Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Human Dignity

The Human Heart

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.”
Genesis 1:27

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
Psalm 8:4

Last week’s post was on human pride; this week I would like to expound a little on human dignity. Although the former is often used to describe the latter by our culture, I now view it as a mistake in understanding that has led to so much confusion and the making of misery and mischief in our world. There is after all a real theological difference between human pride and human dignity.

In Psalm 8, in one of the most famous passages in the Bible, David the Psalmist puts a question to the relationship between Man and God, which eventually happens to everyone who wants to know his place and purpose on earth. (The “son of man” is a biblical phrase that refers to the descendants of Adam, which means every single soul on earth.) The Bible, if you read it, is primarily about Man’s relationship to God; and the Bible, if you read it and read it with careful consideration and study it, answers the psalmist question. Yes, Life is fairer to some; and some are more “blessed” than others. 

This is where dignity faces trials and tribulations. Dignity is something that God confers on all humans, and thus it comes from outside—it speaks of the worthiness of all people, of all men and women. If you believe this to be true, and countless man and women around the world do, then no one or no situation can take away your dignity, since it does not come from acquisition of power, of wealth, or of fame, nor does it come from acquisition of academic degrees, of accomplishments, or of youthfulness and usefulness, etc.

Such values, be what they may, are promoted by and co-exist with the ideas of self-achievement and self-fulfillment contained in the secular doctrine known as the pursuit of happiness, which, no doubt, is prominent today. Such a pursuit might give you many experiences, and it might make you successful in some sense, but it is unlikely to give you meaning or an understanding of human dignity. In Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946, Viktor E. Frankl writes about the dangers of such a shallow worldview:
But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.
Dignity, the Bible tells us, comes from God, since we are created “in His own image,” as we read early in the Genesis account.  Yet, as astounding as this passage is, for some, acquisition is everything and much more important than dignity. Even so, the deeper you dig into the Bible, the greater becomes your acceptance, understanding and importance of dignity. This is heady stuff, and not easy to accept, since the countervailing and chief message from the time that you are little is that “You have to earn it.”

When this becomes or is the motto of how to live, and again, there are many people who live by such maxims, then it is easy for your pride to be hurt, to be wounded, and for resentment and anger to build and take over your thought life. This is the arena of the competitive, where every slight, hurt, insult and snub need be challenged in some way or fashion. Where the self has to not only be defended but also to be raised up. Is this not a never-ending battle? What or who is one really defending?

That there is always something to do, to earn; that you have to continue to strive to earn the right to exist, to be considered “useful,” at least with your fellow man who can be (and is often is) a harsh and unforgiving judge. One result is that violence can then easily and quickly build in the heart, especially if a thought lodges in the mind that you are “never good enough.” Or that others are not good enough, or not necessary or not useful. It is then but a short step to acts of inhumanity, writes Francis A. Schaeffer in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1983):
If man is not made in the image of God, nothing then stands in the way of inhumanity. There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened. We can see this in many of the major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of all kinds, pornography ... , the routine torture of political prisoners in many parts of the world, the crime explosion, and the random violence which surrounds us.
This is an excellent analysis of the human condition; it does not explain everything, but it explains enough of what happens when human dignity is debased and human life is cheapened and made of no value. From there it is a downward spiral to the competitive arena of the proud; and in the absence of human dignity, all that is left is the running of a never-ending and tiring competitive race that no one wins, that no one can ever win. Even the “winners” do not win; in the end they lose.

This is, however, completely unnecessary. There is a different path, clear and straight, which leads to new ways of understanding, apprehending and of being, which leads to the idea that you are, indeed, “good enough,” that you are worthy and valuable. You come out of it not tired, but refreshed and full of life. You can then take heart in this small consolation: Unless you give it away, dignity is yours for life. Frankl writes: “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

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