Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.

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