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.

Other people’s minds

Responding to comments on my dignity piece over at MercatorNet is helping me present the core idea in a different way:

Contemplating the fact of other people’s minds (subjective realities) has an effect on one’s psyche such that one may come to a greater appreciation of human dignity/worth and at the same time undermine the passions, vices, and desires that typically drive us to undermine human worth.

Eg. sometimes I get annoyed at people’s comments, like the occasional personal attacks. But then I find myself imagining the person writing the comment, and how their experience of reality is as profoundly subjective as my own. Ie. they have a whole world inside their head, like a movie in which they are, for better and for worse, the protagonist.

I’m nobody in other people’s worlds. All the experiences, insights, challenges and achievements I hold dear; all the struggles, the failures, and even the background noise of expectations – none of that exists at all in most other peoples’ worlds, and where it does exist it is a mere fact, a single dot in the vast collage of their own inner world.

When I imagine that, I can’t help but feel that my own world is smaller. I might be the protagonist in my world, but the unpleasant commenter is the same in his. They mystery of consciousness and all the existential tension of human life exists in him as much as in me.

I find that my mind changes, I no longer feel hostile toward him, because all such feelings are forestalled by the magnitude of this fact of ‘other people’s minds’. I’ve broken out of the small drama in which I’m the protagonist and he’s some ******** who’s insulted me unjustly, into the bigger picture where he and I are the same, playing by the same rules, and more often than not even imprisoned or enslaved by the dramas in our own minds.

This is my approach to understanding ‘dignity’ not so much as a technical term, but as a general and ill-defined idea which crops up all over the place. People refer to it with a confidence that is not matched by any clear definition. I think it is real, and I’ve attempted to show what I believe is the admittedly esoteric reality at the heart of the concept.

The awe-full truth of human dignity


“It’s dignity! Gah! Don’t you even know dignity when you see it?” ~Credit: Sophie Vourlos (“A Milhouse Divided” S8E6)

My latest piece on looks at the other-worldly essence of human dignity:

a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling.