Some months ago, I attended a Catholic conference in Austria that counted participants from various countries of the continent. Attendees included Scandinavians, Irishmen, and British subjects, but the German-speaking attendees naturally dominated due to the location. What struck me in the speeches of both the organizers and the presenters was the paucity of distinctively Christian ideas and narratives. Yes, there were occasional references to Catholic beliefs, but the reigning language and ethos had far more in common with that of secular institutions than with anything the Church Fathers or medieval schoolmen would have recognized as the faith they held.
Many of the participants were keenly aware of the momentous crisis facing European church life, a crisis that is obvious from even a casual perusal of metrics such as mass attendance, priestly vocations, and even Christian self-identification. Despite being concerned with the state of the contemporary Church, the solution favoured was not the obvious one of repentance for the theological errors and pastoral failures of the late twentieth century—a mea maxima culpa—followed by a return to the sources. The presenters seemed to lack any recognition that the methods used in recent decades to open the Church to the secular world were inadequate and that now something more distinctively Christian is needed. Virtually nothing was said, for instance, of bringing the Gospel to those who do not yet know Christ. On the contrary, the proposed solutions to the crisis were mainly the inclusion of other faiths in multireligious religious services and a humanism that would supposedly enable a ‘common ground’ with all people in order to create a harmonious but religiously diverse human community.
As talks gave way to workshops, I signed up for one called HumanismusPlus, which translates to “Humanism+,” run by a Jesuit in plain clothes with long, greyish hair and a ring in his left ear. When registering for the event, I presumed that this workshop would consider the relation between natural reason and faith. However, when it came time to attend this workshop, I approached it with some caution because of my experience of the conference up to that point. Thus, I wondered how much Christian seasoning the presenter would actually put on the main humanist course. Despite my concern, I was unprepared for what followed. First, the Jesuit leading the workshop revealed a gong, hit it, and instructed us to close our eyes and listen to the sound reverberating and finally dying out. Then we were to raise our hands one by one without opening our eyes. Having completed this, there was a question-and-answer session until the next part, which also involved closed eyes and various visualizations. I decided to interiorly absent myself, as I found this too close to a hypnotic session for comfort.
Finally, each participant was given a small gummy bear to hold in his mouth. While the multicoloured animal slowly disintegrated, we were to sense its taste. Dutifully, I performed the gustatory exercise and felt the synthetic flavour. This was supposed to open a gateway to savouring the flavours of life, I think, but I struggled with the rapid succession of German words, of which I remember best the main mantra, that one should do as God and become a human person. Later I found out that the presenter was, besides a priest and expressionist painter, a licensed focusing therapist, a form of psychotherapy dealing both with preverbal intuitions and sensory input. On one website, it is characterized in this way:
Focusing Oriented Therapy emphasises each person’s directly-felt experience. What the client actually feels bodily is the most important guide to a Focusing Therapist. During sessions, the therapist listens deeply to what the client says and encourages the client to be guided by their ‘inner sense’ of rightness.
This was probably the justification for eating gummy bears, but it was not very helpful for understanding how Christians (and more specifically Catholics) should relate to contemporary humanism, or for learning about the distinctively Catholic roots of traditional Western humanistic thought. Intrigued and puzzled, some weeks later I looked at the website of HumanismusPlus, and I found that it does not actually include Christianity in a defined way—indeed, it rejects all “indoctrination and dogmatism.” Still, the Jesuit pedagogical program is open to “the question of God.” The educational humanism of HumanismusPlus is, thus, not aiming to help Christians grow in their faith but, as another proponent describes it, hopes that “people of all worldviews, religions and cultures can participate and contribute to such a humanistic educational concept. It is a contribution to the cohesion of a democratic society.” This means that, despite vague language about how it makes use of “Ignatian” approaches, HumanismusPlus can, in principle, make use of practices that imply any kind of worldview, including those that are inimical or contradictory to Christianity. The plus sign in the logo need not be cruciform, but can as readily take the form of a crescent, the holy syllable OM, or even the hammer and sickle.
Fundamentally, the problem with HumanismusPlus’ understanding of the ‘plus’ is that religions and worldviews presume specific teachings of what it means to be a human being. The Christian worldview is based on certain claims about the relation between creation and creator, involving fall and redemption, that the message of the Yoga Sutra, for instance, does not. To establish a common humanism then requires critique and reformulations of the “humanisms” of individual religions. The crux is, however, what foundation or perspective that should be the Archimedean point for such a purification.
Transhumanism and the need for true Christianity
A similarly named but distinct program is that of Humanity+, another name for the World Transhumanist Association. The fundamental tenet of Humanity+ is, according to it webpage, that “Human enhancement, both therapeutic and selective, challenges the normal status and aims to expand human capabilities that further human physiological functions and extend the maximum life span.” In other words, transhumanism is a technology-driven expansion of what it means to be human. Its plus sign does not add a spiritual dimension to a materialist understanding of the human person but expands what is to be counted as ‘normal.’ Human nature is not created but merely evolved, and breakthroughs in science and technology open up possibilities of radical human self-creation. Professor Nick Bostrom, a philosopher working at Oxford University, writes that
Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.
