Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 1, Human Worth and Christian Metaphysics

In a recent series I described the values of secular liberal humanism as "lazy sentimental christianity."

Regarding the adjective "christian," I used lower-cased c to describe how secular liberal humanism is founded upon the idea of "universal human rights," and how that idea is borrowed from Judeo-Christian metaphysics.

A beautiful exposition of this can be found in Glenn Tinder's 1989 essay in The Atlantic, "Can We Be Good Without God? On the political meaning of Christianity."

The question Tinder is exploring is if the values modernity inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the value of universal human dignity, can be sustained going forward without the metaphysical worldview that gave birth to those values. As Tinder asks at the start of his essay, "Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing?"

Tinder's question goes to why I described liberal humanism as both "lazy" and "sentimental." "Sentimental" as it has jettisoned the metaphysics that made dignity durable and sturdy and is now reliant upon (thankfully) widely shared feelings regarding human worth. And "lazy" as it is parasitically living off moral inertia, tradition, and custom rather than doing the hard work of making it's own case regarding the warrants for its inherently christian moral assertions. 

In this series of posts I want to describe why I think Tinder is right to worry that humanistic values, rooted in sentiment rather than metaphysics, are vulnerable.

But before we get to those vulnerabilities, I want to share a bit more from Tinder to illustrate the connection between dignity and Christian metaphysics.

Tinder begins this treatment with the Christian notion of agape, and how love creates the building blocks of human dignity:
Love seems as distant as spirituality from politics, yet any discussion of the political meaning of Christianity must begin by considering (or at least making assumptions about) love. Love is for Christians the highest standard of human relationships, and therefore governs those relationships that make up politics...

The nature of agape stands out sharply against the background of ordinary social existence. The life of every society is a harsh process of mutual appraisal. People are ceaselessly judged and ranked, and they in turn ceaselessly judge and rank others. This is partly a necessity of social and political order; no groups whatever—clubs, corporations, universities, or nations—can survive without allocating responsibilities and powers with a degree of realism. It is partly also a struggle for self-esteem; we judge ourselves for the most part as others judge us. Hence outer and inner pressures alike impel us to enter the struggle.

The process is harsh because all of us are vulnerable. All of us manifest deficiencies of natural endowment—of intelligence, temperament, appearance, and so forth. And all personal lives reveal moral deficiencies as well—blamable failures in the past, and vanity, greed, and other such qualities in the present. The process is harsh also because it is unjust. Not only are those who are judged always imperfect and vulnerable, but the judges are imperfect too. They are always fallible and often cruel. Thus few are rated exactly, or even approximately, as they deserve...

Agape means refusing to take part in this process. It lifts the one who is loved above the level of reality on which a human being can be equated with a set of observable characteristics. The agape of God, according to Christian faith, does this with redemptive power...Agape raises all those touched by it into the community brought by Christ, the Kingdom of God. Everyone is glorified. No one is judged and no one judges.
Agape, then, provides the foundation for universal human dignity. When we look on others with love we ignore all observable metrics of worth, of aptitude, achievement, or endowment. We refuse to judge or evaluate others using criteria of worth. When we love these metrics of worth are ignored as we embrace the inherit value of the other person. Christianity universalizes this vision, demanding that we love all people. We refuse to apply criteria of worth to other human beings.

Love creates, according to Tinder, the Christian vision of what he calls "the exalted individual." Tinder describing this:
To grasp fully the idea of the exalted individual is not easy...It refers to something intrinsically mysterious, a reality that one cannot see by having someone else point to it or describe it. It is often spoken of, but the words we use—"the dignity of the individual," "the infinite value of a human being," and so forth—have become banal and no longer evoke the mystery that called them forth. Hence we must try to understand what such phrases mean. In what way, from a Christian standpoint, are individuals exalted? In trying to answer this question, the concept of destiny may provide some help.

In the act of creation God grants a human being glory, or participation in the goodness of all that has been created. The glory of a human being, however, is not like that of a star or a mountain. It is not objectively established but must be freely affirmed by the one to whom it belongs. In this sense the glory of a human being is placed in the future...

Destiny is not the same as fate. The word refers not to anything terrible or even to anything inevitable, in the usual sense of the word, but to the temporal and free unfoldment of a person's essential being. A destiny is a spiritual drama.

A destiny is never completely fulfilled in time, in the Christian vision, but leads onto the plane of eternity. It must be worked out in time, however, and everything that happens to a person in time enters into eternal selfhood and is there given meaning and justification. My destiny is what has often been referred to as my soul...

The agape of God consists in the bestowal of a destiny, and that of human beings in its recognition through faith. Since a destiny is not a matter of empirical observation, a person with a destiny is, so to speak, invisible. But every person has a destiny. Hence the process of mutual scrutiny is in vain, and even the most objective judgments of other people are fundamentally false. Agape arises from a realization of this and is therefore expressed in a refusal to judge.

The Lord of all time and existence has taken a personal interest in every human being, an interest that is compassionate and unwearying. The Christian universe is peopled exclusively with royalty...
According to Christian metaphysics everyone has a destiny. Our life has a "plot," giving it purpose and meaning. And this story is a story of glory, no matter how small or ignoble our lives might be judged by others. Our destiny makes our life, and every life, "count."

Given this metaphysical vision of the exalted individual, Tinder turns to unpack the political implications:
What does this mean for society?

To speak cautiously, the concept of the exalted individual implies that governments—indeed, all persons who wield power—must treat individuals with care. This can mean various things—for example, that individuals are to be fed and sheltered when they are destitute, listened to when they speak, or merely left alone so long as they do not break the law and fairly tried if they do. But however variously care may be defined, it always means that human beings are not to be treated like the things we use and discard or just leave lying about. They deserve attention.
Tinder goes on to say much more about the political implications of Christian metaphysics. But this is enough for today.

The point to be taken is how the heart of humanistic morality and liberal political theory--that every individual must be given attention and treated with care--flows out of Christian metaphysics.

And given that situation, Tinder wants to ask the question, "Without the metaphysics, can the morality hold?"

In this series, I'll be arguing that it can't. We need the metaphysics. We need human dignity beyond sentiment.

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