Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Christmas tells us about human dignity

Last Christmas I posted excerpts from a piece by Carson Holloway in Public Discourse. They are worth re-posting. Holloway writes:
I would suggest that the ethical core of Western Civilization—or at least a key principle by which it distinguished itself from what it regarded as savagery and barbarism—is respect for the dignity of humanity and of the individual human person. This is the moral principle underpinning the more obvious institutional characteristics such as the rule of law, constitutionalism, limited government, and division of social authority among various centers of power. All of these expedients share a common aim: limiting the power of some people over others, and especially limiting the power of the strong over the weak. This aim in turn is informed by the sense that all people deserve such protection, that they all possess a certain dignity that ought not be abused.

The celebration of Christmas has been a powerful teacher of the dignity of the human person. For Christians, Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation—the celebration of the moment when God became a man in order to live among men. It shows that God thought of human beings as worthy of being saved, and that he sought to save them by taking on humanity in a perfected form, thus opening the way to their own perfection. Christian belief in the Incarnation is thus inseparable from belief in the objective, and even transcendent, value of the human race as a whole, and of each human person as an individual.

Belief in the Incarnation further implies a certain egalitarianism that has also been important to Western Civilization. According to Christian teaching, all are sinners, and none can claim to be fundamentally superior to others in this important respect. Conversely, and more positively, God wanted to save all people, of all ranks, from their sins and to open the way to a lofty destiny for them all. Thus the Christian understanding of the Incarnation has been important in fostering the West's sense that, whatever social order may require in terms of hierarchy and rank, there is an irreducible moral equality of all human beings: all are owed a certain respect, even the lowliest among us.

Moreover, the story of the Incarnation, the Christmas story, emphasizes this equality and powerfully presents it to the imagination. As the story goes, the God who became man chose to be born into a family of no outstanding social importance, one supported by a man who had to work with his hands. Jesus was born in circumstances of poverty, and his birth was first announced not to the princes of the earth but to the ordinary shepherds to be found at hand. As he grew to manhood and carried out his public mission, Jesus chose to continue to live, work, and teach primarily among the common working people of the world. According to the Christian story, God teaches not only by his doctrines but by his actions that all men are equal in their fundamental human dignity.
Another observation: Jesus came into the world in the same condition all of us do, first as a zygote, embryo and fetus, then as a newborn baby in the manger. He came into the world in the most vulnerable and needy condition imaginable -- evidence, I think, that dependency is completely irrelevant to the dignity of human beings, who deserve profound respect and protection at all stages of life and in all conditions.