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The Three Faces of Humanism and Their Relation to Problems of Science and Education

by Catherine Roberts - 1979

The purposeful evolutionary vision of theocentric humanism is an intuitive truth possessing an ethical sweep that anthropocentric and biocentric humanism lack. Theocentric humanism is destined to become, as it may have been in the past, a universal humanism of religion, science, philosophy, art, and education to facilitate life's further self-transcendence.

Plato understood that all attempts to form a nobler type of man—i.e., all paideia and all culture—merge into the problem of the nature of the divine.

—Werner Jaeger

Versions of this article have appeared in Tract, No. 14, March 1975 (Ggryphon Press, Llanon, Wales), and in Occasional Papers (The Farmington Institute, Oxford, England, n.d.).

Although the perennial problem of the nature and ultimate purpose of education has never been more acute, everyone would agree that all education has to do with the improvement of human beings and is thus an essential part of every system of humanistic thought. Whether education involves the acquisition of scientific truths, the mastery of special skills and techniques, or the assimilation of cultural traditions, it confers upon the individual knowledge of certain aspects of reality he did not previously possess—and it has always been a fundamental educational assumption that he is thereby, in varying degrees, bettered.

But, as recent editorials in this journal clearly show,1 in its striving for educational betterment the twentieth century has a concept of knowledge quite different from that of its predecessors. Wholly antipathetic to the more subjective educational attitudes of the past, which invariably regarded the development of moral character and an understanding of the good life as the most essential components of the knowledge of the educated, contemporary education is largely based upon the supposition that scientific rationality, objectivity, and amorality are the prime conditions of knowing. Truth, it is said, is "correct apprehension [of] and assertion"2 about physical reality and is best revealed when such knowledge can be scientifically verified by anyone, regardless of his moral character. Knowledge pertaining to aesthetics or to values, meaning, and ethics, being other kinds of apprehension of and assertion about other kinds of reality, is scarcely looked upon as valid revelation of truth at all but rather as dispensable subjective expression of opinions and feelings about beauty, goodness, and other irrelevancies.

This generally accepted view that subjects that do not lend themselves to objective scientific investigation are by their very nature of minor significance in educational improvement is being vigorously challenged by a number of educators. They see quite rightly that it is a view based upon the disastrous epistemological error made by our rational age in assuming that only knowledge acquired scientifically is correct apprehension and truthful revelation of that which is most humanly significant. That this is a false assumption is becoming increasingly obvious. Educational dissemination of scientific-technological knowledge is not creating a better world of wiser, nobler, happier men; on the contrary, mankind, more fully educated in scientific fact, theory, and method than ever before, stands largely helpless and confused before unprecedented misery for which it is itself mainly responsible. Demands for inclusion of art, literature, music, ethics, religion, and the humanities in all curricula arise out of a growing conviction that since scientific knowledge has no claim to supreme validity and indispensability, those who are to be improved desperately need to learn in nonscientific ways about other truths. Yet increasing educational emphasis directed by opponents of the scientific Weltbild toward the expressive disciplines and the liberal arts tradition, although a giant step in the right direction, will not suffice evolutionally without the still more embracing conviction that we really do know what educational improvement is and what it is for.

In what follows I will attempt to show that the nature and ultimate purpose of education becomes most comprehensible when educational improvement is seen as an aid to man's spiritual evolution. Education of this kind, based on the realization of ethical potentiality by subjective knowledge of objective truths, is an indispensable part of one particular system of humanistic thought—here designated theocentric humanism—that envisages the progressive advance of the human race toward divine goodness through knowledge that spiritually improves the knower. Other kinds of humanism rely upon the scientific concept of knowledge and educational improvement to attain their specific ends. If, then, contemporary education presents grave problems to educators and society at large, attempts to solve them must to a large extent depend upon how well we understand the origin and development of the different forms of contemporary humanism and what each intends to do for man.


Humanism has ever been concerned with the progressive realization of the human potential. It did not arise de novo in the Renaissance. A deep concern for what man can do to better himself cannot be dissociated from any stage of man's evolution, and certainly not from his civilized state. Anyone who has devoted even a portion of his life and thoughts to the amelioration of the human condition is worthy of the name "humanist," and that includes very nearly all of us. But what kind of humanists are we?

In its primal form humanism, indissolubly bound to religion, was theocentric in nature. However great the conceptual divergences inherent in their monotheistic and polytheistic predilections, men everywhere believed in the existence of divine reality as the supreme Good of the universe and realized that this indisputable objective truth necessitated a human-divine relation. World religions and religious philosophies have thus ever been united in a humanistic Weltbild that sees the divine Good as the central fact of human existence. Everywhere the most enlightened theocentric humanists have been religious thinkers who have helped men to establish, in accordance with the divine ethic, just, harmonious, and gentle relationships with other living beings. While such humanists have played an enormous role in man's spiritual ascent by exhorting him to acts of righteousness and love and compassion, their pure forms of theocentric humanism have not always been influential in guiding religious development. Religions, particularly when institutionalized, have often been dominated by those who speak in the name of the human-divine relation for less worthy ends. Seeking secular power rather than ethical enlightenment for themselves and their followers, such lesser humanists have temporarily retarded the spiritual development of their religions.

Christianity, for example, whose ecclesiastical leaders included many who preached a humanism that sharply deviated from the theocentricity of its founder, succeeded in the first fifteen hundred years of its existence in tightening its authoritative hold on the Western world partly through political intrigue, war, terror, violence, torture, and many other equally unchristian acts. However sincere some of these Christians may have been in their desire to strengthen Christianity, they succeeded only in weakening it and impeding its progress. Yet it must not be forgotten that throughout its whole history the Christian world has also been held together by another kind of religious authority—by those Christians, known and unknown, who spent their lives ministering to the spiritual needs of their fellowmen. By giving to them out of their own inner light an abiding sense of faith, hope, and love and a desire to participate in the human-divine relation by following the dictates of the divine ethic, these Christians were helping men to realize their potentials. It was this pure theocentric humanism, coexisting with the more degenerate forms, that established harmonious bonds among men and between human and non-human life and helped to keep true Christianity alive. As a latent spiritual-ethical force, it still remains the innermost essence and authority of all religions and religious philosophies.

