Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Colossians 3:15

Monday, March 23, 2009

Christian humanism made of gratitude

Submitted to Cumberland Times-News March 23, 2009.
Update: Published in Times-News Letters on April 13.
"Gratitude nourishes in us humility to endure lean and low points in life, and grace to embrace abundance and joy. We strive to arrive, as St. Paul did, at a stage of self-sufficiency – spiritually, that is."

“Without gratitude,” writes Theodore Dalrymple in his 2008 book The Politics and Culture of Decline, “it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have; and life (becomes) an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

The difference between Christian Humanism (a culture of life) and Secular Humanism (the culture of death) seems to be the difference between gratitude and emptiness.

“Secular ideologies have lost much of their appeal and once again people are hungering for the unifying vision of the religious imagination.” So says the Center for Religious Humanism (based in Seattle, Wash.), which aims to cultivate respect for truth by celebrating creation and nurturing the soul through art that expresses faith.

The Christian life is filled with gratitude: God gifted us Christ, who died to redeem us. St. Paul says in Philippians 4:13: “In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everything.”

Gratitude nourishes in us humility to endure lean and low points in life, and grace to embrace abundance and joy. We strive to arrive, as St. Paul did, at a stage of self-sufficiency – spiritually, that is.

We live in community; and community creates culture. Culture is rooted in religion. Religion sustains and tempers us: It inspires us to hope and instructs us to love. Christians hope for eternal union with God; and we aim to help others attain the same.

Mysterious and difficult, these tenets take a lifetime to unfold and to realize in concrete ways. Sadly, what is difficult to understand or do, or takes time, often is dismissed. At the end, though, our relationship with God is a personal one; and it is our most important relationship.

Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary cites St. Justin Martyr (born in the year 100) as the first Christian Humanist -- the first to enunciate that truths of faith are more important than human culture.

In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin recounts his quest, around age 30, to acquaint himself with God. His teachers, though, either don’t know God, or they believe He is irrelevant to other matters of learning.

Finally, Justin finds a Platonist: “And the perception of immaterial things…and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity,” for Justin had learned only “to look upon God.”

Then one day he converses with an old man about God and life and teachers; and the old man says to Justin: “There existed, long before this time, certain men…who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets…and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things...since they both glorified the Creator…and proclaimed His Son, the Christ….”

Justin reads the prophets’ writings and discovers contentment in their “words filled with the Spirit of God, and big with power, and flourishing with grace;” and he yearns to share it. (St. Justin taught and defended the Christian faith in Asia Minor and Rome, until his beheading in 165.)

A culture without God lacks gratitude and contentment; and the lights of truth and beauty and imagination go dark. Anyone who wants to create a culture of life can set out today, as St. Justin did, to know God and his intent for us – to be fully human in a relationship with His son – and to be fully alive, even (and especially) in a secular culture of death.

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