Human Dignity and the Christian Tradition

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

The following paper was written in August, 1990.


If Christian teaching of universal human dignity was so central and so thoroughgoing, why has Christian practice so often violated the dignity both of Christians and of others? We need a post-liberal Christianity that relativizes the Enlightenment. We need to assimilate its gains in a wider context. This requires listening carefully to the voices of outsiders, especially those whose dignity it has repeatedly offended. Hence, interreligious dialogues are of the greatest importance.

The basic issue that this topic raises for me is that of universality and particularity. So far as I know, all the religions either arising in what Karl Jaspers called the axial time, or deeply shaped by insights developed during that period, have strong universal elements. Central to these are ideas of what we today call human dignity. Jaspers included Judaism as an axial religion, and I think rightly so. Christianity and Islam arose out of Judaism and continued in their different ways its universalistic teaching of human dignity.

But of course all of the axial traditions also had many teachings of a particularistic sort. Some of these were not consciously so, but instead unconsciously reflected the particular circumstances and culture in which they arose. Others were quite consciously particularistic, dealing with the importance of particular practices, particular events, and particular communities. These teachings have given rise in all the axial traditions to tensions with the implications of the universalistic teaching of human dignity. I take it that these tensions are the topic of our session.

The formulation of our topic suggests to me that we are not deriving our notions of human dignity primarily from our several traditions. Instead we are taking it from contemporary discourse that itself has a more universalistic ring. To be quite specific, we are taking it from a consensus that is rooted in the European Enlightenment and that, to a remarkable extent, has become universal, at least among the cultural elites of the world. It is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We are assuming that all of us in this group subscribe to the doctrine of human dignity, not merely as one doctrine among others but as a norm in terms of which other ideas can be judged. We assume that in this respect we are not untypical of an important segment of our several communities. If we continue to subscribe to teachings whose effects appear to be in tension with human dignity, we require special justification for doing so. In the concluding sections of this paper, I want to raise questions about these tacit assumptions.


If I am correct about our topic, then it becomes important to say how I view the European Enlightenment. I see it as an attempt to discover or invent a new religion, or a substitute for religion, that would be purely universal, free from all particularities. Since its interest in religion was practical and ethical, it was not the subtleties of religious experience that interested it, but the grounds for moral action in the world.

One approach was to search for a common and primal essence in all religions and to liberate this from the distorting accretions of cultural history and self-interested priestcraft. Another was to derive the needed teachings from reason, without regard to whether they have been embodied in traditional religions. In either case, everything in these religious traditions that is in tension with this universalistic teaching is to be set aside.

Whereas traditional religions appealed to some form of heteronomous authority, the Enlightenment appealed to the authority of individual conscience and reason. The discovery of religious or moral truth did not require supernatural revelation, extraordinary experience attained by special disciplines, or arduous intellectual activities. The needed truth is present in, or available to, common sense, and common sense is understood literally as a sense that is common to all. The task is to strip away cultural overlays and superstitions, so that the truth will appear. Thus the Enlightenment attributes dignity to each human being, first, as his or her own authority in matters of moral and religious belief.

The Enlightenment affirms human dignity in a second way. When common sense is given free reign, not only do individuals recognize their own dignity, but they see that all other individuals also have such dignity. In Kant's famous and important phrase, no human being should ever be treated only as a means. All human individuals are ends in themselves. That implies, of course, that human beings as human beings have rights, and much of the most creative work of Enlightenment thinkers has been spelling out these rights.

All of us, I think, are children of the Enlightenment. Certainly I am. We insist upon our own rights, and, to whatever extent we are moral, we insist that the rights of others be respected too. We believe that these rights derive simply from being human and do not depend on ethnicity or gender or social status or religious beliefs, or even moral character. This is the clearest way in which we affirm human dignity. And, at least in most of these formulations, we do not appeal directly to our traditions. Instead, work to get the support of our communities of faith for these universal principles.


The second question that follows from my understanding of our topic is how Christianity is in fact related to this Enlightenment faith. My answer is that the relation is very close. Christianity was the context in which it arose and one of its major sources. My opinion is that it was, indeed, the major source, albeit this was not intended or recognized.