Some twenty-five hundred years ago, when humanism was still universally theocentric, there arose in the Mediterranean area a deviant form that was anthropocentric in nature. This new form of humanism, arising among the Greeks, was a natural outcome of the Homeric heritage. This is not to say that it arose out of Homer's anthropomorphic theogony but rather out of his view that since only the gods are immortal and divine, man himself, lacking both an immortal soul and a divine spark, has a strictly limited potential. The traditional Olympian view placed an impenetrable barrier between the human and the divine, regarding one of the greatest sins to be hubris, in which a man aspired higher than befitted a mortal. Although man must thus forever remain a mortal, unable to partake of divinity, his own humanness, the Greeks reasoned, must be such a great and wonderful thing that he could do no better than to keep his thoughts centered upon himself rather than upon the divine that transcends him. The Greeks thus came to believe that man's inner greatness, purely human in nature, was capable of expressing itself without divine aid. They looked upon ethical standards as man-made, having become supremely confident that the human potential can come nearest to realization when men are physically, intellectually, and spiritually free to realize it in their own way. In their adoption of anthropocentric humanism as the most rational and therefore truest Weltbild, the Greeks were led into the terrible error of supposing that the human potential concerns man alone. The truth of the matter is that this view of the human potential is a Western delusion—perhaps the greatest delusion that evolving man has ever experienced.

Recognizing this truth full well, Plato ran counter to the mainstream of Greek humanism. Unable to accept the narrow Homeric limits of the human potential, Plato saw evolving man as destined to approach divine reality and to become progressively godlike in the process. In challenging the excessive anthropocentricity and unbridled individualism of the society in which he lived, and in correcting Protagoras's dictum that "man is the measure" to read "God is the measure," Plato proclaimed the religious truth that if the human potential is to become progressively realized, humanism must be theocentric. Man's divine spark, he knew, can glow only in seeking its transcendent source. Borrowing the best from the spiritual heritage of his world, and adding enormously to it through his own genius, Plato never founded a religion but created a theocentric Weltbild based upon the choice between good and evil that many since have called sublime. Some of his humanism found its way into Christian theology. Some of it was rediscovered with boundless admiration by Renaissance scholars.

That great upsurge of human vitality known as the European Renaissance was as intensely preoccupied with the human potential as classical Greece had been. Although the men of the Renaissance questioned religious authority, religion continued to play a dominant role in their lives, and there was no definitive break with Christianity. The most enlightened Renaissance humanists were, in fact, deeply religious men who, as Plato, knew that the human potential is indissolubly related to divine reality and the problem of good and evil. Other Renaissance humanists found that by questioning the divine ethic, they were able to sever some of their ecclesiastical bonds. Proud of their newly found strength and excited by the prospect of ever greater individual freedom, they thought the human potential could best be realized by turning away from the divine toward the natural world, including man. In seeking truth by the exploration, observation, and investigation of physical reality, they acquired a better understanding of the natural world, and in studying the intellectual greatness of man down through the ages, they became more confident in the mighty reasoning powers of the unaided human mind. Thus the mainstream of European humanism gradually became more closely aligned with Greek anthropocentricity than with Platonic theocentricity. This is not to say that anthropocentric humanism as we know it today emerged fully formed in the Renaissance. There was no complete and final liberation from religious tradition or authority. It was too early for the flowering of modern agnosticism and atheism. The European transition from theocentric to anthropocentric humanism was a gradual one, requiring both the rise of science and the decline of Christianity.

These developments were interdependent and simultaneous. Western science began to emerge during the Renaissance as a part of the rebirth of learning, and the new objective truths attained through scientific observation, experiment, and theoretical abstraction compelled Europeans from the sixteenth century onward to look at themselves, their world, and their God in a new light. As science kept revealing fascinating truths about the reality of the physical world, and as Christianity, weakened by a long history of deflections from the theocentric exhortations of Jesus, no longer had the vitality to keep men's interest centered upon the higher realities of the spiritual world, it was only natural that Western thought became progressively materialistic and secularized. Forgetful of its theocentric authority, Christianity was gradually swept along with the anthropocentric tide, becoming at last, in our day, a humble and silent witness to a scientific humanism proudly proclaiming that man is the central fact of human existence. And because the scientific Weltbild dominates world thought, the concept of a divine ethic is today wholly neglected by anthropocentric humanists and by a surprisingly large number of theocentric humanists of all religious affiliations. For some time there has been in nearly all religious societies a flight away from the human-divine relation toward various degrees of anthropocentricity. This is a natural expression of the general spiritual decline of world religions, which seem to be increasingly content with degenerate forms of theocentric humanism. The decline is perhaps most clearly revealed in the widespread religious resignation before the material benefits of scientific and technological progress. Contemporary religions, unsure of their role in human evolution, are expending much thought and energy in attempting to live as amicably as possible with those who, in the name of science, are determined to help realize the human potential atheistically. In being thus spiritually intimidated, world religions have become enormously weakened ethically. They have forgotten that the divine ethic is objective, absolute, and unchanging. In accepting "situation ethics" as the best norm for a scientific age in rapid development, contemporary religions have often become un-protesting observers of ruthless ethical depravity within the scientific community. The picture is not, however, completely black. There are, in fact, good grounds for optimism.

