Is it the teaching of Christianity that man has dignity? I outlined my problem with this claim from a philosophical perspective here. Then I was rereading Philippians 2:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (vv. 5-7, ESV)
So Jesus Christ, who had the shape (morphe) of God, took on the shape (morphen) of man, and that shape was the shape of a slave (doulou). Human beings are always slaves to others. This is exactly what evolutionary psychology (Azar Gat’s preferred term for “sociobiology”) teaches us: We do not live in freedom. We live for others. The child lives for the parents, the wife lives for the husband, the parents live for the children, the husband lives for a master, the master lives for his mastery. His being, the reason for his existence is to master life by mastering others. But this mastery is as illusion, for he also is mastered. He is just as enslaved as his lowest servant. He is dominated by, controlled by, his own genetic imperative. At the extreme, he seeks possession of the “garden of desire,” the position where every biological urgency can be fulfilled, and is willing to bet his very existence on the quest. (Think Tiger Woods or Mark Sanford, but in a world where losing meant losing one’s life.)
The Christian kerygma agrees: when Jesus Christ took on the form of a man, he took on the form of a slave. That is what it means to be a human being. So how or why or when did this rhetoric of “human dignity” ever enter our religious conversation? Certainly Kant’s arguments had something to do with it. We have a dignity that is derived from our status as rational beings. We make a law for ourselves, and that law is to act as every rational being ought to act. However, this dignity is the dignity of an autonomous being—one who is under the authority of no other being, except as the authority of the law of reason is embedded in a person acting as the universal legislator. The moral and spiritual status of the Christian in the Philippian hymn is certainly not the dignity of Kantian man.
A second source of “dignity” is the American experiment in liberty. In all pre-modern cultures, including Europe through the early modern period, “dignity” was owned by the aristocracy. It signified the aristocratic authority to use all other men as means—servants, menial laborers, whores (whether prostitutes or mistresses), cannon-fodder. They were there to meet the needs of the aristocracy, to permit the lords and ladies to live leisurely, to exist as their own ends. But the lord was as much as means as his lowliest servant. He was enslaved to his own psycho-biological drives. These compelling needs owned him, forced him to serve their imperatives.
However, there was one aspect of this aristocratic dignity that was not an illusion. Around 1100, the thugs of European feudalism (otherwise known as “chevaliers,” knights), were slowly being Christianized. The church set limits on their thuggery in such institutions as the “Peace of God” and the “Truce of God” (both developed around the beginning of the 11th century). It gradually inculcated Christian and moral responsibilities: uphold the church, take care of widows, orphans, and the poor, protect women. The dignity formed by these ideals was real because it was morally concrete. It was a specific vision rooted in existentially vital spiritual practices.
The difference between moral abstractions and spiritual vitality can be detected in the chivalric code. Along side of the obligation to care for the weak was the responsibility to never reject a challenge from an equal. This combination makes no sense to us. It cannot be explained by any argument from natural law. A man may have both a right and duty to defend his existence, but what is wrong with turning one’s back on an offer to engage in a “fair fight”? If this chivalric duty was grounded in moral norms, then why did all western nations abolish the right to duel (which was a vestige of this chivalric duty)?
The unity of these two obligations does not lie in an abstract universal moral norm. It can only be explained by an existential synthesis of Christian morality and the warrior’s code of honor. It lay in the spiritual unity of the Christian knight’s life. He united these practices in his own being, in the moral horizon that defined his existence and justified his life. Chilvaric norms died with the knights. Against the backdrop of aristocratic manners, American liberty thought to seize the dignity of the nobles and apply it to everyman.
My summary of the chivalric code illuminates the central category mistake of American political philosophy: it confuses the dignity that flourishes in a community of ritual and moral norms, with a dignity available to all men. American freedom emerged out of a centuries-long struggle of a community informed by Christian moral practices and thought to find their freedom. It thought it could have the dignity in the universal power of reason and the ability to make moral choices, apart from the community that shaped the choices and disclosed the reasons.
Take these excerpts from a 1787 sermon by Nathanael Emmons:
The dignity of man appears from his bearing the image of his Maker. After God had created the heavens and the earth, and furnished the world with a rich profusion of vegetive and sensitive natures, he was pleased to form a more noble and intelligent creature, to bear his image, and to be the lord of this lower creation.
