Imago Dei: Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813221434
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 132
  • Sales rank: 1,063,179
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

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Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective


The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2143-4




That human beings are important is something we take for granted, and not only because we are human beings (or so we think—more on this later). It is a theme that has provoked reflection since time immemorial, and not only for us human beings: the question of the Psalmist—"What is man that thou art mindful of him?" (Ps 8:4, 144:3; cf. Jb 7:17; Heb 2:6)—presumes that no less than God himself recognizes our worth! However, over recent decades, the subject of human dignity has become very controversial, especially as it has come to be utilized as a mainstay in arguments about bioethics. "Dignity," Harvard University's Steven Pinker argues, is a "squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it." It is a vague concept employed uncritically, he further claims, by those who wish to advance an "obstructionist bioethics" in a neutral moral language that in reality rests upon prior religious convictions. Moreover, he insists, not only does it not add anything to the discussion, but it is in fact potentially harmful, as the perception of "dignity" resides in the eye of the beholder: "Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity."

Now, what from a Christian perspective marks out the dignity of human beings is that, unlike the rest of creation (and even the angels), they alone are created in the image and likeness of God. This statement, of course, requires a lot of unpacking, both in respect of its content and also, and perhaps more importantly, in regard to the hermeneutic by which we can make the statement. Its content has been explicated in a variety of ways over the centuries. But it is striking that the typically twentieth-century manner of restating its content—that it is as persons that human beings are in the image of God—resorts to the very same point upon which Pinker and others would attempt to rest their moral arguments. As Pinker puts it, "Even when breaches of dignity lead to an identifiable harm, it's ultimately autonomy and respect for persons that give us the grounds for condemning it."

"Autonomy and respect for persons." Such language may well seem to be far less indebted to or based upon a Christian heritage: we are all "persons" regardless of our race, creed, or status. It would seem to be an eminently humanistic claim. It is the first of the "self-evident" truths proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence (1776), that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And it is universally applied by the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights (1948), again as the first item: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

But are these truths in fact self-evident? They are not empirically verifiable, and in fact they fly in the face of our own daily observation. Yet despite the great inequality into which human beings are born—in disparate conditions, economic, social, physical, and intellectual—we would nevertheless surely still want to say that there is something about every human being as a person that is absolute, equal, and irreplaceable. But because this conviction is not an empirical conclusion, nor even empirically verifiable, it is an a priori assumption, or, in other words, a statement of faith.


David Bentley Hart has recently argued a spirited case that this absolute value placed upon each human being as a person is not, as the fashionable enemies of Christianity are wont to assume, the result of an enlightened, civilized society breaking free from the bondage of religion in the name of reason, so that if the value ascribed to the person is an a priori, it is at least one of reason. Hart argues that, quite to the contrary, the very notion of the person is in fact a result of the revolution that is Christianity. He gives the example, for instance, of Peter in the Gospels, in whom, as Erich Auerbach noted, we can see "the image of a man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense" compared to the portraiture of the great classical writers. Yet that he is nothing but a Galilean peasant is not only not good taste but an act of rebellion, in which "we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of infinite value." The very fact that we habitually and unthinkingly speak of all human beings as "persons" is a testimony to the impact that the Christian revolution has had, for to "have a person," strictly speaking, was a right which Roman law bestowed only upon citizens—slaves were human beings lacking personhood (non habens personam).

For Christians in the ancient world, the Gospel was literally a message of liberation in a manner we can barely begin to comprehend today. Christ had triumphed over the powers of this world, all the things to which human beings had subjected themselves but which Christ had shown to be nothing: the elemental spirits of the universe; things which have no power over us, but to which we give subservience; things which are not but which hold us in thrall (such as, today, our "market forces")—his triumph has tamed the fearful world in which humans had formerly lived. That God created the world ex nihilo emphasized the absolute transcendence of the Creator, who in reverse was now experienced as immanent within creation; and creation itself was understood as a gratuitous expression of divine love, a place of beauty and wonder, whose diversity reflected the multifaceted splendor of God's own wisdom, and thus a subject worthy of our inquisitiveness. And that the drama of salvation is enacted within this world, working backward to the beginning and forward to the eschaton, gives the time of creation a meaning and an orientation.

