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Human Dignity in Orthodox Theology

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Nov 23, 2011

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

The notion of human dignity is foundational in the imagination of many desperate people and peoples around the world that dream for greater justice and freedom in their personal and communal space. Respect of human dignity and recognition of human rights demand the development of a culture of peace and justice. The Orthodox Church actively participates together with other Christian churches and communities of living faiths in the building of such a culture of peace with justice for all.

Orthodox theologians have not addressed - or at least do not consider it being crucial to their concerns - the issue of human dignity and rights. The Orthodox critique of the human rights tradition focuses on its reduction, especially in affluent western countries, to a basis that fortifies the self, leads to self-centeredness, and legitimizes self-gratification. This undoubtedly contributes to social fragmentation that endangers human solidarity, love and communion - necessary elements and norms for a compassionate and just community. While the criticism of Orthodoxy against the philosophical and theological basis of the human rights tradition may be an important remedy to its current crisis, Orthodox theologians must also be critical of oppressive communal structures of dominance that do not allow people to be different or do not recognize their differences within their communal life. In other words, the turn to subjectivity as it has been developed in the West may be an important corrective to the totalistic inclinations of communal life. At the same time, the Orthodox emphasis on communal life and the primacy of relations is also an equally important corrective to western individualism and social fragmentation. The choice that we have is not either/or, neither it is an issue of balance between human subjectivity and community but of a continuous reflexive relationship of mutual enrichment.

Orthodox churches living in oppressive contexts as persecuted and oppressed minorities appeal to the notion of human dignity and rights for their survival and participation in the communal life with dignity and freedom. The recognition that the notion of human dignity and rights has captured the imagination of people throughout the world who desire to live free from oppressive external powers, along with the current global discussions about human dignity and rights, is an invitation for Orthodox theology to contribute, in an intelligible and communicable language, its spiritual resources and insights.  The conversation of Orthodoxy with other Christian traditions, as well as religious and secular ideologies, on the notion of human dignity may bring a certain freshness and clarity to theological anthropology, which has not been one of the liveliest areas of theology.

For Christian thought, human dignity is grounded on the biblical and patristic tradition that human beings are created in God’s image. Human existence has its origins, sustenance and maturation in loving relationships with God, significant others, and the material world. These relationships are not external, attached to an already existing human substance; they are internal and constitutive of human identity.  Human beings exist within a set of structures of relationships, which are constitutive for their being. The crucial question is how we actively contribute to the relationships that shape our identity. Do we, for instance recognize, the created sociality of all human beings or do we contradict it by constructing our subjectivity as a denial of all sociality? Furthermore, given the fact that relationships can be either life enhancing or dehumanizing, it is important to seek, develop, and sustain relationships that allow and promote the flourishing of life for all human beings.

Christian theological anthropology locates primarily the humanum not in the relationship of humans to themselves (i.e., capacity for reflection, self-consciousness) or in their relationship to the world, but in God, whose love as life-giving reality is extended unconditionally to all. Theologically, human dignity is a quality which humans possess apart from and independent of any capacity they possess in their relationship to themselves or to the world. The dignity of each human being originates in God’s creating, redeeming and deifying grace that enables human beings to transcend their self-existence and move towards the fullness of their humanity in life sustaining and life transforming relations. It is only in communion that human beings become truly what they are destined to be by God.

Though both theology and secular thinking have a sense of human dignity as universal, they handle this in a very different way. Human dignity in theology is primarily seen as God’s unconditional gift to all people while for others it is viewed as an inherent quality of each human being as an essential self. There are, however, different ways in which something can be experienced as a gift. It is possible for people to feel demeaned or patronized by being told that something is a gift when they feel it is a basic part of their nature or constitution, or something to which they are entitled.  For others, however, receiving a gift is a highly affirming experience and something very much to be welcomed. Seeing dignity as a gift carries tasks and obligations appropriate to good stewardship of the gift, whereas seeing it as a right carries no such obligation. When a Christian tradition speaks of something being a gift of God, though the latter is intended, sometimes, in the context of post-enlightenment thought, it is heard as being patronizing.

In Christian theology, everything that is appropriate for human beings are gifts of God. Thus, human dignity is not a self-grounded possession enjoyed apart from relationship to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. As Chrysostom writes memorably in a sermon on Philippians, “Humans possess dignity of rational nature, but this comes to them as a gift, not as something they have earned. Hence there is no natural preeminence amongst us, for no good thing is naturally our own.” Because God confers human dignity, its measure and norm is to be discovered not in social convention but in God and in the pattern of God’s action toward humankind in creation and redemption in Christ. In response to critics of Christianity who found it ridiculous that “poor, unskilled people should dispute about heavenly things,” Minucius Felix (late second or third century) replied, “let him know that all men are begotten alike, with a capacity and ability of reasoning and feeling, without preference of age, sex, or honor”.

The perception that every human being has an inherent dignity is insufficient to embrace the totality of life and theologically is seen to be a static notion.  It leaves no scope for a dynamic unfolding of God’s purpose in relation to human dignity. A Christian theology of dignity needs to be balanced by an eschatological approach; creation is a continuing process and consequently it is inseparable from eschatology. This requires that we distinguish different senses of dignity. In one sense, we have dignity already, but in another sense, we do not have dignity in all its fullness. There is both a present actuality and a future potentiality about human dignity.  Both are essential to an adequate theology of dignity and holding the doctrine of creation and eschatology together shows us how the absolute or universal concept of human dignity must be kept always in relation to a relative or qualitative one.

A theology of creation gives us an absolute concept of dignity that bestows dignity on all, without any variations or exceptions. However, this affirmation needs to be complemented by a qualitative concept of dignity that reflects the extent to which the potential that comes from being made in the image of God is or has been realized. The distinction between being made in the “image” of God and growing in his “likeness” has been used in this way.  People differ to the extent they have realized the potential that comes from being created in the image of God.  At present, fuller dignity to which we all are called, and for which we can hope, is more completely realized in some people than in others.  All, however, are called to a fuller realization of the dignity that is part of God’s purpose. People can thus live in the space created between the basic dignity that is given to them and the fuller dignity to which they are called.  It makes a crucial difference how this is experienced.  The proper human experience of dignity depends on keeping open the axis between the dignity that we have already as gift and the fuller dignity that we are promised and toward which we are called. To see dignity solely as necessary property of human beings, as Enlightenment thought tends to do, is to lose touch with the eschatological promise that the dignity of humanity can become more  of a reality. On the other hand, if dignity is seen entirely as something that might develop more fully in the future, with no sense that it is already in some basic sense present, there would be no constraints on current indignities. If the only concept of dignity that we can affirm in the political realm of life is the universal dignity of all as an inherent quality of every human being then it might be assumed that human dignity could be neither destroyed nor improved upon.  Only if there is a sense that human dignity could become more of a reality than is presently the case, people can be motivated toward a betterment of human conditions.  This sense of dignity as something that remains to be realized can be seen as an invitation and promise, a possibility that is held out to people, and to which they are invited to respond.

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Systematic Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

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