A person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love.― John Paul II
THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON
The assertion of human dignity is at the heart of the Christian tradition. Following the Jewish lead, Christianity also sees the human person as reflecting divine realities. This sacred vision of humanity – expressed as Imago Dei, B’tzelem Elohim, and that of God within each person – echos the words of Genesis and also has its origins in the insight that humans possess certain abilities that reflect what are often deemed divine-like powers – creativity, the ability to love, freedom, reason, and so on.
Human dignity is an ontological status and not in itself a moral status. Philosophical and practical reflection on human nature reveals us as animals of a high degree of self awareness, rational intelligence, affectivity, the ability for (some degree of) reasoned self-determination and governance, socially natured, with the ability to love, and the self-reflexive capacity for comprehending meaning and purpose.
If what gives us dignity is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts, then it is clear that there is no simple answer to the question, What is Factor X? That is, Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X.– Francis Fukuyama
The ontological nature of the claim of human dignity is attested to by the human capacities for moral awareness, reasoning, and love of others. Our capacity for gratitude, awe, humility, generosity, love, mercy, kindness, and reasoned justice are functions of a metaphysically significant being. Yet to assert the inherent dignity of humans is to not overlook our potential for evil and destruction. Still, even our innate capacity for such harm also attests to the dignity we speak of.
Human dignity is the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings. Claims of dignity are asserted as universal, unconditional, inalienable and overriding of other concerns.
Human dignity is an assertion of something recognized or intuited about human beings. As such, it cannot be proven in the strict sense of the term. Human dignity cannot be demonstrated through deductive argument. Even the most careful and accurate social science analysis won’t strictly yield the concept’s validity either. The argument for human dignity rests in the application of illative reason and the corresponding forms of argument and persuasion.
To assert the inherent dignity of the human person is not speciesism or a denigration of other life forms. Every living being is unique and of value. Each species has its own dignity. Yet human self-awareness, reason, language, the engendering of culture, freedom, capacity for virtue (and vice) calls attention to the unique place of the human person within the ecosystem
To reflect on human dignity is in itself, a testament to that dignity. The complexity of human consciousness allows for such self-awareness and self-reflexiveness. We are the only creatures capable of existential questioning, of asking questions of meaning, and of yearnings for the realizations of ideals and transcendent realities.
To reflect on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
Human beings emerge from nature as persons – free, emotive-rational, conscious subjects. Reflecting on our status as persons also grants insight into our ontological dignity, inherent value, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned.
What does it mean to assert that every human being is a person? The concept of person implies a relative independence of being and acting, echoing back to classical Roman law – persona est suri iuris et alteri incommunicabilis – a person is a being which belongs to itself – is self-aware, and to some degree, self-directing, and unique and unrepeatable. (See John Crosby’s, The Selfhood of the Human Person)
Personhood implies subjectivity – we are not inert, passive objects in the world – we are centers of awareness (including self-awareness), action, and unrepeatable individuality. Humans, as persons, are not to be instrumentalized, treated solely as means to ends, but in a sense are always ends in themselves.
Each human person carries with them a rich, vast inner world of memories, meanings, perspective, affections and particular attachments, accomplishments, and relationships. When any person dies, it is as if an entire universe dies with them.
Humans experience the capacity of being called by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own nature calling us toward fulfillment.
Morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned, loosely teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
Our dignity and ontological status provides something of a given orientation. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The above manner of moral reasoning derives from a tradition of Western ethics called natural law reasoning. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature to derive norms for behavior in relation to human flourishing, in Greek, Eudaimonia.
Natural law ethics engages in praxeological analysis of human action in relation to goods/values and their role in human flourishing. Yet, in the fullest sense, natural law reasoning also implies a given philosophical anthropology, or view of the human person, as well as an implied metaphysics of value and the good.
The word natural corresponds to human nature, a sense that there are essential characteristics common to all human persons that constitute them as such. Nature, in this sense, is a category beyond personality, bodily traits, or individual circumstances – nature is the essential, constitutive, aspects that make one human.
The word law corresponds to a developing body of wisdom concerning those goods and behaviors that aid in human flourishing. Therefore, natural law moral reasoning understands human morality as laws (principles, norms) of human nature – a moral law or moral order, that is engrained in and derived from a reasoned analysis of human nature itself, and the goals and end states we deem worth obtaining.
In the natural law tradition, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
It must be noted that natural law ethics provides a framework for conducting moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Questions such as, “what does the natural law say? or “does such behavior violate the natural law?” are somewhat misplaced.
