- Reviving Christian Humanism: The New Conversation on Spirituality, Theology, and Psychology
As an eminent practical theologian, Don S. Browning watched religious belief and practice interact with the larger culture for a long time, especially in regard to issues of personal and family well-being. As Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, he also lived in the midst of currents and controversies in academic philosophy, theology, and other disciplines. As a result, his work is distinguished by its alertness to a variety of endeavors including medicine and the sciences.
From the vantage point of his years of work and thought, Browning perceived that certain critical interactions, social and intellectual, are currently balanced on a knife-edge, with potential to affect cultural and personal outcomes in our society for good or ill. An outcome that he desired to see is a renaissance of Christian humanism, in a form updated to address current knowledge and conditions, so as to enhance human well-being. An important precondition, he wrote, is enhanced dialogue among certain sciences, certain religious formulations, and humanist traditions.
If such rapprochement should fail, the consequences could be undesirable. For example, traditional religion could become increasingly incongruent with the real issues of human beings today. Either a narrow fundamentalism, or "new atheism," or both, could prevail, with the middle ground occupied mainly by those who are "spiritual but not religious"—or simply by a shallow hedonism.
Browning illustrated his assertions in regard to theology by showing the potential effect of such dialogue upon two doctrines: the atonement and Christian love. (As he noted, many other doctrines could also serve by way of illustration.)
Three doctrines of the atonement are addressed. The Classic (or Christus Victor) model, as described by Gustav Aulén, characterizes the atonement as a "continuous work of God (the supreme creator and healer) where God enters through Christ into the concreteness of human existence, identifies with this broken existence, takes the evil of this existence into God's very being, [End Page 94] struggles with the superhuman forces of evil, and eventually emerges victorious, liberating believers from the grip of these powers" (32). In the Latin view, as propounded by Saint Anselm, "God's moral seriousness demands that humans be punished for their waywardness—except that God takes God's own retribution onto God's self through the crucifixion" (32). According to the relatively modern Moral Influence view, Jesus serves as a divine example of sacrificial virtue, wisdom, and love.
Browning had written on these issues before, and he clarified shifts in his thinking in favor of the Christus Victor model. He believed that understandings of this model have been augmented and validated by current findings in the sciences of psychology and psychotherapy regarding the efficacy of affirming the sufferer's value through companioning that person's pain.
Browning also thought that these sciences have relevance to understandings of Christian love as agape, eros, and caritas. Agape is, of course, complete self-giving; eros "refers to the natural desires of humans to have and unite with the goods of life" (40), and caritas, in the Catholic view, includes natural desires, as for health and affiliation, but expands these motives to include self-giving benevolence to others. Current insights from the social sciences, he concluded, add weight to the caritas model. Discussions of the atonement and Christian love reappear in later sections of the book, as Browning's analysis proceeds.
Browning also believed that various aspects of scientific knowledge could be enriched by consideration of certain insights and practices of religion. He keyed on psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry (which in our day focuses almost exclusively on the pharmacological treatment of mental disorders, as opposed to person-to-person psychotherapy). Many current theories in these fields, he noted, are highly individualistic; in his view, decreased concern for community—caritas—may be deleterious to human well-being, as shown by research in social neuroscience and attested by religious and humanistic traditions...