Our Common Humanity?

Jennifer A. Herdt

Amid the myriad movements calling for the rights of particular peoples or groups – Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, #MeToo, immigrants, children, persons with disabilities – I have been wondering: Is an all-embracing humanism salvageable? Can we redeem the humanist conviction that we are bound together by a common humanity despite our varied conditions and traumas? And should we bother trying to salvage it? 

On the one hand, we hear repeated calls to affirm the full humanity, the equal human dignity, of those who have been marginalized and excluded. On the other hand, movements proclaiming universal human dignity – past and present – are subjected to scathing critique because they are hopelessly blinded by bias. Thus the new nation proclaimed with humanist confidence, “All men are created equal” – but slaves counted as only three-fifths of one. “All men are created equal” – but women could not vote. Small surprise, then, when humanism is denounced as a form of false universalism that time and again imposes the identity and values of a particular dominant group on everyone, either obscuring differences or construing them as a failure to measure up to the ideals of the privileged. “The human” is implicitly defined as white, male, straight, Christian, and able-bodied – while movements for inclusion and equality fail fundamentally to challenge this cultural privileging, but rather function further to entrench the dominant identity. To make matters worse, this false universalism is a theological problem; if God created humankind in the divine image, so, writes Jay Cameron Carter, “as a false god, the dominant re-make the world in their image.”1

This is a perceptive and vitally important critique, uncovering layer upon layer of exclusion and homogenizing, and all falsifying forms of inclusion. And yet – we do not seem able to abandon the ideal of a universally shared humanity. Nor, I think, should we. I mean here not secular humanism, with its identity formed around the rejection of God (“Which god?”, it is always pertinent to ask). Nor should we defend speciesism, championing homo sapiens with disregard for our extremely diverse creaturely siblings. I mean, rather, a deeply biblical way of thinking about humankind as called by God into accountability for self and other, and indeed, for creation itself. This strand of biblical reflection fed into a medieval Christian humanism for which creation made in the image of God was precisely a way of naming human beings as those creatures summoned to responsive moral agency, to knowing and loving God and all things in relation to God. In so doing, human beings participate in the reditus, the return of creation to its source in God – a giving back in worship and praise what has been gifted into being by God’s abundant love. 

In my most recent book, Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (Chicago, 2019), I have sought to show how late 18th- and early 19th-century German reflection on the collective task of ethical formation or Bildung – by thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Gottfried Herder, Goethe, Schiller, and Hegel – has its roots in this Christian humanist tradition as passed along through the German mystical and pietist traditions, and how it provides resources for a dialogical humanism that is worth furthering today. In dialogical humanism, identity based on shared humanity leaves room both for more particularist and for more encompassing forms of identity, insofar as each is capable of mutual recognition and affirmation. 

Lamentably, the Bildung tradition of holistic human education and maturation was bound up not just with aspirations to extend opportunities for personal development and broad participatory politics, but also with white racism and the project of European colonial empire. 

Why bother to redeem such a tainted tradition? In part, because we have no pristine resources for moving forward; even our doctrines of creation and incarnation are, as Carter and others have shown, complicit and themselves in need of redeeming re-interpretation. In part, too, because we move forward precisely by way of self-critical scrutiny of the inadequacies of the ideals and identities we have heretofore championed. To be convinced that in some way they fall short, that every ideal of the truly human legitimates some oppression or reinscribes some injustice, is not to be freed either of the need or the responsibility to set out the best ideals we can and to subject these to ongoing, relentless critique. As political philosopher Thomas McCarthy argues, the notion of human development “ … is inherently ambivalent in character, both indispensable and dangerous. Thus, … there is no alternative to its ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction.”2

Jennifer Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics and Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at YDS. 

1 Jay Cameron Carter, “Between W.E.B. Du Bois and Karl Barth: The Problem of Modern Political Theology,” in Race and Political Theology, edited by Vincent Lloyd (Stanford, 2012), p. 95. 

2 Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge, 2009), p. 18.