Field Notes article

A Reply to Thomas Banchoff and Abdulaziz Sachedina (Part 1)

In talking about human dignity we are trying to see how secular humanists, Muslims and Catholic Christians have found a way to affirm that each human person is worthy of being treated with a respect which transcends that accorded to mere things.

Banchoff rightly identifies Kant as being a key source here for the idea as we encounter it in the human rights tradition that we are trying to engage with. Persons are always and everywhere to be treated as means and never as mere ends. (Obviously there is a further question for us these days: exactly who or what qualify as being persons? The evolutionary worldview, for instance, does indeed break down the absolute ontological privilege.) So one obvious way to proceed is to ask if Muslims and Catholics have the necessary resources in their traditions to enable them to sign up, in good faith, to this principle. The rest of my comments in this blog assume that assumption to be valid. However, I have important reservations about it which I shall explore in a subsequent blog.

It’s an obvious point to make but I’ll make it anyway: when religions think about human dignity they are, as religions, obliged to address the question by asking if and how God accords us dignity. How is it that God can respect us, animated bits of clay that we are? It’s from this theological basis that we then proceed to the question of how we are to respect one another. Secular humanism dispenses with the theological question (which is surely the point of being a secular humanist) and is therefore obliged to ground its Kantian regard for human personhood on ‘secular’ grounds, as Banchoff rightly asserts. (What those secular grounds are and whether they are powerful is another question. I think there are, broadly speaking, three types: the dictates of reason, the ‘nature’ of human beings as outlined by some sort of scientific account, and straightforward myth — though this is usually dressed up as one of the other two.) So how do our religions make the claim that we human beings have some kind of special dignity in God’s eyes?

It’s not quite as easy saying that it is because we are created by God. After all, inanimate things are created too; how does merely being created entitle a human being to a higher dignity in God’s eyes than rocks or plants? Christians and Muslims agree that the answer to that question is to be gleaned from the kind of creatures human beings are. Christians understand humans as being made in the image and likeness of God, an ontological privilege shared, apparently, with no other being. And the Qur’an describes the human being as a vicegerent (khalifa) of God. The two metaphors (‘image’ and ‘successor’) sound as though they come from different semantic fields but there are good reasons for thinking that they actually home in on the same basic thought: that human agency is structured in a way that mirrors God’s own agency, a fact that allows human beings to exercise a function in the created order analogous to God’s.

That would certainly seem to do the trick for human dignity. However, both traditions present us with narratives which suggest that we humans have proven not to be fully up to the task of living out our divinely ordained dignity. The book of Genesis recounts the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden in which, according to later Christian thought, the image of God in us was impaired. Meanwhile, the Qur’an shows the dismay of the angels at what they take to be God’s folly in according human beings this unique duty: ‘Will You place someone there who will corrupt it and shed blood, while we hymn Your praise and sanctify You?’ (Qur’an 2:30). God is not deterred by these angelic protestations but the Qur’an’s on-going complaint is that human beings seem oblivious to what has been asked of them and typically defy the prophets who come from God to remind and warn them.

So there is a weakness in arguing for human dignity from the special status of human beings in creation: what happens when (some of) those human beings don’t match up to the role assigned to them by God? Perhaps they forfeit their dignity? From that simple thought proceeds the dark underside of religious history — the conceptual poverty that ends up denying dignity to human beings who appear to, or who actually have refused God’s call. Herein also lies the anxiety of those who wonder whether Muslims can be religiously motivated to commit to secular democracy and respect for religious minorities (an anxiety held with regard to Catholics, let’s not forget, until the Second Vatican Council committed the Church by issuing a strong doctrinal statement on religious freedom). Is full human dignity only to be accorded to believers or can it be extended to people of other religions and or no religions at all?

So dignity by virtue of creation alone doesn’t quite work. Christianity has a fallback position, however: human personhood is worthy of an absolute sort of respect because the imago dei has been repaired by the descending love of God in Christ. And since Christ descended towards all human beings, there is a real sense in which the dignity of non-believers has been somewhat restored by God’s free grace. I am no expert in this area but one of my colleagues, Dominic Robinson SJ recently wrote about the doctrine of the imago dei in contemporary Christian theology: “Through greater emphasis on Christ’s descent, human identity may now be placed more clearly in the perspective of God’s presence within us, thus emphasising the dignity of each human person in whom God, in descending to us in the person of his Son, resides.” (p.159). There is, then, I think, more to it than just creation, from a Christian point of view, when it comes to understanding how we are endowed with dignity; there is also the work of salvation in Christ. And this has the happy corollary of calling Christians to accord dignity to all human persons, regardless of their beliefs, something they have clearly not always succeeded in doing through history and which still challenges many of them, both in theory and in practice.

Is there a fallback position for Muslims — a religious datum that ensures that non-Muslims are accorded the same dignity as believers? That is a question I think a Muslim had better answer.


Damian Howard
Damian Howard SJis Lecturer in Theology at Heythrop College, University of London. His research engages with Islamic theology and contemporary Islamic thought, drawing parallels and contrasts with the concepts and experiences that shape the Christian tradition. He is the author of Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview(2011), which examines the impact of the evolutionary worldview on Islamic conceptions of human identity.

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