The Question of the Final Reference Point for Life

on February 25, 2020

Central to the culture war being waged against Christianity is the question of the final reference point for life that people acknowledge. This question was analyzed by two speakers at the annual conference of the L’Abri Fellowship in Minnesota on February 14-15.

Dave Friedrich, an ordained Anglican minister and worker at the L’Abri branch in Southborough, Massachusetts discussed the development over the last two centuries of the idea that God is a social construct. While atheism has been known for centuries, its modern development begins with the nineteenth century German atheist Ludwig Feuerbach, who proposed that the idea of God is a projection of the human mind.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (which story carries the same idea of the acknowledged powerful savior being a fraud) people believe that only God can answer intractable problems. But like Dorothy and company we need to realize, according to Feuerbach’s view, and in the words of the “man behind the curtain” who posed as a wizard “all that you needed each one of you had with you the whole time.” (At least our own powers are all that we have got to cope with problems, but the mistake of religion is to idealize our powers into a false god capable of answering any problem).

In modern times, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has offered a contemporary version of Feuerbach’s thesis in his books Sapiens, and Homo Deus. Just as belief in the wizard gives the travelers in Oz the will to acquire the things they want, so Harari maintains that the fanciful stories of religion and ideology have propelled humanity forward in organized and sacrificial effort to its current achievements.

Friedrich traced Feuerbach’s idea through its “childhood,” “adolescent,” and “adult” stages of development. In the phase of childhood, it is claimed that God is “merely a figment of our imagination.” It is claimed that instead of man being made in the image of God, the idea of God has been constructed from the image of man. But the construct is greatly magnified from anyone’s true condition. “Only a poor man can have a rich god” Friedrich quoted Feuerbach as saying. Feuerbach thought that this was good news. Freed from the illusion of a god, people would be free to develop their powers and potential. He expected Christianity to end soon. It did not, but Feuerbach continues to be influential. In particular, the emphasis on human potential, and the “all that you needed, you had all along” philosophy is widespread, even in children’s stories.

The adolescent stage of projectionism Friedrich said is seen in Karl Marx. He maintained that religion is sign of injustice. “The suffering poor have a tranquilizing god.” Sigmund Freud was another disciple of Feuerbach’s atheism at this stage. Freud held that childhood conflicts lead to religion. People “need an exalted divine figure.” The “conflicted child has comforting god.” But we should rather have courage to admit there is no god, only bleak reality, Freud thought. We must be strong, with science as an ally. We must have the courage to venture out into the void (this is the new goodness). Friedrich saw Marx and Freud as moderns, emphasizing science and reason.

The adult version of projectionism applies the argument advanced against God to all reality. As pointed out by a questioner, “is something objectively there only when I believe it’s there, or it is [really] there?” This is the postmodernism of the last 30 years. Postmoderns “take Feuerbach’s claim and apply it to everything.” While this is a more pessimistic viewpoint than modernism, Friedrich said “people are ‘choosy’” about when they apply social construct logic.

An important contribution to the contemporary idea of social constructivism Friedrich identified as The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Social constructivism has weak and strong versions. In the weak version, it is claimed that social constructs can be corrected by reality. But in its strong version, it says that there is no criterion apart from ourselves (i.e., a criterion applied to correct social constructs is itself a social construct). While people tend to apply the weak version of social construction to ordinary reality (indeed, they must at some point in order to live), they tend to apply the strong version to God, Friedrich said.

One justification for this is that we cannot see God. It can be expected that science will fill in gaps in knowledge, eliminating the need for God to meet more and more needs, and making the hypothesis of human projection seem more likely. From this viewpoint, genetics and neurobiology are advanced at the present time to explain the idea of God. But this also explains away man. Yuval Harari, referred to above, maintains that human rights do not exist because they cannot be found inside human bodies, any more than an immaterial soul can be scientifically detected. Humanity and its ideologies are just “stories,” to be dispensed with. Yet Harari offers his own story, Friedrich pointed out.

Friedrich said that Christians may have something to learn as well as something to defend in responding to projectionism. He noted that Karl Barth found valuable lessons in Feuerbach’s thinking, even writing a foreword to one edition of Feuerbach’s treatise The Essence of Christianity. Barth heard God’s rebuke of the church through Feuerbach. The European Christianity of his day, he thought, projected onto God its own thinking not indicated in the Biblical text. Indeed, the idea of idolatry in the Bible is the idea of the projection of familiar things in this world into gods.

The problem with projectionism, however, in addition to problem of objectivity already noted, is that it is a partial truth that “becomes the full truth, and then it becomes distorted truth.” Biology, for instance, can explain much about human nature, yet humans cannot be reduced to the genetic code. Similarly, Marxism reduces thinking to class struggle, yet Marxism somehow rises above it to offer a claim to objective truth.

Friedrich proposed that the history of Biblical religion is not just divine revelation, and not just human projection, but a complex of the two, in which God is correcting human error. Scripture involves much divine correction of human error.

Without God as a final reference point in life, a popular alternative for guidance is to turn to ourselves. This commonly goes under the name of “humanism,” and the history of this idea was discussed by John Hodges, founder of the Center for Cultural Studies.