It is within this new world created by the Christian revolution, Hart argues, that our notion of "person" emerges, particularly in the context of the debates about the person and nature of the Incarnate Son of God. As Hart writes,

The rather extraordinary inference to be drawn from this doctrine [of Chalcedon] is that personality is somehow transcendent of nature. A person is not merely a fragment of some larger cosmic or spiritual category, a more perfect or more defective expression of some abstract set of attributes, in light of which his or her value, significance, legitimacy, or proper place is to be judged. This man or that woman is not merely a specimen of the general set of the human; rather, his or her human nature is only one manifestation and one part of what he or she is or might be. And personality is an irreducible mystery, somehow prior to and more spacious than everything that would limit or define it, capable of exceeding even its own nature in order to embrace another, ever more glorious nature. This immense dignity—this infinite capacity—inheres in every person, no matter what circumstances might for now seem to limit him or her to one destiny or another. No previous Western vision of the human being remotely resembles this one, and no other so fruitfully succeeded in embracing at once the entire range of finite human nature, in all the intricacy of its inner and outer dimensions, while simultaneously affirming the transcendent possibility and strange grandeur present within each person.

The result of all the intense theological reflection in the controversies that beset the church from the fourth to the eighth centuries, over matters which Edward Gibbon famously dismissed as turning upon an iota, was a "coherent concept of the human as such, endowed with infinite dignity in all its individual 'moments,' full of powers and mysteries to be fathomed and esteemed ... an unimaginably exalted picture of the human person—made in the divine image and destined to partake of the divine nature—without thereby diminishing or denigrating the concrete reality of human nature, spiritual, intellectual, or carnal." Something profound happened, resulting in a new, and radically different, way of looking at the world and understanding ourselves.

Hart is clear that this was not an immediate result, nor that every supposedly "Christian" society lived up to this reality. But, as he points out:

It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal. In the light of Christianity's absolute law of charity, we came to see what we formerly could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses. To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection—resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence—is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

This is indeed a most remarkable and inspiring vision. What especially strikes one is the way Hart focuses on examples which are weak and broken, on the instances where we would rather turn our faces (rather like the disciples at the Passion), preferring instead our idea and ideals of what constitutes human dignity and divine existence.

But a vision which reverses the terms, as it were, by a divine exchange—to see divine strength in human weakness, eternal life in death, and the very Logos of God in flesh—is always going to appear a folly and a scandal to human thought. It will necessarily be a fragile vision, one that is all too easily forgotten. And so, Hart concludes with a troubling question:

How long can our gentler ethical prejudices—many of which seem to me to be melting away with fair rapidity—persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away? Love endures all things perhaps, as the apostle says, and is eternal; but as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among the virtues, and the mere habit of solicitude for others will not necessarily survive when that reason is no longer found. If, as I have argued ... the "human" as we now understand it is the positive invention of Christianity, might it not also be the case that a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman?

This may not necessarily be so, but there doesn't appear to be much cause for thinking otherwise. Having abandoned the notion of "dignity," even Pinker resorts to a "respect for persons," without giving any real reason for this.

Hart's typically sharp posing of the question does indeed give us pause for thought. But is it really the case that the "personal" dimension of human existence, as we understand it today, is really the fruit of the Christian revolution? And is this indeed the best way to think of human dignity? Is being "human" to be equated with being a "person," as this has come to be understood today?


It is unquestionable that the primary category in terms of which we understand ourselves today is as "persons." And it is also clear that how we understand this—"endowed with infinite dignity in all its individual 'moments,' full of powers and mysteries to be fathomed and esteemed," as Hart puts it—differs from previous generations, betraying the fact that the term "person" has its own history and evolution: human self-understanding, the human experience of self, of being a person, has changed throughout the ages, as it changes throughout the life span of a single human being (a version of Ernst Haeckel's recapitulation theory, that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"). As Charles Taylor notes, "There is some truth in the idea that people always are selves, that they distinguish inside from outside in all cultures." But he elaborates, "The really difficult thing is distinguishing the human universals from the historical constellations, and not eliding the second into the first so that our particular way seems somehow inescapable for humans as such, as we are always tempted to do."

