alternative aspects of the same single state of affairs.

Yet another interpretation - and this is the one of particular interest to me - relies on the concept of "emergence". While maintaining that the mind is wholly physical in origin, arising in the brain and continuously associated with it, this approach nonetheless says that, once having "emerged", the mind does constitute something extra in the world. The "whole" of the brain/mind is more than the sum of its physical parts. Emergence theory comes in various forms. Some emphasize the physicalist side - e.g. John Searle, with his formula that the mind is "caused by" and "realized in" the brain (Minds, Brains and Science, p.21,Harvard, 1948 - while others are more radical and come close to old-fashioned dualism (William Hasker, The Emergent Self, Cornell, 199).

A favourite illustration of emergent properties is water. Water is composed wholly from the two elements hydrogen and oxygen; there is no hidden extra ingredient. Yet the properties of water are quite different from those of its constituent elements. These are called "emergent properties" because they are genuinely new, but were not added from outside. One of them, liquidity, also illustrates another feature of emergence: an emergent property can result from an increase in the quantity of otherwise identical constituents. A glass of water has the quality of being liquid; a single molecule of water does not - although it is chemically identical. And just as one molecule does not make a liquid, so - it is argued - one brain cell does not make a mind; but get enough of either of them together, and the liquid or the mind will come into being, with no added ingredients.

Armed with these contemporary approaches to the "mind-body" problem, as it is sometimes called, let us return for a moment to one of the most detailed of the ancient christological formulae, the so-called Athanasian Creed (dating probably from the fifth century). This states, among other things, that our Lord Jesus Christ is "Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;... Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;... For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ" (translation from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer).

The historical and intellectual background to these statements is not disputed. When a dualistic model of the human person was being used, an obvious way to envisage the combined humanity and divinity of Jesus was to imagine his divine self associating with his human body in the same way that - in any other human being - the soul or conscious mind would be associated with the body. But that obvious solution was rejected by the Church, which insisted that Jesus' humanity must be complete, "of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting". That led to the spectre of two rival directing principles - one human and the other divine - in a single body. That possibility was also deemed unacceptable, hence the insistence that, "although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ". And so it was suggested that the divine element bore the same relation to the whole man in Jesus as the soul bore to the physical body in any human being. Hence the declaration, "For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ".

Now let us put the two parts of our investigation together, and feed back into this admirable formula the non-dualist "emergence" model currently being used to describe the mind-body relation in human beings. You will recall that, on this view, the conscious mind has its origins in the physical brain, but is not simply the same thing as the brain. Having emerged from the physical body, and without any added ingredients such as Descartes' "mind stuff", it takes on an existence of its own which is more than just the subjective experience of the person concerned. It has a legitimate place in the external world of bodies and events, just as does the liquidity of water.

What happens when we apply the formula from the Athanasian Creed to this model? Simply this: the divine element in Christ is now to be understood as an emergent property. That is to say: just as his human mind - and indeed any human mind - arises from the complex physiology of his body, especially his brain and nervous system, so his divinity arises from his total humanity, body-and-mind.

Let there be no mistake about what I am suggesting. Just as the mind or soul is not an added ingredient to the human body, but an integral emergent property of it, so Christ's divinity is not an added ingredient to his human person, but an integral emergent property of it. Add to this my earlier statement - that as Christians we claim no a priori knowledge of God, but only what we know through Christ - and the basic evidence for Christian Humanism is in place. On a non-dualistic Christ-centred account, God is not a supernatural agent external to humanity, but an emergent property of human life itself. That is what I call Christian Humanism. I believe it has the potential to free the Gospel from supernaturalism and superstition without losing all that is still of positive value in the Christian religion.

I am currently working out this theme in greater detail, and I am encouraged when I find reputable theologians from the past whose work I feel is supportive of this approach. I will finish by giving just one example. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the "father of modern theology", wrote early in the nineteenth century that every human being has the capacity for what he called God-consciousness. He rejected the idea that Christ's divinity was something external to his humanity, insisting instead that it was "the constant potency of his God-consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in him" (The Christian Faith, T & T Clark, 1989) Christ, he wrote, is "the one in Whom the creation of human nature... was perfected" (p.374). The closeness of this to Karl Rahner's description of Christ (quoted above) as "a man, who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense... is God's existence in the world" is unmistakable.

Schleiermacher was insistent that the divine aspect of Christ was not the result of any supernatural intervention but arose naturally with the perfecting of his humanity. It was not therefore unique to this one human person, but potentially open to all. Thus he also says, "As certainly as Christ was a man, there must reside in human nature the possibility of taking up the divine into itself.... So the idea that the divine revelation in Christ must be something in this respect supernatural will simply not stand the test" (The Christian Faith, p.64).

Schleiermacher would not, I am sure, have denied the existence of God as traditionally understood. Nonetheless, his way of interpreting the incarnation in terms of God-consciousness - that is as an emergent property paves the way for the kind of Christian Humanism that I am developing and which I believe is a gospel worth proclaiming at the beginning of the third Christian millennium.