The look I freely direct to the other is decisive for my own dignity, too. I can acquiesce in reducing the other to a thing that I use and destroy; but by the same token, I must accept the consequences of the way I use my eyes here.
These consequences will fall on my own head: “You will be measured by the measure with which you measure.” The way I look at the other is decisive for my own humanity. I can treat him quite simply like a thing, forgetting my dignity and his, that both he and I are made in the image and likeness of God. The other is the custodian of my own dignity…
How is it possible for a man to use his eyes in such a way that he perceives and respects the dignity of the other person and guarantees his own dignity? The drama of our times consists precisely in our incapacity to look at ourselves like this – and that is why we find it threatening to look at the other and must protect ourselves against this.
In reality, morality is always embedded in a wider religious context in which it ‘breathes’ and finds its proper environment. Outside this environment, morality cannot breathe: it weakens and then dies.
Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 69-70
Reflection – I was musing just the other day that it is a bit odd that I went from the first year and half of my blog being exclusively dedicated to the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, to almost never having anything by the man on it. A careless reader would think I had grown tired or disenchanted of the man, which is anything but true.
So I thought I would remedy that with at least a couple of days of good old school ‘German Shepherd’ blogging. I have always recommended this book in particular as a good ‘starter’ book for anyone interested in the thought of Pope Benedict. It is topical, timely, weighty without being overly ponderous, and (best of all!) short.
This passage speaks to the heart of our alienation from one another today, the fracturing and fragmenting of humanity into at best little tribal alliances, at worst into sheer atomized units. To look at the other, to see that the other person is just that—a person—endowed with dignity, rights, humanity, someone with whom I can at least potentially enter into communion with—this is increasingly difficult in our secular, polarized world.
It has been the consistent argument of Ratzinger that to really maintain and live out the dignity of the human person, and indeed our own dignity, we have to locate this dignity in something greater than humanity itself. In other words, in a religious context. We are creatures worthy of being treated with dignity, with inalienable rights, because our being is from God, in the image of God, and destined for God.
It is no accident of history that the theory of intrinsic and inalienable human rights emerged in 16th century Europe and was first posited by Dominican friars. They were motivated to draft this theory by the discovery of the New World and the dawning of the age of colonialism, the discovery of vast numbers of human beings who were outside the social order of Christendom, which prior to this had been seen as the necessary matrix of mutual obligation and just treatment.
De las Casas and others developed the theory of human rights directly from Christian theological principles. Sadly, the subsequent colonial history marked so tragically by exploitation, enslavement, and brutality shows that their theories were not adopted as principles of action, which speaks more to the weakness of Christian faith and practice in that era than anything else.
It is nonetheless the case that human dignity, human freedom, and human rights are best held firm, made intellectually viable and given vitality and freshness from a lively faith in a Creator God who is the author of life, and who has endowed human life in particular with a divine significance, vocation, and destiny.
Without this faith—and I believe this is what we are seeing happening in our society now—we see a gradual erosion of the very notion of rights in favor of the exercise of power in service of this or that agenda, lip service paid to rights such as the right to life, to assembly, to religious freedom or freedom of speech, which are quickly trampled if the person in question is inconvenient, costly, or is saying or doing something opposed to the prevailing mores.
Unless civil society is held in being and grounded by something Bigger than civil society, something that holds all human society and culture to judgment, something that makes possible the question ‘Is justice being administered justly?’ (this very question is meaningless in a strictly secular and materialistic world, where there is nothing higher than the law of the land), then the threat of tyranny and ultimately anomic anarchy is always upon us, as I believe it to be in our time.
But - and this where Ratzinger is very strong - the remedy is as near and immediate as how I treat you today, and how you treat me today, and the 'look' towards the other in which the dignity and worth of each person is fully and freely acknowledged. The problem is not 'out there' or 'up there' in places of power and influence, but is right and squarely with you and me and the choice to respect and reverence the other person in his or her otherness.