Wednesday, July 01, 2009

John de Gruchy: A Christian Humanism

The opening keynote of the Joint Religious Societies’ Conference at Stellenbosch University (left) was given by my doctoral supervisor, Prof. John de Gruchy. John was co-founder of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, founding editor of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, and an internationally respected Bonhoeffer scholar. He’s written more books than I can count, one or two of which I was privileged to work on as a research assistant. The latter include Christianity and Democracy: Theology for a Just World Order (Cambridge, 1995) and Christianity and the Modernisation of South Africa (UNISA, 2009). His most recent work is on Christian humanism: On Being Human (Fortress, 2007).

It’s exciting to have been able to keep up academic contact with John de Gruchy in the ten years since completing my PhD. I’m currently involved in a research project of he’s leading called “Transforming Traditions,” which situates moments in the history of Christianity within the debates on social transformation in South Africa. It was this project that formed his point of departure for the address.

Tradition, de Gruchy began, is both outside us and given to us. Tradition shapes our Christian identity. But tradition is also dynamic, and constantly rediscovering itself. The new always grows out of the old; tradition constantly quests after new wineskins. This is an outworking of the Johannine idea that the Spirit is guide into truth. Tradition—and traditions—grow organically in continuity with the past. But they are also contested in the present, and especially contested within the church. De Gruchy signalled toward Alisdair MacIntyre’s idea of traditions as “continuities of conflict.” Christians are participants in historic debates.

But we also negotiate the boundaries of tradition by engaging those outside the broad Christian tradition as conversation partners. These might include academic critics of Christianity (Nietzsche comes especially to mind). But theology is not simply a dialogue within the academy, nor is it a conversation about written texts alone. The locus for theological reflection and Christian conversation is—as it has always been—the contemporary world.

Theology, de Gruchy continued, is faith in action. South African theology has a catholic, or universal scope, but also speaks from a particular context. So it attends to the word, “today.” What does it mean to be a believer, to practice Christian faith, now? The two seminal theological statements produced by South African theologians during the anti-apartheid struggle were the Belhar Confession and the Kairos Document (both of which, I might add, have had considerable international influence. The Kairos Document led in 1989 to “The Road to Damascus,” a call for repentance from theologians in the poverty-stricken global South to wealthy Christians in the North. Recently, the Reformed Church of America has moved to adopt Belhar as one of its confessions, while the Christian Reformed Church is beginning to debate whether to follow suit.). These signalled a contextual theology which reflected on Christian faith by social location (black, feminist, African) as well as by received tradition (Catholic, Reformed, Pentecostal). South African feminist, Black, and African theologies are now part of the great stream of Christian tradition—which means that they cannot be kept “artificially” alive. They are now also part of the contestation of tradition, and are subject to the dangers of conservatism. So the theological task is to discern what de Gruchy calls their “transforming trajectories” for the present situation.

While this idea of “transforming traditions” sounds like a new theological strategy, it’s actually very old. St. Paul retrieved Abrahamic faith in a way Abraham would likely not have recognized. And were Paul able to read what Luther would write about his doctrine of justification, he’d probably have found it strange indeed. Faithfulness in one generation can turn reactionary in another. The norm is always the transforming power of the Gospel which opens human life to its divine calling in each particular, historical time.

But we shouldn’t think that change itself is good. As also implied above, change can be good—or bad. When Christians think of change, we understand it as metanoia, of becoming something other, but also closer to God. So as Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, metanoia meant “sharing God’s sufferings in the world. Thus one becomes a human being, a Christian.” The prayer and action which shapes Christian activity in the world takes eschatological vision—which always goes beyond what is possible—into account. But Christians, along with their secular interlocutors, can find common ground for action in penultimate matters. These penultimate matters point to the ultimate transformation, the final metanoia for which Christians hope.

So then a question presents itself: what is the transforming trajectory that can inform theological thinking in South Africa today? And how can that trajectory faciliate the kind of collaborative action—and mutual criticism—around penultimate concerns Bonhoeffer talked about? For de Gruchy, it’s the Biblical tradition of wisdom as tied to the late Renaissance idea of a Christian humanism. Such a tradition has the merit, de Gruchy thinks, of speaking in terms of “unchangeable truths which provide common ground for a common humanity” (in the words of the South African poet, Antjie Krog).

