Monday, September 9, 2019

Jennifer A. Herdt's "Forming Humanity"

Jennifer A. Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Yale University Divinity School.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition, and reported the following:
On page 99 the reader is deeply embroiled in Johann Gottfried Herder’s political theology. In what sense can humankind be, or become, the image of God? While Herder is often seen as shedding a conception of Bildung as the divine (re)formation of humankind in favor of a secularized understanding of Bildung as a purely human process of self-realization, on page 99 we learn why this is too simplistic. Herder’s understanding of Bildung is rooted in earlier medieval Christian humanism’s understanding of human beings as active participants in the cosmic reditus or return of creation to God. But this notion of human participatory activity is given a more dynamic historical and political expression by Herder and others in the Bildung tradition; it is a teleological process by which immanent powers unfold and interact throughout the universe: “the more you recognize perfection, goodness, and beauty,” writes Herder, “the more these living forms will form [bilden] you to an image [Nachbilde] of God in your earthly life.” Politically, this yields a consociational, communitarian vision. “Humanity,” the telos of Bildung, is realized in myriad forms of human culture and community, creating increasingly complex webs of interconnection that are capable of harmonious coexistence insofar as they prove capable of mutual recognition in all their embedded particularity. Simply put, ideal humanity is essentially plural, not singular.

What page 99 cannot convey to the reader is the broader narrative arc of the book, which begins long before Herder, in Greek paideia, Latin humanitas, and medieval Christian conformatio, moves through Meister Eckhart’s yearning to transcend images, Paracelsian epigenesis, and Pietist suspicions of human image-making, and engages competing conceptions of Bildung at work in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s religion of art, Schiller’s aesthetic education, Goethe’s exemplary Bildungsroman, and Hegel’s metaphysical project of reconciliation. Yet however partial and bewildering a starting point, this page is critical to the book’s broader claim that the Bildung tradition from Herder to Hegel drew on inherited theological notions of humankind’s creation in the image of God while rejecting suspicions of human creativity and imag-ination. This, in turn, is central to Forming Humanity’s aim of assembling usable resources for a dialogical humanism adequate to our own historical moment. So the page 99 test comes out rather well, on the whole.

Of course there is much more to be said. While Herder helps us envision a pluralistic cosmopolitanism worthy of endorsement, his thought can no more be uncritically retrieved than that of anyone else in the Bildung tradition. Herder’s most egregious failure lies in his naively providentialist view of history; he assumes that historical progress is assured, whatever the ups and downs along the way. Historical conflicts further a process of equilibration that issues in harmony. Herder’s providentialism thus justified past evils or present injustices as serving the progress of humankind.

Why redeem such a troubled tradition of reflection? Because the best anti-humanism is itself a renewed humanism. Our best critiques of existing notions of our common humanity, past and present, are forms of immanent criticism. Essential as it is to diagnose the ways in which the powerful make over the world in their own image, erecting their own identity and values as the ideally human, it is equally indispensable to arrive at more adequate conceptions of the human, that vindicate the humanity—and hence the equal dignity—of the marginal and dispossessed. Dialogical humanism thrives on what Paul Gilroy, in his own recent defense of humanism, has called “heteropathic identification.” So long as we recognize “perfection, goodness, and beauty” only in our own image, we ourselves are not yet fully human.
Learn more about Forming Humanity at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue