Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is an absence of a systematic theology/philosophy of religious humanism. Unfortunately, religious humanism has not yet found a Barth to articulate its inner logic. Nor can we identify a concrete culture or historical era in the West in which humanism was in command.

This is the Fifth in a Series: New Turns in Religious Thought

Both the title and the rationale for the series "New Turns in Religious Thought" suggest that theology is passing through one of its most agonizing periods, as if it were trying to open a door with the wrong key. Indeed, the cultural conditions and theological climate that make this series timely are also stark testimony to the depth of the uneasiness we feel and the depth of the problem we face. Ours is not a time when theological efforts can be focused on mining and refining a limited number of options. Nor does it appear to be a time for manicuring a model of broad consensus, for a general theological agreement is precisely what we lack. Rather, it is a season for exploration and rejuvenation when, willingly or of necessity, we traverse unknown and unfound theological terrain -- if not the entire spectrum of religious options -- for possible leads and insights.

No doubt some will regard this series as an unwitting acknowledgment of the desperate state of theology, insofar as it suggests that models of theological importance may lie unnoticed on the drawing boards of unsung adolescent scholars. A further suggestion should not be overlooked. The title of the series speaks of turning points in religion, and not the narrower category of theology. Is this nomenclature deliberate? Does it suggest -- I trust it does -- the possibility of reconnoitering nontheistic perspectives for their potential impact upon the church’s present task of self-clarification?

It is against this background of a wider examination of religious models, initiated by a heightened doctrinal uncertainty, that I would enter a new version of religious humanism in the theological flesh market.

One must first recognize that there are two basic religious traditions in Western thought: a mainstream tradition of Christian and non-Christian theism, and a minority tradition of humanism. Religious humanism has not, however, successfully established itself as an authentic and indispensable religious perspective. Several factors are responsible for its failure. It has continuously been dwarfed by a larger and entrenched theism. Humanism has also been viewed as a hostile adversary, bent on the extermination of religion in general and the execution of Christian theism in particular. Add to this the absence of a systematic theology/philosophy of religious humanism; unfortunately, religious humanism has not yet found a Barth to articulate its inner logic. Nor can we identify a concrete culture or historical era in the West in which humanism was in command. This point evokes the charge from major critics of humanism -- e.g., Charles Hartshorne -- that the absence of a concrete humanist culture is incontrovertible proof that humanism cannot provide a viable ground for an ongoing social system. Further, a question-begging definition that equates religion and theism, along with widespread misunderstanding about the normative principle of humanism, continues to camouflage a basic similarity between humanism and expanding varieties of contemporary theism.

Religious Humanism: Aim and Strategy

Because of these factors, religious humanism is a still small voice. But there can be little doubt that it is emerging today as a major religious force that Christian faith will encounter directly as a rival and indirectly as a prominent ingredient in the cultural matrix in which the gospel must be proclaimed. I am also persuaded that humanism points to a verity that religion must eventually acknowledge as a given. It is my contention that the central affirmation of humanism, the functional ultimacy of the human being -- i.e., the radical freedom and autonomy of humankind -- is materially a formative category of contemporary theology. Growing numbers of theologians are consciously adopting the thesis of radical human creativity to the extent that the difference between religious humanism and such theists as Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Novak and Duméry is not as great as we may think.

Humanism is not monolithic, and like theism it has its effective and its inept advocates. I would champion a species of humanism that differs significantly from other current varieties of contemporary nontheism. Uppermost in this regard is my concern to advance humanism as an alternative religious perspective, as a distinct soteriological system. As the qualifier suggests, religious humanism affirms that the human being is homo religiosus; what it attacks is the arrogant presumption that religion is limited to the theistic experience. This stance puts me in opposition to those humanists who regard religion as an illusion, who seek to negate the divine reality as the necessary precondition for affirming the humanist gospel of human freedom, and who interpret the history of religion as only an instrument of oppression and dehumanization. In the final analysis these principles must be rejected, because they cannot be confirmed by humanism’s own norms. Moreover, these claims fail to recognize the fundamental pluralism of religion and theism, varieties of which are actually corollaries of the very realities humanism affirms.

