I love garage sales. Not just because of the great finds you can come across but because I love to haggle. I think it is my spiritual gift! Garage sales are designed for haggling precisely because of the challenge of accurately and objectively ascribing monetary worth to previously owned items.
Admittedly it is hard to assign worth to things. It just seems so arbitrary at times. For example, do you know what the most expensive item sold at the famous Sotheby’s auction is? It’s this:
A teal ashtray. Not really, but close. It’s a 900 year old dish from the Song Dynasty in China. And it sold for $37.68 Million!
Now it’s one thing to assign worth to antiques and heirlooms, but what about people? How do we determine the worth of a human being? In a day and age where it is common to believe that we are nothing more than a bundle of atoms guided by the firing of synapses in our brain, this creates an interesting challenge.
While many affirm this anthropological position intellectually, I don’t think we functionally live as though it’s true. Deep within all of us we deny the claim that we are nothing more than material beings. Deep within us we know that human worth is not merely an assumed de facto reality we arbitrarily assign to ourselves. Or to frame it more theologically, deep within us we believe in the doctrine of the image of God.
As mid 20th century German Philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand said, “All of Western civilization stands and falls with the words of Genesis, ‘God made man in his image.’ ”
I believe that the same functional basis that causes some people to speak out on behalf of the unborn is the same functional basis that causes others to exclaim that black lives matter. It is the acceptance that the image of God is in all people.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion….”
The word image is the Hebrew word Tselem. This was a very important word in the ancient Near East because it was used in multiple ways.
For starters, it was widely believed that the spirit of a god inhabited any and all statues or images of that god. As a result, that statue or image would then function as the earthly representation of that god in the world.
It was also common for kings and leaders in the ancient Near East to be seen as representatives of the gods among the people. Because of this, it was customary for kings to refer to themselves as the image of God.
Now in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Tselem is often translated as idol or icon. So when we read in places like Leviticus 19:4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal…. this is the same word used in Genesis 1 and it is the same word to describe kings in the ancient Near East.
The reason we are not to make graven images of God is because God has already made an image of himself in the world through humanity. Being made in the image of God is in part about being endowed with a royal value by God. There is a reason why C.S. Lewis had the four Pevensie children in the Chronicles of Narnia rule as kings and queens. As humans they were of unique royalty in contrast to the other creatures in the land.
We all know deep down that there is worth in every human. And yet, this compelling doctrine has been abused by many throughout the centuries to justify perspectives and practices that are horridly antithetical to the image of God.
For centuries many Christians believed that God’s image was a dynamic reality subject to change based on human capability, capacity, and competence. The more one possessed these qualities, the more one possessed the image of God. This paved the way for countless injustices.
As theologian John Kilner puts it in his book Dignity and Destiny, “This way of thinking has encouraged such abuses as the mistreatment of impoverished and disabled people, the Nazi holocaust, the exterminations of Native American groups, and the oppression of enslaved Africans.”
In fact, the entire Transatlantic slave trade was justified by many, including Christians, because Africans were seen as less than human. As one historian put it, “Unlike white slaveholders who were in God’s image, blacks were described as people created by nature in the likeness of beasts.”
In that same vile vein, the theologian Charles Carroll wrote the book The Negro a Beast at the dawn of the 20th century. In it he argued, “If the white was created in the image of God, then the negro was made after some other model.”
This work and others like it were in great circulation among the church, which paved the way for the so-called “Christian Identity Movement” which developed in significant popularity in the mid 20th century through groups like the KKK and the Aryan Nations.
When human worth is not seen as given only by God, then we can easily find ourselves on the slippery slope of claiming the power and ability to determine the worth of human life. When we do not see all humans as fundamentally marked by the image of God, then we will mark others with some secondary category that makes it easier to justify mindsets and mistreatments that lead to evils of all kinds.
I believe we have seen progress in some areas of civil rights and human dignity in our culture, but with it has come a strange inconsistency. For some, the solution to value human life is found when we unfetter ourselves from the chains of religion, faith, and God. However, when we do so, we essentially saw off the branch we are sitting on. In other words, we want the implications of bearing the image of God without recognizing the God whose image we bear. This produces a myriad of contradictions.
GK Chesterton describes this inconsistent mindset in his book Orthodoxy which was written over 100 years ago.
The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines.
If we hold to the doctrine of the image of God in all people, then it will have major implications for our lives, our work, our mission, and our church. What does it look like for us to more fully embrace the image of God in all people?
A Greater Sense of Worth
We live in a culture that assigns value by accomplishments, attractiveness, accolades, and acquired wealth. When this is our culture’s understanding of human worth we will at best give preferential treatment to those deemed superior, or at worst, degrade and despise those deemed inferior.
I recently read Martin Luther King Jr and the Image of God that unpacks Dr. King’s theology on this doctrine. Perhaps no other quote of his captures the heart of his thinking more than this portion of his sermon The American Dream.
