Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 22, 2004
We are created in God's image
Jordan lecturer says dignity must be extended to all
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Developing an understanding of human nature that is grounded in Christ and ethically responsible in a world marked by suffering, economic disparities, violence and ecological devastation needs to remain a Christian goal, says Dominican Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert.
And she said any new anthropology (understanding of human nature) should be based on our understanding that the human person has been created in the image of God.
Speaking at Newman Theological College March 13, Hilkert noted that the religious symbol of the human person as "created in the image of God" has traditionally functioned as a root metaphor for the Christian understanding of the human person.
It is also the religious way of grounding the inviolability of human dignity, and the basis for defending the human rights of all persons, she said.
"Thus the 1979 United States Catholic bishops' pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us, for example, condemns racism precisely because it divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father."
God's word in Genesis, she said, announces that all men and women are created in God's image; not just some races and racial types, but all bear the imprint of the Creator and are enlivened by the breath of his one Spirit.
Hilkert, a professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame and vice-president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, was the guest speaker at the 2004 Anthony Jordan Lecture Series March 12-13.
Grace Enfleshed: Resources for a Contemporary Theological Anthropology was the title of her three lectures. More than 200 people attended.
While philosophical debate continues about the precise meaning of personhood, the need for protection of human rights grows more urgent, the theologian told her audience.
Postmodern theorists maintain that any attempt to define the human person or to universalize human experience is doomed, she said.
But "ethicists repeatedly remind us that to abandon the ability to make claims about the dignity and rights of human persons only allows repressive power structures to operate without critique, which is to say, at the expense of the most vulnerable.
For his part, theologian Edward Schillebeeckx argues that the experience of human suffering in all its forms should be the starting point for any Christian anthropology, Hilkert noted.
"If Jesus Christ is the one in whom we recognize the face of God, the image of God is to be found in the crucified peoples of today," she quoted the theologian as saying.
"If the fundamental symbol of God is the living human being - the image of God - then the place where human beings are humiliated, tortured, and forgotten, as individuals or as a community, by persons or violent structures, is at the same time, the privileged place where religious experience . . . becomes possible."
Hilkert said that only when we have experienced a glimpse of what it means for persons to live in communion, when we have had some experience of what just and mutual relationships look like, when we have seen the triumph of the human spirit in spite of the violation or denials of others, can we recognize situations of dehumanization or the denial of human dignity as "blotting out the image of God in others."
"Without positive glimpses of what constitutes human dignity, happiness and fulfillment, the negativity of evil and suffering would lead to the conclusion that life is absurd and unjust and that there is no inherent dignity in human persons," she said.
While human history remains finite, ambiguous, and threatened, human beings in our situated freedom remain responsible for shaping the course of history, Hilkert said.
"In so doing we can't rely on a natural law derived from unchanging human nature. Rather we are called to exercise critical judgment in our specific set of circumstances in deciding what will further a truly livable future for humanity and the earth."
There is no blueprint for the future, yet Schillebeeckx maintains that "we do have a set of 'anthropological constants' which point to enduring human impulses, orientations, and values, but not with specific ethical norms or imperatives," the sister said.
The first constant promotes enjoyment and celebration of nature and the body, creative use of technology towards fuller life, but at the same time recognition of our fundamental limits and boundaries, and responsibilities to and for all creation.
Schillebeeckx's second and third constants remind us that human beings are fundamentally relational and social, noted Hilkert.
The well being and wholeness of humanity (in religious terms, salvation) requires that recognition of the dignity of the other extend to every human person, not only to a privileged few, the sister stressed.
"Further, it requires a recognition that social and institutional structures are necessary human creations that foster or limit personhood and freedom.
"A commitment to the future of humanity requires active involvement to change structures that dehumanize and enslave and to develop institutions that foster human freedom and well-being. "
A fourth constant of human experience is that we are historically, geographically, and culturally conditioned, Hilkert said.
This realization carries with it the responsibility of reflecting critically on our concrete situation and to understand that concrete demands are made upon us in light of our particular situation in history.
In the present, for example, "because of our general prosperity Western nations have a duty to international solidarity, above all to poor countries."
Fifth, Schillebeeckx asserts that for human history to remain truly human, rather than to become a history of the strong and the powerful, will require both action and reflection, Hilkert pointed out.
The final constant, which Schillebeeckx identifies as the "utopian element" in human consciousness, consists of some sort of worldview that envisions life as meaningful and provides hope for the future.
"This constant which he also identifies as a 'religious or para-religious consciousness' constitutes a form of faith in the ultimate meaning and worthwhileness of life as part of the health and integrity of human life," Hilkert said.
"Without it, human persons lose their identity and genuinely human action becomes impossible."