For we are witnessing signs of an incipient spiritual awakening among some of the peoples of the world. Based on a deeply felt revulsion against the inadequacy of the materialism, rationalism, and atheism of the scientific world view and the anthropocentricity that is associated with it, the awakening is reaching out to the spiritual, the irrational, the suprarational, and the transcendent. Everywhere personal experience of the human-divine relation is being sought. Spiritually, these religious strivings are sometimes misguided and immature, as, for example, in the use of drugs to expand consciousness and in the creation and enjoyment of the superstars of a commercialized, degraded form of religion. It is to be expected that the spiritual awakening, when more fully underway, will become purer: a genuine religious striving for a better world by means that do not tarnish the goal. So far, contemporary religions have generally failed to grasp that because the true spiritual awakening, as yet in its infancy, has arisen in a morally outrageous world, it is primarily an ethical awakening concerned with the improvement of human conduct. They need to recognize that their own theocentricity, based upon man's relation to the divine Good, is in itself a source of great ethical strength and power. It seems inevitable that religious thought will turn in this direction and that its now latent energy will be able, when needed, to reveal itself ecumenically to a world that is already spiritually alerted. Another great upsurge of human vitality can thus be expected, but in contrast to that of the Renaissance, this rebirth will be ethical in nature. And we can be equally sure that anthropocentric humanism will not have the slightest chance of withstanding the force of this pure theocentric thrust.

Until then life goes on—which is to say that a world in spiritual awakening still allows scientific authority to place first priority upon the endless acquisition by all amoral or immoral means of new scientific knowledge in the hope of increasing man's understanding of physical reality and of increasing his mastery over it. What else has an atheistic world to hope for? It believes this is the only way to the true realization of the human potential, to the unfolding of man's inner greatness. In neglecting the divine even more completely than did the Greeks, the scientific age has so far been eminently successful in carrying out its intention: Twentieth-century advances in science and technology have been staggering.

Now, however, the scientific age stands deeply alarmed at the fruits of its labors. For scientific and technological progress, when unrestrained by the divine ethic, promotes overindustrialization, depletes resources, pollutes air, land, and water, eradicates wild animals and plants, and inflicts suffering and death upon other sentient organisms that are propagated in enormous numbers for unnecessary food, clothing, amusement, and experiment. Physically, intellectually, and spiritually, the globe is becoming increasingly unfit for habitation. Some think it already too late to make amends to nature and that man, and the whole biosphere with him, is doomed to a premature death. Others, less extreme, foresee a time of trouble more terrible in its austerity than anything evolving man has yet experienced.

The effect of these dire prospects upon humanistic concern for the further realization of the human potential has been startling. First of all, it is focusing global interest as never before upon nature. All over the world anthropocentric and theocentric humanists are pondering our plight from the opposing perspectives of Man-Nature and Man-Nature-God. What is perhaps even more startling is that a new form of humanism is also emerging. Neglecting the human-divine relation, it is, in essence, but a variant of atheistic anthropocentricity but differs from it in its concern for nonhuman as well as human life. Actually, the new form of humanism refuses to distinguish between them. Seeing the human as nothing but a part of nature and the divine as nonexistent, it considers the duality Man-Nature and the triad Man-Nature-God as equally spurious. Having eyes only for Life—life upon this earth as one unified whole—it can best be called biocentric humanism. Should its adherents object to being called humanists at all, preferring to be regarded as the bearers of a new ideology based upon a view of the essential Oneness of life that refuses to harbor thoughts of human superiority, let them remember that in stressing the kinship between human and nonhuman life, it is not to the plants or the animals they are turning to save the world. They are turning to man, and to man alone, to persuade him to better his ways so that evolving life will not perish. They are, of course, humanists too.

Contemporary humanism has thus three faces, all of which are profoundly concerned with the future evolution of man:

1. the theocentric face, which looks first to Divine Reality

2. the anthropocentric face, which looks first to Man

3. the biocentric face, which looks first to Life

Which of the three visions is closest to the truth? The answer, I am convinced, depends upon which vision has the greatest ethical sweep. Let us compare them.


Although anthropocentric humanism, being atheistic or agnostic in essence, cannot expect evolving man to become more godlike, it does expect him to realize more completely his biological potentialities for intelligence and rational behavior. But in denying him a divine spark, soul, or spirit to ensure his immortality, its evolutionary goals are limited to the earthly survival and well-being of the individual and the species. This face of humanism predominates in our scientific age.

Its chief exponents are found in contemporary biology and medicine.

Unrestrained by thoughts of the divine ethic many of them are seeking knowledge that will enable them to transform human beings to increasingly artificial individuals who can look forward to a longer life based upon scientific directives for the use of drugs, surgery, genetic engineering, or manipulation of the breeding process. Regarding death as the supreme evil, the ethical code of biologist and medicinal scientist provides first of all for the prolongation of human lives at any cost. An enormous amount of time and energy is spent in experimental work to enable individuals to live longer upon earth. But why should men live longer here? No anthropocentric humanist has a satisfying answer to this question. Sometimes it evokes vague hopes that evolving man can thus become more human but most often it remains unanswered. And without a specifically spiritual answer, the ethical code of anthropocentric humanism remains wholly anthropocentric and therefore incompatible with man’s ascent toward the divine. Man-centered and earthbound, it is a dreary utilitarian ethic that obstructs the flight of the human soul toward the spiritual radiance that is its destiny.

Anthropocentric humanism has also its special code of ethics for non-human life. Shameful and degrading to mankind, it has been accepted by anthropocentric humanist within and without scientific circles as the only ethical code possible for a scientific age in rapid development. Briefly, it is based upon the delusion that regardless of the pain, fear, and prolonged misery they may endure, laboratory animals in unlimited numbers must be utilized and sacrificed in unlimited ways for the physical well-being and survival of the human species. The end, the anthropocentric humanist asserts, justifies every conceivable means. By any standard, this is a monstrous lie in his soul.

The anthropocentric face of humanism, looking first to man, is blinded by egoism and self-love to that which lies above and below the human. Narrow and distorted, it is a grossly imperfect ethical vision that can never truly serve the spiritual needs of evolving life.