I interpret the Enlightenment as arising from the Biblical and classical traditions under the impact of the great success of the natural sciences, especially physics. Of course, the history was complex. And I am assuming, contrary to the Enlightenment's own assumptions, that the particularities of history were determinative both of the occurrence of the Enlightenment and of its beliefs.

For me, this assumption does not necessarily deny the universalistic claims of the Enlightenment. The analogy with physics can be used to support this possibility. One may argue that gravity is a universal force that abides by definite laws. The discovery of this, of course, was possible only under very specific circumstances, but what is discovered is a universal truth available to people in very different historical circumstances. The situation with respect to human dignity and human rights might be similar.

The confidence in reason, I think, was largely the outgrowth of the success of physics. Whereas during most of European history people looked back to the Bible and the classics as coming from a time when there was greater wisdom than at present, the advance of physics both expressed confidence in the ability of people now to gain new knowledge and demonstrated that this confidence was justified. Past authority in the natural sciences gave way to present use of reason in interpreting the data. Why should reason not also enable people to understand themselves and their societies better?

When people trusted their conscience and their reason, what they found were some basic convictions that had been nurtured by Christianity. I do not mean here that they were not nurtured in other traditions. I mean only that in fact those first engaged in constructing Enlightenment beliefs were socialized in Christendom.

For many of them these beliefs included the existence of a creator and moral judge. But clearest of all was the importance of morality and its basic structure. This basic structure required that other human beings be treated with respect, in other words, at least implicitly, that dignity be attributed to them. The importance of belief in a divine Creator-Judge lay in the pressure it placed on individuals to conform to what they knew to be right. That it is right to act in accord with the dignity of others and oneself was known independently of any belief in God. Morality based on the dignity of all human beings was autonomous.

Christianity not only contributed the structure of belief that was discovered in "common sense," it also played a large role in spreading Enlightenment beliefs around the world. First, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was deeply affected by the Enlightenment, internalizing many of its teachings. Second, when it engaged in the great nineteenth century enterprise of foreign missions, its message expressed this internalization, and its policies were deeply informed by it. For the most part those in Africa and Asia who became Christians through that missionary movement became Christians of this Enlightenment sort. Equally important, many who did not become Christians still assimilated the Enlightenment aspects of what the missionaries taught.


My third question is: What are some of the major elements in the Christian tradition that have socialized Christians into taking for granted that all human beings have dignity? Again, I want to make it very clear that I am not claiming anything distinctive about these teachings. Most are common to the Abrahamic faiths and derive in fact from the Jewish scriptures. However, I shall discuss them as they have functioned for Christians.

The first is the doctrine of the imago Dei. Stated in this technical form, of course, it did not become part of the common sense of Christendom. But the idea that human beings are created by God purposefully, with a special relationship to God, and with special privileges in relation to other creatures, took deep hold on the consciousness of Christendom. All human beings are created in the image of God. None are mere animals. Even those who most emphasized the terrible effects of sin on human beings retained the sense that all have importance to God and in themselves.

The second element is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Of course, it would in principle be possible to interpret "neighbors" in a restrictive way. But Jesus' explanation of who our neighbors are, made this impossible for Christians. Our neighbors are other people regardless of their ethnicity or religious faith or social class. All are to be loved. Such love either responds to an actual dignity in those who are loved, or it attributes dignity to them.

Third, Jesus' teaching accents the implication that what is important is how we treat the neighbor. In his parable of the last judgment, the questions asked of those who are being judged have to do only with this. In the Sermon on the Mount, also, what is accented is the universality of love and moral responsibility as well as its radicality.

Fourth, in the theological interpretation of Jesus' coming and fate, it is emphasized that Jesus came because of God's love for the whole world and that Jesus' died for all. It is true that for quite special reasons some have taught that Jesus' died only for the elect, but this has never been the dominant rhetoric.

Fifth, the New Testament uses parental language about God's relation to human beings. God is depicted as the Father of all people, and all human beings are children of God.

Sixth, the Church Fathers borrowed heavily from Greek philosophy. Perhaps the most important borrowing was the Platonic and Stoic doctrine of the human soul. This doctrine also supported the view that every human being has a peculiar worth and dignity that cannot be measured by outward conditions.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive or scholarly account of the sources in Christianity that support the Enlightenment position. However, I hope that simply reminding ourselves of these central and repeatedly emphasized features of the tradition will suffice to explain how self-evident the dignity of human beings had become in Christendom by the time of the Enlightenment. Repetition of the doctrines themselves was no longer needed to support what everyone already knew. Indeed, no argument was required. It sufficed simply to point out what was evident to all.



