Theo-Humanism: The Course


Theo-Humanism: What Is It Exactly?

For your reflection: It’ll be important to reflect on this lecture in conversation with others who have also seen the video. Sit down together over a cup of tea in a quiet place and talk about your responses to the lecture. What thoughts did it evoke for you? You can share your beliefs with one another but also how you came to believe what you believe. How did you get there?

Questions to consider: What are your core beliefs? Where did you get them? Why are they important to you? What is the grounding for your beliefs? Are they the result of positive experiences? Negative experiences? How would you communicate them to others? Are you comfortable doing so? Would you like to know more about the origins of your own beliefs?


Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” (Alive Son of Awake): The Flagship of Theo-Humanistic Literature

For your reflection: Again, get together with others who have seen the video. However, the video does not stand alone. You will want to read the tale for yourself. You may disagree with some of the points in the lecture. A good translation is by Lenn E. Goodman (Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale). What thoughts and sentiments does the tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan raise for you? How have your life experiences caused you to wonder about the world around you? Consider your observations of material reality. How do you view material objects?

Questions to consider: Did you like the tale? Did you find Hayy to be an attractive figure? Or did you prefer Absal? What are the limits of human reasoning? Are there any limits? What’s one intuition you’ve had? How did it happen? Was it the result of an experience or observation… or something else? Did you take the next step to see where the intuition would lead you? How do insights come together–those moments when we have a sharper awareness of the reality of things around us? Does the mind have mechanics (call it logic) that operate in the same way for all people, even if our experiences differ? Are there metaphysical truths all minds can know?



Ibn Khaldun’s “Introduction to History” (al-Muqaddima): Divine Providence at Work in History

For your reflection: Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima covers a range of topics that cannot be adequately treated in a single lecture. This lecture focuses only on one theme of the work, namely, Ibn Khaldun’s view of the workings of history. To get a full sense of the work, you’ll want to read it for yourself. The best translation is that by Franz Rosenthal. What thoughts do Ibn Khaldun’s ideas about society and history evoke for you? Do they challenge or confirm your understanding of the workings of society? What does history mean for you? How do you view the past?

Questions to consider: Do you agree with Ibn Khaldun? Is civilization generated from the margins of society? What do you see as the drivers of civilization? What does ‘civilization’ mean? Does city life invariably corrupt people? Does history have moral lessons to teach us? If you had the chance to meet Ibn Khaldun, what would you ask him? Does his theory of history have applicability for our own day? How would you apply it to understand societies in today’s world?


Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith”: To Be Productive or (Simply) To Be?

For your reflection: Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith” is a powerful reflection on the meaning of human existence in the contemporary age. On the one hand, he is influenced by modern philosophy and its dismissal of traditional religion. On the other, he criticizes modern philosophy for overlooking the basic condition of human existence, namely, loneliness. How does Soloveitchik’s conception of the human being sit with you? Does it match your conception? Or does it open new horizons for you to think about yourself in the world? As with other works in this course, you’ll want to read “The Lonely Man of Faith” for yourself. It’s short but a bit difficult to follow. What is Soloveitchik doing? Is he trying to prove the existence of God? Or is he saying that humans can’t be human without living with God? Isn’t it the same thing? Or is it?

Questions to Consider: Do you agree with Soloveitchik’s claim that modernity has impoverished the human condition by failing to account for the basic aspect of being human? What does loneliness mean for you? Surely, we all have moments of loneliness. Is it but a passing feeling? Or does it call us to consider more deeply who we are? What insight does loneliness offer us? How do you respond to the experience of loneliness? Soloveitchik suggests that being part of a praying community works to redeem us from our loneliness. If that’s true, then what is prayer? How do you understand prayer? As a response to our collective loneliness? Or something else?


Thomas More’s “Utopia”: True Pleasure in the Service of Society

For your reflection: Thomas More’s “Utopia” is one of the classics of western civilization, bringing together More’s wit and humanist predilections with the social outlook of Christianity. The work has intrigued and puzzled readers since its publication. What is the point of imagining life in Utopia if it doesn’t exist? What would Utopia look like if you were its author? Would you place emphasis on freedom or equality? Would you give greater encouragement to individuals to determine their way of life? Or would you want the collective good to be supreme? Whatever principles shape your conception of Utopia, how would you make it happen? In other words, what would you do to get people to live the good life? And would Christianity be part of the mix?

Questions to consider: Do you agree with More’s suggestion that governance exists to make people virtuous, not only to punish them when they go wrong? How do institutions of governance impact our souls and not only our behavior? How do they shape the way we perceive ourselves in relation to society? Do they make us wary of life? Or do they inspire us to take joy in life? What about pleasure? Do you agree with More that it is in giving ourselves to others that we know happiness and true pleasure? How do you understand pleasure in your life and  your relations with others? And how do your beliefs factor into your view of pleasure?


Friendship: The Heart of Theo-Humanism

For your reflection: Countless thinkers across the centuries have reflected on the meaning of friendship. Aristotle, for one, spoke of it as the glue holding the polity together. If the governors of a nation do not cultivate friendship among themselves, they risk putting its welfare and prosperity in jeopardy. Good laws alone are not enough to preserve the common good. Friendship is also needed! Here, we consider friendship as agent of transcendent experience. This is not to say that friendship is somehow disembodied. Quite the opposite. It is a lived experience. Still, if true, friendship is something that transports us beyond time and place.

Questions to consider: What has been your experience of friendship? Has it served a particular purpose in your life? What has it taught you? What would your life be like without the friends you’ve had? Would you agree that there’s a transcendent aspect to friendship? Can you relate to the reflections on friendship of saintly figures such as Aelred, Abu Sa’id, and Rabbi Roth from the video? How do you understanding the meaning of friendship that has no utilitarian purpose? What is the role of friendship today when people operate in virtual space as much as in the real world? Is our ever developing technology changing the meaning of friendship? Does our social media work to enhance or detract from the transcendent pull of friendship?


Skepticism: Faith Insights

For your reflection: All peoples have doubts. We might not accept a scientific or religious statement simply because someone told us it’s true. We want to understand it for ourselves. Doubt in this sense is part of the process of knowledge acquisition. But doubts are more than a stage on the way to certainty. Our doubts might be so compelling that they prompt us to seek a new way of thinking about the world and living in it. Here, we consider the way that skepticism works to shift our understanding of the very nature of faith. Is it a set of ideas in the mind that we accept or reject? Our doubts about definitions push us to reconsider what it means to believe. In this sense, doubt is not the opposite of belief but rather works to help us understand more fully the nature of belief. But we have to be patient and see our doubts not as the end of our search but the beginning of a journey into deeper insight. Doubts have theological value

Questions to consider: Do doubts have a purpose? Do you see them as a threat to your beliefs? Or have they led you to a more profound understanding of your beliefs? Do you feel it is possible to have doubts and to be a believer? What kind of doubts did Ghazali have? Rabbi Lamm? They lived nearly a thousand years apart. Did they have the same understanding of the purpose of doubts? Were they able to resolve their doubts? If so, how? Did they see doubts as something to be overcome? Or did they see their doubts as a basic part of human existence?

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