Seeing life on earth as an expression of the evolutionary facts and theories of modern science, biocentric humanism, just as its anthropocentric counterpart, denies life a divine origin and purpose. Exclusively concerned with the continued existence of the physical reality and thus see life’s evolution as an autonomous process leading nowhere in particular. The bioecentric vision differs from the anthropocentric in purporting to help no only man but all other creatures to live, propagate, and realize their biological potentials on earth; seeing life as a unified whole, it desires harmony among the component parts and exhorts man to divest himself of his arrogance, brutality, and greed to ensure the maximum well-being and survival of all. In its respect for all life, biocentric humanism is already on a higher ethical plane than the anthropocentric goal of all good to man alone.

Yet any vision that shuns as though it were the plague the human-divine relation of religion eliminates the fundament of human existence. Although sincerely desiring the realization of the biological potentials of the whole of existing life, the biocentric face of humanism, also agnostic or atheistic, is blind to the unique nature of man. By overemphasizing the oneness of physical life and man's undeniable kinship with the animals, it may even impede the further realization of human potentiality. For evolving man, however imperfect, has already attained a spiritual vision of the divine ethic that evolving nonhuman lives, devoid of conscience, cannot share—and it is upon this unique vision that not only ecological betterment but the future course of evolution depends. As a philosopher-friend once remarked about humanitarian efforts to help animals that spring only from a sense of kinship with them:

. . . there has to be some glimpse or vision of the numinous appearing in such a labour if it is to light candles that don't go out.3

Biocentric candles will be ephemeral because biocentric humanists see such a minute part of the truth of human evolution. They paint a picture of an autonomous development devoid of spiritual purpose or progress, where the human-divine relation is a figment of the imagination, where physical death is personal extinction, where the possibilities of realizing individual potentials through immortality and reincarnation are as emphatically denied as the spiritual hierarchy of nature, and where most emphasis is laid upon biological development of matter and form and the accompanying increase in mental functioning of the brain. When Homo sapiens is viewed in this way as a product of primate development rather than a species in spiritual ascent toward virtue, the unique nature of man must remain hidden.

Recognition of his uniqueness is nevertheless mandatory in our present circumstances. With whatever intuitive knowledge of good and evil each of us has within, we need to seek, find, and emulate the ethical purity man has so far attained during his evolution. However great contempt we may harbor for a Hitler, a Nixon, or for moral imperfection in general, it is the already realized potentials of righteousness, compassion, and love that properly define human uniqueness. What the saints did is what man can do. And despite the enormity of evil that other men have done, it is not true, as some biocentric humanists believe, that the higher limits of man are no compensation for the depths to which some members of the human race have sunk.4 Evil, after all, is finite, and good infinite. The depths have a limit. The heights are limitless.

It is being said that the Judaeo-Christian statement in Genesis referring to man's dominion over nature is a religious doctrine that unwarrantably gives man absolute authority over the nonhuman. If the majority of Jews and Christians, still evolutionally imperfect as all other men, have misused their power over nature in this way, this is, however, not so much the fault of Genesis as their faulty reading of it. They have interpreted its message incorrectly because they have failed to heed the spiritual wisdom inherent in all religions and expressible in the two words noblesse oblige. This means that the more spiritually enlightened individuals are morally bound to help in all possible ways those who are less enlightened. Biocentric humanists have not yet recognized this great religious truth that the essential uniqueness of Homo sapiens is intended to be used for the good of other species.

This is understandable in an irreligious age of science. Neglecting human uniqueness, biologists all over the world are now inflicting monstrous suffering and death upon millions of sentient, nonhuman lives; while within science there is only sporadic, ineffectual opposition to these acts that so flagrantly flout the divine ethic and impose extreme disharmony and injustice upon the natural order of things. And most educators, assuming that what science does must be right, see no ethical problem here.

Earthly harmony and justice can best be realized through the religious perspective. Looking first away from transient, impermanent earthly life to the reality of the divine and the divine ethic that knows not change, man participates in the human-divine relation, glimpses cosmic hierarchy and purpose, and then falls naturally into proper ethical balance with other human and nonhuman beings.

The biocentric face of humanism, looking only to mortal life, mistakes the physical reality of its fleeting earthly existence for the Whole. Denying the validity of human knowledge of the divine ethic, it is a one-sided ethical vision that can bestow upon evolving life only a limited amount of good.

Submitting only to the teachings of biology, contemporary anthropocentric and biocentric humanists sharply limit their intuitive ethical visions in refusing even to consider the possibility of a higher reality than evolving man or evolving life. For divinity and the divine ethic, they say, is not. Let us know turn to those who say it is.


Since the essence of religion is man's relation to the divine, it follows that theocentric—or divine-centered—humanism necessarily encompasses the progressive, and in some cases temporarily regressive, development of all religions, all religious philosophies, all religious attitudes and states of mind. At this stage in evolution the existence of worldwide religious diversity rather than one unified religion is, in part, a consequence of the disagreement prevailing among theocentric humanists about the nature of the human-divine relation. Men differ in their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual powers and conceive the divine in different ways.

The Christian question, "In what sense can God be outside the world, and in what sense in it?" becomes, however, a question of universal religious applicability when the word "God" is replaced by "divinity" or "the divine." Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, Taoists, Orphics, Platonists, Gnostics, Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, theosophists, anthroposophists, and others have attempted to answer it and in doing so have disclosed their own theocentric inclinations toward theism, deism, pantheism, and mysticism.

Theism, in its broadest sense, simply signifies recognition of the existence of the divine, but in a narrower sense it is also used in opposition to deism and pantheism to denote a transcendent divinity whose immanence is restricted to what has been called the indwelling and immortal spirit, soul, or spark of things. Deism is based on the concept of a transcendent divinity wholly distinct and apart from the world. Pantheists see the divine everywhere, holding that the universe is the phenomenal manifestation of the divine or even that no other divinity exists than the existing world. The mystical tradition asserts that the divine, whatever it is and wherever it may be, is knowable—and that in varying degrees—through a special kind of experience inaccessible to the ordinary perceptive powers of the mind and senses.

