Tag Archives: dignity

Am I Really Worth It? God and the Modern Self #15

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!

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A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.

 

 

God and the Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 2: Is God the Enemy?)

As Part 1 made clear, the modern way of thinking about human identity places humanity and God in a tense relationship.  If being a real person means being independent, if happiness can be achieved only by following our desires, if authentic identity must be exclusively our own creation and if freedom equals doing what we want, how does God fit into such a life? Isn’t God GOD precisely because he doesn’t “fit in” to this agenda? As the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator and Ruler of the world, doesn’t God demand that we fit into God’s world and play by God’s rules?  God and humanity seem to be on a collision course.

Hence for many of our contemporaries, God looms on the horizon as a threat to human freedom, dignity and happiness. In Parts 2-4, we will consider three common ways we are tempted to deal with this threat: We either (1) defy God or (2) submit to God out of fear or desire for reward or (3) attempt to put God out of our minds. These reactions can be designated, defiance, subservience and indifference. Today let’s think about defiance.

Defiance makes sense only as refusal to do the bidding of a higher authority or a greater power. You can’t defy a weaker power or a lower authority. Defiance provokes our disapproval when the defiant person refuses a just demand by a higher authority. But it evokes our admiration when it defies an unjust power or a tyrannical authority. Perhaps the two archetypical examples of defiance are Prometheus, the mythical character from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, and the Satan character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing divine fire and giving it to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a mountain and sending an eagle to eat out his liver every day. (It grew back at night!) Prometheus continues to defy Zeus because he is convinced that Zeus is unjust even though he is all-powerful. To those who urge him to submit to Zeus, Prometheus replies:

Go thou and worship; fold thy hands in prayer

And be the dog that licks the foot of power

Prometheus excites our admiration because, though weak, he has justice on his side and Zeus, though strong, is in the wrong. Even in defeat Prometheus refuses to be broken. Hence he has become a symbol of human freedom and dignity, which asserts its rights even in the face of overwhelming power.

In Paradise Lost, Milton allows Satan to express defiance of God even though Milton does not think Satan is in the right. Nevertheless, Satan’s heroic defiance possesses power to stir our admiration…as long as we also accept his view of God:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That Glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power.

As I observed above, defiance strikes us as admirable only if the power we defy is unjust. For both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan, God is an unjust, arbitrary power. Their concept of God—their theology—views God as pure will, the will to dominate. Only one can rule all. But the modern self rests its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness in its autonomy, its power of self-determination. If God is the infinite will to determine all and our happiness depends on exercising our will for self-determination, our options are limited. In our terror we may submit, or we may try to forget God and our slighted dignity by submerging ourselves in sensuality. But we may also find it difficult to suppress the urge to defy, which is rooted in our ineradicable sense of dignity.

Surely something has gone wrong! Is the modern secular culture’s understanding human freedom, dignity and hope of happiness the only (or best) way to view them? Is God really pure, arbitrary will and power? Is God the enemy of humanity? 

Questions for Discussion

 1. Expand on the concept of defiance by discussing some examples of admirable defiance and some cases of deplorable defiance.

2. Why does Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus stir our admiration? Give examples of situations that awaken your urge to defy. What are some popular cultural images of defiance?

3. How do you think the urge to defy is related to humanity’s sense of its own dignity?

4. The essay pointed out the relationships between admirable defiance and unjust authority and between deplorable defiance and just authority. Following the previous analogy, what is the relationship between admirable defiance and our true dignity and deplorable defiance and our false dignity (i.e., pride)?

5. According the essay, Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God’s essence as pure, arbitrary will. In what ways do you think their theologies are defective?

6. To anticipate an important theme of the book and this series, given how Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God, what relationship do you see between the way we view God and the way we view ourselves?

Note: This essay can also serve as a companion to Chapter 2 of my book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity.

Next week, we will examine the attitude of subservience or “the religion of idols, hypocrites and hirelings.”