My fourth question is as follows: If Christian teaching of universal human dignity was so central and so thoroughgoing, why has Christian practice so often violated the dignity both of Christians and of others? I will try to answer this question under two headings: sin and doctrine.

The role of sin in Christian history is self-evident to Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians have no disposition to minimize it. Indeed, the Christian doctrine of original sin leads us to expect that sin will play an enormous role in human history, and that the church and its members are in no way exempt. It may be that the doctrine of original sin should be treated under the heading of those doctrines that have led to violation of human dignity. But that is a complex question, and I will not in fact go into it.

At any rate, Christians know that our behavior is constantly falling short of what our own teachings require of us. We confess this in every service of worship. The emphasis on undeserved forgiveness plays an utterly central role in our corporate life. Hence, when we are reminded of our failures to respect the dignity of others, we feel no need to defend ourselves by denial. We simply acknowledge our sinfulness, ask for forgiveness, and undertake to improve.

This sinfulness is too often understood moralistically as a conscious choice of doing what we know we should not do. But Christian thought generally criticizes this as profoundly inadequate. Our sinfulness is much more deeply rooted than that. We debate among ourselves just how that is to be understood, but in general it is associated with an egocentricity to which our separate identity inclines and even virtually compels us. We love ourselves more than we love our neighbors and hence repeatedly use our neighbors more as means to our ends than as ends in themselves.

Further. to whatever extent we overcome the distortions of egocentricity, this is usually by identification of ourselves with a group. We surrender our individual interests in favor of group interests. We divide the world into "us" and "them." Our very devotion and sacrifice to the cause or group heightens the opposition to the other. Appeals to the universal dignity of human beings often seem quite ineffective against this strong identification with particular groups. Hence Christians incline to attribute much of the evil we have inflicted on the world to the kind of corporate sin to which original sin gives rise.

Unfortunately for those Christians who want to hold to traditional teaching, these explanations, however true they may be, are only partial. Traditional teaching itself has exacerbated the problem. It is often the most devout Christians, the ones who try hardest to conform to the teaching of their church, who are most destructive of the dignity of others. This fact compels theologians who have internalized Enlightenment values to become radically critical of the tradition. In what ways have Christian teachings, central to the tradition, supported and encouraged the violation of human dignity?

First, there is a profound shift within the New Testament itself, from the view that loving the neighbor means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner to the view that first and foremost it means sharing the good news of God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Obviously, those who made this move did not think of it as denying human dignity. It is precisely because of the intrinsic importance of every human being that the greatest good is to be shared with all.

Nevertheless, the shift has horrendous consequences. Whereas the hungry want food, the naked want clothes, and the prisoners want visitors, most people do not want to hear the gospel. The decision that the gospel is something they desperately need is made by us Christians. Our recognition of their dignity does not include profound respect for their own judgments as to what they need. We Christians know better.

Formally speaking, this is not a uniquely Christian problem. Most people think they know what some other people really need in some areas better than these other people know themselves. It is difficult to conceive of bringing up children without this assumption on the part of parents. Our whole educational system assumes that society knows better than those being educated what they need to know. Most arguments assume such beliefs on both sides. During the Nazi era most of us thought we knew what the German people really needed better than they did themselves. In my experience, the Buddhists for whom I have greatest respect believe that they know what I need much better than I do. I would not want a society in which all of this disappeared.

Nevertheless, the Christian problem is not simply analogous to these others. In general these others express judgments about the relativities of history, judgments without which no society can survive. On the other hand, Christians have usually claimed that what we offer has absolute importance. This has often taken it out of the sphere of historical relativity and open discussion.

The problem is compounded among Christians by the fact that many who did not think they wanted to hear the gospel find in it, when they do hear it, just what Christians have claimed. They are converted by it, and, as converts, they are likely to be especially confident in the value and validity of insisting that others listen. Since Christianity is composed of converts and their descendants, this continual reinforcement has played a large role in perpetuating the judgment that we know what is truly good for others and that, therefore, truly to respect their dignity is often to violate their express wishes.