While these conceptual and empirical differences hold religious groups apart, they do not prevent them from working in spiritual unison to set the theocentric position in bold relief against the other faces of humanism. Theists, deists, pantheists, and mystics all seek fuller knowledge of that transcendent spiritual perfection or divine First Cause from which the world of matter arose. Since they see the source of life in this divinity, they also see that all forms of life must be in some way divinely related. The Oneness of life is also a part of the theocentric position, but in contrast to the biocentric, it is based on spiritual rather than physical unity. Theocentric humanists see all forms of life, higher and lower, bound by a divine principle that ensures their spiritual evolution toward a common goal: Oneness is thus a becoming, a potential that is being realized in varying degrees by all living beings regardless of whether they possess profound spiritual enlightenment or only the rudiments of spiritual consciousness. Theocentric humanism thus sees life's spiritual Oneness in terms of potentiality and hierarchy. Biocentric humanism, on the contrary, sees the Oneness of life as physical rather than spiritual, and already realized. All living forms having descended from the same primordial slime, they are bound by a vital principle that ensures the further propagation of evolving species, whose essential Oneness cannot be augmented. Biocentrically, the fact of the physical kinship of all forms of life is adduced by science, not by recourse to a false belief in its divine origin. Denying that life arose from anything but matter, biocentric humanists see its evolution wholly in terms of autonomous physical, and concomitant mental, development that lacks both goal and direction. Theocentric humanists, recognizing that the physical originated from the spiritual, see evolution as life's spiritual return, guided from without, to the divine source of its being. Regardless of their religious affinities, theocentric humanists are thus obliged to work together because of the common knowledge they share: They all know that the divine is.

And ever since man was, he appears to have known that the divine reality is the light that leads him out of the mists and shadows.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

The human mind associates darkness with evil to be avoided and light with good to be absorbed. The divine light, infinitely more radiant than the light of the physical universe, becomes the supreme desideratum for men in spiritual evolution.

Some have held that the divine is wholly unknowable and that any attributes it may possess must lie beyond human perception. Evolving man has, however, always reached out toward the divine as though it were the highest good to which he could aspire. In equating the divine with the supreme cosmic Good, he intuitively recognizes that its goodness is more than an attribute. Conceptually, if not empirically, the two become an indissoluble one, the divine Good, which cannot be dissociated in his mind from the human problem of good and evil.

The true theocentric position points to a conclusion that seems inescapable: Ethics is not a man-made creation but man's superhuman link with the divine. In this vision the sweep of theocentric ethics bursts the limits of purely human thought and imagination to become a spiritual reality of seemingly infinite magnitude and promise for evolving life.


The life sciences tell us that from its obscure beginning some three billion years ago, life has evolved autonomously into a thriving biosphere of enormous richness and variety, in which plant and animal species are ever striving for ecological balance. Evolutionary development of life from the primitive to the complex has reached its highest point in the human species, whose intellectual, emotional, religious, and ethical attributes are dependent upon the human nervous system, which in its development has far surpassed that of any nonhuman species. Science further asserts that evolution can have no final purpose, since, in some remote future, life on this planet is doomed to destruction by increasingly unfavorable solar developments. Denying the religious teachings of the immortality of the individual soul, and its existence in the spiritual world apart from the terrestrial body, biologists and medical scientists can envisage no higher goal for any individual or species than the scientifically contrived prolongation of its physical existence as long as possible. If, in the case of Homo sapiens, this artificially extended physical survival be accompanied by progressive development of intelligence and rational behavior, so much the better; if not, at least the scientific mind must be given credit for its brilliant attainment and application of objective knowledge about physical reality in order to postpone the inevitable. And since the whole gigantic expansion and differentiation of terrestrial life is purposeless, what more, they ask, can be expected of us? A great deal, the theocentric humanist would answer.

Biologists must correct this fundamental misconception that evolutionary purpose is nonexistent because valid knowledge of it cannot be acquired with the rational objectivity of science. They must see that evolutionary purpose has to do with life's spiritual ascent toward the Good, and that this is a suprarational, intuitive truth needing neither proof nor reason but being self-evident and of unquestioned validity for those who seek truth in the light of the human-divine relation.

All kinds of valid knowledge make known truth, but let us free ourselves from scientific authority and try to place them in their proper hierarchical order. In ascending the hierarchy, knowledge becomes more subjective and intuitive. The hierarchy is thus based upon the spiritual transformation effected in the knower, with supremely valid knowledge bringing about the greatest change. This is just what the scientist tries to avoid. He seeks truth only where he can be most completely detached from it. In the search he ignores his feelings and, apart from a moral compulsion about accuracy in observation and assertion, he dispenses with his intuitive sense of right and wrong. Even when his imaginative, intuitive, or aesthetic insight enables him to discover natural laws, he attempts to be wholly objective about his discoveries for the sake of fuller comprehension. Truth, for him, is only correctness of apprehension, valid knowledge as thought or speech, and it concerns a world of physical reality wholly separated from himself.

But if, as Plato believed, objective reality ascends to the higher spiritual truths, the knowledge of which profoundly influences the knower and makes more correct his apprehension, then the hierarchy of truth, and the increasingly valid human knowledge accompanying it, constitute a spiritual force as yet unrecognized in evolution. Awareness of a force that causes life to transcend its own reality would give scientists a more subjective approach to knowledge in harmony with what Michael Polanyi called "ultra-biology," or its ultimate extrapolation: the abandonment of detached scientific objectivity (which is itself often a delusion) in favor of personal commitment to seek superior knowledge for the purpose of self-transcendence.5 An ultra-biology bringing biologists closer to virtue is a concept that brightly illumines evolutionary purpose. For evolving man has within him divine reality that seeks its source, and supremely valid human knowledge brings about the fullest realization of the human potential for self-transcendence. The highest knowledge thus appears as self-knowledge. Know Thyself! Recollect! Thou art in truth more real than thou now knowest.

