How much are human beings worth and why? In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant answered that basis of human dignity (or worth) resides in the mysterious core of our being where we create ourselves by ourselves. Other answers have been given: our dignity lies in our rational nature, which excels all other creatures. Or, our worth must result from achieving moral excellence, military glory, or some other accomplishment that marks us for distinction. Recently, the answer has become that I deserve respect from others simply because I want it, assert it and demand it. But even as I assert my dignity, I could still ask in my heart, “Am I really worth it?”
There is something unsatisfying about these answers. I may wish for the mysterious power of self-determination and self-creation that Kant postulates but I can’t conceive it clearly or feel it intensely. But my inherited characteristics, my limits and my unworthy qualities press in on me from a much closer range. If I attempt to feel my worth by contrasting my intelligence with unreasoning creatures or counting my accomplishments, I could achieve only a relative worth. Others possess greater intelligence and have achieved greater glory. And even if I managed to convince myself that I am greater than all other creatures, I would know in my heart that my worth is still limited. I could imagine being greater and better than I am. In that knowledge, I could still feel unworthy and unhappy. And I can’t help but notice that asserting my worth and demanding respect, though it expresses my desire for worth and respect, does not make them real. Shouting at the world does not change it. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”
When asked about the basis of human dignity Christians usually refer to our creation “in the image of God.” And that is a good answer. At least, it’s a good first answer. The problem, however, is that it is unclear exactly what that means. Does the “image” refer to our rational nature? Does it point to our assignment to rule over creation? Or is it a moral quality that can be lost and regained? Each of these answers has found brilliant defenders throughout Christian history. Hence merely asserting that we are created “in the image of God” still leaves us with questions. And each of the proposed explanations of the “image” refers to a quality or a role that never escapes the realm of the comparative and the limited. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”
There is another theme in the Bible that touches on human worth. And its meaning is much clearer than the image of God theme. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been using the words “dignity” and “worth” interchangeably in this essay. This is because the word dignity is derived from the Latin word for worth. The word dignity does not resonate with the English language as well as the word “worth.” Dignity is vague but worth is clear. We know that something is worth something if it is worth something to someone. The word dignity sounds mysterious and even vacuous.
Hence the question “How much is a human being worth and why?” can be answered only by specifying who values human beings and how much. Does this mean, then, that if no other human being values me I am worth nothing? Does my dignity rise and fall with others’ attitudes toward me? No, it does not. And here is why.
That other theme in the Bible and Christian history is that we are worth something because we are worth something to God. God loves us! God does not love us because we possess certain excellent qualities or that we have achieved something admirable. Everything excellent and admirable in us is caused by God’s love. God’s love for us has no cause outside God. God’s love is the beginning, the explanation and the cause of everything worth loving in us. So, “Am I really worth it?” Yes, you really are because God’s love is the cause of everything real. God’s love for you is real and eternal. It cannot change.
But how much does God love me? Perhaps God loves me more than human beings love me, but is there a limit to God’s love? If God’s love is finite, is my worth is finite as well? And if my worth is finite won’t I still dream of greater dignity and hence experience unhappiness? No, God’s love for you is infinite!
In the New Testament, the proof of God’s love for us is that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:1-2; Galatians 2:20; 1 John 4:9-11, and so many more). How much does the Father love Jesus his eternal Son? The Father loves his Son as much as he loves himself! How much does the Father love us? Since he gave his Son for us–and he loves his Son as much as he loves himself–we know the Father loves us as much as he loves himself!
“Am I really worth it?” According the New Testament, God thinks you are! Don’t look at yourself for evidence that you are loved, that you are worth it. Look to God and know that the giving love of the Father and the self-giving love of the Son demonstrate how much God thinks you are worth.
As a post script, listen to the words of the 12th Century theologian and spiritual writer Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God)
Note: This installment can be read as a companion to chapter 15 of God, Freedom and Human Dignity (“God’s Love as the Ground and Measure of Human Dignity”).
Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the Kantian and modern-self views of human dignity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
2. What is your view of the biblical theme of “the image of God”? Do you agree that its meaning is rather vague?
3. What are the implications of thinking of the word “dignity” as “worth”? What is gained and what is lost by this interpretation?
4. Discuss the shift to grounding human dignity in God’s love and away from grounding it in qualities we possess.
5. Discuss the idea that God’s loves us as much as God loves himself?
6. Reflect on how we may appropriate the secure foundation and magnitude of our worth advocated in this essay? How would internalizing this view of our worth affect our joy and confidence in life? And how would it affect the way we treat other people?
Next week: The conclusion to the series!