Humanism and the Death of God

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Ronald E. Osborn
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When a book contains impressive erudition, careful analysis, felicitous writing and a clearly stated thesis, a wide array of students and scholars should read it. Ronald E. Osborn’s Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche is such a book. It addresses one of the most important and contested issues in modern philosophy: can and how do we ensure the survival of human dignity, rights and value in a secular age? Osborn’s answer is:  Only a religious understanding of reality (e.g., transcendence, theism, imago dei) will suffice. Our current respect for human rights is largely attributable to the Judeo-Christian tradition. While the dominant philosophical ethics tradition from Plato and Aristotle is an important guide for decision-making, it fails to develop a passionto live one’s life fully. For that, one needs a compelling story faithful to the classical triad of beauty, truth and goodness. It alone can foster the clarity of vision, moral thinking, and passionate feeling required to live the “good” with the courage and purposefulness to withstand any and all opposing forces.

Osborn claims that his goal, while not new, is needed in a culture profoundly shaped by the three secular humanists discussed in his book. Their failure to establish an adequate foundation for human rights plagues us to this day. Fortunately, Osborn views Fyodor Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov—a work from a historical period which overlaps that of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche—as the missing foundation within his religious vision. Juxtaposing the three secular humanists with Dostoevsky’s religious sensibility is one of the most impressive features of this volume. Still, the reader should not be misled. Osborn is not specifically interested in defending the truth or falsity of the historical Jesus. On the contrary, he invites the reader to “see” the power of the Jesus narrative through the novelist’s eyes. If they do, they will find that a theoretical and practical requirement for seeking the “good” is to be found in the theism embodied in Jesus. Simply stated, the Jesus narrative is “needed” and “required” for individuals or humanity to live beyond an instrumental or utilitarian morality. 

As respectful as Osborn is to science and objectivity, he is equally deferential to the epistemological power of human subjectivity. It is a window into the meaning of human existence and the cosmos. Absent that, one cannot access the “theistic ‘God’” as the personal Being behind, underneath and within all reality. We are ultimately left with the abandoning of morality, religion and the dignity of individual persons.

Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche are each carefully interpreted along with their modern disciples. Osborn concludes that all efforts to replace the Jesus narrative with secular systems are doomed to fail. Dostoevsky’s writings expose the weaknesses of atheistic humanism and help one “perceive” the transcendent power of Jesus’s witness. Only the uniquely compelling story of transrational, self-sacrificing love can sustain the “good” into the future, even when Jesus’s passion for social justice, human rights and dignity (rooted in the ancient prophets) arouses criticism. Doesn’t the historical brutality of the “Christian” church negate the impact of the Jesus narrative for achieving the “good?” Not for Osborn. Jesus’s story properly interpreted clearly advances human thriving, evidenced by the remarkable Christians and movements throughout history that have few parallels.  

To understand the dramatic origin of atheistic humanism and Jesus, one must go back to ancient Rome’s legend the “Rape of the Sabine Women.” Although a “celebrated theme in Roman art and literature,” (160-61) it is nevertheless a jarring account of cruelty and unbridled power. Osborn writes—quoting Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress press, 2008)—the legend provided “ ... the paradigmatic model of, and justification for, Roman expansionism. Its purpose was to make imperial violence appear noble and ‘like the natural order of the world.’” (161-62). Rome dominated women and nations with the same cruel impulse driving the Sabine narrative. 

This culture defines Jesus’s agenda and ministry. 

“In Nazareth around the time Jesus was born, men, women, and children who did not hide successfully would have been, respectively, killed, raped and enslaved. Those who survived would have lost everything. I speculate, therefore, that the major stories Jesus would have heard while growing up in Nazareth would have been about ‘the year the Romans came’” (163).

In this milieu Jesus arrives as a “revolutionary,” the carpenter seen as a social “inferior,” whose words and actions defied the Roman notion of what “human” meant. 

Crucified to end his provocative challenge, Osborn writes, that Jesus “ ... unmasked the ‘principalities and powers’ once and for all, stripping them of their sacral authority and revealing them for what they truly were: unjust and oppressive forces. The remarkable collusion of Jewish religious and Roman political power to destroy an innocent man was now laid bare for all to see. ‘When he had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him’” (165). 

From beginning to end, Osborn suggests the story of Jesus unmasks and scorns all ideologies that would diminish human dignity, rights and equality. If one finds materialism and atheism wanting, the Jesus narrative is offered.  Those who refuse will, in any case, find it difficult to ignore its vision of beauty, truth and goodness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James J. Londis is a Retired Scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronald E. Osborn is Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College. His teaching, research, and writing focus on questions of violence, human rights, political ethics, and the intersection of religion and conflict. His publications include Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (Cascade, 2010).


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