Second, the understanding of what is promised in the gospel has often been separated from the actual effects in the course of personal life and human history. When this happens, then even when the obvious effects are destructive, there is faith that the true and ultimate consequences are positive. The Platonic doctrine of the soul lent itself to this interpretation of the gospel, since one could sharply distinguish the salvation of the soul from any observable effects. One could even contrast them, suggesting that misery in this life will be more than compensated in the other.

The extreme implication of this separation of salvation from actual existence in the world was the justification of torture. There are all kinds of theological reasons to oppose torture and to deny its efficacy for salvation, but this did not prevent its extensive use in certain periods. It is hard not to believe that this was primarily an expression of sin rather than sincere faith, but there is strong evidence that many Christians sincerely tortured bodies for the sake of saving souls.

If this aberration were the only expression of this teaching, I would ignore it in this general survey. But obviously this is not the case. Consider the defense of slavery as for the sake of bringing benighted Africans to the gospel so that their souls could be saved even if their bodies were in chains. Or consider the official practice of making Jewish life miserable so as to encourage conversion or to force Jews to function as a negative witness to Christ. The examples can be multiplied.

Third, the universal tendency to divide the world between "us" and "them" is heightened by Christian doctrine. Christianity began by overcoming existing divisions between Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, slave and free. But its very success in creating a new community led to doctrines about that community that created new and even more intense divisions.

Christians believed, with some exaggeration but also considerable justification, that the church was something radically new. The community they experienced there crossed all natural and social boundaries. Especially when the church was small and subject to persecution, there was an intensity in its fellowship that was discontinuous with what its members had experienced elsewhere. Further, this community was open to all, so that it did not have the exclusivity of ethnic and social communities in the world. To invite others to join appeared to be a way of recognizing their dignity, not denying it. And many who were invited were grateful.

This experience of a new kind of community led to the belief that it was truly of God and not of the world. Thus it was not understood sociologically but rather supernaturally. As in the case of the gospel, the supernaturalist interpretation removed it from the ambiguities of history. As the actual quality of community declined, the supernatural claims for what transpired within it became more pronounced. The belief that originally made some sense, that the salvation found within the community was unique and uniquely valuable, became an objective doctrine that there was no salvation outside the church. This encouraged an arrogance on the part of the church that led to justification of all sorts of policies designed to strengthen the church at the expense of the dignity of members and outsiders alike.

I will add a fourth topic. From the earliest days it was discovered that differences of belief, even quite subtle ones, could be highly disruptive of the community. The emphasis, especially by Paul, on the completely free character of God's gift, could lead to believers deciding that personal morality was no longer important. On the other hand, those who saw that this was wrong were sometimes persuaded that a complex pattern of behavior and ceremonial observance was needed. The accurate formulation of the gospel was crucial for community survival. Precisely because the new community was not constituted by natural or social ties, it had to be united by a common faith. Hence, from very early on, "faith" was not only the trust in God through which believers received God's gift, but also the beliefs that could be the shared basis of the community. In other words, doctrine was crucial.

Because of this, the church developed complex ways of settling issues that arose within it. It gave authority to leaders within the congregations, the bishops, and when these did not agree with one another, it assembled them in great international councils. The hope was that these would achieve consensus which would then put an end to the quarrelling among the churches. To some extent this worked, but not all could share in the agreements. Hence the result of such councils was often the excommunication and exile of those who would not fall into line. Obviously the actual course of events was very complex, with political power struggles becoming deeply mixed with doctrinal ones, different councils coming to conflicting conclusions, and further councils needing to decide which earlier councils to follow. Instead of uniting the church, the councils ultimately divided it. It is only because of Muslim context in areas where Nestorianism and Monophysitism prevailed, that we are not much more aware of those divisions.

Each branch of the church, nevertheless, was united around particular answers to the disputed questions. Once these answers were established, believers were not entitled to raise them again or to offer opposing answers. "Right doctrine" was now imposed from above on penalty of severe punishment: usually excommunication from the church, but later, civil punishment as well. Orthodoxy became an essential element in the life of the church.

