Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: The Concept of the Dignity and Fredom of the Person in Christianity and Secular Humanism

Christianity and secular humanism attach principally different meanings to the ideas of the dignity and freedom of the person. In the religious tradition the notions of the dignity and freedom of the person directly follow from the concept of his divine origin. The biblical and Christian traditions speak of how man was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26; 5:1), with the image being understood as something placed into him from the beginning and the likeness as a certain potential which he must realize. St John of Damascus sees the image of God in the rational nature of the person and in the presence of a free will, while understanding the likeness as the 'assimilation to God through virtue so far as this is possible' (St John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2, 12). The very heart of Eastern Christian anthropology is the doctrine of deification (theosis) - the complete likening to God, in which the person by grace becomes that which God is by nature. Deification is the goal of Christian life, and is attained through combined creative efforts, cooperation and synergy between God and man. This requires a freely willed and conscious rejection of sin and the direction of the free will toward virtue. While on the path of likening himself to God, man is not deprived of freedom, but his free will enters into a harmonious union with the will of God. According to Christian doctrine, the highest dignity of man lies in the free realization of the potential of likening himself to God.

An important role in Christian anthropology is played by the doctrine of original sin, according to which the original, God-created nature of man underwent a total distortion as a result of the Fall. The first-created man did not have sinful tendencies: his free will was in obedience to and in harmony with God's will. However, after man tasted from the 'tree of knowledge of good and evil,' i.e. actually took part in evil and sin, his free will found itself standing before a permanent choice between good and evil. In each concrete moment of his life man must make this choice, and in order to make correct choices he must consciously direct his will toward the good. St Maximus the Confessor speaks of the presence in man of the 'natural will,' which in its first-created state always tended toward the good, but which in fallen man can be directed to the unnatural - to evil, sin and vice. At the same time, according to Maximus, there is a 'will of discernment,' a will inherent in the person that is able to correct the direction of the natural will, orienting it toward the good and cleansing it from sin. In Jesus Christ, who was perfect God and perfect man, the free human will was always in harmonious unity with God's will, while in ordinary humans who have not attained sanctity the free will is often in conflict with the divine will.

Thus Christianity, just as secular humanism, speaks of the dignity and freedom of the person, but unlike the latter it insists that the principle of freedom must be balanced by the principle of personal spiritual and moral responsibility before God and other people. Of course, the idea of responsibility is also present in humanism, but with the absence of absolute moral norms this principle simply denotes the limitation of one person's freedom by the freedom of other people. From the standpoint of atheistic humanism, the realization of the potential of freedom is nothing other than the person's unhindered realization of all his desires and aspirations, except for those which hinder the realization of similar desires of other people, as well as the realization of those rights of his that do not violate the rights of others. This gives rise to a relativistic interpretation of all moral norms and spiritual values. Nothing is a norm and value by itself if the only criterion is the person's free will. Each person can define his own guiding values depending on his world-view, desires, aspirations, habits and tendencies, and each person has the right to establish for himself norms of behavior based on his personal understanding of the good and evil.

For the harmonization and coordination of the freedoms of individuals in contemporary secular society, there exist legal norms which guarantee the possibility of each person to realize his freedoms without detriment to the freedom of other people. However, the ultimate goal of atheistic humanism is the liberation of the person from all external limitations of freedom, including those moral norms which are forced upon the person by society and the state. The calls for a so-called 'planetary humanism' are within this context not at all accidental. This ideology foresees the gradual liberation of humanity so that it might be 'disentangled from metaphysics or theology' (Humanist Manifesto 2000, chapter III) and freed from the attachment to values characteristic of individual countries, nations and peoples. The idea of constructing a world without state, cultural and civilizational boundaries was already cherished by some philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, but it is now, during the age of globalization, that this idea is finally enjoying the possibility of being put into practice. Leaders of globalization and activists of 'planetary humanism' are equally concerned with its realization: the former most likely for political and economic reasons, the latter due to the tenets of their world-view.