Emmons admits the Christian dogma of the fall of man, but immediately ignores it and eviscerates its implications:
His soul is a transcript of the natural perfections of the Deity. God is a spirit, and so is the soul of man; God is intelligence and activity, and so is the soul of man. In a word, man is the living image of the living God, in whom is displayed more of the divine nature and glory, than in all the works and creatures of God upon earth.
Emmons’ second argument for man’s dignity is his “immortal existence.” But here Emmons’ arguments are primarily from the purportedly intrinsic spirituality of man. At the end, he gives token recognition of an immortality that is beyond a final judgment, but nonetheless concludes: “Hence immortality appears to be the common property and dignity of the human kind.” To which a Christian at least must respond: most emphatically not. The resurrection of the body, warranted in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, by the God who raises the dead, is not the same as a natural human condition of immortality.
Next Emmons surveys the brevity of existence, but claims that humanity has a higher dignity. We ...
shall survive all these ruins and ravages of time, and live the constant spectators of the successive scenes of eternity. And this renders us infinitely superior, in point of dignity and importance, to all the objects and creatures, whose existence expires with time.
It doesn’t occur to Emmons that he is mistakenly conflating natural mortality (to which humans are as much subject as birds and bees) and supernatural life. He gets around to the central theological argument, but misinterprets it:
By the incarnation of Christ, our nature was united with the divine, and the dignity of man with the dignity of Christ. Hence all the sufferings, which Christ hath endured on earth, and all the honours, which he hath received in heaven, have displayed the dignity of man. And for the same reason, the dignity of man will be eternally rising, with the rising honour and dignity of Christ.
Quite to the contrary. Christ’s sufferings exposes human depravity, since all humanity, the highest institutions of learning and rectitude, is implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus. Christ’s glorification does not display man’s dignity, but highlights, by radical contrast, the radical inadequacy of all human efforts to reach divinity. Finally, the apparent spread of Christian beliefs (“love your neighbor,” nonjudgmentalism) has led not to the millennial bliss anticipated by many Christians. In fact, the core moral beliefs of Christianity are under assault, precisely by people who claim to have appropriated its core intuitions.
In short, then, Emmons took the supernatural dignity of Christian man, and misappropriated it for the natural powers of human improvement. Both scientific anthropology and Christian scripture contradict Emmons. Evolutionary psychology shows us that rational and moral judgment is always enslaved to the imperative of survival. We no longer need to detect ripe fruit, but we still crave sugared food. Communities no longer live on the edge of reduction by famine or plague, and it would take an extraterrestrial threat to eliminate the species, yet the genetic imperatives will not release us, “will not repent, nor cancel life, nor free man from anguish/ For many ages to come.”
St. Paul agrees. According to Romans 1:12-25, human thought is “futile,” (emataiothesan: “fruitless” or “idle”) our “hearts” are “darkened.” Since humans have become “fools,” “God gave them up”—surrendered them into the powers of “the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” (ESV) Romans 8:20-25 extends futility (mataioteti: “emptiness”, “purposelessness”) to creation itself, which “groan[s] together” with the “children of God” as they wait for redemption. It is rather difficult to connect these texts with a philosophical doctrine of the fundamental “dignity” of man.
The dignity of “the children of God” is eschatological. Like Moses, “natural” man cannot take possession of the “dignity” he espies. He may climb the high mountain of human wisdom and view the whole landscape, but the promised land itself he will never enter. From its beginning, American Christianity has confused viewing the promised land with entering it. (Thus, antebellum evangelical Christians were predominately post-millennial: Christ will return after we have created the millennial kingdom in America.) Having been freed from political and social inferiority, they thought to transcend every other reminder of bondage to the “creation which groans together.” Seventh-Day Adventism and Christian Science worked towards a freedom from illness, the latter simply through the power of the mind. Spiritualism sought transcendence of mortality. The Shakers tried to sublimate sexual aggression in a spiritual “shaking” dance. The Oneida Community imagined that the marriage of all with all would eliminate romantic and sexual tension. Various communes attempted a revolutionary reordering of material possessions.
But the power of the bonds have always reasserted themselves. We remain in bondage. The dignity of man is not found in the natural horizon of his existence. Indeed, there is no horizon of nature. Nature impels man to endless conflict, the ceaseless struggle for survival, personal and genetic. Only revelation, by setting bounds, can give an horizon.