Orthodoxy in this sense meant that the dignity of individual believers was restricted or denied. Their own experience and honest reflection were suppressed by heteronomous power. To be a Christian meant to subordinate oneself to such authorities. It was not even necessary to understand what one was commanded to believe. The real requirement was acceptance of ecclesiastical authority and obedience.

The actual history is far more complex than this. The church has always allowed a good deal of free discussion and debate. There is always room to discuss what official teachings mean, and in that discussion remarkable developments can occur. The case of the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church is of particular interest, since those who now assert what that doctrine originally intended are subject to excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. As churches multiplied, so that the decision as to which one to join became truly free, the weight of authority in matters of belief greatly declined. Nevertheless, for many people, being a Christian is understood to involve surrender of one's freedom to think freely for oneself and acceptance of heteronomous authority.

Once again there is nothing exhaustive about this list. My concern has been to consider features of Christian teaching that have been very important to the tradition and that can be easily seen to have led to practices that are destructive of human dignity. I hope you will agree that the ones I have mentioned belong in such a list.

There are two places at which I believe that we now know how to change our doctrines so as to avoid the negative effects. One change is easy and, I believe, has already occurred in large measure. I have spoken of the separation of salvation from actual life and its consequences in torture, enslavement, and persecution. I think the church has repented of this doctrine, and has done so on the basis of renewal of its own deeper sources.

The second is far less widely accepted. This entails the removal of supernaturalism from Christian teaching. That is not the removal of belief in God but rather rejecting the view that the mode of divine activity in the world is supernatural. We can and must speak of the presence and work of God in the church, but we need not represent that as discontinuous with the presence and work of God in the world. It has its special characteristics that need to be described, but that is true of the work of God in other communities of faith as well. Similarly, one may continue to believe that there is life after death. But the supernaturalist belief that such life is discontinuous with life here and now can and should be rejected. If life here and now is a measure of the gift of God in salvation, then the absolutization of the salvation offered in Christ disappears. Salvation is restored to the relativities of history.

These moves will greatly reduce the tension between Christian teaching and human dignity, but they alone do not resolve all problems, for many of the tensions are close to the heart of the faith. The task of truly freeing Christianity from these threats to human dignity remains formidable. Commitment to human dignity and goodwill may motivate these efforts, but there is no simple way of eliminating the tensions.


If the Christian tradition contains within it elements that are inherently threatening to human dignity, should we simply abandon it in favor of Enlightenment values or totally subordinate it to them. I do not think so. I see six fundamental problems with the Enlightenment taken as a solution to the dilemmas of human religion.

First, the Enlightenment provides no basis for its own teaching. Its remarkable success in becoming universal can be claimed to show that no basis is needed, that in fact there is a universal common sense that supports its affirmation of human dignity and human rights. But I do not believe this to be true. I do believe that there are elements of all the great religions that do support human dignity and that it has been possible to draw on them. I also believe that global Westernization has carried with it Enlightenment values, so that the universal declaration of human rights could win the day chiefly among a Westernized elite.

But now there is a healthy reaction to the Europeanization of the globe that accompanied colonialization and still accompanies its new economic forms. Asian religions and cultures, for example, are no longer on the defensive. They will formulate matters of "human dignity" in their own way, and the implications of these formulations will be quite different.

Equally important, the Christian context that made human dignity self-evident has eroded. The cutting edge of philosophy for two centuries has worked more against this self-evidence than for it. Neither positivism nor deconstruction provides it any support. The implications of Nietzsche and Heidegger will not be expressed in a "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." In general the move has been to cultural relativism at a level that undercuts any notion of universal common sense.

Second, Enlightenment teachings are too vague to provide adequate guidance. Consider the increasingly important question of the right to die. Can the common sense commitment to human dignity help? Of course, it can provide a favorable context for discussion, excluding merely callous positions. But any of the historic religious traditions can do that equally well. Common sense tells us both that it is good for people to be able to make choices and that life is to be protected. To relate these two considerations to the issue at hand requires a probing of anthropological, and ultimately of theological, questions that the Enlightenment sought to avoid.

This is but an illustration of the fact that the real issues we face are not settled by appeals to common moral values alone. They involve judgments at other levels also. In the case of the abortion issue, we have to ask what a human being is, whether being human is an either/or matter, and if so, when the fertilized ovum becomes human. Traditional religious teachings do not carry us far toward satisfactory resolution, but at least they recognize the complexity of such problems and the multiple levels of discourse needed to work them through. The Enlightenment simplification does not help.