The image of God is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.
The image of God serves as the basis upon which we value and protect life at every stage. It compels us to speak out against racism and bigotry, defend the rights of the unborn, and care for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor.
The image of God is to be the primary thing we see in all people with whom we interact. The people you do business with and work alongside. The people you raise and live with. The people you disagree with on social media. The people who wish ill upon you. They all bear the image of God.
A Wider Scope of Wholeness
We must see humanity in bearing the image of God as possessing what Dutch theologian Anthony Hoekema refers to as a psychosomatic unity. This means that God did not create us as purely material or purely immaterial beings, but as a mysteriously beautiful union of the two. And this has serious implications for how we think about what wholeness looks like for ourselves and for others.
Followers of Jesus should consider the image of God in every person in every part of life.
Are we seeing people as whole beings the way God sees them? Do we care for the whole person in our work, service, and contribution? Do we view our discipleship and neighborly love through the lens of the image of God in such a way that we are compelled to value the spiritual, emotional, physical, mental, and financial health of all people?
To neglect the body in order to care for the soul, or to neglect the soul in order to care for the body comes from an impoverished understanding of the image of God.
A Fuller Picture of the Church
The image of God that we all bear points us to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, who is the head of all things including His church. And this church is comprised of people from all tribes, tongues, and nations who are all called to be His people. A people from all the peoples of the earth, unified together by the redeeming and reconciling work on the cross through Christ’s shed blood.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church….
When we see Jesus as the true image of God, we as image bearers now have a fuller picture of what the church is and ought to be. We see that the image of God compels us to work toward justice, unity, and reconciliation among all God’s people.
The pursuit of diversity in the church is not simply a nice quality, but is a central value to the church of Jesus Christ who has come to make the many one and who will one day be one.
In his outstanding book The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby paints the picture of where the church of Jesus Christ is heading.
In that heavenly congregation we will finally see the culmination of God’s gathering. A diverse people unified by faith in Christ. We will surround the throne of the lamb as a redeemed picture of all the ethnic and cultural diversity that God created. Our skin color will no longer be a source of pain or arrogant pride, but will serve as a multi-hued reflection of God’s image. We will no longer be alienated by our earthly economic or social position. We will no longer clamor for power over one another. Our single focus will be worshipping God for eternity in sublime fellowship with each other and our creator.
If this is the culmination of the corporate image of God within humanity redeemed by the blood of Christ in the new heavens and new earth, then we ought to be diligent in our pursuit of a gospel-empowered love and unity among all peoples who are in Christ. We must embrace the truth of Jesus as the true image of God who has come to make us His own by making us one with Him through His atoning death and victorious resurrection.
This is where we find our true worth.
What Hollywood taught me about human dignity…
When I was about twelve or thirteen, I went to see the movie Gattaca. If you don’t recall, it’s about a future society in which humans are no longer the fruit of love between two parents, but are genetically engineered to increasing standards of perfection. Those who were not engineered, like the main character Vincent (played by Ethan Hawk), society deems “invalid” and restricts their level of education and opportunity. Only the “valids,” those humans designed in a laboratory, are worthy of real societal empowerment and investment.
I remember walking out of the theater thinking the movie was pretty good. But it was just a movie. Most audiences agreed with me, as it had only modest reception at the time. But looking back now, its central message seems more prescient than ever, not only in that we are on the verge of nonfiction designer babies, of actually practicing what the writers of Gattaca only imagined, but because the film puts its finger on the philosophical and theological questions that still haunt us today when it comes to human value and dignity.
In the twenty years since the film’s release, my sense is that we have not advanced that discussion one bit. We are still circling around the same categories, the same arguments, the same impasse. Even Gattaca struggles to answer its most important questions. One of my favorite lines is narrated by the main character: “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.” Vincent is describing his own origins as one who was conceived and born naturally, that is, from a father and mother. He can only describe that process with an appeal to God. Here the filmmakers have identified the crux of the matter: are humans more than genes? And if they are, what do we mean by that? How do we describe that something that makes us more? The message of film—and you can feel it throughout—wants so desperately to do just that, to articulate that we are more. But even at its crescendo, the conclusion, the most it can say is that there is something unquantifiable about being human. As the tagline put it, “There is no gene for the human spirit.”But that’s it.
This capitulation, I think, is why we are stuck. Every time we start to talk about human dignity and human rights, we invariably hit our heads on the philosophical ceiling that hangs over all of Western society. The ceiling that says, “here, and no further.” There are lots of ways to describe it, but Charles Taylor has probably done it the best in his book A Secular Age. He called it the “immanent frame.”
How the immanent frame is a conversation killer…
The immanent frame, for our purposes, is the basic philosophical principle that any concept of transcendence, anything worth talking about beyond what we can measure empirically, is off limits. Immanence, what is right it front of our senses, is all that matters. It’s all that is real. We have moved on from appeals to the divine or supernatural in how we understand the world, and consequently, in how we understand ourselves.
