The impact of Humanism on Christian beliefs in the fifteenth century

Humanism is a school of thought in philosophy that is based upon established and emerging facts about human nature.  Humanism, which flourished during the Italian Renaissance is largely secular in its composition, making no references to the unknown and the supernatural.  But in the centuries that have gone by, it has been adopted into various religious doctrines, giving rise to a branch of theology called religious humanism.  No other religion has interplayed its tenets and principles with Humanism more than Christianity.  Generally, when we talk of Christian Humanism, it implies the attempt to incorporate humanistic ideas into established Christian practices; seldom is it the other way around.  While Christianity’s interaction with Humanism seems to have started as early as 2nd century A.D, it wasn’t until the beginning of Renaissance that the two ideologies fused substantially.

The Renaissance was a period when Europe woke up to the possibilities of human achievement.  During this period, the notion of separation of State and Church is yet unrealized, and hence Christian doctrine and dogma infiltrated into political and social affairs.  During the fifteenth century, however, luminaries such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola helped bring humanistic ideas into Christianity.  For example, his book Oration on the Dignitiy of Man states that transcendence into the divine is the highest form of the humanist experience.  That is, by following all the tenets laid down by Humanist philosophy, human beings can move closer to God. 

The Church has always been selectively accommodative of scientific discoveries that are contrary to what is revealed in the Holy books.  In the classic case of Galileo Galilei’s discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe, the Church authorities eventually conceded this fact and modified the scriptures to reflect this (although they initially opposed and condemned both the scientist and his work).  In the same vein, since Humanism values scientific knowledge, especially about human evolution, and attempts to understand human nature through empirical and historical analysis, the principles of human conduct that it espouses tend to be more in tune with times.  That is, the flexibility and openness afforded by Humanism, makes it a valuable ally in ascertaining moral values. 

Hence, although the Papacy and other Christian authorities had often been hostile to some of the views and guiding principles offered by Humanism, the former had eventually and gradually come round to accept Humanism as an ally rather than an enemy institution.  This process, which accelerated during the beginning osf the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, has now become well-entrenched.  And one of the most profound influences Humanism has had on Christianity is to separate morality from religious practices.  In other words, due to the influence of Humanism, it was possible to be a Christian without going to a Church.  In sum, Humanism has had the effect of making Christianity a more sophisticated religion that what it originally was.  As it did during the fifteenth century, Humanism continues to contribute and refine Christianity even today.

Work Cited:

D’Arcy, Martin C. Humanism and Christianity. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1969