What is humanism? Classically understood, humanism is the study of texts—that “return to the sources” which provided the foundation of the 16th century Protestant and Catholic Reformations. But de Gruchy sees a broader scope for humanism, embracing church, society, and academy. (Readers who hear echoes of David Tracy’s Analogical Imagination would be correct. Indeed, de Gruchy indicated a conscious, though not uncritical, debt to Tracy’s 1981 formulation of the “three publics” of theology.) The core of Christian humanism, and what differentiates it from its “secular” counterpart, is its attendance to the tragic, as well as its claim that the knowledge of humanity is bound up with the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ—words taken from that first, great Protestant humanist, John Calvin. Thus Christian humanism is also, I think de Gruchy would say, a Christological humanism. Jesus reveals God and humanity to us. On the other hand, however, God is only understood as related to humanity in Jesus Christ. Here is a reiteration of Karl Barth’s classic statement in The Humanity of God. Indeed, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Calvin name for de Gruchy three exemplars of the Christian humanist tradition. (In a conversation we had prior to his talk, de Gruchy suggested that Rowan Williams would be a worthy addition to that list. I think this is especially the case with regard to what follows.).

But what of the tragic? De Gruchy invokes the recent work of Terry Eagleton—the Marxian literary critic—in this regard. “Tragic humanism” contrasts “liberal humanism,” for Eagleton. The liberal myth, present in the polemics of “Ditchkins” (i.e. “new atheist” prophets Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), claims that by getting rid of “religion” humans will finally be able to flourish. This is mistaken, as is every other humanism that substitutes something else (the candidates are legion: capitalism, socialism, America) for “religion” in its formulation. No. Tragic humanism insists that self-dispossession is integral to being human. And religion at its best, writes Eagleton, provides precisely this. What we have, interposes the theologian de Gruchy, is not secularist utopias, but the Christian doctrine of hope. In this doctrine, the future is both beyond, and present in anticipatory ways within, history. Thus even the tragic has its limits. And the name of those limits, I would add (and I’m sure de Gruchy would agree), is “the reign of God.”

So de Gruchy’s own “transforming traditions” project is the idea of “Christian humanism.” And he’s presiding over a meeting of secular, African, and Christian humanists at Stellenbosch next month. It promises to be an exciting encounter.

De Gruchy closed his address with six affirmations toward a new, Christian humanism. I list them in conclusion:

1. Christian humanism is inclusive. “Being human” names our primary identity.

2. Christian humanism affirms dignity and responsibility.

3. Christian humanism is open to insight into our common human condition wherever it is to be found.

4. Christian humanism claims that the love of God is inseparable from the love of others.

5. Christian humanism heralds a justice that transcends material and sectional well-being.

6. Christian humanism insists that goodness, truth, and beauty are inseparable.

My own view of Christian humanism is quite positive, as long as it retains the Christological centre de Gruchy suggests. In fact, I would want to make that even stronger, referencing Christology not to a generic human nature (as Chalcedon might be accused) but to Jesus the Jew. I think Bonhoeffer is indeed a good model here. Only this way can the church resist a vague, liberal "universal values" talk (which I think is also the problem with tying humanism to the Biblical wisdom tradition, especially inasmuch as that tradition tends to structure legitimation).

The church is called, first and foremost, to embody its humanity precisely in terms of its baptismal confession: that the new humanity is given in Jesus Christ, and that any attempt to subject it to sectionalism, ethnicism, classism (or any other "ism") is fundamentally at odds with the Gospel. As the twentieth century tragedies of [Christian] apartheid and the holocaust made clear, that's a lesson Christians have yet to learn. De Gruchy's challenge is thus deeply important.


dyanna said...

Very well writen.I like your posts.

Anonymous said...

My church in San Fernando CA had the great pleasure of hosting John for a conference on reconciliation in 07. We are still being influenced by his lecture and book Confessions of a Christian Humanist.