Christian Humanism: Part 3, Made in the Image of God

The first pillar of my Christian humanism is a Christological vision of the human being. Human nature being what it is, we point to Christ as our normative definition of what it looks like to be a human being. 

The second pillar of my Christian humanism is the belief that each person is created in the image of God and the moral and political demands that creates for society. Because human beings are created in the image of God each person is imbued with inviolate dignity, value, and worth that must be recognized, respected, cared for, accommodated, and protected. 

In 2020 I shared a very good reflection on this topic, Glenn Tinder's 1989 essay in The Atlantic, "Can We Be Good Without God? On the political meaning of Christianity." 

In his essay, Tinder explores 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?" For this series we might ask the question this way: Can humanism survive if it isn't Christian

Tinder starts his essay with a consideration of Christian agape and how that call to love is rooted in the Hebrew confession that humans are created in the image of God. Love is the moral response to human dignity. Here's Tinder:

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. 

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. And this ethical demand, according to Tinder, flows out of the 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. 

This vision of human dignity and worth--each of us exalted, royal, loved, and destined--is Christian humanism. 

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