@ivpacademic Review: Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology)

incarnational humanism

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I fear our world has become too materialistic to continue to revel in our shared humanity — too concerned for the show rather than the image. Our author, Jens Zimmermann, is attempting to combat the genesis of my fears, it seems, and has done so with previous publications focusing, or rather refocusing, on humanism from the Christian perspective.

Zimmermann’s premise is at once breathtaking and simple. He will assert in a theological fashion that orthodox Christology remains the single best hope for incorporating a truly humanistic understanding of our community (10). In the preface there are hints of a much deeper philosophy here, based on the entirety of the Christian Tradition with a focus on the Catholic writers in particular (he moves from Irenaeus to de Lubac in short order). By the end of the preface we are introduced to the theological Logos, dualism, and Bonhoeffer (a theologian with the heart of a Catholic, I and his biographer would venture). Zimmermann’s goal, then, is better understood “not (as) an uncritical recovery of a certain Christian metaphysics” but to regain “a radically different theological notion of reality, a notion by which earlier Christians achieved a holistic view of the Christian life (13).” This, Zimmermanns suggests, will regain some moral fortitude in our increasingly inhuman society.

Why is this needed? Zimmermann sees a world turning to a humanism without God, and as has happened in the recent past, such a philosophy is doomed to bring destruction upon those we can easily consider inhuman. God, Zimmermann unashamedly insists, belongs at the forefront of humanism. This case is made through the incarnation of the logos, God become man in Jesus, so that all of humanity is elevated through participation in the divine. However, with the increased secularization of the West (and he does not mean the Fox News version of secularists and the War on Christmas, but an intrinsic secularization seeping even into our churches), we are losing not just God, but humanity as well. Not all is lost, however. Zimmermann has watched secularism implode (43). He has also watched how national leaders, even in the arch-secular France, have increasingly come to realize the danger of the West relying too much on a scientific philosophy rather than a God-centered humanism. Zimmermann is correct to note as well that this rather cold philosophy is found in fundamentalism, a term he applies to Christians, Muslims, and Scientists alike. This is the goal of the first chapter, to establish the social context upon which Zimmermann with stand to examine and then to proclaim. It is a dark social context to be sure, but one we see increasingly played out in front of our eyes. Again.

The second chapter establishes the theological underpinnings of Christian humanism, rather the Christological, as well as the history of the philosophy that reaches back into hallow patristic antiquity. Christian humanism has two sacraments — deification and the eucharist. Yes, humanism of the metaphysical variety, reaches back to Plato, but because of both the Eastern and the Western Churches the anchoring of humanism, the philosophy of the human, is based upon Christ in the incarnation and thus, exists outside the normal confines of our spheres of influence. Because of this anchoring, the drive to better ourselves is a desire to achieve theosis, a Christian ideal. This is what once drove us, Zimmermann insists. The third chapter, with a discussion on medeval and Renaissance, becomes the examples of how a rediscovery of an incarnational humanism propelled the West and likewise, how the Western Church decided that such a philosophy was an anchor that prevented movement rather than one that protected against the storm. Contrary to popular myths, Christianity and its narrative of humanism in the West is what drove the scientific revolutions along with a few more revolutions, or perhaps, Reformations. I must note that the silencing of the narrative did not occur over night, but then again, evil only takes hold when a society aggressively becomes apathetic.

So, how did we move from a humanism anchored to God to a humanism that is nothing more than a philosophy aimed at making us inhuman? Zimmermann’s fourth and fifth chapters cover this. The fourth traces the development of the German enlightenment as it brought down an God-anchored humanism while the fifth shows how the heart of the West, Europe, finalized the separation of God and human ideals. If we step back and look at the timeline Zimmermann has produced, we see that much more clearly the horrors he suggets in his preface — the horrors that come from moving the focus and anchor of humanism away from God — the horrors that allowed one well-known philosophy to dismiss Christ and accept Nazism. However, in the examination, he is still fair, even if he knows the conclusion. For instance, in Zimmermann’s examination of Heidegger, the philosophy is given a treatment showing a more complete picture of his thought, both negative and positive (189-199). No baby is cast out with any bathwater. But, it is in this chapter especially we see where the most destructive force, one that shaped the twentieth century, first begins — when we become the universal by which we judge rather than exist as the judged. The fifth chapter, then, shows how someone (Vattimo) attempted to recover from this horror, but came close because the basic lexicon remained the same (261).

The sixth chapter moves from German-shaped Enlightenment philosophy to German-led theology. His epigram is from Karl Barth, but on the pages are Bonhoeffer (the quote on 264 seems to be a guiding theme for the entirety of this and his other words). He quickly returns to his first themes, that of dualism. He successfully argues throughout the book that the dualism proposed by later secular humanists is unnatural; here, he urges for a natural humanism, one that does not separate the secular and the sacred. He pulls out Bonhoeffer’s argument of a “realistic responsibility.” Our Christian life, then, so intertwined with this world, must not follow platitudes, but strive for the ideal. We have lost this, Zimmermann argues, over the course of the last few centuries, but we can retrieve it, and perhaps, I would argue, more so in a secular world. His final chapter is a deeply theological setpiece where we see all of his interwoven thoughts finally come together.

This book is one of the most profound books to deal with the issue of the declining moral foundation of the West. We have thought too much, it seems, and to retrieve that which we have lost while preventing the inhuman futures awaiting us like wolves the hobbled rabbit, we must return to the intellectual foundation provided for us through patristic interpretations of Plato. Zimmerman does not simply state the problem, outline the dangers, and suggest we return to God as if he was poorly imitating an Old Testament prophet; what this author does is to go into minute detail of where we, where we have come from, while warning us of were we are going not just with insincere fear-mongering, but with latent examples the author and the audience know all too well. He then proposes through the same method a path to return, to reset, our humanistic endeavors.

This book demands your reading.

Post By Joel Watts (10,115 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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