If science be the attempt to discover truths exhibiting objective reality as an ordered and interrelated system, then biological science, in which evolving life studies itself, should include cognizance of all the humanly significant truths that life is able to comprehend. Yet the life sciences today exclude justice, beauty, virtue, and other Platonic absolutes from their domain in the delusion that they have no real existence but are merely epiphenomena or fleeting ideas in the human mind. Science thus denies man's age-old intuition that there are, in fact, the higher truths, the things that really are, possessing far more permanence and reality and significance than natural phenomena. Students of life need to recognize that objective spiritual truths in which the knower can subjectively participate are the most completely knowable truths of life, where, in agreement with Platonic thought, correct apprehension cannot be separated from reality of being.

There is no doubt that most biologists would profit by closer acquaintance with the subjectivity of art, literature, poetry, and music. Although the true relation between beauty and goodness remains obscure and mysterious, when the pursuit of beauty is most successful it may well rest upon some intuitive sense of ethical self-transcendence. Since, however, artists, writers, poets, and musicians are seldom as saintly as religious teachers, the subjectivity of these creative, imaginative fields of endeavor may not yet be fully developed. Perhaps only when the seeker of subjective knowledge is consciously aware of the human-divine relation is there correct apprehension of evolutionary purpose as an ascent toward the Good and an ethical compulsion to participate in it. Although philosophers have certainly experienced in varying degrees both the apprehension and the compulsion, it is religion that fires man's deepest spiritual intuitions and draws him upward to still higher levels of goodness. Pursuit of all knowledge will one day be undertaken theocentrically.

As a scientist who has studied philosophy, I maintain that religion is the only possible completion of scientific inquiry, unless one is content in such inquiry to be bound within the narrow limits of space and time and material things.6

The theocentric humanist believes that evolutionary purpose will be greatly served when science becomes spiritualized and when the ethical truths of religion again become one of the fundamental insights of the educated.

It has been claimed that the concept of evolution is of fairly recent European origin, but this contention is not everywhere accepted. The theosophists, for example, assert that in very ancient times there was one universal religion that was scientifically, philosophically, and ethically concerned with evolutionary progress of life and the universe, but that for certain reasons it long since became an esoteric doctrine. They further claim to have recovered from Eastern religious teachers a small fragment of this spiritual wisdom, partly by occult or recondite means that emphasize the scientific necessity of an extensive psychic exploration of the supersensible world. Anthroposophists and others, who see in Christianity and their own novel interpretations of it a higher spiritual wisdom than in the Eastern religions, also assert that knowledge of cosmogony and the evolution of life has been spiritually revealed in our time to certain individuals possessing highly developed powers of extrasensory perception. That such evolutionary visions, originating from apparently different sources, are often in essential agreement is a surprising fact.

Although such assertions about the past, present, and future course of cosmic evolution, often made dogmatically down to the minutest detail with respect to the physical reality of the universe, cannot be accepted as intuitive knowledge of unquestioned validity, they remain thought-provoking hypotheses that provide alternatives for those religionists who find the evolutionary theory of modern science difficult to reconcile with theocentricity and for those scientists who find Darwinism and neo-Darwinism an inadequate basis for the scientific Weltbild. More important, the impressive spiritual vistas these hypotheses open up are superbly relevant to any discussion of evolutionary purpose, and an age in spiritual awakening will be intuitively certain that they must rest upon some kind of valid knowledge of the human potential, the interrelation of spirit and matter, karma and reincarnation, cyclic development, and life without beginning or end.

A century ago this statement could be found in theosophical literature:

We are at the bottom of a cycle and evidently in a transitory state. . . . We are in a barren period; the eighteenth century, during which the malignant fever of scepticism broke out so irrepressibly, has entailed unbelief as an hereditary disease upon the nineteenth. The divine intellect is veiled in man; his animal brain alone philosophizes.7

Since then these ideas have shown increasing correspondence with the facts. Abetted by the gross materialism and ethical chaos of the atheistic Weltbild of science, Western man now seems to have reached a level of unprecedented spiritual darkness while sensing all about him that some great religious awakening is in the air. Whether this collective turning of the human spirit toward the light is the first of its kind or only one in an endless chain of similar cosmic events in which evolving life participates is a question far beyond the scope of this brief discussion on the three faces of humanism. Here our prime concern, perhaps comprising but an evolutionary instant on the cosmic time scale, is with man's more immediate prospects and how they are linked to the problem of good and evil.

It is unfortunate that evolutionary visions, whether orthodox or unorthodox from the scientific point of view, often understate the problem of ethics. At this particular moment in human evolution, when men are committing one atrocity after another in complete disregard of the cosmic law of justice, harmony, and goodwill that is inherent in the divine ethic, nothing can be of greater evolutionary significance than ethical enlightenment. How can mankind now emerge into the light without first learning how to distinguish and choose between good and evil? Socrates and Plato, both theocentric humanists, asked this question more than two thousand years ago. Mankind has not yet fully understood its import. Perhaps it needed first to reach the turning point at the bottom.

For theocentric humanism, in all its various expressions, is essentially a doctrine of self-transcendence. Evolving man is, and always has been, on his way to becoming something more than human. He is approaching the divine Good and in doing so can only become ethically better. To conceive divinity on an infinitely higher plane than the opposing forces of good and evil and thus beyond ethics may represent a high order of spiritual enlightenment but one that, I believe, neglects that important part of the ascent immediately before us. In a world of injustice, deceit, and suffering, any theocentric assertion about the need for ethical enlightenment cannot be in vain. About cosmogony and the origin and development of terrestrial life, the theocentric humanist cannot say dogmatically: It was thus. But he does know intuitively that the evolving human race is spiritually embarked upon its apotheosis for the sake of the cosmic Good, and that this immense journey has now reached a point where ethics must overshadow all other human concerns for as long a period of evolutionary time as is spiritually necessary.

