A Commentary on Creed
By James L. Foster
What is the worth of a person? The answer will differ from person to person depending on one’s religion, one’s culture, and one’s psychological and philosophical antecedents. Some religions teach that human beings are worth little more than worms, or as chaff that is blown away by the wind. The Christian and Jewish teachings about the fall of humankind in the beginning leads some to the conclusion that sin has so corrupted the human race that even God rues the day that he created us.
In some cultures a person has value only as part of a collective group identity, the individual important only as a contributing member of a society. Individuals are expendable in the interest of the common good. This is seen particularly in times of war when the young men of a warring state are called on to give their lives in defense of the nation-state. Suicide bombers exhibit a similar conduct as they willingly kill themselves in behalf of their religious group or political ideology.
Others may discount their own worth because they have grown up hearing nothing but how bad and how worthless they are. Low self-esteem is learned by children from the authority figures in their lives. Parents and teachers and institutions that are long on criticism and short on love raise children who are likewise critical and unloving. The victims of this psychological abuse are in turn often critical of themselves and their children in a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Society joins in this travesty by creating so-called justice systems that are designed to further dehumanize the victims of childhood abuse.
This litany of negativity could go on and on and for a variety of reasons, such as poverty, displacement, rejection, greed, prejudice and injustice, but there are other ways to conceptualize the worth of a human being that arrive at dramatically different conclusions.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions there is the understanding that human beings are created in the image of God. The Catholic theologian Matthew Fox writes of “original blessing” in place of “original sin.” To be created in God’s image is to be created good, and the Creator in the Genesis creation myth is said to have proclaimed his creation of humankind as “very good.” It is this image of God in all of us, this spark of divinity, that has often been overlooked in subsequent theological speculations. But not always. The Psalmist proclaims that to be human is to be a “little less than God.” And in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes that God’s work in us is to the end that we will manifest God’s presence. (2 Corinthians 3:18) Just because we may be ignorant of what God is doing in us or ignorant of the goodness with which we entered the world, does not mean that God has changed his mind about us. God has the last word, and that word is that he will finish what he started in me, in you and in every other human being.
If we look for the image of God in each other, we will see it. We will see it even in the most depraved individuals. We will see it in the poor and starving refugees fleeing the violence of their nations. We will see it in the eyes of malnourished and dying children. We will see God’s image in our neighbors and in those of other races. We will see God’s image in the Jew, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Bahai, and the Buddhist. We will even see it in the atheist. We will see his image in our own children. We will see it in ourselves. This is why I believe in the dignity of all humanity, that each person is a being of supreme worth, because when I look at a person—any person--I see God.