The religious humanism I endorse does not attack Christian theism with the critical apparatus of rationalism, science or positivism; nor does it seek to make these the foundation for the humanist perspective. Rather, it adopts a method of internal criticism to avoid the use of questionable tactics of previous participants in the humanist-theist debate. That is, it employs a variety of means to show that the essential norms of humanism are explicit in certain brands of contemporary theism and implicit in the others which advance a different principle of authority. To accomplish this aim, religious humanism would identify positions already adopted by the Christian theologian; e.g., the Kierkegaardian principle of truth as subjectivity, which presupposes the centrality of functional ultimacy. In a similar fashion it would chronicle the development of modern theology to identify a clear trend toward the open avowal of the radical human autonomy that. functional ultimacy symbolizes. Finally, it would argue that the Christian will be compelled to adopt the norm of functional ultimacy to avoid consideration of uninviting theological propositions; e.g., quietism in the face of suffering, or the notion that God is a white racist. (In my book Is God a White Racist? Preamble to Black Theology [Doubleday, 1973] I contend that the theodicy question as revised by liberation theologies will force Christian theism to the position of humanocentric theism, the form of contemporary theism in which the principle of functional ultimacy is most explicit.)

Thus, rather than building its theological superstructure on the ashes of a rebutted theism, religious humanism grounds itself in a principle that obtains whether God is or is not, whether the Transcendent is good, indifferent or demonic, and whether God is or is not the creator of humankind.

Functional Ultimacy: The Controlling Category

The crucial significance of religious humanism for new turns in religious thought consists in its illumination of radical freedom/autonomy as the essence of human reality and its program to construct a systematic theology/philosophy on the exclusively anthropological foundation of the functional ultimacy of humankind as the theological singular. Any valid exposition of humanism must begin here, for it is on the foundation of this principle and its corollaries -- the humanocentric predicament and individuals as coequal centers of freedom/authority -- that humanism establishes its methodological policies and builds its ethics and epistemology.

The functional ultimacy of humanity is not a new concept, nor is it confined to humanism. We are already familiar with some of its essentials as the literal signification of Protagoras’ dictum: "Man is the measure of all things." Functional ultimacy can also be interpreted as a more radical extension of Kierkegaard’s principle of truth as subjectivity to areas beyond the ethicoreligious sphere. It has affinities as well with William James’s category "the will to believe" and Vaihinger’s "as if" philosophy. If one corrects the erroneous interpretations of critics, the principle is the core of Sartre’s anthropology and also Camus’s.

A clear understanding of the humanist principle of functional ultimacy is critical because influential critics grossly misinterpret it or designate a different principle as humanism’s operative norm. It is argued, for instance, that humanism affirms the person as an absolute rather than a finite freedom, as being ontologically rather than functionally ultimate. For these reasons, the most fruitful way to extract the meaning of the principle is through a comparison with selected theists in whose thought it is prominent. I call these figures humanocentric theists because the assertion of radical human freedom/autonomy is given a theistic base.

We need look no further than the normative stance adopted by William Daniel Cobb in the initial article in this series ("Morality-in-the-Making: A New Look at Some Old Foundations," January 1-8 Century, p.11). His correlative categories of man as moral creator" and "a moral universe in the making" seem to be mined from the lode of functional ultimacy. "God," he asserts, "created man with the intention that man should ‘make what God did not make and . . . that man ‘make what God did not think to make’ as a consequence of God’s gracious self-limitation of his own power in the act of creating man." God has limited his own power "for the sake of giving man ‘space’ in which to be more than a ‘robot’ or a ‘puppet’ in a ‘stage play.’"

Eliezer Berkovits in Faith After the Holocaust advances a similar view as a central motif of Judeo-biblical faith: "Man alone can create value; God is value. But if man alone is the creator of values . . . then he must have freedom of choice and freedom of decision. And his freedom must be respected by God himself. God cannot as a rule intervene whenever man’s use of freedom displeases him. . . . If there is to be man, he must be allowed to make his choices in freedom." Equivalent statements are plentiful in the texts of other theologians who address the issue of the divine reality and human freedom.

