Confronting Fundamentalism, Reclaiming "Humanism"

Catherine M Wallace

We need a name for ourselves. We need a label for the common ground shared by reasonable people if we are going to confront fundamentalism effectively. And I have a nominee, reclaimed from the fourteenth century: humanist. Humanist, like the parallel term scientist, refers primarily to a method of scholarly inquiry: first, the rigorous, transparent analyses of texts; second, an nuanced sensitivity to cultural history. These skills characterize any serious work in "the humanities," from which the first generation of humanists took their name.

            But "humanist" no longer refers simply to scholars. It has become a more inclusive term. Who are today's humanists? Some of us are believers and some of us are seculars, but we share two commitments: to clear thinking and honest evidence as intellectual standards, and to the humane as a moral standard. This too goes back to the fourteenth century.

            Together we outnumber fundamentalists of any variety. Together we are the sane, pragmatic, inclusive American Middle, proud of our ability to collaborate, proud of our neighborliness, proud to be one nation with liberty and justice for all. We know that successful problem-solving in a complicated world will require compromise and step-at-a-time solutions. As there is strength in numbers, there is strength in diversity: only in our diversity can we cope with the challenges we face as a nation.

            The first generation of European humanists elicited the cultural renewal now called "the Renaissance." Something akin to that is underway again. But the first Renaissance was followed by a century and a half of horrific violence. That too is underway again, this time on a global scale and with far more powerful weapons. We can only deter that destiny by holding firm to clear thinking and to humane action—holding firm together, despite our differences. I don't care what path anyone else has taken toward the moral and intellectual ideals that we share. I care about common action on this common ground.

            I explain aspects of this common ground on an issue-by-issue basis in my series Confronting Fundamentalism: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination, forthcoming from Wipf and Stock Publishers. The short first chapter of each book has been posted on the homepage of my website. The volume on gay marriage will be out in a few weeks; the volume on religious violence should be out before the end of 2015; the rest will appear in 2016, the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise.