Book Review: Incarnational Humanism

This review appeared in The Journal of Inter-Disciplinary Studies, as well as on this blog.

Jens Zimmermann, Professor of Modern Languages at Trinity Western University, has bequeathed the Church a book seeking to recover traditional Christian philosophy along ‘humanist’ lines, with a focus on the unique tenets of Christian theology, especially the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The bold assertion of this volume is that orthodox Christianity, in a ‘humanism’, represents the best opportunity for understanding both human being, and human culture.


Incarnational Humanism has six major sections, each with a selection of smaller chapters. They are all comprised of an argument building to a tightly reasoned conclusion, and it is with this that Zimmermann has offered readers a readable and structured book. Without placing the blame for the cultural void left when the Incarnation is left out of the equation, we are treated to a whistle-stop tour of history (theologically and philosophically) that seeks to expose his thesis that a Christian view of humanity – a Christian ‘Incarnational Humanism’ – is what provides the foundation of western culture.


The central thesis of Incarnational Humanism can be seen in the subtitle, ‘A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World’, yet this betrays only an expansion on the rich title. This, with Incarnation at its heart, is a ‘Humanism’ unlike any other. Following the first section, where the author examines the problems of contemporary culture in the appropriately titled “Without Roots”, we are treated to a masterful excursus on “The Beginnings of Incarnation Humanism”, with a the aforementioned route taking us from Greco-Roman origin and Patristic understandings, through the Doctrinal elements of Christology, Imago Dei, and the Eucharist, before proposing that in light of this, Christians should reclaim the term ‘humanism’ for themselves. This is grounded in the Patristic understanding of deification, in the sense that members of the Church are to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. This concern, in incarnational terms, echoes the core of the Christian narrative in being that God descended to mankind, that mankind might ascent to eternal communion and relationship with God.


With the basic premise of recovery and understanding of human being, Zimmermann moves on from his foundational overview to examine “The Further Development of Christian Humanism”. Flowing from the Medieval period to the end of the Renaissance, in this section, the author notes the various recoveries of the Reformation, notably a re-engagement – in his terms a ‘retrieval’ – of Patristic Theology, echoing the importance of ancient texts in that period of cultural and intellectual development.


Following the further foundational understanding here, there is an engagement with forces of secularism, with Nietzsche being seen as particularly key in creating a climate of ‘Anti-Humanism’. There is a fascinating aside, here, where Zimmermann engages carefully and critically with Foucault and Heidegger, at one bringing the former into fruitful conversation with Gregory of Nyssa (182-187). The depth of the authors knowledge and breadth of reading is clear, aiding his advancing argument. Having seen the modern foundations of postmodern challenges laid, and robustly critiqued, we helpfully move on to engage with newer, contemporary challenges to Incarnational Humanism. It is here that the careful distinctiveness of this project, and its interdisciplinary generosity, can be noted, as;


there are… better theological ways of broadening rationality to include religion and to recover an incarnational humanism that no longer separates reason and faith” (262)


It is to such an understand that the twilight of this book turns.


The closing chapter engage with the initial claim of the subtitle, as Zimmermann proposes “Incarnational Humanism as Cultural Philosophy”. This is likely the most practically applicable element of the book – expanding the audience beyond those interested in historical and theological/philosophical critique, towards a manifesto useful for pastors, practitioners, scholars and missionaries alike. The author argues that the incarnation makes ecclesial/theological engagement with culture a necessity, calling for Christians to “recover the full cosmic impact of the incarnation” (264). This is fleshed out, literally, in the way that the Church should be in the world, with helpful and clarifying usage of Bonhoeffer in relation to the cost of such incarnational humanism (277).


Ultimately, then, this is a confident and capable volume. It will serve those considering how they might impact culture for the sake of the Church, and should be seen as an invaluable guide through the way that traditional Christian understandings of human being, and humanism, have been engaged with by critics throughout the centuries since the foundation of the Church. The careful reader will enjoy a single volume that is both a helpful historical overview and a call to radically and clearly recover the ancient teaching of the Church, so that the Church might be incarnate in the world.


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