Unlike a statement of anatomy (that we have a head attached to a body, for instance), the articulation of our "personhood" is necessarily self-interpretative and self-referential, and necessarily specific, bound to a particular age—of the person concerned or the period of human history with which we are concerned—and to a particular cultural experience. And because of this, Taylor suggests, "no satisfactory general formula can be found to characterize the ubiquitous nature of a self-interpreting animal." Perhaps it is impossible by definition: the human being as a "self-interpreting animal" will be like Heraclitus's river.

It seems that our tendency to project our current understanding of ourselves as "persons" into a universal and atemporal reality has also been operative in some trends in contemporary theology. Some theologians, such as Jürgen Moltmann and Cornelius Plantinga, have argued that the term "hypostasis" as developed by the Greek Fathers provides a fundamental insight into the "personal" existence of God, and thus the grounding of all reality in the person. It is intimately connected with the divine "perichoresis": the three persons that the one God is, existing in perfect unity within one another, "a zestful wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality and verve," in which there is "no isolation, no insulation, no secretiveness, no fear of being transparent to another." This "social" model of the Trinity is then held up as the perfect model for human beings, created in the image of God, to strive to replicate on earth, overcoming our limited "individualism" to enter into community of truly personal communion. The adequacy of such claims with respect to the Greek Fathers has increasingly been called into question, as has also the methodology of this approach: it takes the concept of perichoresis, understood as that which make three to be one, fills it out with ideas borrowed from our own experience of relationships and relatedness, projects it onto God and then reflects it back onto the world as an exciting previously underutilized resource of Christian theology that resolves our contemporary problem of "individualism" and gives new life to ancient, little-understood conceptual formulae.

Other theologians, most notably Karl Rahner, have been much more circumspect regarding the term "person." He pointed out that while in antiquity the term "person" signified directly the distinct subsistence, and the rational nature of a particular being only indirectly, "the 'anthropocentric turn' of modern times requires that the spiritual-subjective element in the concept of person be understood." Accordingly, he argued for using the phrase "mode of subsistence" rather than "person" to translate the Greek word hypostasis: we cannot change how people hear the word "person," and so need to use a periphrastic construction (but we can no more change a pattern of speech either!).

A further point that should be made is that the Greek Fathers of the fourth century were very reticent to speak of three persons or hypostasis. In fact, St. Basil says we should not use numbers at all:

When the Lord delivered [the formula of] the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he did not make arithmetic a part of this gift! He did not say, "In the first, the second and the third" or "In one, two and three." But he gave us the knowledge of the faith that leads to salvation by means of holy names. So that the faith is what saves us; numbers have been devised as symbols indicative of quantity.... Count if you must, but do not damage the faith by doing so. Either by silence honor the ineffable things, or piously count the holy things. There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); and if we must use numbers, we will not let an ignorant arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of polytheism.

We proclaim each singly, his point is, because they are incommensurable with each other; there is nothing in their individuating properties—being the unbegotten Father, the only-begotten Son, and the Spirit who proceeds—which would enable us to count three persons. As Vladimir Lossky points out:

In speaking of three hypostases, we are already making an improper abstraction: if we wanted to generalize and make a concept of the "divine hypostasis," we would have to say that the only common definition possible would be the impossibility of any common definition of the three hypostases.

Excerpted from IMAGO DEI by THOMAS ALBERT HOWARD. Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction THOMAS ALBERT HOWARD....................     1     

1. The Promise of the Image JOHN BEHR....................     15     

2. Toward an Adequate Anthropology: Social Aspects of Imago Dei in
Catholic Theology F. RUSSELL HITTINGER....................     39     

3. The Audacity of the Imago Dei: The Legacy and Uncertain Future of Human
Dignity C. BEN MITCHELL....................     79     

Afterword GILBERT C. MEILAENDER....................     113     

Selected Bibliography....................     121     

Contributors....................     127     

Index....................     129     

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