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Thoughts on human dignity

The Acton University confernce opened this evening with approximately 400 people from more than 50 different countries. At dinner I sat next to a young woman from Myanmar who is studying contextual theology in the Netherlands. I have to admit that I had no idea that Acton had such a global draw. It was impressive. And the attendees appeared to be similarly diverse in race, gender, and denomination (approximately 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant, and 5% Orthodox; I realize those numbers don’t add up, but he added the Orthodox at the end and I’m not sure how it affects the first two numbers).

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, gave the openening address entitled “Thoughts on Human Dignity.” Apparently this is his standard first-night presentation, introducing all of us to some of the basic principles of the Acton Institute.  It was an engaging presentation, but it did leave me with a number of questions that I hope to pursue further over the next few days.

  1. Several key terms went without clear definition. Most importantly: liberty, virtue, dignity, image of God, right, and nature. All of these were used repeatedly in the presentation, and I’m sure they’ll be key to many of the seminars as well. So, I’m hoping for much more clarity in how these terms are being used.
  2. Although Sirico repeatedly referenced the “complexity” of the human person, he tended to emphasize the rational/intellectual aspect of humanity. He often referred to the importance of “ideas” for shaping human life and indicated that it is primarily our rationality that separates us from the animals. That left me wondering if there wasn’t an implicit rationalistic anthropology driving some of this despite the occasional mention of other dimensions of human existence – relationalty, physicality, etc.
  3. There seemed to be some ambiguity in the presentation on the relationship between the individual and the corporate aspects of humanity. Sirico said at one point that “we are not individuals,” emphasizing the relational dynamic. But later he also said that a human person was an irreplaceable particular (or words to that effect). I’m sure the tension between these two was mostly rhetoric, but it did cause me to wonder if sufficient thought has been given to both of these dynamics and how they are related to one another.
  4. One of the more interesting moments came during the question/answer time at the end. Someone asked Sirico if he could talk about the resources that the Trinity or Christology might have for addressing some of the issues that he’d raised in his understanding of anthropology and how it relates to dignity, liberty, and society. Now granted, these areas may not be Sirico’s strong suit. But I was still surprised to see that he had little to offer by way of response. He did indicate that he was sure the answer was yes. But he clearly had not spent much time reflecting on what those resources might be or even significant thinkers who might be helpful for understanding this. Given Acton’s premise that a theologically robust understanding of the human person is fundamental for an adequate approach to issues of economics and governance, this apparent lack of trinitarian and christological reflection is more than a little concerning.
  5. And, finally, toward the end of the presentation he brought up the “right to personal property,” and he argued that this right is grounded in the imago Dei and that protecting this right is essential to establishing and maintaining a flourishing society. I knew coming into the confernce that this was going to be a significant point of emphasis. But, apparently I’ll need to wait for one of the seminars to unpack this assertion more because Sirico did very little to support the contention.

Those are five of the questions that I left this evening’s presentation with. Since this was merely an introduction to the main ideas of the Acton Institute, I expect that many of them will be unpacked further as the week progresses. At least, I hope they will.

In the beginning, there was work. And it was good?

What are these goofy human creatures that God made? What does it mean to live a truly human life? How do human communities flourish and what does that look like? These are some of the questions that got me interested in studying theological anthropology in the first place. Along the way, I’ve looked at the significance of Jesus Christ for understanding true humanity, the nature of the mind/body relationship, free will, gender/sexuality, eschatology, and I’ve started looking at the ecclesial nature of humanity. Among the glaring absences in this sadly incomplete list is the nature of work. God gave us work to do in the Garden and he has work for us to do in the eschaton. Beyond teling us that eternity won’t be just harp solos and cloud sculpting competitions, what significance does this have for understanding humanity as God intended it?

That’s what I’m off to explore tomorrow. I’ll be attending the Acton University conference in Grand Rapids for the rest of the week. Although Acton tends to focus more on issues of economics and politics, there will be plenty to explore in my own areas of interest. Mostly I’ll be focusing on understanding economics, social justice, and environmental stewardship, hoping that they will all contribute to a better understanding of work and human flourishing in the world.

Here are the seminars that I’m considering at the moment. If I’m feeling really energetic, I’ll try to post some thoughts on the more interesting ones as the conference progresses. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Thoughts on Human Dignity
  • Christian Anthropology
  • Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government (not sure why this is on my list)
  • Economic Way of Thinking
  • Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society (hoping for some thoughts on human flourishing here)
  • Evangelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love
  • Social Justice: Fair and Victimless vs. Free and Virtuous
  • Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics
  • Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics
  • Environmental Sustainability: Creature Care beyond Stewardship