The roots of modern secular humanism are to be found in the anthropological doctrine of the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, who were the first in modern history to openly challenge Christian anthropology. They assigned paramount importance to human reason which, as it seemed to them, could bring about material and spiritual prosperity to the world. The belief in the triumph of common sense, in the positive character of scientific and technical progress and in the absolute value of scientific discoveries became the cornerstone of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. It is during this time that the artificial opposition of science and religion arose: science began to be viewed as the driving force of progress, while religion was thought of as a hindrance on the path to universal prosperity. The most radical enlighteners rejected religion totally and strove to put an end to it, while the less radical acknowledged its permissibility while insisting on its exclusion from the social, political and educational spheres.

The debate between the enlighteners and the Church was not so much a debate about God as a debate about man, about his nature and purpose, his freedom and dignity. It was the anthropological premises of the Enlightenment theories, considered gravely erroneous from the point of view of Christianity, that caused all attempts to implement this theory in real life to be unsuccessful. Rejecting the Christian doctrine of the sinful imperfection of human nature, the enlighteners adopted an overly optimistic, essentially unrealistic and utopian view of the possibilities of the human mind. In absolutizing human freedom, they underestimated its negative and destructive potential, which is realized when people's actions are not determined by absolute moral norms and their aspirations and instincts are not subject to a higher spiritual ideal.

The false notion of human freedom and possibilities espoused in the world-view of the Age of Enlightenment and developed by the philosophical materialism of the nineteenth century served as the basis of several large-scale socio-political projects which cost humankind very dearly.

The first such project was the French Revolution, a direct incarnation of the teaching of the enlighteners, from whom the revolutionaries inherited not only the ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood, but also a negative attitude toward religion. The Enlightenment represented an intellectual challenge to Christianity, while the revolution attempted to destroy it physically:

'Ecrasez l'infame!' Voltaire signed off his letters: 'Wipe out the infamous thing!' - the Church. 'Mankind will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,' declared Diderot. 'Mankind was born free but everywhere he is in chains,' said Rousseau. France rose up and followed the scribblers. The monarchy came crashing down. Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the aristocrats went to the guillotine. The Church was dispossessed and looted. Reason triumphed over faith and produced the September massacres, the Terror, Robespierre and the dictatorship, Bonaparte and the empire, and a quarter of a century of European wars from which France never recovered her unity or primacy (Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002, p. 264).

This scathing assessment of the revolutionary events in eighteenth century France was made by a conservative American politician. Undoubtedly many French will not agree with it, coming from a country where the storming of the Bastille remains a national holiday. However, it is impossible to reject the historical fact that the revolution led neither to freedom from chains, of which the enlighteners dreamed, nor to equality, nor to brotherhood. On the contrary, the dignity of the person, of which so much was spoken during the Age of Enlightenment, was cruelly trampled on by repression and the guillotine.

The second large-scale socio-political project was the Russian Revolution. Its ideological basis was formed by German materialism, genetically linked with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This project gave the world proletariat the task of constructing a classless society in which exploitation by one's fellow human would be excluded. Marx declared that the path to achieving such a society was the socialist revolution, which should take place in all civilized countries simultaneously. The revolution must lead first to the overthrowing of existing regimes and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and then to the construction of a world-wide stateless structure called communism. Indeed, in this structure there was no place for religion, which Marx called the 'opium of the people' (Karl Marx, Zur Kritik der hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie, in: Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels, Werke, Band 1, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1976, S. 378). The socialist revolution did indeed take place, but not in all countries at once. It occurred in only one and, as is well-known, led not to the creation of communism, but to millions of victims and decades of the cruellest terror.

