Human dignity: Kafka might have an answer for atheists

Recently in a sermon on the incarnation of Christ the pastor made an observation that has been niggling at the back of my mind. It relates to human rights and on what they are based. Or how they are argued for and justified. I have blogged previously about the original draftsman of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted after the second world war. One of the author’s argues that if it weren’t for the Christian faith and the theology that underpins it, human rights, or human dignity (as my pastor put it) would not exist.

The pastor made the observation that human dignity can exist for two reasons. The first and also most common theological way to argue for human dignity is from the Genesis account in which God says he has made us in his image. Because we bare the image of God, we have dignity because God is dignified.

The second and a little less used is to argue for human dignity from the incarnation. Human beings have dignity, because God became a human being. Jesus was with us. God walked the earth as a human, teaching people how to be human, and so we should emulate him by showing dignity to others and ourselves.

But what of the claim that it is only christianity which can provide an account of why human beings possess dignity? Since human dignity or human rights are a moral category the question is about what they are root in, or the justification for any given moral question. If we are not to violate somebody’s else’s liberty, why are we not to violate that liberty? Obviously you don’t have to believe in God to know that violating somebody’s liberty is wrong (at least most of the time.) As Radiohead says: “Where I am you are not.” I am sure there are plenty of atheists who can give lists of reasons on what their morality is based, and I welcome these in the comment section. But I wanted to offer another reason.

I was recently reading a Facebook update of a friend. He quoted Kafka writing to his friend Oskar Pollak:

We are like abandoned children lost in the woods. As you stand before me, gazing at me, what could you know of the griefs within me and what could I know of yours? Were I to cast myself down before you, weeping and confessing, how much more would you understand about me than you understand about Hell should someone tell you it is hot and horrible? For that reason alone we humans ought to reverence each other, as insightfully, as lovingly, as we would stand before the Gate of Hell.

Hell might be a theological category but I don’t believe it need be. Our culture understands the concept of hell beyond the one found in Dantes Inferno. While Kafka was Jewish, and though he could have believed in God, it is unlikely that he was thinking of anything else but the common concept of eternal damnation through hatred, or abuse of self. He was after all a hater and abuser of self (as are most, if not all of us in some sense), but yet there is your argument for human dignity. The chasm is in us. It is not the chasm that is open between us, but the recognition that the chasm exists which provides the basis for which we can argue for Universal Human rights. Its not a terribly hopeful one, but it is one.

I prefer the first two

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