Human dignity, cosmic hierarchies
by Ken Myers
Political scientist Robert Kraynak, a guest on Volume 54 of our Journal, was the joint editor of a book titled In Defense of Human Dignity: Essay for Our Times (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). He contributed one of the chapters to the book, “‘Made in the Image of God’: The Christian View of Human Dignity and Political Order.” He looks at three views of human dignity: the view advanced in the Bible, the view developed in the Middle Ages, and what he calls the “Kantian-Christian view,” which relies heavily on en Enlightenment understanding of human freedom.
In concluding his essay, Kraynak writes: “The main problem with the modern view can be stated quite simply: It overstates the dignity of man, both collectively as a species and individually as persons. Lurking behind much of modern Christianity is the fear that modern science has given us a cosmos that consists of dumb matter, silently and indifferently obeying the mathematical laws of physics without any sign of God’s Providence or Nature’s benevolence. In such a universe, man alone has dignity — a dignity that is absolute or infinitely precious (as in the principle that human life, as mere biological existence, is sacred). Yet even Pascal, who often resembles Kant in speaking of the dignity of man in the indifferent universe of modern science, reminds us that ‘there are perfections in nature to show that she is the image of God and imperfections to show that she is no more than His image’ (Pensees, #934). Following Pascal’s thought (which in this passage is more medieval than modern), I would argue that it makes more sense to conceive of man not as an absolutely unique being in the cosmos but as the highest creature on a hierarchy of perfection in which all of nature participates a universe in which all beings partake to some degree in the likeness and goodness of God (and that may also include mysterious beings that equal or surpass humans as intelligent beings).
“Some modern environmentalists have begun to push Christianity in this direction, diminishing the absolute uniqueness of man by conceiving of the human species as part of an interconnected and self-adjusting natural order, thereby balancing one-sided Kantianism in which man alone possesses dignity and one-sided scientism in which nature is purely raw material for mastery. But environmentalists often err in losing sight of human distinctiveness, not to mention human superiority, in an indiscriminate pantheism where everything is equally sacred. A more balanced view is that nature is a created order of God, the whole of which is a likeness of God in its vastness, age, complexity, and intelligible order but which also points to man as its peak, the rational creature made in the image of God. Yet, the justification for that ranking remains mysterious, since no one can prove conclusively that mind or intelligence had to appear for the completion of the universe. Man’s intelligence appears to us as a kind of perfection, but we have no idea if this is really why God favors man with his revelation and the possibility of eternal life. Hence, human dignity depends in the last analysis on our mysterious election by God and only secondarily on our rational souls; in such a world, human dignity is a type of comparative ranking in a divinely created hierarchy of beings rather than the absolute worth of an absolutely unique being.
“A second problem with the modern Kantianized version of Christianity is that it tends to equate the dignity of man with the rights of an autonomous being rather than with a soul that is both divine and sinful and that needs to be elevated by subordinating the personality to a higher order of being and even to human hierarchies. This traditional idea is wholly compatible with Christianity, despite its disfavor in the modern world. For, contrary to the belief of many modern Christians and even some anti-Christians (like Nietzsche), Christianity is not a purely democratic or egalitarian religion; it is a hierarchical religion. Of course, Christianity often opposes the hierarchies of the world (as measured by birth, wealth, power, talent, and physical beauty) and therefore often conflicts with the world, as it did in pagan Rome. But Christianity opposes worldly hierarchies with hierarchies of its own; and it does not have as its primary mission the abolition of worldly hierarchies but merely their recognition as the inescapable follies of a fallen world where ‘man judges by appearances while God judges the heart.’ As the lives of the saints and the practices of the most devout religious and monastic orders have shown, the soul cannot be elevated without suppressing the personality or the autonomous will of the person through the discipline of prayer, work, silence, service, song, suffering, and obedience to hierarchies.
“Precisely because it is hierarchical, however, Christianity is not the absolute enemy of democracy in the secular or temporal realm — that is, in the realm of politics (which also includes economics and social class). For according to the proper understanding of the hierarchy of ends, the temporal realm is of secondary importance compared to the spiritual realm and is therefore largely governed by prudence or prudential considerations. Yet, the secondary status of politics does not mean that it is a matter of indifference. It means that politics is generally distinguished from spiritual matters and should focus on the mundane but necessary and difficult business of maintaining stable order and national security, punishing the wicked, inculcating decent moral habits to sustain responsible freedom and justice, cultivating a certain kind of civic piety, and, above all, ‘doing no harm’ (that is, not forcing citizens to be immoral or impious).
“Kantian Christianity confuses this point by turning spiritual duties into political rights by making charity for our neighbors a matter of respecting their rights and empowering people to claim their rights. But charity is of a different order than justice, however justice is conceived, because charity is sacrificial love and therefore is not owed or deserved like justice. Moreover, charity is required by divine law; but no particular political regime — neither monarchy nor democracy nor even theocracy — is required by divine law in Christianity. Up until the seventeenth century (and even up to the twentieth century), most Christian thologians understood this to mean that a variety of different regimes could be legitimate, depending on the circumstances, as long as the relatively modest goals of the earthly city could be achieved. Hierarchical regimes — monarchy or mixed regimes — were thought to be most suitable on prudential grounds for promoting order, moral virtue, and a certain degree of civic piety.
“Following this traditional approach, a case could be made today on prudential grounds for all constitutionally limited regimes, including constitutional democracy or republicanism. The crucial question in the contemporary world, however, should not be confined to the issue of establishing stable order and responsible freedom but must emphatically raise the issue of ‘doing no harm.’ For today’s democracies are closely tied to ideologies of rights and empowerment that often coerce citizens, either through the state or through social pressure that imposes a degraded culture, to be immoral and impious. If that is so, then democratic regimes would not pass the prudential test, and hierarchical regimes might be more justified. Serious proponents of Kantianized Christianity are certainly aware of the danger of exalting rights about religious duties, but they often seem inconsistent because they promote and at the same time condemn the culture of rights. The challenge of our age is therefore to combine a hierarchical view of human dignity in the realm of Christian spirituality (which includes the church and the family) with a qualified view of the democratic political order that is guided by sober prudence rather than by Kantian rights. If we can achieve that delicate balance, we will have made an important contribution to defending the true and authentic dignity of man.”