One criticism I have occasionally faced is that I am a mere critic of atheism (particularly from the viewpoint of skepticism of material and natural explanations) and that I don’t actually attempt to defend the truths of Christianity. There are several reasons for this; one of the main reasons being that my time is limited and I have to pick my battles, the main battle currently being addressing the claims of the New Atheists. Another reason is as a former agnostic and skeptic of religion I see clearly the intellectual weaknesses of materialism, naturalism and scientism that inform modern atheism. And to be completely frank it is simply so easy to point out the internal contradictions of New Atheist claims that doing so is as irresistible as spiking a volleyball that has been gently lobbed at few inches above the net. One can barely help but to swat it back into the other court.
Nonetheless I have become increasingly interested in the Christian truths that promote human flourishing. The reality is that Christianity has given, and continues to give a better foundation for human health, wealth and lasting happiness than any other system of belief (or lack of belief). The importance of Christian values is evident in the history of Western culture and it’s even more evident when Christianity is absent from a culture. I have decided to call this category Transcendent Truths a place where I will occasionally consider a truth from Scripture or Christian tradition that has transformed our society and the way we live.
Perhaps the primary transcendent truth derived from Scripture has to do with the concept of Imago Dei – or the ‘Image of God’. It is a concept that comes to Christianity through Judaism, specifically from the book of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
– Genesis 1:26 – 27
From this text, some aspects of what it means to be made in ‘the image of God’ are obvious. We are the dominant creatures on the planet, we have a responsibility for nature and we are unique amongst the planet creatures in not merely being biological, but also reflecting the immaterial nature of God. Other aspects also seem apparent – that we have reason, that we have a moral will or conscience, that we have spiritual natures. But where this has a practical consideration in Scripture has to do with our inherent worth – that we have a value that transcends our mere biology our physicality. This becomes apparent when God communicates to Moses the first law in Genesis 9:6
Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.
– Genesis 9:6
For Christians, the relationship between human worth and the image of God is even more direct. The teachings of Jesus make a clear connection between how believers treat ‘the least’ – the poor, the stranger, the physically ill and their association with Jesus Himself.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
– Matthew 25:35 – 40
Whether or not one believes God exists or gave humans moral precepts is irrelevant to understanding the essential importance of these texts. From these doctrines grows a clear foundation for the belief that all persons are worthy of preservation and protection. Some might consider this a universal human value, but it is important to note that historically that hasn’t been the case for most cultures. For most of human history the prevailing value has been a casual indifference to human life. Whether we consider slavery or wars of choice to advance power or wealth or merely indifference to the basic needs of others, the overwhelming inclination of humans is to treat others not according to a measure of inherent value but according to one’s or one’s groups own needs or desires.
The major shift in this thinking came with the introduction of Christianity to the pagan world. Infused with the Jewish idea of the image of God which was reinforced by the teachings of Jesus, the morality of early Christians stood in stark contrast to the pagan world around them. As C. Ben Mitchell, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture relates in his essay on the impact of the Christian notion of human worth, Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West, Christianity immediately had an impact on human rights in the Roman world in a number of different ways – from the treatment of infants, the elderly and slaves to dissension from the gladiator culture. As Christianity spread and influenced the West its values spread with it, by ebbs and flows like an endless series of waves which slowly shapes a beach.
And the influence of this concept was influential long after the inception of the early church. A derivation was encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence when the American Founders argued that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
It was carried further in the work of the abolitionists who opposed race based slavery. A snapshot is seen in the dissent of Justice McLean from the notorious Dred Scot opinion when he claimed:
A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man, and he is destined to an endless existence.
It was the motivation for people like G.K. Chesterton when he voiced one of the few objections to eugenics laws which were to later inform the destructive racial policies of Nazi Germany:
“If man is not a divinity, then he is a disease. Either he is the image of God, or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.”
– G.K. Chesterton. – George J. Marlin and Richard P. Rabatin. “G.K. Chesterton and Eugenics.” Fidelity Magazine, June 1990, pages 33 to 43.
And this idea of Imago Dei was reiterated powerfully several decades later by Martin Luther King Jr. as spoke about the importance of the image of God when considering the civil rights of African Americans:
You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”
– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.
And this concept continues to motivate Christian’s work to protect and preserve the poor and the powerless, from leading the fight against human trafficking, to saving children in the Ethiopia from native superstition, to being international leaders in disaster relief.
There is of course no way to attribute intrinsic and universal worth to humans via the materialism or naturalism of atheism. In fact atheists take pains to diminish human exceptionalism; they see our genetics, biology and ability to reason as mere derivations of attributes found in the rest of the animal kingdom. We don’t reflect purpose and perfection of a Creator, but are the product of incidental forces which were shaped by an effort to survive. From a purely material view there can’t be a universal human quality – our intellect and physical capabilities vary widely.
And the impact of secularism on modern society becomes obvious as one considers how such a trend has diminished our capacity to appreciate the inherent worth of humans. Secularists argue for respecting the rights of women while pushing for greater freedom to access to pornography and prostitution. They use our modern medical technology to destroy humans in the womb, often as the result of tests which show them disabled in some way then while demanding that the disabled be treated with dignity and respect. Secularists decry ‘bullying’ while denigrating those who they disagree with as stupid, deluded, and dangerous.
Invariably those who dismiss theistic basis for human worth that transcends the material reject the only certain grounding there is for respecting and preserving all human life. As a result they reject the essential foundation for human flourishing, that which directs our resources and laws toward the preservation and protection of all human life.
Unlike atheism, in Christianity there is a sound and logically consistent basis to argue for intrinsic human worth and to promote such human flourishing. Respect for human life emanates directly from the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are made in the Image of God. This has been made evident by history of the West both in its flourishing in association with the Church, and its current decline as it abandons the faith of its fathers.