The third socio-political project which we should mention was German national socialism. Its ideological foundation was formed under the influence of Nietzsche's teaching on the death of God: man was to occupy the place of the 'murdered' God in this system. The ideologies of both Nietzsche and Hitler were deeply anti-Christian in their essence. Hitler planned to create a new religion in which race and blood were to be declared the highest value. He spoke as early as 1933 of his attempt to 'uproot Christianity in Germany, destroy it completely down to the smallest rootlets' and replace it with faith in 'the god of nature, the god of one's own people, the god of one's fate and blood.' 'Enough arguing: the Old Testament, New Testament or even the words of Christ. All of this is one and the same Jewish deception. All of this is one and the same and will not make us free,' wrote Hitler (Hermann Rauschning, Hitler Speaks. The Beast from the Abyss, ?oscow, 1993, p. 51-54). The Nazis did not have enough time to uproot Christianity completely or create a new religion and inculcate it into the masses. However, the twelve years of their reign in Germany were sufficient to unleash a world war, destroy millions of people and commit atrocities unprecedented in human history.

Although we are undoubtedly dealing here with three very different socio-political projects, there is much that unites them. Firstly, from the Christian standpoint they arose from false anthropological premises and distorted notions of the freedom and dignity of the person. Secondly, they overthrew the traditional system of values and replaced it with various utopian ideas. Thirdly, they were driven by an extreme, irrational and animal hatred toward Christianity. As a result all three projects ended up in catastrophe for humankind and brought it untold suffering.

Indeed, the modern secular humanistic project differs in many aspects from those mentioned. The comparison with national-socialism and communism would undoubtedly deeply insult the modern humanist. Humanism of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed in the 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights,' arose as a reaction to the 'barbaric acts which fill the conscience of mankind with indignation' (United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble), i.e. in reaction to the crimes of Nazism. However, humanists refuse to see the connection between these crimes and the anthropological theories born in the atheistic minds of the French enlighteners of the eighteenth century and developed by nineteenth century materialists. Humanists refuse to admit that the 'humanization' of morality through the rejection of religious norms was the main cause of the monstrosities of the French revolutionaries and later of the communists and Nazis.

Modern humanists do not reject the genetic link of their world-view with the philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as the connection of their socio-political views with the French Revolution. Therefore they reject neither the anthropological views of the enlighteners nor the results to which these views led in history. Contemporary humanists have also not distanced themselves from the anti-Christian pathos of the enlighteners. On the contrary, they continue to insist on the incompatibility of Christianity with progress, of faith with reason and of religion with science. 'Faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith,' proclaimed the authors of the Humanist Manifesto of 1973 (American Humanist Association, Humanist Manifesto II, Preface). 'Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.Traditional religions are. obstacles to human progress' (Ibid., Section on Religion).

The history of humankind has demonstrated more than once the utopian character and destructiveness of humanistic theories built on a distorted anthropological paradigm, on the rejection of traditional values and the religious ideal, as well as on the overthrow of divinely-established moral norms. However, until recently such theories could only be realized in separate countries. The idea of 'planetary humanism' is dangerous in that it lays claim to world dominance, calling itself a norm which all people must accept and adopt irrespective of national, cultural and civilizational identity. The inculcation of the secular humanist ideology at the planet-wide level may lead to a grandiose collapse not at the level of one or several countries, but on a world-wide scale.

In 1946 Nikolai Berdyaev wrote: 'Humanism, and thus the dignity of man, can be reborn only from the religious depths. The dignity of the person assumes the existence of God.' (Nikolai Berdyaev, The Paths of Humanism, in: Truth and Revelation, St. Petersburg, 1996, p. 194). These words of the great Russian philosopher, spoken soon after the end of the Second World War, reflect the understanding of humanism characteristic of traditional Christianity. The Church rejects the right of atheists to monopolize the idea of 'humanism' and equate it with militant atheism. The Church protests against the discrediting of traditional values - allegedly in the name of establishing the freedom and dignity of man. The Church resists the attempts to declare religion a relic of the past and to drive it out of society - supposedly in the name of the triumph of humanism. The Church rejects the myth that science has purportedly proved the falseness of the main postulates of religious doctrine. The Church considers its understanding of the dignity and freedom of the person to be the highest form of humanism, no less 'scientific' and 'progressive' than the anthropological theories of modern agnostics and atheists.

Europaica No 114 (February 16, 2007)

 

Recently added