Why study humanities? As the name implies, we study the humanities in order to become human. Think about what this means. Since we are studying to become human, that must mean we are not human yet, or at least not fully.
So what does it mean to be human? Certainly we are all human biologically, and fully so in this meaning of the word. None of us are semi-species, half-human and half-something-else (though some may act like it at times). From a Christian worldview, we must define “human” by looking at Jesus Christ, the only perfect human. To be human means to be like Christ.
This helps us understand the purpose of the humanities then: we study them in order to become more like Christ, and therefore more human. And we all know that we need to grow in this way. But if we are to grow in Christ, why do we study so many books written by humans, many of them profoundly flawed, many of them not even Christian, some of them wildly antagonistic toward Christianity?
This is an excellent question, and its answer has two parts. First of all, because all truth comes from God even when uttered by pagan tongues. All beauty, even if painted by rebellious hands, has its beginning and its end in God, the Supremely Beautiful One. And all goodness has its measure in the goodness of God.
The second reason such books can help us become more like Christ is because of the doctrine of common grace. God graciously gives good gifts even to those in rebellion against him. To many non-Christians, God has revealed truth, given artistic gifts, and even the ability to love, sacrifice, and live virtuously. By studying the best that humans have thought, said, and done through the ages, we begin to participate in a Great Conversation of what it means to be human. We recognize both our common humanity with these authors and humbly acknowledge that though they may not have full access to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, yet in many ways they are far more human than we have yet become.
Finally, we don’t just read these books on their own. We also study them from a Christian framework, learning to see the world through the lens of Scripture, trying to see through the eyes and heart of Christ. And as we read these books, they begin to change us. They make us restless, awakening in us deep desires that we can’t quite name. The best way I can explain this effect books have on us is by telling a story…which I will do in my next post.