When the human person is no longer seen as standing under God’s protection and bearing God’s breath, then he begins to be viewed in a utilitarian fashion. It is then that the barbarity appears which tramples upon human dignity.
In the Beginning, 60
Reflection – Lily Tomlin, in a one woman Broadway show that was a big hit back in the 1980s (I misremember the name of it right now!) had a line I’ve always remembered. “I always wanted to be someone,” she said, “but I now realize I should have been more specific.”
Human dignity, human value, the precious gift of each human person as a ‘someone’ and not a ‘something’—this is something the whole wide world, or at least those of us in the post-Christian West, can easily get on board with. Of course every human being is precious and valuable and all that good stuff.
But why? Our behavior is not always so precious and valuable. Our ideas and desires are not so unique and fascinating: most people tend to fall into a fairly conformist mode of life and thought. We’re not all rock stars, fashion models, or Mensa members.
Without God’s protection and God’s breath, can we credibly uphold human dignity and specialness? Without God, who is this ‘someone’ who is supposed to be worth so much. What’s the specific that makes me someone you or anyone should care about?
In fact, the history of the last hundred years (and indeed deeper and broader human history) shows that outside of this sense of God’s love and inestimable valuing of each human person, there has been little if any sense of human dignity, human worth. The poor and wretched, in particular, have been accorded little value and no rights in much of the world, for much of the human story. It’s hardly self-evident, this human dignity and worth business.
Christianity did bring this into the world, admittedly not as quickly as one would have liked, and with a terrible uphill battle against precisely the barbarism Ratzinger describes in this passage. But it is a historical fact that the very notion of human rights flowing from our divine origin and destiny is wholly a product of Christian theology reflecting on the doctrines of creation and redemption.
Without God to protect us and hold us in his love, we are very vulnerable to all the forces of barbarism: exploitation, political repression, utilitarian calculation, and the unfettered killing of the weak and helpless who come out on the wrong side of the equation.
As God is increasingly thrown to the side of social structures or worse, thrown in the ‘dustbin of history’ as an irrelevant relic of past superstition, we must take here. Where are we to find a secure notion of human dignity and freedom? The state? Academia? Market forces? A vague trust in human goodness? Have any of these shown themselves to be reliable guardians of these values?We have to ask ourselves these questions, and ask them of those who want to forge an entirely secular ethic. Barbarism looms before us; some would argue that a society where babies can be killed at the will of their mothers has already gotten there. And so we have to ask: without God, where does human dignity come from and where is it held secure?