Obvious examples abound. This constraint is part of the deep skepticism toward religious belief that has become more prevalent in our society and explains (in part) the church’s waning influence in culture-making institutions. So much of what Christianity has to say about truth is beyond the boundary line that more and more people are hesitant to cross: the line of transcendence.
This same dynamic has been at play in so much of the discussion around human dignity and worth. Appeals to the transcendence of human beings, inherent value, are dismissed out of hand, and must be for the immanent frame to survive. If we want to root human dignity in something, it must be something we can taste, touch, hear, see, and smell. This is especially evident in discussions around the beginning and end of life.
I was recently reading the New York Times opinion article, “Why The Fight Over Abortion Is Unrelenting,” by Thomas Edsall. In it he quotes anthropology professor emerita Sarah Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, who asserts that before we can talk about abortion and women’s rights, we need to first understand male coercion of female primates as a primary scientific and philosophical backdrop. Regardless of what you think of that idea (honestly, I laughed out loud), it illustrates the point. Here is an incredibly immanent explanation for how men and women treat each other, and why men have always demanded a say in female sexuality.
This approach is consistent, but has devastating consequences. If human dignity is not based upon a transcendent metaphysical principle (like, all humans are by definition valuable because they are made in the image of God), then all we have left are human capacities. One need not think too hard about this to realize the Pandora’s box that it opens. If human worth is based on capacity, then why protect the unborn? They can’t do anything. Why fight for the aging? They are no longer real contributors to society.
What if, for example, we decided that certain races of humans had less capacity for intelligence than others? Hello, eugenics movement!
What if we decided that having a genetic disorder, like Down’s syndrome, made you less than fully human? Hey there, Iceland! (Iceland has virtually eliminated Down’s syndrome through elective abortion).
What if we decided to measure human worth by self-awareness or sentience? Enter Peter Singer, leading bioethicist at Princeton, who has publicly endorsed infanticide up to the age of one on that very basis.
On this last example, there was real public outcry. Surely that action is wrong! But wham, we hit our heads on the immanent frame again. There is no argument against it without appealing to something more. Don’t blame poor Peter Singer for being consistent.
Singer’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. And round and round the conversation goes.
Cracks in the frame…
Ross Douthat, another writer for the New York Times, recently tweeted about an exchange he had with friends over dinner (by the way, how do you cite Twitter? What a time to be alive!). He asked his friends if they believed in ghosts. Of course, not a single hand went up. But the woman next to Douthat leaned over and said, “I don’t believe in them, but I’ve seen one.”
The same dynamic, I think, is at play in human dignity. If there are cracks in the immanent frame, this contradiction is a big one. We may not “believe” in transcendent human worth, but we’ve seen it. Just think about it. Do you know anyone who truly believes human beings are a collection of cells and chemicals? Almost everyone I have talked to knows through and through the inherent value of people even if they can’t articulate it.
This has been the foundational passage on which all discussion of human worth is based in Western society. Our secular friends are simply trying to have their cake and eat it too, to uplift humanity as something special without appeal to divine creation. My opinion? It won’t work.
So what do we do in the meantime? How do we push on these cracks in the immanent frame? A concluding thought for the church:
Human dignity is not an argument to win. It’s a mission to be lived out.
I believe that, as Christians, we have a strong logical case for human dignity. I’ve laid out some of it here. But logic alone is not very compelling, nor is it all that God asks of His people. I’m afraid that Christians in the United States have a reputation for wanting to win arguments around human dignity without actually loving people. Fair or unfair, we should take that criticism seriously. In Jesus’ kingdom, it is never enough to be right. One must also be good. Can we practice what we preach? Can we backup our high view of human life with a high commitment to helping others, especially those whom our culture struggles to love? Can we, as Peter admonishes us,
“live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV)?
Here’s my suggestion to help us do this. Let’s sing ourselves an old song, with one emendation: Jesus loves THEM this I know, for the Bible tells me so. I think we would do well to remember that, yes, Jesus loves me, but He also loves them, whoever “them” happens to be in society. Just like the “invalids” in Gattaca, every culture has a “them,” a less than. Christianity has always been known, at its best, to love them well. There is a reason the church has exploded in places like India, where the gospel radically challenges the caste system and raises the dignity of the Dalit, the “untouchables.” It was on the basis of human dignity that chattel slavery was eradicated in the Western world, though it took way too long for that to happen. There’s a reason the Christian faith thrived in Rome, even under heavy persecution, because Christians protected exposed infants meant to die and willingly sacrificed themselves to love others during the plague.
This commitment in particular to human life changed an empire not too long ago.
The immanent frame looks strong. But God’s love is stronger. May we wield it well.