The essays collected in Thomas Howard’s Imago Dei: Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective represent a spectrum of approaches to the question of human nature and human dignity. All the essays are rewarding.

John Behr offers an Orthodox perspective that emphasizes the eschatological realization of humanity: “we have yet to become human” (37). Yet, drawing on David Hart’s notion of “Christian revolution,” the aspiration toward humanity has left a decisive mark on the world, since only after Christ is it possible to see humanity precisely in the weak and vulnerable.

Russell Hittinger draws on the Catholic social tradition to establish something like a “preamble” to a theology of the image of God. Two realities stand out independent of special revelation:

the excellence of the human person, and the excellence of social unions (which are different from mere aggregations of individuals). The latter is the particular focus on Hittinger’s essay. C. Ben Mitchell offers a biblically-oriented Protestant approach to the imago Dei , observing that creational anthropology has received the attention it should in the Protestant traditions.

The essays are inspired in part by assaults on the notion of human dignity from the likes of Peter Singer and Steven Pinker. In a sober and sobering afterword, Gilbert Meilander wonders whether “explicating the ‘image of God’ was the best - or, even, a helpful - way of working through the various puzzles raised by controversies in our culture about human dignity” (117-8). Part of his concern is a degree of speaking-past: Mitchell wants to ground the image of God in anthropology; Behr looks to destiny rather than origin; Hittinger emphasizes the social dimensions of the image.

But Meilander also ponders how Christians are to interact with public debates. He notes that Hittinger hopes to find “ways in which common human experience and reasoned reflection may discern in human life intimations of truths more fully revealed in the revelation of our creation in God’s image” (119), but Meilander suggests that “viewpoints, claims, and arguments that go beyond common human experience or widely shared reasons might not have an important place in our public discussions.” After all, “we owe each other, our fellow citizens, an honest articulation of the considerations that move us to think as we do” (119). Even those who do not share the views of Christians might find them “moving an deserving of respect in our shared civic life” (120).

Intriguingly, he thinks that the “specifically biblical language” may have “the greatest public purchase.” Because it doesn’t depend on an elaborate substratum and philosophical apparatus, it “makes contact at a level that is deeper still, the level of a story in whose plot both human nature and human destiny play central roles” (120). This “common Christian language,” he suggests, “has not lost its power - even in our late-modern world.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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