Contemporary popular culture is saturated by the theme of genetically modified and technologically enhanced, godlike humans, for example, the many characters in the Avengers and X-men franchises. Indeed, this techno-divinization is the logical result of rejecting the idea of a transcendent creator. Science is then free to help evolution in the directions desired or which seem useful. There is no divine idea of the human person inherent in individuals but merely variations of the DNA of intelligent simians possible to perfect with gene editing and artificial intelligence.
I still remember vividly when an inspirational speaker, the neuroscientist Dr. Mouna, exclaimed from the scene of an educational technology conference in London I attended before the COVID years that “We will become gods.” Her prophecy was not out of sync with the optimistic ethos of the event that without any explicit reservations embraced the bright future of human ingenuity and creativity.
The increasing strength of the belief in human self-evolution makes the idea of a common human nature functioning as the unifying substrate for a tradition-neutral humanism problematic. Our present humanity is for many merely raw material for various ideologies and ideas of perfection. A result is the increasing attention and resources devoted to reshaping the human body according to what we want to be. The idea of the human body as a project is central to many contemporary practices of bodily modification, including gender transitioning, cosmetic surgery, piercing, tattoos, and fitness regimes.
Moreover, the humanisms of, for example, Thomas Aquinas, humanismusplus, and Humanity+ differ due to their different views on the limits of human reason. Classically, Catholic theology teaches that human reason can reach knowledge that there is one God the creator, and that we have souls. Obviously, a secular humanist or agnostic does not think human reason is capable of knowing such things. The secular humanist because they do not believe spiritual beings exist, and the agnostic because our reason is too weak. Any humanism aspiring to bridge such different worldviews must settle for the sceptical, minimalist approach to what we can know about human nature.
To decide on a common humanist platform is, therefore, more than a diplomatic question or merely complicated by competing power claims: it is a matter of principles.
A minimalist humanism is mostly motivated by the concerns of diminishing social cohesion in secular societies that have become fragmented along the lines of worldviews and religions. This baseline is supposed to be the underlying motivation for and legitimization of fundamental values and moral principles valid for all citizens. The diverse practices of different religions, worldviews, and cultures are added to this common humanism according to the plus principle. As previously indicated, the problem is that each worldview harbours a vision of what a human person is, including the source and character of its value—as well as its destructive tendencies—and the moral principles of a good life. There are, therefore, competing basic humanisms. Christian understandings of the human person as a creation and the transhumanist idea of human evolution enhanced by advanced technology enabling a posthuman future are two examples of these accounts of human nature. As a result, there is no neutral humanism easily agreed upon by all.
In radically diverse societies lacking a clear religious and cultural majority, it becomes obvious that worldviews sometimes harbour radically different ideas of what it means to be human. In most cases, however, minorities departing from a culture’s dominant normative account of human nature (for example, witchcraft in medieval times or the orthodox Catholic in much of the West today) are designated as fanatics, evildoers, or strange curiosities. That is, they are considered irrational. If they were reasonable persons, the logic goes, they would have recognized the self-evident validity of the current national (or global) values that are inferred from the dominant account of the human person.
Some Christian churches have strategically agreed to the humanist plus idea in secularized post-Christian countries to acquire social space and agency. The danger of this strategy is that the traditional Christian humanism of that church is ultimately exchanged for a philosophy contradicting many of its beliefs and moral principles. As a result, teachings, such as those on marriage, which are incompatible with the common core humanism of contemporary society lose their traditional foundation and are pressured to conform to the new societal standards. The churches have few resources left for resistance as they have accepted the prevailing humanism. This interior secularization is hard to resist once the plus idea has been accepted.
An alternative way of handling the crisis of Christian faith in Europe is to explore and express more clearly the understanding of the human person constituted by faith and engage with its alternatives in creative and lively ways. This is not easily done, as it requires sincere individual and collective mea culpas; it involves recognizing that one can become less human by failing to be humane. Indeed, this approach requires the faithful to contend with the fact that human nature is prone to corruption and needs to be restored—that is, they need to grapple with and live out the central Christian doctrines of sin, grace, and redemption. A central Christian belief is that our common human nature needs grace, that is, divine help, to recover its dignity. Otherwise, it becomes an easy prey to destructive forces. If used in this case, adding a plus sign to humanity does not symbolize the adding of beliefs and cultural practices to a common core humanism or the endless potential of technological modification and enhancement of human bodies, but the supernatural healing of our wounded humanity. This divine intervention, however, requires conversion: a ‘coming to oneself’ and turning back to the house of the father.
Clemens Cavallin is professor of Christianity, religion, philosophies of life, and ethics at NLA University College, Bergen