The earth lamp : James K. Baxter's search for a humanist Christianity (1979)
AuthorsParr, Christophershow all
James K. Baxter has long been recognised in this country as an important poet, and this study sets out to show that he was also important as a creative religious thinker, especially because of his insights as a poet and writer. His most notable contribution to religious thought was his search for a 'humanist Christianity'. In this thesis I argue that Baxter's life and activity as a poet to a great degree influenced and informed that search and its results, and that from his poetry and religious thought there is much we can learn about 'humanist Christianity' and its possibilities. To begin with, I examine Baxter's understanding of the term, certain problems that his writings present a study of this type, and a brief account of events in his life relevant to his religious thought. I then proceed to show how Baxter understood the relationship between poetry and Christianity and how that relationship was experienced in his own case in the influence of his poetic insight on his religious faith and search. Firstly, I examine his defence of poetry and art against their religious critics, and how he considered art could contribute to human religious understanding. Then I consider two important areas in which his poetic insight had a direct influence on his search for a 'humanist Christianity'. In his sensitivity to human suffering we find a crucial impulse towards a compassionate, humanist faith; while in his deep consciousness of death lay the need to find a realistic but not cynical understanding of the relationship between life and death, which he discovered with the help of Maori culture. As a poet Baxter was also deeply concerned with human disorder, in all its forms - both with understanding it, and with remedying it where possible. This led him to seek a Christianity which can allow for human disorder but also recognise the possibility of growth. This hope is particularly evident in his sense of the sacramental universe, which is studied in detail because of its importance for 'humanist Christianity'.
Having established the relationship between his poetry and his 'humanist Christianity', and given substance to his understanding of this concept, I then discuss a central theme of Baxter's: his protest against Puritanism. In its refusal to be sympathetic to the negative and sinful in human life, and in its callousness and judgmentalism, Puritanism is essentially the antithesis of what Baxter meant by 'humanist Christianity'. Therefore his protest against Puritanism is especially informative about that concept. In order to clarify the idea of 'Puritanism', I trace its historical development in terms of Baxter's attacks on its various stages and manifestations. Whilst he wholeheartedly accepted the myth of the Fall, he rejected the doctrines of Calvin and his followers, and this forms the bulk of his attack on religious Puritanism. His critique of secularism, materialism, monotonous conformity and joylessness effectively expresses his opposition to social Puritanism. The problem of human sexuality then provides a case-study of the conflict between the tolerance of 'humanist Christianity' and the repressiveness of Puritanism, showing Baxter's hope for a realistic and compassionate "theology of sexuality". As a conclusion, the final chapter looks at the Jerusalem community and writings as the culmination of his 'humanist Christianity', discussing four aspects of the community which round out Baxter's understanding of that concept. Thus this study shows not only what Baxter meant by a 'humanist Christianity' but also how for him the Jerusalem community was the fullfillment of his search. In doing so, it provides a comprehensive introduction to his religious thought.