With these descriptions of human freedom as background, we can highlight the more universal and radical way that humanism asserts human autonomy. In this connection we must note the role, status and value that Cobb and Berkovits assign to human freedom. It is human freedom rather than reason that is clearly affirmed as the essence of human reality. Both thinkers award an exalted status to human autonomy relative to history; humanity is regarded as a co-determining power -- at least up to the eschaton. Each advances an exposition of divine sovereignty that accommodates the extension of human freedom to such areas as history and to values that once were wholly under the direct sway of the divine, thereby refuting Sartre’s hypothesis: "If God exists, man is nothing; if man exists . . ." (The Devil and the Good Lord).

Though human freedom is dramatically enlarged, humankind is not deified. Man and woman are still creatures. The extended sphere of human autonomy is not the consequence of our ontological superiority vis-à-vis the Transcendent. No, the Transcendent withholds its power, as parents may do to allow their children full freedom and responsibility.

Human Freedom and Divine Sovereignty

It is necessary at this juncture to consider an unsettled issue in humanocentric theism that frustrates a more accurate differentiation between humanism and theism: the scope of human freedom in history. Three options have surfaced. On the one hand, Howard Burkle (in The Non-Existence of God) represents the view that is closest to humanism. Adopting the model of God as "persuader," Burkle concludes that the human being is delegated a possible veto authority. At the ontological level, the level of efficient causality, divine persuasion is not operative; "forbearance would mean non-existence . . ." But once humanity is created and God resolves to relate himself to humankind in terms of persuasion and not coercion, God "would have to be uncertain about a number of details of the future . . . and in some respects unable to accomplish his will at all." Moreover, God "cannot guarantee the ultimate triumph of good . . . the good may remain forever blocked. . . . The creature retains a veto even though he had nothing to do with the determination that gave him being." In sum, humankind is functionally ultimate though ontologically still a creature.

According to the humanocentric theists at the other end of the spectrum, humanity cannot frustrate the good. Cobb, for example, ends on the optimistic note that the moral agent can affirm his moral nature in confidence that "[it] will not only not be lost but will continue to be affirmed and redeemed to the glory of God."

Midway between these polar positions stands Gordon Kaufman, asserting "a cosmic intentionality" that enables "men to hope and believe there is a genuine possibility of their reaching responsibility and freedom without destroying themselves" (God the Problem; emphasis added). This outcome, however, is not explicitly guaranteed, as far as I can determine.

Humanism and Theism: Points of Difference

We can now differentiate religious humanism from the variety of Christian theism that is its closest kin. From a phenomenological perspective D would identify three general differences: (a) the scope and status of the principle of functional ultimacy; (b) a different concept of soteriology that derives from (c) a dissimilar view about the benevolent character of ultimate reality.

As the statements from Cobb and Berkovits evidence, the difference is not that humanism affirms functional ultimacy and theism does not. In fact, the religious humanist is obliged to establish that the principle is implicit in those forms of theism in which it is not explicitly acknowledged. But even when functional ultimacy is asserted by theists, the principle is not allotted and administered in the more radical way that characterizes religious humanism. Historically, humanism has acknowledged the principle as its norm; e.g., Protagoras’ "man the measure." Though theists may even accent functional ultimacy, their explicit norm has been God, Jesus Christ, Scripture, etc. But here too the humanist is obliged to show that the principle of functional ultimacy is logically prior to the affirmation, for instance, of Jesus as Lord.

There is another significant difference with respect to scope. In those forms of theism where the principle is most explicit, functional ultimacy is brought to bear in the areas of values and also, though less clearly, in history. By contrast humanism tends to universalize the principle, radicalizing it in the areas of values and extending its scope not only to history but even to the sphere of soteriology.

The other points of difference revolve around the category of soteriology and the concomitant concept of ultimate reality/God. Soteriology, in theism, can be reduced to humanity’s conformity to ultimate reality. Once it is established that X is ultimate reality, the conclusion comes as a matter of course -- humanity’s highest good requires congruity with God’s will or purpose.

Implicit in this concept of salvation is a conviction that ultimate reality is intrinsically moral, benevolent and supportive of humankind’s highest good. Thus, conformity is rationally and theologically persuasive because of the experience of God as benevolent. Obviously one would hardly conform to a higher reality -- e.g., the devil -- simply because it is more powerful. Rather the Christian temperament would demand a Sisyphus-like rebellion if the morality of the extrahuman transcendent is suspect.

