REMEMBERING WHO WE ARE
Editor’s Note: The following post first was printed in Lay Reader, a newsletter published by the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, where David Romanik is rector. It is republished here with permission from the author.
By DAVID ROMANIK
This summer saw the release of a film called “Yesterday,” which imagined what it would be like if only one person knew the music of the Beatles. I didn’t have a chance to see the film, but I was intrigued by the premise. The music of the Beatles is culturally ubiquitous: even people who don’t care for the Beatles’ music have at least some familiarity with it.
Moreover, the Beatles are arguably one of the most influential bands in the history of popular music. From songwriting techniques to instrumental arrangements, the influence of the Beatles can be heard in the work of countless artists across multiple genres. What would happen, then, if the collective cultural memory of the Beatles was erased? More specifically, how would this erasure affect the music that had been influenced by the Beatles? To put it more broadly: how dependent is an idea on what inspired it?
A few years ago, the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote an article entitled “Human Dignity was a Rarity Before Christianity,” in which he argues that one of the elements of the Christian witness that was unique in the first century was its understanding of “the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable worth, an infinite value.” It is hard to fathom how revolutionary this perspective was in the ancient world. Modern democratic society is predicated on the idea that all persons are equal. Yet the idea that “persons of every class and condition” were afforded the status of full humanity was absurd, even offensive to the educated classes of the Roman Empire. The pagan worldview depended on order and hierarchy: those of high degree were entitled to their position, while those without status were worthy of contempt.
Thus, Hart observes, “the Christian vision of reality was nothing less than…a ‘transvaluation of all values,’ a profound revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings understand themselves and one another and their places within the world.” The implication of Hart’s point is clear: our modern, rights-based society has its roots in, and would arguably be impossible without the Judeo-Christian assumption that every person is created in the image of God. This raises an important question, one that is related to the hypothetical question about what would happen if people suddenly forgot about the music of the Beatles: to what extent does our conception of human dignity depend on a familiarity with the gospel?
While we still emphasize and value the concept of rights, we don’t seem to have a shared understanding of the nature of those rights. Indeed, one feature of our increasingly secular society is that we have struggled to articulate why people are entitled to particular rights. Instead of saying, “the people around me have value because they bear the image of God,” we have made “rights” an exclusively legal category. The result of divorcing rights from a broader understanding of human dignity is that we have lost the sense that certain rights are absolute. This is far from an academic consideration. At the domestic terror attack in El Paso last month, the shooter murdered 23 people because he questioned their right to exist. While this is an extreme case, it is a consequence of a world in which there is no clear answer to the question of why people are entitled to certain rights. By forgetting the religious origins of human dignity, in other words, we have made it negotiable.
At Heavenly Rest, we seek to remember and celebrate the origins of human dignity. Our call is to proclaim unequivocally that each and every person has value, not because of the rights they have under the law, but because they are created in the image of God.
David Romanik is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest.