BOOKS: Religion and the Human Future: Changing the Terms of Debate

By William Schweiker
University of Chicago

Can you imagine a way of life or forms of social existence that are open to religious convictions and longings as well as humanistic beliefs and ideals? Theological humanism is that third option.

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william-schweikerschweiker-klemm-coverWe live in an age of wild and confusing religious activity and yet the global debate about religion is overdrawn, unhelpful, and even dangerous. From the highest seats of government to local mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples, the power of religion to shape, invigorate, but also destroy human social life is recognized. Belief in the triumph of the modern secular age, a world free of the passions of religion, has proved wrong and wrongheaded. And matters have become polarized. Supporters of religion in many traditions decry secularism, the West, modernity, the Enlightenment, and humanism. They too often insist on freedom of religion but mean freedom for their religion and it alone. When they do, a kind of religious life best called “hypertheism” is in play, a way of life grounded in the idea that “God” is the property of one religion and completely so. The critics of religion, conversely, denounce it as fundamentalist, supernatural, anti-modern, anti-scientific, and anti-humane. The critics also insist on freedom but that usually means freedom from all religion and so imposed silence in the public order about religious matters. These ideas form an outlook and way of life name “overhumanization” since the idea is that human power and well-being alone ultimately matters. In the heightened struggle between overhumanization and hyperthesism it is unsurprising that civilizations supposedly clash like armies in the night and self-righteousness is found on all sides. The human future seems endangered.

In our time, the important—humanly crucial–question of the place of the religion in social life and global interaction is reduced to vacuous platitudes. Too often social conflict results, sometimes violently. Can religion contribute to the human future? The book I have written with David E. Klemm, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay in Theological Humanism, aims to change the terms of the debate and to show the contribution of religious thought to forging a humane future. What is needed, we contend, is a way beyond a constricted anthropocentrism, where “man” is the measure of everything, the various “theisms,” the rule of the gods, which struggle for human faith and obedience, or the rejection of humanism in any form as well as the rejection of religion by ardent secularists. And these opposing positions too often dominate the intellectual climate as well. Some writers decry God as a delusion and herald the coming of a stridently secular age; many theologians imagine that appeals to orthodoxy allow them to remythologize the world within the Christian story. Those popular and also intellectual options are no longer capable of sustaining and directing human existence. The terms of the debate need to be changed. We aim to change them.

The root issue is how freedom and religion are related. In this light, the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion have been hard won and deeply fragile freedoms in human history. The idea that human beings can freely practice their religion and thus protect the dignity of conscience is a bulwark against tyranny. This kind of freedom, freedom of religion, must be protected in order to have a humane future. Likewise, the notion that there can be no compulsion in matters of religion, and thus one in good conscience can and may reject religion, has been a crucial means to resist theocratic pretensions. This form of freedom, freedom from religion, must also be protected and promoted. Further, granting their ambiguity, the religions have brought hope, insight, healing, and justice to peoples. And despite often overly optimistic and restrictive outlooks, humanistic voices have championed human dignity, intelligence, and freedom in the face of their denial. And yet these freedoms and the rich heritages that sustain them are being inverted. The advocates of freedom of religion can insist, as seen around the world, that only one religion can be freely practiced. Humanistic intentions can stunt human aspiration, the drive of the human spirit to something beyond itself, by denying or limiting religious longings by insisting that only freedom from religion is true freedom. These ideas about how religion and freedom are in fact distortions, we call them “hypertheism” and “overhumanization.”

Can you imagine a way of life or forms of social existence that are open to religious convictions and longings as well as humanistic beliefs and ideals? Theological humanism is that third option. It designates a stance or posture in life that interweaves religious and humanistic outlooks. One draws from specific religious and social traditions, in our case Christianity and Western social thought, but a theological humanist does so in order to orient life in a new way. ”Theological humanism” is not a religion or an ideology; it is a new outlook on the way in which one can and may and must inhabit religious and social traditions if these are to aid in forging a human future. Theological humanism is a strategy for interpreting religious traditions to enable them to become practical means for respecting and enhancing the human future. How is that possible and what does it mean?

Religion and the Human Future answers that question in two steps: first, by presenting the shape of theological humanism and then, second, its task. At its core theological humanism is a claim about freedom, responsibility, and the goods that we can and ought to seek in religious communities and outside of them. We advocate freedom within religion as necessary to sustain the other forms of freedom. Freedom within religion has not been previously articulated on the global scene and yet it is vitally important if the religions are to contribute to a human future. What does it mean? It is the freedom to inhabit one’s convictions in a way that serves the human future because one accepts the responsibility to respect and enhance the integrity of life.

By “integrity of life”, we mean the right integration of goodness needed for human life and others forms of life to flourish: basic, social, reflective, and spiritual goods. These goods are rooted in the kinds of creatures human beings and also the forms of flourishing needed for human communities to endure. Granted, different peoples and traditions will rank these goods differently and even understand them in diverse ways. Nevertheless, some integration, some right-relating, of these goods is needed for a humane future. The integrity of life—and so, life in its many forms–is the ideal and norm for Theological Humanism. Living by this norm means that one is responsible for respecting and enhancing the integrity of life in its diverse forms with and for others. This way of life is religious and also humanistic; it is oriented by practices and convictions about what is ultimately true and real—the integrity of life—but in and through the domain of human community and freedom. Clarifying the meaning of the integrity of life and thus the shape of theological humanism is the task of the first part of the book.

Part II of the book illustrates what this outlook means for a range a problems that now endanger the human future, problems like the environmental crisis, religious fanaticism, radical social diversity, and the like. The purpose of engaging those challenges is obviously not to answer every social and religious problem. It is to show the practical power and relevance of theological humanism. And it is also illustrates the greater adequacy of theological humanism over other forms of religious and social thought now reigning in the academy, religious communities, and public life.

The wager of this book is that by living theological humanism within religious traditions it is possible to respect and enhance the integral relations of forms of life, natural, human, and divine. In this way the scope of human freedom is protected, the power of the religions to sustain and fulfill human longings acknowledged, and a vision of responsibility needed to orient social life in global times is defined. This is a wager. But it is, we submit, the challenge and possibility of religion and the human future.

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One thought on “BOOKS: Religion and the Human Future: Changing the Terms of Debate

  1. As expressed by Schweiker and Klemm, “theological humanism” is indeed a constructive third way between hypertheism and overhumanization. This book deserves careful reading…though I suspect that it will be read most carefully by those who already agree with its wisdom. The question that needs to be raised, I think, is the question of how and through which media the hypertheists and overhumanists can be engaged.

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