At the bottom of the humanist world view hovers the opinion that ultimate reality may not be intrinsically benevolent or supportive of human welfare. Recognizing that God’s benevolence is not self-evident and that every alleged instance of divine agape can also be interpreted as divine malice for humanity (cf. Camus’s inverted interpretation of Golgotha in The Rebel), humanism permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic. Prometheus and Adam illustrate the contrasting viewpoints. Adam’s rebellion is regarded as the quintessence of sin, whereas Prometheus’ parallel refusal is, for the humanist, praiseworthy.

Here, in my view, lies the real difference between humanism and theism. Unlike Cox, who concludes that the theist and nontheist encounter the same reality but name it differently, I perceive a fundamental difference in the primordial experience of ultimate reality. The humanist apparently does not experience the goodness of God/ultimate reality in the self-authenticating way that Edward Schillebeeckx, for example, describes in "Non-religious Theism and Belief in God." Precisely for this reason, the theodicy question continues as the eternal stumbling block for the humanist.

It is now possible to delineate in a more focused way the humanist meaning of functional ultimacy. First, let it be said that humanism, like theism, eschews any claim to humanity’s ontological ultimacy. In the humanist world view, human freedom is accurately described as a finite freedom, even a created freedom. The tendency of critics to equate humanism with a more exaggerated view of human freedom misinterprets concrete humanist exemplars. Protagoras speaks of man as the measure, thus emphasizing that humanity is the ultimate valuator but not necessarily the controlling agent in history or nature.

An examination of Camus’s Sisyphus or Sartre’s Orestes in The Flies also provides an appropriate counter to the critics’ errors. Since Sisyphus’ efforts are constantly frustrated by a more powerful reality, it is clear that humanity’s ontological ultimacy is not being asserted. Likewise with Orestes: the unobscure transcendence of Zeus / God and the creaturely impotence of Orestes are unmistakingly detailed in the whirlwind scene reminiscent of Job. Orestes and Sisyphus acknowledge that divine omnipotence is more or less self-evident. What is decidedly less certain is divine benevolence, and for this reason divine might is an insufficient basis for worshiping the divine or conforming to the divine command. Does not Genesis 3:5 hint at a similar motive for the disobedience of Eve and Adam? They appear to countenance rebellion because they question the morality of the divine command.

The Humanocentric Predicament

The basic point of these humanist heroes is to assert the courage to be without regard to external odds, to symbolize the radical scope of human valuation, and to affirm human choice as the final arbiter of the true and the good for humankind. In the humanist canon, this awesome responsibility is the consequence of the objective uncertainty that defines the human situation -- not just the ethicoreligious sphere -- in which human freedom must operate. We are faced with a cosmos of equally consistent alternatives; we lack self-evident principles or criteria for selection. Accordingly, human choice must decide not only "what is true but what criteria shall be used to determine the truth, and what standards shall be used in choosing between competing criteria, and what judgments shall be employed in deciding on the standards ad infinitum" (Van Cleve Morris, Philosophy and the American School).

Abraham’s situation, when he is commanded to slay Isaac, represents the human situation. Forced to decide whether he is addressed by God or Moloch and given the impossibility of demonstrating whose voice he hears, Abraham must assume the mantle of ultimate valuator. He must decide the source of the command, and in the final analysis his judgment of the source determines the value of the command. If he concludes that the decree is from God, it is morally imperative. If, however, he decides that it is Moloch’s voice that he hears, the order must be rejected. But clearly, only Abraham can make this crucial decision.

Likewise with humankind: forced by virtue of our freedom and the existential situation of objective uncertainty, we cannot escape the necessity to be the measure of even that higher reality that created us. There is no way to escape this responsibility short of denaturing humanity, for it is a factor of the freedom that is our essence.