Third, the Enlightenment has taught us to think far too individualistically. It attributes dignity to the individual as individual. The rights it discusses are the rights of individuals. Much has been gained by this move. But the price in traditional community has also been enormous.

The Enlightenment arose in a context in which strong community pressures could be taken for granted. It affirmed that there were limits to what the community could do to its individual members for the sake of its perceived interests. For example, individuals must be allowed to believe what seems true to them and to express those beliefs. Even if it is easier for the community to function when all believe alike, it is wrong for the community to suppress honest thinking. Which of us will not agree? Yet which of us has dealt fully with the problems that arise when there are no limits to such diversity?

When, on grounds of Enlightenment individualism, we develop an economics than ignores the interests of community altogether, aiming only at increased production and consumer sovereignty, when communities around the world are collapsing and the resulting alienation of young people causes a profound breakdown in the order needed for healthy personal life, then an ethics that continues to emphasize only individual dignity and rights becomes counterproductive. What these alienated youth need is not the acknowledgment of their dignity and the observance of their rights. It is belonging to a community with values that can give them moral character. The interest of traditional religions, including Christianity, in human community becomes far more pertinent and helpful than Enlightenment individualism.

Fourth, the Enlightenment anthropology is erroneous, and it has led to poor policies and programs. It depicts us primarily as inidividuals who are members of the human race. As such we have certain capacities and certain rights. The task of society is to give us the freedom to actualize those capacities and exercise those rights. The differences among us are superficial in comparison with what we share. Our respect for one another's dignity is based on this commonality.

The truth is that we are far more historical or traditional beings that this. The past is internal to our very being. And this past is a highly selected segment of the total human past, a different segment for different peoples. We are not primarily human beings who have superficial differentiations according to the cultures in which we live. We are deeply constituted by those cultures in such a way that what we have in common with those constituted by other cultures has to be discovered. But that does not mean that there is no reason to acknowledge the dignity of the others. What is different from us need not be less valuable. Indeed, its difference may constitute its greatest interest and potential to contribute to us. With all its failures, Christianity provides a more realistic and hopeful basis for approaching the real issues of intercultural life today than does the Enlightenment way of affirming human dignity.

Fifth, the abstraction from the concreteness of culture and tradition has been accompanied by an abstraction from the concreteness of social structures and classes and their effects in shaping human life. The rights on which the Enlightenment focused were the rights that could be exercised by male members of the bourgeosie. They were largely meaningless to most women and to those men who were forced to labor long hours under inhumane conditions. Of course, Enlightenment concerns could be extended to include the conditions of work. But they excluded analysis of the disempowerment of women and the poor that was involved in the social and economic system engendered and celebrated by the Enlightenment.

This criticism can easily be exaggerated and has been exaggerated by Marxists. The extension of the right to free speech and the right to vote has provided instruments that have enabled workers to improve their lot. Denial of these rights in the Marxist experiments to date has been disastrous. Women suffragists made their gains based on fundamental Enlightenment principles. Nevertheless, the abstractness remains. The critique of Enlightenment theology by black theologians, by Latin American theologians, and by feminists has been devastating. Of course, this critique is in the interest of "human dignity," but the image of that dignity and what is elicited from it in practice are quite changed. The liberation theologians have found far richer resources in Christian tradition than in Enlightenment writers.

Sixth, the Enlightenment affirmation of human dignity has functioned with great consistency to contrast human beings and the rest of the natural world. Human beings are to be treated as ends, never only as means. But all other creatures are properly treated as means only. That means that they are to be used with no concern for their interests. It is no wonder that the exploitation of the planet has been celebrated in Enlightenment thinking as the final triumph of the human spirit.

The Christian record in this same regard is dismal. Of all the world's religions, it is probably the worst. Christian teaching, especially in the West, had long encouraged the subduing of the earth. The Enlightenment in this respect was all too Christian. Nevertheless, Christianity was more mixed. There was some emphasis on a more organic way of thinking, and the dualism of human beings and the natural world was not quite as sharp. The Enlightenment purified Christianity of all of this confusion and inconsistency, and in the process it did us no favor.

