I once heard someone – I don’t remember where – criticize humanism (however defined) in the following manner: “The problem with humanism is it leads you to deify man, and the evidence seems to be that man is not worthy of being deified.” The point resonates with me as I think about chastened intellectualism, the idea – which I associate with Freud as well as Augustine and Xunzi – that human beings tend naturally toward wrong behaviour. Individually, despite good intentions, I find it a constant struggle to be a good and happy person; collectively, the history of the 20th century is a dark litany of what happens when – as is too often the case – people’s intentions are less than good. It is difficult to have faith in humanity when humanity has not earned it.
The argument to this point is, I think, in perfect sympathy with Augustine. Human beings for him are invariably and inevitably flawed, in a way that makes them unworthy of our trust. Instead, Augustine wants to argue, we must place our trust in a truly perfect being, God. Augustine’s argument here underlies a great deal of conservative Christianity: even if church institutions and/or biblical scripture appear wrong to us, they are a better guide than our own weak and easily misled intellects.
For the moment, let us leave aside the question of how we know Church or Bible embody God, or even whether God exists. I think there is a far deeper question at issue here: even assuming he exists, how can we trust God? Continue reading