The same sense of uncertainty informs the humanist concept of history. The humanist acts "as if" history were open-ended and multivalued, as if human choices and actions were determinative for human destiny. But once history is afforded this character, it becomes problematical that the good is guaranteed. There does not appear to be an inevitable historical development, sponsored by ultimate reality, that ensures the liberation of the oppressed or a more humane society. Rather, oppression and liberation are equally probable. Nor is there a cosmic lifeguard to save humanity from its self-destructive choices. This is the meaning of the tragic sense of history in humanism -- not that human efforts are doomed to defeat, but that the best-laid plans of one generation may be sabotaged by the actions of the next.

Thus, rather than fanatical advocates of absolute human freedom, religious humanists view themselves as faithful stewards of human finitude and creatureliness. This becomes clear when we consider an important corollary of functional ultimacy: the humanocentric predicament.

Religious humanism questions whether we can shed our human nature and escape the human condition to view reality from an extrahuman or superior perspective. It asks whether we are not confined to the circle of human relativity which dictates that all our claims be prefaced with the qualification, "in relation to human measure." This should be taken not as an assertion of human arrogance or superiority, but as a confession of human limitations. To affirm the humanocentric predicament is to assert that we approach being only through the mode of our existence. It would appear that the incarnation suggests as much. God does not denature humanity in coming to us, but the Transcendent adjusts itself to the human condition. God becomes human.

To adopt the humanocentric predicament also does not require that we deny the existence or knowledge of extrahuman transcendence. No, it is only to insist upon the allowance that the actual character of the transcendent may be wholly other. That is, its view of the good and the true may be diametrically opposed to our own, and what we worship as God may be the devil in disguise. All this is simply another way of accenting the factors of objective uncertainty and the multievidentiality of phenomena.

It is from this perspective that religious humanism would request a clarification of what is meant by an appeal to a transcendent norm as the necessary ground for morality. At the first level, the designation of the transcendent ground, it appears that we encounter Abraham’s dilemma in a different form. Are not subjective criteria already operative here in designating the ground as God and not Satan, that God is and Satan is not?

However, when the human being is designated the role of moral creator, thus affirming human freedom and autonomy, the meaning of the Transcendent in this context becomes obscure. Does it mean more than the, claim that the Transcendent is the ground for human freedom/autonomy and the world in which this is exercised? Or does it mean that ultimate reality sponsors, and thus guarantees, the eventual triumph of specific activities? That is, once humanity is given the status of moral creator, does ontological priority -- i.e., the Transcendent -- still establish moral priority? It seems unobscure that the species of human freedom endorsed here precludes, at the very least, an immediate movement from ontology to ethics, from the "is" to the "ought," without the intermediate operation of our functionally ultimate valuation -- thus affirming, in part, Sartre’s claim: "Ontology itself cannot formulate ethical precepts."

The Future for Religious Humanism

Proponents of religious humanism predict that its formative principle will gain increased importance in religion and theology as various forces are brought to bear on the theological enterprise. As theology wrestles with the issue of theodicy in its revised form of ethnic suffering and quietism, as it formulates a theology of social, economic and political liberation, and as it accommodates the marked theological particularity that flows from the emergence of ethnic, feminist and Third World theologies, the acknowledgment of functional ultimacy will accelerate. When Christian theologians expose the full implications of theological postures recently assumed, and when they critically examine humanism without the prism of gross misinterpretations, it will be recognized that the formidable chasm is between the right (theocentric) and left (humanocentric) wings of theism, not between the latter and religious humanism.

As religious humanists survey current intellectual and social developments, they are bolstered by a sturdy optimism. They are encouraged by the fact that the major critics of humanism attack a theory of absolute human freedom which religious humanism does not endorse, on the grounds of the general view of human freedom that religious humanism wishes to advance. Moreover, they are heartened by the formation of the fruits of religion, the practice of the time-honored moral imperatives, independent of the trunk and branches of theistic belief. (Cf., for instance, Donald MacInnis’s analysis of the moral climate in Maoist China in the March 12, 1975 issue of the Century.)

For these reasons, I see the coming encounter and dialogue between humanism and theism not as the occasion for sour-tempered vendettas, but as another of those recurring interludes in the history of the race when the search for truth pits conscientious antagonists on the battleground of human thought. The issue is not who wins, but whether the combat enlarges our understanding of ourselves. And as future generations review the coming clash, the verdict may well be that the adversaries were, unknowingly, not-too-distant relatives.