One does not consult the natural law as one would a text. Rather, it’s a method of analyzing human nature and gaining insights into human flourishing. The word insight is significant. Moral truth, strictly speaking, isn’t demonstrated or understood through deductive means. Moral reasoning relies more on inductive method, but also the mental function of insight, the human capacity to intuit or comprehend the nature of things, their essence, their core meaning.
Insights require elucidation if they are to be communicated to others. In reasoned conversation, one needs to show or convey the content of their insights to others, getting others to see what we see. This manner of reasoning requires skill and conversations based on such can require time. Insights are not shared by all people and not always immediately grasped.
Therefore, intelligent people can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made using philosophical reasoning, empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help evaluate claims of flourishing and betterment.
Morality is an integral part of our natural circumstances and identity, and is thus proper to the methodology of both philosophy and the human sciences. While not all forms of immorality yield clear empirically demonstrable effects, in general, it is expected that long term immoral conduct will have some noticeable results on the human person – be they affects of character, health, or mental health.
Some will claim forms of spiritual harm for behavior deemed immoral. Spiritual well-being is admittedly a vague concept that eludes empirical verification. In general, the tendency of more philosophically based theological traditions is to speak of the spiritual as coexistent with the mental, psychological, and affective dimensions of the person.
Claiming that understanding moral truth is a function of reason doesn’t mean the Christian tradition doesn’t significantly contribute to that task. The Christian moral vision, rooted in the gospels and other scriptures, contains specific moral commandments, as well as serving as a source of metaethics, reasons why human flourishing matters and why people should be concerned with such.
Further, the practice of Christianity – both interpersonally, loving one’s neighbor, seeking justice, promoting peace, and so on – and ritually, engaging the symbol of the cross and dying to self, participating in eucharist and practicing the hospitality of the table – have the potential to form and influence a person’s moral behavior.
WHOLENESS & SALVATION
Humans are limited, imperfect creatures living in a dynamic, imperfect, free-flowing world. Perfection, particularly moral perfection, is impossible – perfection remains only an ideal in a real, dynamic, and emergent world. Humans can obtain some measure of wholeness, but it is often illusive and incomplete.
The Genesis narratives argue for the imperfection of humanity as well as a denial that humans can obtain perfection. Perfection, understood as some sense of absolute moral, ritual, and juridic purity – an unblemished status – is impossible. However, if instead of perfection, we seek a sense of wholeness proper to our nature, then the scriptures take on fuller meaning.
The ancient Jewish authors of Genesis were expressing layered meanings and insights of how they understood the world. The creation stories were intended to stand in contrast to similar creation accounts of the tribes and cultures in the region. The manner of creation speaks volumes about their understanding of the goodness of nature and the world, including human nature.
Part of those original myths is the account of our first parents in Eden. The story is intended as mythic narrative – evolution and genetics portray a different, but not incompatible account of human origins. Still, our scientific knowledge doesn’t eradicate the intended meanings of the ancient story.
The Genesis accounts are, in part, mythic attempts to explain human limitation and the presence of evil in the world, not actual descriptions of events, attempts at scientific explanation, or historical narratives.
Jewish exegesis and hermeneutics does not read the accounts as acts of rebellion resulting in the rupture of the relationship between the divine and the human. Instead, most Jewish interpretation speaks of human maturation, the emergence of moral awareness, as well as the profound cultural changes that resulted from the transition from hunter-gatherers to crop growing, agricultural people. A careful reading of the texts clearly show these themes as present.
It would be Paul who more fully forms from the tradition the notion of original sin understood as a fault and transgression of our first parents. Paul’s theology repeatedly connects Jesus to Adam – Jesus is the first man in the new creation as Adam was the first man of the original creation. And Paul contrasts Jesus and Adam, noting Jesus’ perfections in comparison to Adam’s flaws. When this is added to Paul’s understanding of Jewish notions of sacrifice, Jesus’ death and resurrection take on a corrective nature – an initial event toward the perfecting of the world.
Unfortunately, later thinkers, particularly Protestant Reformers, building on and interpreting Paul and the other sacred writings, will argue for a different narrative – one of initial disobedience that results in corruption that can only be overcome and healed by direct divine intervention. Augustine, and then many of the early Reformers, propose just this.
Survey the present theological landscape, and an even narrower version of the Reformers motif of disobedience, separation-corruption-sacrifice-restoration lies at the heart of much of Christian theology and spirituality. Often, this theology is summarized-popularized in what many Evangelicals call, The Four Spiritual Laws and expressed in notions of substitutionary atonement.