Let us now turn to a problem of current interest to illustrate that theocentric humanism, proclaiming that evolution is purposeful, is better able than the other faces of humanism to provide ethical solutions to problems of our scientific age. Biologists have found that hybrid DNA molecules produced by the isolation and rejoining of gene segments taken from various bacterial, animal, and viral sources are able to replicate in the cells of Escherichia colt, a harmless bacterium commonly present in the human intestinal tract. At the same time they were aware that the manipulated bacterial cultures, possessing unknown biological properties, might prove highly pathogenic and infectious. The further possibility existed that the bacteria, if not handled with adequate precaution, might inadvertently "escape" from the laboratories to sweep through the human population. Since further research in this field might thus endanger public health, a group of leading American biomedical scientists, exercising a self-restraint unprecedented in the history of experimental science, voluntarily put into effect some years ago a temporary moratorium on their experiments in this field and exhorted their colleagues everywhere to do the same.8 It was stated at the time that a committee was expected to be set up to sponsor large-scale experiments on animals to determine just how dangerous the new microorganisms were, and that effective precautionary measures could then be recommended. The matter has been widely discussed since then. After more than two years of controversy, the National Institute of Health issued in 1976 its guidelines, whose voluntary restrictions were to keep the recombinants from escaping from the laboratories. A few days later, however, the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, voted a ban on recombinant DNA research at Harvard University. The debate became more intense. Nobel laureates were found on both sides, with George Wald, in particular, expressing especially clear and forceful objections to continuing such research.9 Yet as far as I am aware, no scientist taking part in the controversy has given any thought to the fact that the use of laboratory animals in genetic engineering, as in any other field of biomedicine, is flagrantly unethical.

On the contrary, biologists chose to try to solve the problem by an intensification of animal experimentation. From the standpoint of theocentric humanism this was the worst possible choice, clearly revealing the ethical chaos prevailing in the scientific community. After having admitted that bacteria artificially transformed into types hitherto unknown in nature may be an immense hazard to the health of the world, scientists believed that this entitled them to sacrifice as many nonhuman lives as needed—and that this procedure, apparently unanimously approved by anthropocentric and biocentric humanists, was the only rational approach to the problem and therefore the right one.

Regardless of what leading biologists may think, it is not right by any ethical standard. Despite mankind's growing desire to enlighten and purify a world dominated by the scientific Weltbild, biologists still prefer to walk in the fog and mire of ethical confusion. To attempt to solve an alarming problem of scientific ethics for which they alone are responsible by rapacious demands for more and more laboratory animals to be subjected to mutilation or disease or death is a flagrant denial of the divine ethic. Evolving man, now at the turning point, cannot allow science to continue its coarse and brutal practice of regarding dogs, cats, monkeys, and other highly developed animals merely as tools to be employed and destroyed at will. Biologists need to learn respect for the natural rights of nonhuman forms of life and the justice, gentleness, kindness, and compassion that go with it. Respect for life is a prerequisite of any real advance that is now open to biological science.

No true theocentric humanist can tolerate that ethical problems of contemporary science be "solved" by the further mistreatment of nonhuman life. The present dilemma of biologists requires the exercise of much more self-restraint and self-sacrifice than is called for in setting up a temporary moratorium on their research.

Biologists could first of all commit their potentially dangerous cultures of genetically transformed bacteria to the autoclaves for destruction by sterilization—an act that would at the same time help to clear the fog and mire of genetic engineering laboratories, replacing purely scientific intent with a cleaner atmosphere of ethical and evolutionary thought. Secondly, biologists could refuse to produce further microbial chimeras for which the evolving universe has no use whatever. And they could at the same time renounce the use of experimental animals in all scientific research. If these suggestions have a wholly unrealistic ring to scientific ears, it can only be repeated that biomedicine cannot carry on indefinitely in its present direction, intent upon prolonging human life by outrageous means. The future of biology and medicine does not lie in scientific tampering with life, be it the creation of viable microorganisms artificially assembled from various living sources or by the ruthless exploitation of highly developed animals. True biological and biomedical advance will one day be measured by its contribution to the establishment of harmonious and just relations among living things. For no field of science can avoid the spiritualization that is to come.

Evolution is not purposeless. Man is to transcend himself, and this he cannot do by regarding subhuman species as existing for his sake alone. As he is yet ignorant of the final destiny of the plant and animal kingdoms, he must accept as a theoretical possibility that matter is to become spiritualized and that all life is destined to self-transcendence. His evolutionary duty toward nature then becomes one of offering the living creatures with whom he comes in contact his physical, intellectual, and spiritual help in the hope of assisting in the realization of their earthly potentials. It is said10 that when his camel is about to foal, the Bedouin of the Arabian desert takes his prayer rug and kneels beside the animal and its unborn offspring, speaking eternal truths, reading oriental literature, reciting the Koran, and praying. Sheer nonsense? Far from it. Although it cannot be expected that the camel understand what the kneeling Bedouin at its side is trying to communicate, his words and thoughts constitute a form of spiritual energy, creating a better spiritual environment and thus helping to realize the potentials of both the man and the beast. This is one of the highest forms of spiritual help a man can give others in a time of crisis. It is a theocentric act, directed by, and toward, and for the sake of, the divine Good.

The life sciences, still embedded in anthropocentricity and bio-centricity, have not yet seen the theocentric face of humanism and its vision of evolution toward virtue. Events are, however, moving with extraordinary rapidity, and many signs of the times are indubitably theocentric. The latest report to the influential Club of Rome, for example, devotes many pages to the great spiritual-ethical resources of world religions and how they could be better utilized to enhance world solidarity.11 Established science, as all other human endeavors, may be ethically regenerated sooner than we think. A spiritualized biology and medicine, everywhere more esteemed than at present, is an inevitable development of the forces of theocentric humanism that are now gathering spiritual momentum.

