Saturday, November 13, 2010

Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person

By Gilbert Meilaender, 118 pages, Encounter Books.

Humans are "strange, in-between sort of creatures," Mailaender argues, and this gives us our unique dignity. We are lower than God yet higher than animals. This leads to creative and ethical tension. Anytime we make ourselves into God, we take on ethical questions and power that overwhelm us.

Our relationship to death is of paramount importance, since death is the ultimate “No!” to our claims to divinity. We do not live forever. Death gives a finality to life, and a commonality to all humans. When we fail to acknowledge this defining aspect of the human condition, we begin to think we are gods. We try to master life and creation, and become like god ourselves.

Only God can choose when we live and die, yet we try to deny our Creator this power. We want to live forever. One of the major thrusts of contemporary medical science is the attempt to relentlessly push our death into the future. Mailaender reminds us of the importance of death: "Our ability to remain interested and engaged in life depends upon our knowledge that it will end."

In other words, our attempts to play god actually make us less than human, as we lose sight of the importance of our moral decisions and the sacredness and urgency of life. Mailaender explains well how this hurts our dignity. He warns that we must stop seeing death as evil, and start seeing it as a part of life – as a part of divinely-ordained life.

Neither Beast Nor God thus adds to the chorus of voices opposing the Culture of Death. We have been enraptured with the power of science and technology for so long that we have lost the sense of enchantment that should come automatically to us as humans. Life should be enchanting, but when we ask too much, it becomes empty.

The God-given life-cycle is itself a spiritual journey, Mailaender makes clear. The various stages of life, including childhood, are good in and of themselves, and we should have no agenda for each stage. Children should be allowed to grow at a healthy pace, rather than pushed into every sort of activity and schooling that will ensure a big career. We also need to respect the aging process as a significant part of the journey towards God:

"It is aging that keeps us from imagining that everything our hearts desire could be given through more of the same kind of life. And it is aging, wearing down, that enables us to cultivate within ourselves the capacity for self-giving and self-sacrifice that makes place for those who come after us."

Neither Beast Nor God offers a traditionalist view of the individual, community, and religion. Mailaender calls for us to be loyal to friends and family, since only by being responsible for our actions towards those closest to us can we hope to love humanity. Responsibility and loyalty give depth and a sacred sense to our love for humanity. Without these goods, in fact, love of the world is empty and impotent.

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