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Catching the Christian Humanist Bug: An Interview with Jens Zimmermann

August 26, 2020
"The question of what it means to be human lies at the heart of the most pressing issues we face today."

This fall we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Jens Zimmermann into his new role as Regent’s J.I. Packer Chair of Theology. Originally from Germany, Dr. Zimmermann comes to us from Trinity Western University where he held the Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion, and Culture for ten years. In this interview, Dr. Zimmermann reflects on his early connection to Regent, the relevance of Christian humanism for our world’s current crises, and what he's looking forward to this fall.

For more on Dr. Zimmermann, see our earlier announcement about his new appointment, or visit his personal website. There’s also still time to sign up for his upcoming class, Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism, which begins in just a few weeks.

(Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

First of all, congratulations on your appointment to the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology! Although this is a new role for you, my sense is that your connection to the College goes back several years. Can you tell us more about your relationship with Regent and what drew you here?

My first contact with Regent actually came through Dr. Packer. I took a course with him on Puritanism during my graduate studies at UBC in the nineties. Many years later, I began to give guest lectures at Regent while I was teaching at Trinity Western University. Then for the last three years I’ve had a partial appointment at Regent, teaching courses in theology, philosophy, and literature during the Fall terms.

What has always drawn me to Regent is the energetic atmosphere and keen interest in intellectual and spiritual formation that is palpable at the College. I am not sure what exactly generates this exciting vibe. Certainly the international student body is largely responsible, but perhaps it is also the proximity to UBC, the beautiful location, and the multicultural climate of the larger campus. Whatever it is, I have always felt drawn to and intellectually stimulated by this atmosphere.  

Many of your research interests (especially in Christian humanism and technology) seem uniquely relevant to our current moment, where global protests, ecological collapse, and the ongoing pandemic are forcing people to reckon with what it means to be human in our technological age. Can you tell us more about how your research intersects with these concerns?

I caught the Christian humanist bug when I started reading the church fathers about fourteen years ago. I was struck by their infectious wonder at the mystery of God becoming human. For them, Christianity was not primarily a matter of private edification. Rather, it was of universal and immediate importance for all humanity because God had saved (and was saving) the world by having become a human being. As one famous patristic formulation puts it, God became a human being so that we could become godlike—that is, shaped most fully into the image of Jesus Christ, who is himself the true image of God.

In the thinking of the early church, God’s becoming human affirms but also fundamentally reorients human existence by pulling it into the mystery of God’s own humanity in Christ. So every human experience—joy and intimacy, but also sorrow, suffering, and death—is affirmed and yet radically transformed in its orientation and meaning through Christ.

If Christianity is concerned with attaining the fullest possible realization of our humanity, then Christians should naturally be interested in the humanization of every cultural practice and vigilant in uncovering dehumanizing policies or tendencies. Take the environment, for example. The biblical message is that human beings were supposed to act as God’s priests and stewards, offering creation back to God. “Epic fail,” as my kids would say! So Christ came and demonstrated his care for creation to the point of dying for the sake of the cosmos—but he did this through becoming human, not by denouncing humanity as some sort of illness or disease.

I think the question of what it means to be human lies at the heart of the most pressing issues we face today. Technology is another great example of this: it has helped to improve our lives, but when we begin to think of every obstacle to our self-realization as a problem to be solved by technology, something has gone wrong. We too easily forget that life is always full of risks, that we have to live with death, and that technology does not guarantee a life free from disease. And indeed, the present public panic about COVID-19 is a case in point.

It’s an interesting time to begin this new role at Regent. How are you feeling about the upcoming term? Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to—either academically or personally—this year?

I am very much looking forward to interacting with students this term, but am also sad that we can’t be together in person. My whole Christian humanist outlook stresses our embodied existence, so I hope we can return to our normal classroom activity soon. That said, I am excited about teaching systematic theology this year, as well as a course on my favourite theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And it’s an honour to be taking up the J.I. Packer Chair: he too wrote a book on Christian humanism, and his enthusiasm for theology remains an inspiration to me.

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