Nor will contemporary education be able to withstand these forces. Still dominated by the anthropocentric and biocentric humanism of our scientific age, it tends largely to neglect virtue and thereby impoverish rather than improve those who are being educated. Only when education regains its lost sense of the divine can it exert its optimal influence upon evolving man.

Contemporary education has not yet directly considered the idea that its ultimate purpose is a religious one. But those educators who are actively contesting the supremacy of scientific-technological knowledge in education are creating an avant-garde for the spiritual regeneration of their profession. When, for example, Douglas Sloan asserts the primacy of the intuitive imagination and points to a new epistemological radicalism beginning "to argue persuasively that the arts and religion and the humanities are not expressions of feeling or fancy or folk preference, but real sources of knowledge about the world in which we live,"12 and when Peter Abbs asserts that many educators no longer even speculate "as to whether education might consist of more than learning, might, for example, involve the development of the whole person,"13 they are pointing, albeit somewhat indirectly, toward the religious insight that has sustained education in the past.

Of considerable interest in this connection is the work of Edith Simon, an Edinburgh writer and artist who is attempting to "reassert fundamental religious values through the medium of art."14 One of her projects is a chapel for multidenominational meditation designed as a pair of sheltering hands to be constructed of modern materials such as laminated timber and glass-fiber-reinforced plastic. She believes that for the sake of ethics and human brotherhood, art and religion should work together to oppose the omnipotent cynicism of our times:

. . . as always in periods of spiritual vacuum, a search for fresh values is generated, which is bound to fail unless accompanied by an access of energy, passionate conviction, and exhilaration, such as only participation in creative endeavour can instill.

Science . . . progressively explained away so many mysteries as to foster the assumption that it had explained them all away, but the unprovable is with us forever, and it is there that dynamics and communication reside, with Art as a perpetual attempt to bring order into chaos, and to establish communication.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the noblest expressions of art and other subjective, imaginative, and creative endeavors can spiritually transform us more than a science believing itself to be a wholly objective search for the truth. Were education to lean more in their direction, it would be in a far better position to grasp the intuitive truth that human ethical potentiality is there to be realized because the universal goal of all our striving is the divine Good.

In an important essay, E. F. Schumacher asserted that the essence of education is the transmission of ideas about values to live by,15 and it is now clear that his vision of what contemporary education ought to be arose out of religious convictions that he elaborated shortly before his death.16 Insisting that "education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence," Schumacher's essay offers tacit support for Arnold Toynbee's conviction that "we will have to revive religion as the major human concern that it has been in the past and that it ought always to be."17 Both men were aware that the supreme fact of earthly life is the human-divine relation, and Toynbee went so far as to state unequivocally that the goal of education must be a religious one. In the natural order of things all genuine education, regardless of the kind of knowledge it imparts, is but an aid to religion. And since the common intent of all religions is to teach men how to be good, is it not obvious that contemporary education would recover its identity, integrity, and fire were it to direct its main efforts to developing spiritual consciousness that is always able to distinguish good from evil and act accordingly? Can virtue, then, really be taught?

This great Platonic question has been answered by one contemporary classical scholar as follows:

It can be taught if teaching is understood to be what Socrates describes in the Theaetetus as assisting in bringing to birth truths with which another is pregnant, but not in the Sophistic sense of handing over ready-made packets of knowledge.18

To this I would only add the qualification that the teacher himself be ever seeking virtue through self-knowledge.

To the reader who cannot help pondering the spiritual mystery of evolving life and seeking the truth about it, I would like briefly to sum up what has been said about the three faces of humanism by offering, in a spirit of humility and goodwill, these thoughts for his consideration:

The purposeful evolutionary vision of theocentric humanism is an intuitive truth possessing an ethical sweep that anthropocentric and biocentric humanism lack. Theocentric humanism is destined to become, as it may have been in the past, a universal humanism of religion, science, philosophy, art, and education to facilitate life's further self-transcendence. May we have the strength and wisdom and joy to help one another on the way by means that are in ethical harmony with the divine Good we are approaching.

1 Douglas Sloan, "The Higher Learning and Social Vision,'* Teachers College Record 79, no. 2 (December 1977): 163-69; and idem, "On the Possibilities of Newness," Teachers College Record 79, no. 3 (February 1978): 329-38.

2 A phrase of Martin Heidegger's discussed by Paul Friedlander in his thought-provoking chapter on Truth in his Plato: An Introduction (London: Roudedge & Kegan Paul, 1958).

3 Harold Wakeford Cox, Personal correspondence, December 13, 1973.

4 J.A. Livingston, One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973).

5 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, 1958)

6 W. Brown, Psychological Methods of Healing (London: University of London Press, 1938); quoted in The Aryan Path 47, no. 5 (September/October, 1976): 222.

7 H.P. Blavatsky, his Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology I, Science (Los Angeles: The Theosophy Co., 1968; first published 1877).

8 Nature 250 (July 19, 1974): 175; and Nature 250 (July 26, 1974): 279.

9 G. Wald, "The Cast against Genetic Engineering," The Sciences, September/October 1976, pp. 6-12.

10 J.A. Boone, Venskab med Dyr, Danish translation of Kinship with All Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1968; Copenhagen: Strubes Forlag, 1968).

11 Ervin Laszlo, ed., Goals for Mankind: A Report to the Club of Rome (London: Hutchinson,


12 Sloan, "The Higher Learning and Social Vision"; and idem, "On the Possibilities of


13 Peter Abbs, Root and Blossom: The Philosophy, Practice, and Politics of English Teaching (London: Heinemann, 1976).

14 B.C. Copper, "The Art of Edith Simon: A Multi-Faith Chapel Project," The Aryan Path 47, no. 5 (September/October 1976): 219-20.

15 E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Blond & Briggs, 1973).

16 E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977).

17 A. Toynbee and D. Ikeda, Choose Life: A Dialogue (London: Oxford University Press, 1976).

18 W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, IV: Plato, The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 80 Number 3, 1979, p. 564-586
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1096, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:40:04 PM

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