|Rembrandt: Return of the Prodigal Son|
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
[Human] dignity in its most basic form is a relation of being loved by another. And God is the only "Other" whose love can establish our dignity beyond dispute... The relationship of being loved and favored by God is the... fundamental basis of human dignity. (p. 192)Highfield goes on to review the writings of various Christian authors who assert that humanity's highest dignity comes from the fact that, being created in God's image, we are able to share in all that is excellent. While that may be true, the problem is that many of these excellencies are finite. But as Highfield notes, being loved by God bestows a "dignity of belovedness" on us that far surpasses any excellence that we might achieve or experience (p. 198).
Counterfeit dignityIn contrast to the true human dignity grounded in God's love for us, there are all sorts of sources of counterfeit dignity. Highfield points out two: pride and shame.
Pride rises out of an insecure wish to be significant given fantastic form by imagination. In relation to others, wish becomes assertion in search of confirmation. Pride desires to experience admiration or envy from others so that it can relish its own worth.... Pride breeds falsehood, and falsehood sooner or later will be dashed against the rock of truth. (p. 199)
Shame is a defective sign of unworthiness. Shame is a feeling of unworthiness not before our own consciences, which is guilt, but with reference to others. On the surface it seems opposed to pride... [But] shame agrees with pride that our worth must be grounded in our inherent qualities. We are ashamed when we look at ourselves because we do not see the qualities others admire. Shame and pride also concur that the thoughts of others reveal the truth about us.... Finally, both shame and pride think of dignity in comparative terms. (p. 200)"Worth" is a relative and relational term. Something has "worth" because it is worth something to someone. In our me-centered world, people have worth because of what they can do that benefits someone else. But true worth (and thus true dignity) values people not as a means to something else, but as the ends. Highfield elaborates:
The highest dignity we can bestow on another person is love, and the purer this love is from selfishness, the greater the dignity we give to the object of our love. (p. 200)But as Highfield goes on to note, "Human love cannot serve as a secure foundation for human dignity." Why? Because as we all know, human love is unreliable and is not universal. "We cannot be satisfied with dignity that rises and falls with others' feelings about us," says Highfield (p. 200). Human dignity thus needs a foundation that is relational, unchanging and universal, and that brings us to the foundation of the triune God and his love for us.
The nature of God and his love for usFundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity is the understanding that the triune God is relational in his very being. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a triune communion of love. God loves because he is love. Inherent in God's triune nature is "the dignity of belovedness" (p. 201). It is this love that is the ground (basis) for human dignity. Why? Because it was in love and for love that the triune God created us in his own image. Infinite value was thus attributed by God to people because of the eternal love he has for us. Highfield comments:
God's love for his dear children creates a real dignity relation. We must recognize human dignity as relationally inherent in our fellow human beings; that is, each and every human being exists and possesses a dignity bestowed by God. They are worthy of our love because God makes them worthy of God's love.... We love God because God first loved us and we love our neighbors because God first loved our neighbors. (p. 202)If we locate dignity in personal attributes and powers (what one can do), then it follows that God has dignity far beyond our own. However, it is belovedness that is the ground of true dignity, and with that in mind we can rightly assert what Highfield goes on to state:
God bestows on us the same dignity that God bestows on himself, for God loves us no less than God loves himself. The Father loves us with the very same love with which God loves the beloved Son. No higher dignity can be imagined of conceived. (p. 203-4, italics in the original)
Look to JesusWe thus understand that our dignity, and God's dignity have the same ground: the love of the Father, Son and Spirit. How do we know this is true? Because we see Jesus---the divine Son of God become human---a human upon whom is bestowed divine dignity. And in Jesus we see the true nature of all humans as beloved children of God.
Remember a fundamental precept of Incarnational Trinitarian faith: What happens to Jesus happens to us all. He is our representative and substitute. He became incarnate to show us the Father (to reveal the triune God of love) and to show us our true humanity (who as beloved children of God by adoption possess infinite worth). As Highfield notes, "The Father treats each of us as if we were the Father's own dear Son, and that is why we are God's children" (p. 205). He continues the thought in this stunning concluding statement:
We know that God loves us no less than God loves himself, because God does not love us for what we are. God's love for us is grounded in the Father's love for the Son. The Father does not love God's human children less because they are not God's equal in excellence of being or character. God loves us just like, and just as much as, the Father loves the Son. Even though we were by nature nothing, by deeds sinners and by affections enemies, God loved us. There is and can be no higher dignity.... By loving us with the love of God, God bestows on us the highest dignity conceivable and frees us for the most perfect freedom possible. (pp. 205-6)