Humanitarianism and the Greatest Commandments

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When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus picked two. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he says in Matthew 22. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” 

Yet, according to humanitarianism, we ought only to love our neighbor, with no regard for love of God. Humanitarianism is the subject of Daniel Mahoney’s book “The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity,” which has been remarkably well-received, as I noted here. Mahoney recently appeared on the Patrick Coffin Show where he discussed significant differences between a morality motivated solely by love of Humanity and the saintliness and ultimate deification that comes from Christianity.

Mahoney begins “The Idol of Our Age” with an explanation of Auguste Comte’s so-called “religion of humanity,” and he writes that this 19th century French positivist philosopher has influenced Christians and the church in ways we may not realize. As Mahoney explains, “In his chapter on the ‘Religion of Humanity’ at the end of part I of his System of Positive Polity, Comte announces the superiority of the morality of positive science to the morality of revealed religion, since it has substituted ‘the love of Humanity for the love of God.’” Men, therefore, are to worship the best that is in Humanity, creating false gods in themselves.

“August Comte is an important figure,” Mahoney said in the Coffin interview. “Comte said, in a philosophy of history, we’ve gone from a theological age– a metaphysical age of Christianty and philosophy– to a positive age where science and scientific reason is the only legitimate mode of understanding. But Comte combined this a little later with the religion of humanity because Comte was smart enough to realize that there was this irreducible religious instinct in human beings. But he also thought that authentic reason– positivist reason– had revealed religion to be a chimera, so he wanted to replace the Amor Dei, the love of God, with the love of man, a kind of self-deification.”

Thus, for believers in the religion of humanity like Comte, altruism– a word which he invented– replaces love of God. “Altruism, the sort of love of Humanity, is not the same thing as love of God and love of neighbor,” Mahoney said in the interview. “Theological discussions of divinization should not be confused with secular messianism that says we don’t need God, that we are self-sufficient.”

Mahoney notes in “The Idol of Our Age” that much of Comte’s philosophy seems in line with Christianity as he references charity, love, spirituality, and faith. But “he is blind to the depths of the soul,” Mahoney writes. “Comte’s is the most superficial of anthropologies, since it is ignorant of the drama of good and evil in the human soul… Humanitarianism, the softer, regnant version of the religion of humanity, is thus wholly at odds with the Christian proposition… Woefully ignorant of sin and of the tragic dimensions of the human condition, it reduces religion to a project of this-wordly amelioration.”

How, then, can man love his neighbor without falling into the false religion of humanity? According to Mahoney, by practicing sanctity and heroism while remembering that we can only do so through God. In the interview, he referenced French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy, who argued that heroes and saints stand or fall together. “I like to remind people, there are many rooms in the Father's house, to quote the Gospel of John,” Mahoney said in the interview. “We somehow have a tendency today to identify saintliness with the corporal works of mercy, so reminding ourselves of those who exercise moral and political judgment like Thomas Moore or fought for freedom and the church like Joan of Arc… that's important and they're inspiring, true heroes. Mother Teresa represents an important element of moral virtue, but so does Winston Churchill standing up to Hitler, and so we Catholics have to be attentive not only to moral virtue as it reveals itself in humility, but moral virtue as it reveals itself in a certain greatness or heroism because these are all models of human greatness.”

Mahoney went on to say that there is a legitimate and honorable pride that comes from refusing to submit to evil. “If people do great and wonderful things and forget that all our gifts come from God, that's a problem,” he said. “But we need heroism, and we need saints who act in the world and, if need be, know that we Christians have enemies in the world. So a little bit of spiritedness in defending the truth, I think, is a corrective to fatalism, weakness, and perhaps an undue humility where we confuse humbleness under God with passivity or self self-abnegation.

For Mahoney, sanctity and heroism are “two different species of the same genus,” as Coffin summarized. “They're both manifestations of the soul's virtues that the soul can transcend sordidness, sin, narrow self-absorption, materialism, fear, [and] defensiveness,” Mahoney said. He went on to draw a link between classical ideas of virtue and Christian wisdom. “I think the greatness of our civilization is the coming together of classical Christian wisdom, the cardinal virtues that Cicero and Aristotle talked about: courage, moderation, justice,” he explained. “These are virtues for us Christians, too.”

A follower of the religion of humanity may stop here, but Christians are commanded to love God, not just man. When Christ came, he taught on these virtues which men already naturally knew were good and elevated man in the process. “Christ did not come to do away with the natural world virtues,” Mahoney said. “He became incarnate in the world to remind us of an ordered grace that is capable of elevating and putting man and putting them into a new perspective. Christ didn’t come as an ethical teacher with a whole new ethic. The Ten Commandments [and] the classical moral virtues are true for Christians, and we have to have a little more confidence, with God's encouragement and grace, that we fallen human beings still have to be open to the challenge of heroism and sanctity.”

In loving God, Christians must follow Christ’s commandments to love men. Humanitarianism presents a temptation to love man without regard for God, which, as Mahoney explains in “The Idol of Our Age,” leads to a religion where “free-floating compassion substitutes for charity, and a humanity conscious of its unity (and utter self-sufficiency) puts itself in the place of the visible and invisible Church.” He continues, “this reduction of charity, the greatest theological virtue, to compassion and fellow feeling ignores the fact that genuine love of one’s neighbor is only possible because one discerns in him or her ‘the image of God.’” A love of man that denies both the image of God in him and his fallen nature turns man into a false god. Chrsitians would therefore be wise to watch for and weed out the religion of humanity in their own thinking and churches, and this can start with loving your neighbor the right way.

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