Every human life is uniquely precious, of inestimable dignity, and worthy of being valued and protected. That truth, and the ways in which it is both affirmed and denied in our Western culture, has recently been clarified for me in four different ways that I wish briefly to recount.
The first thing I want to recount is a passage I came across from the publication, Euthanasia, Clinical Practice, and the Law, edited by Luke Gormally and published by the Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics in 1994. I think this passage beautifully articulates the truth about the dignity of human persons from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian worldview. The authors reflect,
Why God should have brought us into existence as ‘persons created for their own sake’ is deeply mysterious. So we should not be particularly surprised if we also find it mysterious that God sees meaning and value in every part – even the most miserable and reduced – of the lifespan he allots us. But that God can and does is central to the faith of Israel and to Christian faith. His ways are not our ways, and the particular workings of his purposes are inscrutable to us. . .. The ultimate source of the dignity and inviolability of the human being is God’s creative love and loving purpose, which are at the depth of the mystery of every human person, and uniquely for everyone.
Secondly, I want to share a thought that came to me while reading an article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “One World, Two Internets” with the subtitle beginning, “As China and the West race for 5G dominance.” In the course of reporting on that “race,” the article relates how the values upheld or enforced in Western societies – rights of individuals to privacy, free speech, and informed consent – affect our experience and development of the internet and digital technologies in ways that contrast with non-Western societies.
It seems obvious to me that the Western world’s concern for individual rights is a result – perhaps a remnant – of its Christian heritage. Those values were not particularly characteristic of the West’s pagan past and, as this article reports, they do not generally characterize the non-Western present. That is not to say the Christian past is without fault in its valuation of individual rights. But Western Christendom is the culture in which our recognition of individual rights is rooted. And the post-Christian West still values the dignity of individual humans in significant ways.
In other ways – and this brings me to my third observation – our culture increasingly denies the value of human individuals and does not recognize their rights. That was recently demonstrated by the passage of the new abortion law in New York State. Of course, abortion has long been legal in New York and in the rest of the United States and the new law just extends the longstanding permission of killing unborn children in our society. Nevertheless, is it profoundly sad, not only to realize that more innocent children will now be exposed to legally sanctioned killing, but also to see our governing bodies, which represent majorities in our society, decide that fully developed babies, who are so clearly and incontestably human individuals, have no rights and are subject to being killed with impunity.
Fourthly and finally, I was recently in a hospital to anoint and bless a dying woman. She was not conscious and hadn’t been for most of a week. Her two sons were there. They had been there all week. They knew she was dying, that her state of unconsciousness would not be reversed. But they stayed there keeping vigil with their mother. I don’t know much about their Christian beliefs or practices or what they might have thought about the New York abortion law. But they definitely valued the life of their mother, diminished as she was. I presume that was because they saw “meaning and value in every part – even the most miserable and reduced” of the lifespan God allotted to her.
There are signs of hope in our culture, evidence that respect for the dignity of human individuals remains, both in personal encounters and public policy. But if Christianity continues to recede in our culture, how will its values decline with it?