Archives For Human Dignity

Yesterday I wrote about the existence of the external world. This is something that every person has to wrestle with. We can’t deny the existence and the form of the world around us, though some have tried. Even those who deny the external world are still forced to live within it. This unflinching reality is an absolute that all people must take into account. They can believe what they want, but they still have to account for the world’s existence and form.

Vitruvian ManIn this post I will explore a second reality that no one can deny—a concept that Francis Schaeffer referred to as the “mannishness” of man. As ridiculous as that phrasing sounds, all Schaeffer was saying is that human beings are unique. We know we are. There’s something special about us, and we have to wrestle with what makes us special and why we can’t shake the feeling that we are somehow qualitatively different than the rest of the natural world.

As an example, take the human personality. What exactly is a personality? Why do we each have one? Why are we able to relate to one another in a personal way? If this world were nothing more than the product of time plus chance, then there would be absolutely no way to account for the existence of personality. There is simply no way to get something personal out of something impersonal. It doesn’t matter how much time you give it or how creative you believe chance to be.

Nor can personality be accounted for in a pantheistic worldview. If God is everything and everything is God, then God is ultimately impersonal. We may well believe that everything is connected, that we are all part of the “infinite everything,” but if we choose to believe this we are forfeiting any hope of explaining human personality. The best we can do here is believe that personality is an illusion that must be overcome.

Unless our worldview adequately explains the personality of mankind—his ability to relate personally with other personal beings, his ability to love, to show compassion, his moral motions, his will, etc.—then our worldview does not fit the world that exists.

From a Darwinian perspective, it has been said that personality can be accounted for in terms of survival of the fittest. People developed emotions because they saw that this would help them survive and master the other creatures. But this is a stretch. It is not at all clear that the first person to develop emotions would have an evolutionary advantage. In fact, if you developed compassion in a world in which no one else felt compassion, you would be at a huge disadvantage. If you developed the ability to love, but no other being on earth possessed the ability to love you in return, you would be digging yourself a whole. Personality simply cannot be accounted for in a Darwinian framework.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, offers a satisfying explanation of the unique nature of humanity. This world began with a personal God, and this personal God created personal beings according to his image. Man is a created being like everything else in creation. But the Bible is clear that man is unique in that he alone is made in God’s image. This explains the indefinable qualities of human beings, and it perfectly explains the existence of personality.

As I said in yesterday’s post, this undeniable “mannishness” of man is on our side, working on our behalf in the minds of those we are reaching out to. We want them to see the world as it truly is. They can choose to believe in a non-Christian worldview, but they still have to live in the world that God made. This means that at every turn they are living in a world that was formed by the God of the Bible, and they find in themselves and in the people around them an undeniable quality that cannot be explained apart from the personal God who exists and lovingly formed them. They will attempt to suppress this truth (see Romans 1), but it will continue to fight its way into their consciousness, like a thorn in the brain that points them always to the Truth.

 

I have already made a lot of fuss about The Hunger Games (click here, here, or here), but I can’t resist at least one more post. A friend of mine watched the movie in the theater on opening night. The house was packed. The audience rode the emotional roller coaster until the film climaxed with a showdown between the “good” characters (Katniss and Peeta) and the last remaining “bad” character (Cato). And as Cato fell to certain death, the crowd cheered.

Did you catch that? The crowd cheered! As a 16 year old boy—who was born into a corrupt world system that forced children to fight to the death—fell from safety to be eaten by wild dogs, the crowd cheered.

In my first post on The Hunger Games, I said that I creeped myself out when I realized that I was enjoying a story about kids killing each other. As I read the books, I was disgusted by the members of “the Capitol” who were shallow enough to view a forced teenage death match as entertainment. But I realized that I was indicted when I found myself rooting for one of these teens to triumph by killing the others. (To be clear, I enjoyed the books for reasons that are far deeper than the glorification of violence—I’m just admitting that I too got caught up in the drama of the games.)

It’s no stretch to say that Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games in an attempt to show us how shallow we have become—to prophetically announce that we have become so entertainment focused that we will allow gross atrocities to unfold beneath our noses so long as our stomachs and eyes are satisfied.

