A few weeks ago, Pope Francis gave an address that urged Europeans to renew the humanism forged in the aftermath of World War II. He asks critically, “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?”
For the Pope, the rising nationalist anti-immigrant sentiments and the destruction of human life under capitalism present a crisis to which Europe must respond with “a new humanism” marked by the capacities to integrate, dialogue, and generate.
What for the present pope represents a crisis and potential loss—the betrayal of European humanism for the sake of racist exclusions and capitalist exploitation—is nothing new but is, rather, what has always been the case with European humanism. As Frantz Fanon wrote in his famous work on revolutionary decolonial struggles, The Wretched [or Damned] of the Earth, which was first published in 1961, Europe “never stops talking of man [sic] yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.” Like Pope Francis, Fanon also called for a new humanism but one that could only come from what was then called “the Third World.”
I recall this other reconfiguration of humanism not simply to remind the present pope and his admirers that the postwar era humanism he celebrates was forged during rampant European colonial violence in places like Vietnam and Algeria. More urgently, postcolonial critiques and reconfigurations of humanism alert us to the problematic dynamics of the Pope’s own vision of inclusive humanism.
For Pope Francis, Europe is not so much a particular set of cultural identity markers as it is a process of integrating and moving between cultures: “the identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” Accordingly, exclusionary politics based on race and nationality are foreign to Europe, for the “roots” of European peoples and cultures have always been the dynamic process of integration and harmonization. Europe—as a place, a people, and an idea—is not a static list of particular properties, of racial genealogies, national characteristics, and closed borders.
Europe is a dynamic process, one that can harmoniously organize and integrate differences across cultures and peoples. Europe is not simply forged from different cultures; Europe is the embodied and “emplaced” process that enables such “healthy” integration.
The fact that the Pope can identify Europe with multiculturalism shows the limits of multicultural humanism. It is nothing new, but something very old, to place European identity outside the field of human particularities and envision it instead as the place and peoples that can coordinate all human differences.
Europe can be defined by this openness to all things human because, once again, European humanity is the representative of what it means to be genuinely human. Those who are resistant to its (self-proclaimed) inclusive generosity and dialogical openness inevitably appear as foreign and resistant to—excluding themselves from—human being itself.
To be sure, one can favor the Pope’s more generous and inclusive vision over the more overtly exclusionary and exploitive tendencies he identifies. But there is nothing new to this humanism. And it has its own very clear dangers and problems.
If this inclusive humanism has always been part of what Fanon calls the “spiritual adventure” of the West, and if it has always been in the name of this spirit that “Europe justified its crimes”—war to spread democratic freedom, as my own country prefers—then there is little reason to think this inclusive vision will offer us any resources, new or old, by which to confront the violence and exploitation that mark our global present.
From a Christian theological vantage point, this means that we should be more critical than the Pope in how we let this humanism frame our theological and political commitment, not assuming the politics of humanism can provide a role for Christians in the “rebirth” of Europe or the West. If the interpretation of the cross as the death of God caused a scandal in the postwar years, perhaps we should also remember that the cross was the death of the [ideal] human.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, the 20th century German Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suggested that the task of Christian discipleship in the world to come after the European wars would be one of living with and before the God who “consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” For Bonhoeffer, in the secular age of worldly human autonomy, Christian life together had to be drastically altered: “before God, and with God, we live without God.”
One can rephrase this theology of the death of God, cutting Bonhoeffer’s own lingering ties to the global project of European Christian humanism. For the true humanity of the God pushed out of the world and onto the cross also means we can say: “before the human, and with the human, we live without the human.”
Attempting to think theologically and politically from this perspective might allow “the West” to recognize that its “permanent dialogue with itself” regarding the future of the human—again, Fanon—has already been interrupted and refused, and that this refusal is and can be taken as a reminder of divine grace.
Timothy McGee is a doctoral candidate at Southern Methodist University in the field of Systematic Theology and a recipient of the 2016 Dissertation Fellowship from the Louisville Institute.