Lesson 6: The Dignity of Humanity

dignityI am increasingly convinced Vatican II was able to lay the groundwork of a new Christian narrative for our modern age, because for the most part, it looked at our situation with a simple honesty. That honesty recognized the narrative the Church has used to identify and understand herself has changed throughout history. Consequently, it acknowledged that she does not possess an absolute truth, at least not an absolute truth in the form of timeless doctrines.

This honesty has brought tremendous ongoing changes to the church and, for that matter, to me as well. Once it opened us up to the need for dialogue with the many cultures and religions that our global society has placed in our local neighborhoods, it forced us to question long-held positions.

One of the most significant was our past fixation on the sinful nature of humanity. Not that the documents of Vatican II do not make many references to sinful actions and evil people; however, these are overshadowed by an obvious attempt to balance them with a recognition of human dignity. This call for the respect due the person is heard in the plea of bishops for recognition of their rightful authority, in the attempt to find a meaningful role for the laity, in the call for correcting our relationships with Jews and non-Christian religions, in the effort to express admiration for liberty and democracy, and especially in the acceptance of individual conscience as a significant determinate in religious matters.

The exuberance permeating the texts gives the impression that the clergy suddenly realized what the laity had known for some time. You wonder why they did not get the message when their members rushed home after church to hear preachers of the Power of Positive Thinking school insist, after suffering so long from accusations of being utterly depraved, we need a new reformation based on self respect. Or why the clergy did not notice that the frantic fanaticism with which Fundamentalists denied obvious truths of the modern world spoke volumes about the inadequacy of our old narrative. For that matter, you think they would have recognized their own emotionally charged attack on the Evangelical reduction of faith to confessing their sinful natures and throwing themselves wholly on divine grace was a reflection of the frustration they themselves felt in the inadequacy of their own proclamations.

At any rate, Vatican II marks the time that the established churches (and I) finally heard the laity ask if we really understood what we were saying. Examining our words, we began sensing a need for theologies of the incarnation that would include or at least balance our theologies of the cross. These would not deny past narratives but, rather, would open them up to the present situation. For instance, I once instinctively read “God gave his Son” in John’s “little gospel” to mean God’s love is expressed in giving his Son up to a violent death. Now a deeper appreciation for the incarnation enables me to hear more clearly that John is defining “God giving himself” for me in a many different ways. Jesus’ death on the cross remains an incredibly critical incident in the history of salvation; however, it is not the only one. God comes in love to save his people and creation in many other ways in Jesus’ life and beyond.

The desire to affirm the dignity of the human person also led me to read Eastern Orthodox theology that refuses to see humans totally corrupted in the fall. It believes that we all still live as the image of God and that the incarnation simply enhances our participation in the godhead. The evolution towards unity that Vatican II perceives offers all sorts of possibilities for the enrichment of our narrative.

Golly, this attempt to acknowledge the dignity of humanity has turned into a very personal reflection. Perhaps that is due to my recent thanksgiving for the many dialogues that continually improve my life. I engage in three very diverse and yet very similar weekly seminars: one is primarily characterized by small town academics who teach from kindergarten through graduate school; a second features rural Pennsylvania Dutch people; and the third, urban scientists and business people. I also meet regularly with other groups ranging from teenagers to college students to young adult families. My thanksgiving involved amazement at the marvelous fruitfulness of every one of these groups. I find this to be an endorsement for Vatican II’s call for Christian dialogue. But when I ask why these work so well, I also find support for the council’s call for recognizing the dignity of the human person. Each group is built on the understanding that dialogue demands respect for the other person. Each assumes a conversation involves both sides listening as well as speaking. There are disagreements but no never put-downs.

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