Therefore, what we’ve witnessed is the evolution of a layered, mythic account of human maturation, complexity, and imperfection evolve into today’s common (mis)understanding of original sin, replete with disobedient original parents who destroy the innocence and harmony of the world and separate themselves from God in the process, bringing death and decay into the world as a result.
This mythic foundation then becomes the starting point for interpreting Jesus as the perfect blood sacrifice necessary to appease cosmic justice and restore the relationship between God and humanity. However, reality and a fuller understanding of the scriptures do not support such notions or assertions.
Reason and our understanding of justice clearly tells us that no one needs to die for another to be whole. Human wholeness does not require bloodshed. Violence doesn’t make the world right. Much of the standard Christian theology of original sin and substitutionary blood atonement is deeply flawed and contrary to basic notions of justice and necessity. This needs to change and Christians need to reflect and rethink how they talk about Jesus’ death, his self sacrifice of love, and the meaning of the cross.
Returning to the text of Genesis, describing the consequences of eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the birth of moral awareness, also referenced in the couple’s recognition of their nakedness), Further, the transition from hunter-gatherer culture (the garden) to agriculture will now require the humans to work (till) the land with much toil and sweat in order to survive.
At the end of the account, God himself makes clothing from animal skins for the couple – hardly the action expected by an angry God who is now eternally separated from humanity by a chasm of sin. Move ahead only a handful of chapters, and God is entering into a covenant with Noah, and then an eternal covenant with Abraham – again, hardly the behavior of a God who has condemned his disobedient creation and certainly not indicative of a severed relationship.
Does my analysis end with a denial of original sin? Well, that depends on how one defines the concept. If by the concept you mean disobedience on the part of our original parents ultimately resulting in Jesus’ crucifiction to “pay” for the offense, then yes, the above reading denies this interpretation. However, if by original sin, you mean a mythic account seeking to explain the multifaceted nature of imperfect and limited human beings, then no.
What is salvation then? What are we to make of this central, Christian concept? Perhaps the better question is what are we supposedly saved from?
Salvation should be understood as a metaphor for human actualization – individual and collective – the fullness of human thriving and wholeness. In this sense, salvation is a process, not a static status – it’s an ongoing dynamic of self-improvement, learning, and love – of becoming more fully human – of obtaining some sense of wholeness.
The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel best illustrates these truths. Our wholeness comes from what we give ourselves to – this is, perhaps, the central salvific message of Jesus.
LIFE BEYOND DEATH?
Does salvation imply the supernatural concepts of a human soul that lives on beyond the body after physical death in some heavenly realm? Is salvation about achieving entry to this everlasting spiritual realm?
It is here where we grasp the importance of a correct human anthropology. It seems a mistaken notion that we are immaterial souls trapped in bodies, or some sort of dualist hybrid of spirit and flesh. Yes, such language at times does help us make sense of certain human realities. But it is truer to say that we are unified self-aware flesh, that our existence melds material and immaterial realities, and that the exact relationship of the mind-soul to the body is a mystery.
Rather than speak of the human soul as some sort of ghost in the machine, it seems more accurate to speak of the soul in terms of individuation, identity, place, meaning, and purpose – the core reality of the human person – and fundamental themes in most religions. The soul is that locus of meaning and purpose within an individual.
The soul must find its meaning and purpose outside itself – in the world, in others, in objective values. Religious wisdom includes soulcraft, conveying the skills and insights needed in shaping the soul to find fulfillment with the world.
Human beings emerge from nature, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or, perhaps, at least, our physical aspects) return to nature. As for a life, awareness, or some manner of personal existence that continues after this life is over – one can’t deny such possibilities philosophically, but no one can offer any evidence for such either.
We miss the meaning of life if we live it only in reference to the future. We can experience only the now. The past is gone, and the future isn’t yet a reality. To live only for some distant, other worldly future is to miss the point of living. We should live our lives as if each day matters as much as the day to come. This doesn’t mean not to plan and sacrifice for the future – that’s prudence. It means not neglecting the joys and challenges of today for an uncertain, distant future.
Our earthly-bodily journey will end and no one knows what happens when we die. Yet we do know that wisdom lies in embracing the core spiritual truth that kenotic love opens us toward wholeness now – we need not wait for some sense of cosmic wholeness or salvation that occurs at our death.
Something of us transcends death, our love, our generosity, some of the lingering effects of our efforts – what else may endure remains a mystery.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)