Here, too, Christianity holds more promise despite its guilty responsibility. Christianity is capable of repentance in a way the Enlightenment is not, and in fact such repentance is now occurring. Christianity can repent partly because the need and possibility of repentance are built into its fundamental theology. It can repent also because it recongizes the essential limitations of all human efforts to formulate the truth. And it can repent, finally, because there are in its traditions bases for another way of approaching the whole matter. This complexity and confusion within traditions, so objectionable to the Enlightenment mind, is a major part of their resilience, their ability to change as needed, and therefore, their strength.


To some extent we have had within liberal Protestantism an actual experiment in giving primacy to Enlightenment values and adjusting the tradition to that. The clearest example is to be found in Unitarianism. Through much of its history it has been held together by its commitment to the Enlightenment view of human dignity and human rights. This has led Unitarians to be in the forefront of many admirable causes, where other Protestant denominations lagged behind or never joined at all.

On the other hand, it has been peculiarly difficult for the Unitarians, at least their left-wing to which I am primarily referring, to establish community. Their members are largely recruited from denominations in which the mix of Enlightenment values and traditional views is far more confused. They come with strong revulsion to authoritarian use of tradition and the continuation of pre-Enlightenment symbolism and practices. Many come to the Unitarians more in protest against what they have found elsewhere than with a willingness to subordinate their private interests for the sake of building up a strong community.

Unitarians do not refuse to make use of traditional material, but they select it according to its support of Enlightenment values. The more consistent ones do not favor traditional Christian sources over others; so they do not tie themselves to any one tradition. No historic symbolism unites them.

Today the situation is changing. The widespread critique of the Enlightenment has caused them to re-think their relation to it. Many of them have rejected its rationalism in favor of more psychological and mystical sensibilities. And the Unitarians are leading the whole church in affirming the value and importance of the natural environment. Hence what is now going on is a new experiment. My reference above was to the one that is being abandoned. In the new experiment the rhetoric of human dignity is giving way to the language of "creation spirituality." But it is far too early to say where that will lead.

If the Unitarians have experimented with the acceptance of the Enlightenment in replacement for any authority in Christian tradition, liberal Protestantism has experimented with a dialectical relation. It has tried to remove from Christianity everything that works against human dignity, but it has done this in the name of Christ. It has claimed, with some legitimacy, that the values of the Enlightenment are Christian values, and that adherence to these values is what is required by faithfulness to Christ today. At the same time, it affirms the need to maintain the tradition in order to undergird and support these values.

Liberal Christianity has been more successful in sustaining community than have the Unitarians, but the problem affects them, too. Strong community requires strong rootedness in shared tradition. Liberals are too distanced from the tradition, too objectifying of it, to generate and strengthen that rootedness. To unify immersion in the tradition with its critical transformation requires a level of theological imagination and rigor that the influence of the Enlightenment has discouraged. As a result liberal Christianity often has the feel of a half-way house between full-fledged Christianity and the Enlightenment.

A post-liberal Christianity is now emerging that radically rejects Enlightenment universalism. It calls for full re-immersion in the tradition, its language, and its symbols. But it does so with one very important difference. Post-liberal Christians recognize that Christianity is one cultural-linguistic system alongside others. They live and let live. They do not seek to teach others or to learn from them. They simply live out their particular set of meanings in community with other Christians calling one another to faithfulness.

My own view is that this is an inherently unstable program. Christian teaching is universalistic. To accept the linguistic and symbolic system as the basis for life together inevitably introduces those universalistic implications. In my view there is danger that many of the gains that have been made in the correction and redirection of aspects of the tradition will be lost in this form of post-liberal Christianity. Hence I deplore the enthusiasm with which it is greeted.

My own biases are probably largely clear from what I have written. We do need a post-liberal Christianity that relativizes the Enlightenment. It was an important epoch of Western history and of Christian history as well. Even its claims to universality have positive value. But we now see that it was in many respects shallow and misleading. We need to assimilate its gains in a wider context. Our tradition provides resources for this creative transformation. As it engages in this transformation, it needs to listen carefully to the voices of outsiders, especially those whose dignity it has repeatedly offended. It can learn from them, not only what it must avoid in future, but also ways in which they have dealt more successfully with similar problems. Hence, interreligious dialogues such as this one are of the greatest importance.