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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. The value of the human being as the bearer of the Image of God and his dignity (Address to the seminar ‘Faithfulness to Traditional Christian Values and Freedom of Conscience’, Moscow, December 20, 2006)
THE VALUE OF THE HUMAN
BEING AS THE BEARER OF THE
IMAGE OF GOD AND HIS DIGNITY
Address to the seminar ‘Faithfulness to Traditional Christian Values and
Freedom of Conscience’, Moscow, December 20, 2006.
The great Russian classical writer Anton Chekhov once said, through the mouth of the hero of his well-known play Uncle Vanya: ‘Everything in man should be beautiful: his face, his clothing, his soul, his mind.’ If in the play the hero (the doctor Michael Levovich Astrov) utters this phrase more sneeringly than seriously, this phrase has become widely quoted. By using the word ‘should’ the writer has enunciated a sort of general rule. This tells us that in most people lies a deep-seated desire for improvement, a dissatisfaction with the present state of man and the desire to correct it.
Dissatisfaction with man’s current situation and the desire to improve it are common to any culture and to most religious traditions which have a high idea of man’s destiny.
At the same time, most peoples of the world understand that there is something in human nature or in the outside world that prevents man from fulfilling that purpose. Put simply, universal experience tells us that naive and empty self-satisfaction at man’s present condition and the blind defence of everything that is in man at a given moment cannot serve as a serious basis to humanity.
Different religious and philosophical traditions offer their various ways of bridging this gap in man’s inner world. Christianity most clearly captures this ambivalent position of man and offers the
most direct way to overcome it: what in Christian language is called salvation.
The biblical story of the Creation tells unambiguously of the high position man that originally occupied in the created world. Man crowned the earthly creation as it appeared at the end of God’s creative act. Indeed God created man in a very special way, by breathing His own breath into already created matter. Whereupon God created a special home for man on earth, the Garden of Eden, giving him dominion over all living creatures.
The great fourth-century theologian, St. Gregory Nazianzen, writes of man’s place in the created world: ‘The life-creating Word creates a living being in the form of man that shows the unity of both invisible and visible nature. From already created matter he takes the body, but from Himself inserts life, to create a sort of second world, a macrocosm within a microcosm. He places on earth another angel, a worshipper drawn from different races, a spectator of visible creation, holder of the secret of contemplatable creation, king over everything on earth, subject of the heavenly kingdom... ‘ (Second Sermon for Easter, chap. 6-7).
Peculiar to human nature, in the common Christian view, are the image and likeness of God, placed in it by God at creation and inseparable from it. Commonly, no distinction is made between these two words of Sacred Scripture - image and likeness - which are considered as denoting the same thing. Nevertheless, the very use of two expressions is not accidental, because behind them lie two different aspects of the involvement of human nature in the life of the Deity.
Another great Christian theologian St. Basil the Great very clearly explains the difference between the two: ‘We receive the one by our creation, we acquire the other of our free will. In the initial dispensation it was given to us to be born in God’s image, through our free will is formed in us being the likeness of God... ‘Let us make man in our image’ (Genesis 1:26). Man has command over creation according in the image, but he is also intended to become in accordance with the likeness. God gave the power to do
so. If He had created you in the likeness also, what would you stand to gain? Why would you be crowned? And if the Creator gave you everything, simply opened up the kingdom of heaven for you? But the fact is that one part is given to you, but the other part remains incomplete.This is so that man can complete this other part himself, and be worthy of the reward coming from God.’ (On the Origin of Man, I, 16-17).
Although based on human values, the contemporary political and legal systems of all civilized countries fail to reflect this dynamic nature of the human person. State and society are very often called upon to defend man as he is. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a situation in which people are accepted and defended regardless of religion, nationality, gender or age. But increasingly, state and society are ceasing to assist the spiritual development of man towards any, even the most elementary of moral goals. This nonintervention they justify by the duty of protection of personal freedom of choice and the reluctance to push people to do anything.
In my opinion, this disengagement of state and society from people’s moral and spiritual education does not reflect the natural needs of each person, and is therefore doomed to dire consequences. The social structure must reflect and support man’s aspiration to improve, otherwise it will deteriorate and fall apart.
Of course, in today’s multi-religious society, both within the borders of the individual state and on a global scale, it is impossible to apply Christian theological concepts as a foundation for this property of human nature. The concept of ‘human dignity’, properly understood, might well help in addressing this problem. In its first sense, ‘dignity’ refers to a certain position which a person takes in a particular system: of the universe, or of one or the other social or political structure. In addition, we use the word ‘dignity’ to positively assert the value of man. Of a villain we never say that he has dignity, because his actions do not correspond to man’s high destiny. This concept of dignity can be correlated with the biblical notion of the likeness. At the same time, the biblical concept of the image is very close to the concept of the inherent value of man. Indeed,
Christians believe that the image of God is indelible from man. It can be darkened, but not removed. For this reason any and every person has value, regardless of his actions and the state of mind.
In my opinion, today we must not just talk on every corner of the dignity of man, but do everything possible to contribute to its development. Dignity is not something granted. It is something that must be fought for and nurtured.This does not mean that I propose to conduct a selection exercise and determine who has this dignity, and who does not. We simply should not consider as dignity that which already exists in every person. This is a fallacy and an error.
Dignity is something that has to be developed. I believe it is the duty of the state and society to confront each person with the task of developing his or her dignity. They not only have to guarantee people’s freedom, but to try to give it some sort of direction, by introducing and promoting examples of good living.
I am confident that such a dynamic understanding of human dignity would help us build a system of social development which would more adequately answer to the needs of human nature.
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