May 27, 2013
Christianity and secular liberalism both hold the enhancement of human dignity to be one of society's key goals. However, what those two traditions each mean by "human dignity" is quite different. To understand what is happening in today's society, it is helpful to explore those different meanings.
The biblical tradition sees the human person as created in God's image and likeness. The person is a being defined by his or her relationships with God and others and who has the capacity for eternal life. For secular liberalism, the human person is essentially an individual, and his or her dignity is seen in terms of autonomy and equality among persons.
These different understandings of the person lead to different understandings of society and how it is best organized.
For the Christian, society is organized around a belief in a loving God who has revealed the natural order of his creation to us. For the secularist, religion is a private matter that should not affect societal decisions.
For the Christian, marriage is a covenant and a child is a welcome gift who enhances that covenant. A society can only be strong if its families are strong. For the secularist, marriage is a contract; whether to have children is a choice. Institutions such as the family, Church and tradition undermine human dignity if they constrain individual liberty.
For the Christian, society is more important than the state. Solidarity with the poor and outcast is essential. While solidarity is best exercised through voluntary acts of charity, the state also has a role in protecting the common good. For the secularist, there are only two alternatives – individual initiative or an ever-expanding government. Society will either become oblivious to the poor or dependent on a vast bureaucracy.
For the Christian, personal virtue is the foundation of the good society. Moral limits and responsibilities help to build virtue. For the secularist, what takes precedence is the personal liberty principle - each person has a right to do what does not harm others.
The Christian believes we ought to be concerned with how our actions affect future generations and that self-denial and suffering can have moral, even redemptive, value. The secularist believes that progress consists in increasing material comfort. The Christian believes there can be too much comfort and that excessive emphasis on comfort weakens the soul and society.
This brief sketch - while perhaps oversimplied - shows that while both Christians and secularists extol human dignity, they do not mean the same thing. A chasm exists between a society a Christian would see as dignified and one the secularist would see in that light. It also shows that our disagreements on particular societal issues often stem from radically different understandings of what it means to be human.
Glen William Argan
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