An example of humanism drawn from Greek mythology, Hodges said, is the story of the judgment of Paris. Faced with a dispute among three goddesses as to who was the most beautiful, Zeus referred the question to a reputably honest young man, Paris, who picked Aphrodite, the goddess of love, on her promise to give him Helen, the world’s most beautiful woman. But Helen was already married, and her husband launched the Trojan War to get her back. Hodges said the story shows that even reasonably honest human beings act from bias, as did Paris.

Paris’ judgment exemplifies the Greek penchant for human judgment of gods. The pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras advanced the maxim that “man is the measure of all things.” Hodges said this could simply mean that humans in fact judge all things. But it could also mean that there is no other judgment. In this world, “only man measures anything,” he said. But God also measures things, and “after the Fall, God and man differ on how to measure things.”

As an example of modern autonomous (and anti-religious) humanism, Hodges offered the statement of the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that without theism or other supernatural beliefs affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.” In addressing righteousness without reference to God, contemporary humanism is thus in direct conflict with Christianity, which addresses the same issues. In the Christian view, people are to be measurers, Hodges said, “but always under God.” The question between theists and humanists is “who is the final authority?”

Hodges offered three historic humanisms: classical, renaissance, and modern. The classical humanism of the Greeks already mentioned in the judgement of Paris did not specifically deny supernaturalism, but turned to human judgment for truly important issues. Renaissance humanism remained under the influence of the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Greek humanism. It was exemplified in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Dante, and was expressed in the great cathedrals that showed a synthesis of the vertical and the horizontal in their architecture.

The scholasticism that followed seemed inconclusive and unsatisfying, leading to a call to go back to the sources of scholarship to get to the truth. Renaissance humanism in southern Europe involved a return to classical sources of scholarship in parallel with Christianity, and emphasized “human dignity, value, and the potential for growth and good.” Renaissance humanism in northern Europe involved a return to Biblical sources.

The humanism of the Enlightenment can be thought of as beginning with Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, Hodges said. It represents the beginning of modern humanism, with issues of “beauty, truth, and goodness” addressed only from the standpoint of this world, and “starting with the self, as an empty slate.” This is irreconcilable with Biblical faith, which insists on a definite human nature corrupted by the fall of man. There should be “no end to the good man can achieve” on the first (modern humanist) view, but on a Biblical view, there is “no amount of reasoning that man can do” to overcome the human propensity for evil, which is indeed compounded by human intelligence. The “fundamental axiom of the Enlightenment” is that “man can define goodness without God,” Hodges said.

Hodges said that against the humanism of the Enlightenment, “it’s not at all strange” that we take things on faith. Mathematics requires axioms, and the Declaration of Independence required “self-evident” political axioms. He pointed to G.K. Chesterton’s comment that “man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” In contrast, modern humanism insists on reason from the start of our understanding and that “everything comes under the hammer of human judgment.” This leads to a questioning of all authority, and finally, as happened with Jean Jacques Rousseau, an attack on civilization as oppressive. Nihilism follows, which from a humanist standpoint, can only be survived by strength. The attempt to base everything on autonomous reason has led to a simple contest of wills between the strong.

Hodges posed two questions after his review. How can Christians be influential in a modern society like our own where secular humanism is the dominant philosophy? And how can we prevent Christianity from being diluted by humanism? In answer to the first, he said the very definition of God includes goodness. We must strive to show it likely that Christianity can offer more of what humanists say they want, namely personal fulfillment, but over the long term, rather than momentary pleasure. But in answer to the second, Hodges said that sometimes it is necessary to hold to Christian doctrine, even when it seems unreasonable. This is simply part of accepting divine revelation as authoritative.

This writer would propose that a decisive consideration is the fact that humanism finally reduces to a contest of wills. Christianity does ground basic commitments to love and truth in a perfect being, whose will is revealed in Scripture. We cannot depend on mere goodwill, aided by science and technology, if we cannot clearly define what virtue is beyond what the autonomous individual and likeminded persons want. If it takes the gift of faith to be persuaded that God’s will is righteous, Biblical morality (e.g., the Ten Commandments) at least has the merit of familiarity to people in the wider world. Indeed, the virtues of piety, respect for human life, sexual purity, and truth telling that the Decalogue advances are not radically different in societies the world over, and certainly are to be preferred to the social experiments aimed at transforming humanity.

  1. Comment by JR on February 25, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    I understand that humanism can theoretically work, but it requires a societal agreement on specific ethics (e.g. is it fair for me to cheat my neighbor on a transaction because I know more than he does?)

    If a society has a strong agreement on what the ethics are, then they should be okay – but you will always have people that push the envelope. There also have to be strong penalties for those who violate that structure.

    Christianity (most religions, I would think) have those societal agreements and penalties baked in. That’s one of the reasons that religiously-based societies are effective.

    Humanism needs an awful lot of growth to show it can work ‘at scale’. I think that, much like pure communism (of the commune variety, not the national variety) it really works only on the small scale.

  2. Comment by John Kenyon on February 26, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    Good article, Rick Plasterer. Thanks.

  3. Comment by David on February 26, 2020 at 9:13 pm

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus

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