Christian Human Dignity
I explained in the last installment why it made perfect sense to look to Revelation to determine the nature of human dignity, and I also explained why Judaism and Christianity were the first two places one should look for Revelation. But since I have often also explained the grounds on which I claim Christian Revelation to be true, and the Catholic Church to be its infallible interpreter, I will now conclude this series on human dignity with a look at what we learn about our dignity from Jesus Christ.
It is the essence of Christianity that we are all adopted sons and daughters of God, Who not only created us but redeemed us from our sinful alienation, so that we might fulfill the destiny of entering into a union of love with Himself. This is, then, not only our destiny but our highest purpose and true end.
Through reason alone we had already discovered that we are spiritual beings, and that our dignity as human persons consists in living in accordance with meaning. Moreover, we had already intuited, or at least suspected, that this meaning has a great deal to do with the moral life and with our ultimate relationship with a Divine Judge. Now, in the Revelation of Christ, we find all of this not only confirmed but sharply delineated. We find that the essential meaning of our lives is enshrined in the admonition by Christ Himself to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Each human person, in accordance with his gifts, is called by God to eternal happiness by doing His will. As the old catechism used to say, we are all created to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy forever with Him in the next. This adoption as sons and daughters of the God who wills to be called Abba, Daddy, is the supreme jewel in the crown of what it means to be human. In this adoption, we learn not only our destiny but the nature of the perfection it requires, that is, how to live in accordance with what God has called each one of us to be and to do.
No other bodily creature possesses this unique destiny and purpose. But it has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it means that each human being has incomparable worth as a unique and unrepeatable person destined for eternal life with God. On the other, it means that this destiny is actualized morally, through love of God and love of neighbor, which means that it is actualized freely, as a matter of choice. We possess this destiny because of God’s gift; we cannot earn it on our own. But we can refuse it—throw it away—by refusing to love. Love includes learning what is good and true from God rather than trying to replace God with ourselves.
Insofar as we seek to know the good and live in accordance with it, we are realizing our dignity as human persons; insofar as we support others in knowing and doing the good, we honor their special dignity. Insofar as we do the opposite, we actually violate our own dignity, diminish it in ourselves and tend to diminish it in others.
The Nature of Freedom
Some might respond to this by insisting, then, that our dignity consists in our freedom. While this is not wrong, it is a dangerous way to express it unless we know what freedom is. For if we believe incorrectly that freedom is simply the exercise of our own wills against all others, including God, then we will join the modern world in believing that our dignity consists in our autonomy. But Christianity teaches clearly an important truth which the better moral philosophers have also discerned, namely that freedom consists in our ability to do the good. For if we do not do the good, it is because we are enslaved to our own darkness, our own weakness, our own passion, our own pride, our own refusal to accept and act in accordance with our unique dignity.
Only when we do the good can we be said to be free, for freedom consists precisely in our ability to live in accordance with our own meaning, to perfect ourselves according to our own proper end. Insofar as we thus direct ourselves toward the good, we actualize our dignity, growing in perfection as we achieve our end. And as we perfect ourselves we grow in true freedom. But insofar as we do not direct ourselves to the good, it is because we are held hostage to something that militates against our true end and our proper perfection. What holds us hostage is always some kind of enslavement that is beneath our dignity, and it also always diminishes our freedom still further, making it more difficult to move ourselves freely toward our proper end and perfection in the future.
We can see this in the formation of habit. For example, a man may say that he insists on his “freedom” to look at pornography. Very well, let him try to avoid looking at pornography for a month and see how free he really is. In contrast, let him work hard at the virtue of purity for some years, habituating himself to sexual control. Now let him try the same experiment. He will find it much easier, because he has become more free. The same is true of every human weakness, of every human vice.
Man as Moral Actor
What we see in all this is that man’s dignity, derived from his nature and his proper end, consists in the fact that he is a moral actor, a point which also lies at the core of the immensely attractive personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II. As first and foremost a moral actor, the human person freely engages in life with moral purpose or meaning, and realizes his God-given dignity in seeking perfection. To know what is perfect, of course, he must also seek the truth, for the first requirement for moral action is knowledge of the good.
The Christian vision of human dignity does not teach us something different from what we had already discerned from a careful consideration of our own nature. But it decisively confirms what we had discerned and it fills the enormous gaps in what we can know from nature alone. Christian Revelation fulfills and confirms the natural law, rather than overthrowing it, exactly as grace perfects and confirms nature, rather than obliterating it.
Thus we dimly perceived that meaning was a key component of being human and that we were subject to some sort of judgment in working out this meaning and living in accordance with it. We find that all this is true, but that God is not merely a judge but a Father, and not concerned only with justice but also with mercy. We dimly perceived that we possessed a sort of immortality, a meaning and existence which transcended material life and endured beyond the grave. We find this too is true, but also that we are in fact made for an eternal ecstatic life with God. We dimly perceived that the human person is unique, special and inviolable. We find this is so true that God loved each of us enough to send His Only Begotten Son to die on the Cross.
Perhaps the most important point for our own age is that we dimly perceived that meaning was non-existent if each of us simply made it up as we went along, each person living under a pretense of autonomy for purposes he alone can determine, alienated from others and from himself, divorced from his body, distrustful of his mind. And what we find is that our dim perceptions were correct, that reality and the ultimate purpose and meaning of things is objective and binding on all. We must take it as a given for the simple reason that Someone really did give it; we discover the consciousness-changing Law of the Gift.
And so all the pieces of our knowledge of life separate, turn, reassemble and point the way, at last, to human fulfillment. No longer alien to ourselves and each other, we now know our way to the very perfection of our dignity. It is suddenly a warm and familiar way, like the way home.
Previous in series: Looking for Revelation
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