There are many things that we boast about as humans that are crucially linked to the concept of God in the Bible but some of us are ignorant of those connections to God.
The Psalmist in Ps. 8 raises a specific form of a general question that every thinking human being ought to grapple with at some time or other.
In light of the immensity and magnificence of the visible cosmos (v.3) the Psalmist asks a profoundly philosophical yet practical question in v. 4 ‘what is man that you are so mindful of him?’ For those who are gender sensitive we could reword ‘what is humankind that you are so mindful of it?’
This is an extremely deep question which reverberates in many disciplines of the Academy, provoking different answers. To put the question in more general terms the Psalmist would be asking why humans are so important in the scheme of things within the cosmos.
It does not require much research to confirm that the universe is centered around human beings. But why is this so? The summary answer from the various disciplines of the Academy (anthropology, sociology, human rights law, psychology even, in part) is that human beings take centre stage because of human dignity and worth.
It is this base-line assumption why in natural disasters, despite the expected and known loss of property, pets and other forms of life, the news centres on the human death toll. But why this bias to humans as opposed to other forms of life?
The Psalmist’s question ‘what is man? penetrates at the foundational, fundamental level. Without stopping to think twice, at times, we now strut our stuff within the universe because of our assumptions/presumptions about ‘the dignity of man’. Who but the Judeo-Christian God can give substance to the boast of the US declaration of Independence which is parroted by even atheists, ‘all men are created equal’. You and I are indeed indebted to God but let me try to provide some evidence for your reflection.
The expression ‘the dignity of man’ seemed to have been coined by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the late 12th century of this era. (I am indebted to Os Guinness, The Dust of Death, 1973, for this fact and for aspects of the historical overview that follows. See pages 2-39)
The idea behind the expression from Giovanni had to do with humanity’s pre-eminent, unique and superior status within the universe of life-forms. For centuries there developed a humanity-centered view of human dignity which we’ll call humanism. For those still within universities and colleges the formal expression is anthropocentric humanism (anthrōpos is Greek for man as opposed to beast).
This popular brand of humanism was designed to displace and replace theocentric humanism (theosis Greek for God).
Let’s now take a historical sweep of the development of this approach to anthropocentric humanism. There are 4 major steps.
- Greece [5th cent. B.C.]
- Man must come of age without God or the gods. Philosophy and Science must be freed from superstition and religion.
- Renaissance [14th – 16th cents. A.D.] literally, rebirth of interest in classical Greek and Latin literature/ideas (after the ‘so-called’, misnamed dark ages)
- Man is the measure of all things and man can do anything he really wants to. During the renaissance the dominant idea that emerged was that ‘man is the measure of all things’.
- Enlightenment [18th cent. A.D.]
- Reason is pitted against Christian values and ideas.
- Romantic/Revolutionary Era [19th-21st cents. A.D.]
- Some key thinkers – Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Jacques Monod
- The spirit of modern humanism is essentially either agnostic— (Greek derived; alpha privative (‘a’) at beginning meaning a negation of what comes after, then gnosis, Greek for knowledge, so no knowledge re topic under discussion, term coined about 1869 by Thomas Huxley [a.ka. ’Darwin’s bulldog’]—or atheistic, alpha privative plus theos for God so no God.
“We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural…As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity…” (Humanist manifesto II, 1973)
This man-centered humanism has been dealt serious blows by humanists themselves and the concept of human dignity has suffered accordingly.
Charles Darwin’s evolution theory has left man as the latest brand in a series of chance developments. As the late Evangelical philosopher, Francis Schaeffer has aptly summarized the evolutionary approach to man,
Man = impersonality (primeval slime) + time + chance
How can a thing of chance boast about dignity and worth though?
Nobel scientist Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity said:
“…chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution…The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man, our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.” (my emphasis)
For Sigmund Freud, man is at the intersection of the sexual libido and the death wish hence lacking dignity because psychologically determined.
B.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity said:
“Personal exemption from a complete determinism is revoked as scientific analysis progresses, particularly in accounting for the behaviour of the individual… to man qua [as] man we readily say good riddance…” (my emphasis)
This environmental determinism robs man of dignity. Marx and his tribe were determinists too of a kind, but theirs was economic determinism, the driving force in all societal environments, man is still robbed of dignity.
World Wars I and II and the continuing civil and other wars around the globe have damaged the optimistic humanism of earlier centuries. The consequences of these humanist blows to human dignity have been pessimism and philosophical despair.
French philosopher Albert Camus in The Rebel, (a disturbing but intellectual must read for Marxists) said:
“During the last century [19th] man cast off the fetters of religion. Hardly was he free, however, when he created new and utterly intolerable chains…The kingdom of grace has been conquered, but the kingdom of justice is crumbling too. Europe is dying of this disappointing realization.”
The Psalmist’s question is still hauntingly relevant, what is the basis for human dignity really? Science is not a defensible basis because we have seen the result of evolutionary thinking for human dignity but neither is society a defensible basis for human dignity because as we know from communist as well as capitalist countries if society gives you dignity and worth then society can take away that dignity and worth if you are treated as dispensable because you are dubbed dysfunctional, dissident or an enemy of the state.
It may sound like an arrogant Christian claim to you but I still say that you are indebted to God for existence and essence because the most defensible basis for human dignity in general, and your personal dignity in particular, is found in the Bible in Psalm 8 coupled with Gen. 1.27. Ask the brightest human rights lawyer you can find to define human rights and defend human dignity and listen for the waffle and the unhelpful “well, aahm, you see…”
I pull 4 quick compound Cs from the Psalm that every one should be able to memorize with ease. Why is humanity dignified, why are you dignified as a person? The Psalmist answers ‘because each of us as a human being has been,
- CREATED BY AND IN THE IMAGE OF GOD
“You made him…in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.” (Ps. 8.5a; Gen. 1.27) Please note that though other life-forms were created by God only humans are created in the image of God.
- CLASSED NEAR TO GOD (Ps. 8.5a)
“…A little lower than God (Hebrew: Elohim)”
- CROWNED BY GOD WITH DIGNITY (Ps. 8.5b)
“…and crowned him with glory and honor.”
4. COMMISSIONED BY GOD AS STEWARD (Ps. 8.6-8)
Humans set over all within the cosmos.
Since you are indebted to God for your existence and essence then your best response is ‘Respect is due and reverence too’. Stewardship entails responsibility and accountability, so show respect and reverence to God for giving you life and for grounding your dignity as a human being.
Connect the dots of indebtedness to God.