The question, “What is man?” written perhaps a thousand years before the coming of Christ, is the bedrock of true humanism, the only form of dignity that can sustain human life. Our modern world continually re-imagines our nature, but God alone sustains it. I can think of nothing more assuring that the speculation, “What is man?” in a heart of wonder. I can think of nothing more terrifying than the same speculation in the cold calculus of the modern state.
Human dignity is among the youngest thoughts on earth and far from universally subscribed. We are daily exploited, murdered and used for unworthy ends. Individuals fail to see their own worth and give themselves over to evil ends. “What is man?” indeed, and why should we consider ourselves to be of any particular value?
To declare that I am valuable because I am myself – is simply a statement of self-interest – an instinct shared by most living things. To acknowledge the value of another because it helps preserve my own value is the same instinct extended through a community. This instinct, surely a part of human life from its beginning, has never demonstrated the ability to lift man above his basest desires.
The question, “What is man,” is an echo or a corollary of the question, “Is there a God?” For if there is no God, then the question, “What is man?” has only the emptiness of an echo for an answer. Human dignity is not self-evident. With reference only to our biology we can say that we are carbon-based life-forms that have self-awareness. We cannot assume that other life-forms do not have self-awareness. The question, “What is man?” is thus no more interesting than the question, “What is a bacterium?”
But the question is itself an inherent part of our self-awareness. We want to know if there is anything of transcendent worth in our existence or is it as simply one thing among the many that exists. The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is similar. Does that which exists have any transcendent meaning – anything beyond the ephemera of its ill-fated billions of years (“ill-fated,” for regardless of how you run the numbers, it will cease to exist).
There are many ways to answer the question, “What is man?” All religions do this in one way or another, and the answers are not at all the same. In Buddhism, self-awareness is simply one of many ephemera – having no bearing on the meaning of existence itself.
But the Christian answer is the primary claimant of the modern world’s attention, whether the modern world acknowledges the source of the answer or not. That we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God Himself has become man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of all thought of human rights – the language of consensus in the human community. The assertion of human rights is commonly made today without reference to God. It is thus nothing more than assertion. Human beings have rights because we say they do. Such unsupported assertions only have force when they are asserted by the strong to the weak. This is very much the state of human existence in a secularized world. Rights exist only because a controlling authority enforces such rights. Rights which are denied by a controlling authority have no existence.
Assertions by the West of various human rights, when heard by some non-Western cultures, do not sound like truth claims, only like cultural imperialism. Should women be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia? The answer depends solely on who is speaking.
World culture at present is not grounded in a civilization. There is no consensus of transcendent values, no true common agreement. The secular triumph of a common Europe, the post-War’s version of the tower of Babel, presently stands ready to collapse as the Eurovision confronts the reality of the Euro. “We share a common currency and a bureaucracy in Brussels,” is an insufficient answer to the question, “What is man?”
Modern, secular culture is derivative. Its values are largely drawn from the treasure of earlier Christian values, regardless of their present distortion. Human rights are contingent upon human dignity, itself contingent upon the creation of man in the image of God. Remove the source and the contingencies collapse (in time). Human rights have already begun their collapse. The concept of rights remain, but they exist only as those in power define them. Thus the rights of women (as defined by the state) or the rights of those with minority sexual orientations (as defined by the state) or other state-defined groups have rights that frequently supersede those of other groups. These rights are arbitrary and represent nothing more than the present state of political reality. As such, they do not represent rights, but assertions of power.
The language of rights continues to have the cachet of the earlier imago dei, but one in which the deity is no more than a function of government bureaucracy (of which the courts are but an arm). The great weakness of our present cultural existence is its lack of foundation outside the bald assertion of power. The two most distorted examples of such power-based cultures were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. These two cultures continue to strike most moderns as distorted when they are compared to our cultural memory of the imago dei. But their distortions were justified in the same manner as today’s secularist assertions. Only the present direction of the winds of power stands between modern culture and state terror. The slightest change in that wind can revisit the world with a renewed holocaust. The regime is the same: only the victims change.
The belief that man is created in the image of God yields its own corollaries. As the image of God, human beings are endowed with infinite worth. A human life has value derived from its very Divinely given existence. Our value is not a gift of the state or the result of our own assertions. No one life has greater value than another. Neither usefulness nor talent add value to that given by God.
States (as well as the quasi-states of ecclesial institutions) have sought to reduce these corollaries over the course of the Christian centuries. Thus some have been given greater rights by reason of birth, wealth, race, gender, creed, etc. Each of these assertions of greater rights represent departures from the givenness of the imago dei and a distortion of the Christian faith.
If one human being exists in the image of God, then all human beings exist in the image of God. None of us is more fully the image than another. In Christian teaching, Christ Himself is the definition of the image of God. To the question, ” What does it mean to be human?” Christ is the answer. In Christian understanding, Christ as incarnate image of God is celebrated from conception (the feast of the Annunciation) to His ascension to the right hand of God. No quality of Christ (sentience, wisdom, volition, race, age, gender, etc.) defines or establishes His place as imago dei. He is the image of God. In the same manner, our own unqualified existence establishes us as the image of God.
Only in this fully Christian understanding of man are the value, and thus rights of each human being guaranteed. Only in a culture in which this understanding is agreed and accepted is such value safe and secure. It is perhaps the greatest treasure given to us by God.
There are many modern Christians who have been lulled to sleep by the language of the larger culture, accepting that those who speak of “rights,” actually accept the imago dei. Many Christians have abandoned the public defense of man as God’s image in exchange for a place at the bargaining table of the state’s assertions of power. The state’s ability to assert various perceived rights is not a defense of our humanity – it is its destruction. Our acceptance of the state’s assertion is a capitulation of the gospel. Nothing less than the Divine value of every human life is worthy of the Christian gospel. Those Christians who do not accept such a value have departed from the faith and made common cause with those who would destroy us.
O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the moth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightiest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou maddest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)