How terrifying, then, that you could be sitting amongst a few hundred of your fellow citizens, taking in a prophetic statement about your society’s shallow apathy, and then hear them all break into applause when a teenage boy (himself marred and calloused, but human and young nonetheless) falls to his death.

I’m all for enjoying movies, and I’m not saying that the people in the theater with my friend are especially evil. We all have an ingrained desire to see the wicked punished, and in the movie, this 16 year old was behaving wickedly. But I do think that this example shows the extent to which we need to hear Suzanne Collins’ indictment. Is our generation really willing to fight evil in all its forms, even if we have full bellies and diversions galore? We think the coliseum in Rome was a terrible affront to the dignity of man, but can we really claim to be any better? Based on this particular instance, I’d say no.

 

Warning: If you haven’t read all three of the books in the Hunger Games trilogy and plan on reading them, you’re going to want to cover your eyes. Spoilers ahead.

I recently blogged about the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t read that post, I’d suggest starting there. Here’s a quick overview: Panem (formerly North America) has been divided into 13 districts and is dominated by an oppressive regime. The evil empire randomly chooses two teenagers from each district and forces them to fight to the death in the coliseum—I mean, arena. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta (the lucky winners from District 12) defy the capitol by refusing to kill one another in the arena.

In my first Hunger Games post I discussed author Suzanne Collins’ treatment of human dignity. In the face of a completely dehumanizing situation, the reader is forced to wrestle with the value of humanity. In the second and third books, this struggle to affirm human dignity takes on new dimensions.

For most of books 2 and 3, Katniss, Peeta, and other major characters are driven by the desire for revenge. Though they are still trying to survive, they begin to think about fighting back against the oppressive regime. In book three, the rebels launch a full assault on the capitol. On the one hand, the rebels are fighting to see the oppression end. But on the other hand, many of the rebels—and especially the hero, Katniss—are motivated by revenge.

As they come closer to achieving their goal, questions of right and wrong disappear. At one point, as the rebel forces develop atrocious weapons that prey upon their victims’ sense of compassion, Katniss says, “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being” (Mockingjay, 184). Of course, every major religion and ethical system has a clearly communicated understanding of “what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”

The question becomes: To what extent can we disregard human dignity in order to preserve human dignity?

When everything is said and done, Katniss, having endured horrific atrocities, seems to have given up on humanity: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself” (Mockingjay, 377).

Here is where we see the genius of Collins’ books. Her characters are forced to make sense out of mankind at its most destructive. This is something that every generation of soldiers has faced in real life, and it’s the reason so many are physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarred. To a lesser extent, it’s a reality that we all have to make sense of. What do we make of a world in which people mistreat one another so horribly?

Collins does not leave us with an answer to this question. But this is not a flaw in her books. One of the most powerful features of the arts is that it allows us to “grapple with our own problems from a safe distance” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Leland Ryken). In some ways, the effect of The Hunger Games would be reduced if Collins had begun preaching at the end her book. Rather than relieving the tension by telling the reader what to make of it all, Collins leaves us to decide for ourselves. How can we live in a world where human dignity is so frequently trampled upon?

On the last page of the book, Collins has her main character, Katniss, relate an exercise that she works through every time she despairs that every pleasure she has in life will be taken away: “I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.” Collins is certainly not suggesting that this makes everything all right, but it seems to be the best that the scarred Katniss can do.

Here is where the gospel meets The Hunger Games in a beautiful way. People do indeed perform acts of goodness from time to time, but this in no way shapes the value of humanity. Man has value because he has been created by God as a unique and dignified creature. He bears the very image of God. Man’s value is derived from God, not his actions. The Hunger Games effectively leads us to despise human depravity and the oppression that so often stains the human experience, but ultimately there is only one solution to this dilemma. That solution became one of us, gave His life under the heavy hand of an oppressive regime, and then conquered it all by rising from the grave. This solution alone can offer us dignity in the midst of depravity.