Wednesday, August 5, 2015

We Affirm Human Dignity and Yet We Are So Cruel... Why?

Two living human persons
Recently the news and (especially) the Internet have presented for us some unbearable (but, sadly, not surprising) instances of human beings attacking other human beings.

There are many features of the events we've seen that are especially awful (but, once again, not surprising): the defenseless victims, the callous and ruthless dismissal of their humanity for money, and the pretense that the whole gruesome assault is being carried out in the service of human dignity and human freedom.

What we see here is also a problem that is peculiar to our time. Since the beginning of history there have been violence, murder, cruelty, and human trafficking. The distinctive mark of our emerging epoch, however, is the way we try to cloak all this nasty business under the mantle of "service," of "doing good," of human rights. 

We want to affirm human dignity. We have this sense that it is crucially important to recognize and uphold the value of every human person. This is a tremendously good intention, which has washed up on the shores of the 21st century like a plank from a shipwreck. It is a strong plank. Much can be done with it. But it is not made to float by itself, in the midst of stormy seas.

The dignity of human persons is founded uponindeed consists intheir being created in the image of God, and their eternal destiny in God.

It is the image of God that gives the human person a real inviolable status. Being "someone" means being in relation to the One who is the transcendent origin, sustenance, and fulfillment of all things. It means being a person who can know and love, who can freely give his or herself and who is called to belong freely to God. Ultimately, God alone is worthy of the human person.

Without this foundation, the term "human dignity" becomes subject to all kinds of subtle manipulation. Indeed, even terms like "good" become oblique when they have no roots beyond our own intentions and determination.

And this is the problem. Contemporary Western culture has inherited and in some ways deepened a profound and mysterious crisis about God. In the midst of the titanic explosion of human power over the natural world, God seems to disappear.

Our rationalistic ancestors pushed God to the margins of the universe, and eventually declared His "death." They bequeathed to us not only what they thought to be His "powers," but also the gigantic and perplexing responsibility of His goodness. Now we look at the 21st century and our power is dazzling indeed. We have found it difficult, however, to declare that our works are good.

When God created the world, He saw that it was good (see Genesis 1). We, however, with all our amazing power and its fruits, live in our world without the awareness of God's existence. Not surprisingly, we are racked with anxiety regarding what is good in all our achievements (and there is a great deal of goodwonderful, magnificent goodin the achievements of our time). In fact we are haunted by the ambivalence of what we've done, and we search desperately for some kind of perspective that will allow us to distinguish and foster the good while correcting our failures.

In recent times we have also given great attention to the human person. We have learned so many good things about human life and human aspirations. We have discovered real ways to help people to live with greater dignity, and we want to affirm and build up human persons and communities. But with the eclipse of God and its corresponding dark cosmic solitude, we face this strange paradox: even as we become more knowledgeable about the workings of the world, and more sensitive to various aspects of the dignity and value of the person, we have no way of bringing it all together, and no sure criteria for how to apply our knowledge and our power in complicated and difficult situations.

The result is that—without even realizing it—we gradually but inexorably submit to the "logic" of power itself, which "builds" by dominating and ultimately destroying anything that resists it.

Of course, this is terrifying. No one wants to acknowledge that we are lost, that for all of our good intentions we do not know what is good. Thus, we adopt the intellectual apparatus of power: ideology. We simply affirm the goodness of what we do. We use a veneer of weak argumentation, obfuscation, and deception (especially self-deception).

When all else fails, we assert and define that our way is good even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This means that we also refuse to listen to those who would remind us of our blindness. In any case, it has become especially important for us to feel good about what we do. In the social realm, we want to feel that we are empowering human persons and serving human dignity.

We would like to think we are building a kinder and gentler world. But violence pours in upon us from every side. Even as we become more attentive and more skilled in the art of saving lives in some places, we completely disregard the value of human life in others. We are divided against ourselves: wanting peace but waging war, wanting community but building walls of isolation, seeking healing yet constantly hurting one another. We want to build something beautiful and what emerges from our hands is a grand and spectacular monstrosity.

Such is the world in which God is obscured, and even the most sincere and ardent assertions and feelings about human dignity lose their bearings and cannot engage real life, real human situations, sufferings, and frailty.

I look at myself. I know that God exists, that He is the Source of my very being, and the foundation of my dignity as a person. I know that I am made in His image: He who transcends the whole universe and by this very incomprehensible transcendence is nearer to me than I am to myself. Still, I see how much I fail to remember Him, to live my own life with gratitude, and to love the human persons He has entrusted to me.

It is not enough to acknowledge God. We must open our hearts and let ourselves be loved by Him, so that by the power of His love we are enabled to love Him in return. And still the path is narrow, the path that leads to God and passes through the relationships He gives me with the real human persons who are in my life. Yet I know that here is His gift; here is where I find His face.

With all of this, my life is still full of violence, full of the daily failure to recognize the dignity of the human personthe image of Godin my wife and children, family and friends, and in all the people He places in my path (especially the ones I don't like, or who are inconvenient to me or against memy "enemies").

My life is full of the forgetfulness of God.

My own attitude is still largely shaped by the common mentality of our times that views the world without God, and conditions people to live as if God did not exist. I must first of all recognize this fact about myself. I have no grounds to boast in front of my third millennial brothers and sisters. We are all sinners. I am all the worse, because I have done so little with the understanding that has been given to me.

I am a sinner. I must beg forgiveness for my own sins and resolve to take up once again the arduous struggle for healing and renewal. I do so, however, with confidence, because He offers Himself to me in His mercy. My hope and my strength is in Him.

With penitential hearts, we can (and we must) face the reality of our time: people are trying to build up the world without God—they are desensitized to the need for God by the illusion of spectacular human displays of material power. Whatever may be their good intentions, they conceive a world in which power is the ultimate reality.

How can anyone expect such a world to respect human life?

Still there is something in the confused hearts of people; there is this desire for a better world, and a better, truer life for themselves. The eclipse of God in our time has only rendered more desperate the ineradicable longing of the human heart, however much people try to bury it. People carry this desire in them along with all their violence that weighs them down; it endures, perhaps as a cry for help, a cry that recognizes the need for something else.

We must also take this cry into our own hearts and turn it toward the love of God. We must beg for His mercy and do the works of mercy through which He shows Himself even in the greatest darkness. He defeats violence by answering it with an unconquerable love, and such love resonates even in the places where all the most desperate and most neglected human longings try to hide.

His mercy is our hope, and living the love that reveals and communicates His mercy is our task.