Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dignified

I think many of us in the Christian tradition have some working idea of what human dignity is. All of creation, humanity in a sense qualitatively different from the rest, is stamped with the imago dei, or the image of God. Thus each creature of God has intrinsic worth, and, because humanity bears the image of God in a unique way (perhaps more special for the Incarnation) each individual human life is treated as having that same human dignity. This is a fine notion of what dignity means.

But there is another notion of dignity that needs to die.

I mean this strange dignity that means people looking dignified, or looking proper. Somehow we wound up on this planet with two things: Very physical and animal characteristics, and souls that yearn for God. We are spiritual beings, but also material beings, and so we will, at some point, do some material things. And there's this weird idea that we can look dignified while we do it. Think about when people are told to be proper.

Take eating. Who really looks dignified eating? We can chew our food with our mouths closed, but we are chewing. We are still material things devouring other material things. And don't even try to think about how that food gets processed. I was no biology major, but it's not really a dignified process, for the food or for our bodies, wonderful machines they are.

Following that, is there really a dignified way to use the bathroom? I'm certain some people have tried using the bathroom in a dignified way, and I'm nearly as certain that all of those people failed. And-—even in the context of fully Christian marriage—-is there really anything dignified about sex? It's a union, sure, but it's an animal union as well as a God-ordered one. It can't possibly look dignified to anyone. What about death? Sure, we see pristine looking and well-preserved loved ones at casket viewings. But, to quote a one-time character from an episode of Samurai Champloo, "Death leaves no beautiful corpses." Death of course can leave corpses that have some beauty, but the same corpses serve as reminders, the nearly certain fact that we will all die, and that the person who was there has passed on. Neither the act of dying, nor the earthly remains it leaves behind, are dignified-looking things.

The pattern seems to be that all we're really doing is covering up the 'undignified' part. But by design or due to the intrusion of sin, any mere attempt at looking dignified is ultimately just an attempt to dress up us soulful animals so that we look less ridiculous than we are.

Peter Kreeft, in his Fundamentals of the Faith (1988 edition, p.67) and on this webpage, states that:
Death is a crass, crude, vulgar, and materialistic problem. It needs a crass, crude, vulgar, and materialistic solution, like the resurrection of the body. What set the ancient world on fire was not faith in faith, a psychology, a philosophy, or an ethic, but the astonishing news that God became man, died, and rose from death to save us from sin and death.
The Word of God stepped down to the level of the strange combination of soul and animal. He embraced all the indignities that come with being human. Historically Biblical Christian tradition teaches that this did not include sex, but the fact of eating and using a bathroom should be enough, to say nothing of the Crucifixion. There's nothing that looks dignified about Crucifixion. Actually, forget the Crucifixion--what's so dignified about the Resurrection? Even if the Risen Christ was literally aglow, Christ still had the holes in his hands. Would that really be an appropriate visual at the dinner table? I doubt it.

So if even God gave up looking dignified (and sometime during the Passion, this definitely happened) to help rescue and redeem us from Death, it seems like the societal notion of looking dignified, as a general principle, has no real hold on us. But what does?

Returning to what I said before:
Because humanity bears the image of God in a unique way (perhaps made even more special by the Incarnation?) each individual human life is treated as having that same human dignity.
What if we tried on the basis of our worth as creatures of God to set our standards for what actions should be hidden and which would not? Certainly this might make things a little messier, introduce a little bit more context, and force us to judge on more than mere appearances. On the other hand, if we start with the notion of each individual human life--that strange unique mixture of soul and animal, and consider the implications of its dignity and worth for how it ought to live, and how it ought to be treated, we might just start to get a picture of how to put to rest all unnecessary stifling of laughter, put in proportion all table manners, and excercise reverence for God and not sanctimony. If all we do is try to hide our indignities, we'll never be dignified. If we start by realizing our status as creatures of God, we actually have a shot.

3 comments:

EricBrooks said...

I don't think many people today, at least of our generation, really care about looking dignified. In fact, most seem to reject this notion either in favor of the bizarre fashions of various subcultures, or the "casual" attitude in dress and manners which has become the norm. I don't think that any of the major U.S. cities I've been in have given me the impression that "dignity" was the guiding principle of the dress and manners of the man on the street. It's certainly not the guiding principle of the dress and manners of the celebrities we love to imitate. This is the influence of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and not of Jesus Christ. Certainly Francis or other poor saints dressed in rags, but there's several oceans of difference between this decision to imitate the radical poverty of our Lord and post-60s laziness and indifference about manners and dress (or the opposite error of fashion).

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

I don't think many people today, at least of our generation, really care about looking dignified. In fact, most seem to reject this notion either in favor of the bizarre fashions of various subcultures, or the "casual" attitude in dress and manners which has become the norm.

I agree. The notion of dignity I am striking against is one that hasn't been prevalent for several years now. I don't particularly think, except in some very conservative churches, or very well-to-do non-church circles, that it's a prevalent problem to try too hard to be dignified. And obviously (perhaps partly in reaction to a disproportionate emphasis on looks in previous generations.) The impetus for writing this thing was some meditation on what exactly dignity meant--directly, in terms of objective principles, not their more subjective and contextual application--which led me to reject the notion that dignity is something that is visual. However, I'm more than on board with talking about a need to dress in a manner which respects one's dignity. I've checked out the links you'd posted on FB and will probably be incorporating some of those thoughts in my next post on the subject. But I should say, before I end, I also agree that many people have shifted into a general indifference, and that I disagree with the movement of 'coming as you are' in churches, insofar as it becomes an excuse to be inconsiderate of how one dresses and acts.

A. Scott / Xeirxes said...

I think that dignity is definitely, to some extent, a human-constructed ideal. Think about the differences between dignity at dinner between a middle Eastern meal and an American meal. It's mostly cultural.

I will say, however, that in recent months I've realized that I really value a sense of grace and/or appropriateness as far as manners go. I have spent a lot of time with people who are not very polite and I think that some grace befits a human. Crass interaction and crude, vulgar speech seems to really bother me. I guess it doesn't really extend to other cultural mannerisms such as dining or dress.

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