Rigorism and Humanism

From The Vision of God (1931)

If life is to be disciplined at all, of what fashion shall the discipline be? Amongst all the variations of ethics which have sheltered under the name of “Christian”, two in particular stand out in contrast.

On the one hand, there have been teachers and sects who have prescribed for their adherents, and individuals who have prescribed for themselves, a life of rigorous self-denial, self-mortification, and other-worldliness. Not that such a life is always regardless of the active duties of society, nor that it must lead, in every case, to the extreme of eremitic solitude; but that it tends to test the worth of every action by its cost to the giver, and the degree to which it requires him to mortify his own affections and exercise constraint upon his natural instincts, rather than by its value to the receiver. Puritanism, asceticism, rigorism — whatever we choose to call it — here is a well-marked type of thought and practice, which in all ages has appealed to the self-abnegation and cross of our Redeemer as its final example and justification. Perhaps it finds fewer sponsors and adherents at the present day than it has done at other epochs, but that fact alone would not justify us in eliminating it from the Christian scheme. It claims, or has often claimed, to represent the sole ideal of a life worthy of the name of Christian; and even if it be non-suited in that pleas it may still retain a claim to stand for something without which — even if only in combination with other elements — no Christian life can be complete.

Against this rigorist other-worldliness must be arrayed a “this-worldly” code of ethics, which also appeals for its sanctions to the gospel. This humanist code, if we may so call it, bids us enjoy life in due moderation, and realize the highest possibilities of every instinct and factor in the complex organism of personality. It prescribes positive social virtues as the ideal, and seeks to set up a new Jerusalem by steady evolution out of the existing world-order. It finds goodness in embracing the world and its joys, not in flight from them; it looks for God in his creation, instead of seeking him by spurning what he has made. This reading of the Christian message is familiar to the modern mind; it is engrained, we might almost say, within the modern temperament.

Within the womb of the Christian Church these two children — rigorism and humanism — have striven for the mastery from the moment of their conception; and to the fortunes of that fierce battle no student of Christian ethics can be indifferent. Here are two tendencies pointing toward codes of very different types. Which of them is Christian and which non-Christian; or better still, if both are Christian, how are they to be harmonized in a single code of conduct?

The Church has had a vast experience of both traditions; and it has known the danger of leaving the tensions unsolved, and the disasters of solving them amiss. Theologians have reviewed the problems in the light of the vision of God which they have accepted as the keynote and the test of all the principles of Christian life. The solutions they have offered have varied in different generations, as their conceptions of the beatific vision and all that it implies have varied too. It is only by noticing the most apparent of these variations, examining their causes and recording their results that Christians today can in their turn take up the task transmitted to them. And the starting-point is the same for all — “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Kenneth Kirk (1896-1954) was one of the most influential Anglican moral theologians of the twentieth century. He served as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and was Bishop of Oxford from 1937 until his death. His The Vision of God, adapted from the Bampton Lectures he delivered at Oxford, is one of the most important texts of Anglican ascetical theology.

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