Every human being has an intrinsic value, and inherent dignity.
Above statement is something that is staggeringly revelatory and at the same time obvious to all of us. We revere Mother Theresa because of the humanitarian work that she devoted her life to, because we know that the so-called “untouchables” are human beings with dignity too. We feel the need to support the starving children in Africa, because we know that they deserve a fair life, because a human life is precious. We know that to be anti-social is a bad thing, because human beings and relationships are important. We all know this, yet, collectively in our daily lives we can often be cruel to those we come in contact with, and we take pleasure in criticizing and debasing the reputation of those we happen to dislike. We treat relationships lightly, and treat people as commodities or as useful instruments to “get the work done” or, worse, as means to satisfy our base desires. If you’ve ever worked as a shop keeper, you’d know the difference between the two kinds of people: those who value and acknowledge you as a person, and those who don’t acknowledge you but only see you just as a means to get what they want – that goes for virtually any other thing.
This knowledge of the intrinsic value of human beings, although ingrained into our hearts, has no empirical “proof” (as with anything non-scientific), and thus can be disregarded and even violated – and it is especially easy when we are “intoxicated” by pleasures and desires that cloud our thoughts, or if we are carrying hurts and wounds from the past. It also becomes easier to overlook when the moral evil of the person masks his ontological goodness.
It is perhaps timely for me to write an article on love, when the latest Encyclical is on that exact topic (which surprised many, since Benedict XVI was seen to be a strict disciplinarian more than anything). However, it was not the Papal writing but a comment by my good online friend Wei-Yen writing about friendship that inspired this one. In particular, this part here:
“Its a give and take, not a give situation. Sometimes I see “friends” that are out there and they expect to do all the taking.”
This is a great insight into the nature of human persons and relationships. Often, we don’t see the principled order of things until it is violated, and the above shows that this “give and take” is what really ought to be at the centre in any kind of relationship. When this is violated it becomes obvious that something has become warped and derailed from its right course.
Why is this?
Why is it that human beings have intrinsic value? Why is it that the right thing to do is to “give and take”? Why is there a right and a wrong, and why does all this matter at all?
In Christian thought, the answer lies in the two realities: that we are made in the image of God, and; that God is love. Let me elaborate:
Man and woman are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); we have a spiritual nature, with intellect and will, and capacity for choice (and therefore true love), and we have inherent dignity as human persons. This is why YOU matter. This is why PEOPLE matter. This is why it is not your OCCUPATION, how you LOOK, or what you POSSESS that determines your worth, but what you ARE. YOU matter, simply because you are YOU.
Let us note that God loves. God, in spite of being perfectly just, loves with infinite love each and every soul (who are unfailingly unjust relative to His perfection). Yes, YOU are loved by God, and are precious in His sight, and this is why He longs to communicate to you His love through the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ who says to you from the agony of the cross, “YOU matter. So much, that I did this for you. I did this to save you from the demands of justice”. That is the essence of Christianity. However, there is more to it than even this. “God is love” (1 John 5:16) – he not only loves, but is love itself. Why is this? How can a being be love itself? It’s a mystery, of course, but we do have a little insight into this.
You see, God, through Christian revelation, shows himself to be a Trinity. This is the crucial truth that sheds a light into the truth about love, about the “giving and taking”. Love can not exist in isolation, because love requires a giver, a taker, and an act of reciprocation. This is where we see the relevance of the Trinitarian nature of God, as explained by St. Augustine and later St. Thomas Aquinas (whose ideas I’ll now paraphrase and add to):
God, who exists outside of time (which is a creation of His anyway), eternally exists. However, He is also the source of all intellect and will, and so perfectly occupies himself for all of eternity. He does this by having a perfect idea about the one thing which exists eternally: Himself. This idea of Himself that God has is perfect, because God is perfect, and therefore is complete in all aspects including its autonomous existence and reality (for without these the idea itself would be imperfect), and therefore the idea itself has its own intellect and will. This idea, complete and perfect, is the Word of God, the logos. This is why in the Gospel of John we are told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). So the Word, who is also God, has been born (or “begotten”) of the God who thinks of Him. This is the Father and Son relationship in the Trinity.
Now, Father and the Son, the two infinite persons, both see the infinite beauty and splendor of the other and seek to give all that He has to the Other; and this is the nature of love. Furthermore, since they give to each other perfectly everything they have, this infinite and eternal exchange of love produces an infinite and eternal person as well: the Holy Spirit.
Yet, in spite of there being three persons, there is only one God, because there is an infinite generation of three persons which are in fact of the same being, same essence. This is why Christianity is a monotheistic faith.
So. What has all this “theology” got to do with reality? Well, EVERYTHING, actually.
This Trinitarian reality of God is what we’re made in the image of. The implication of this is huge. To paraphrase one semninarian: We are made to give ourselves away. We only find out who we are when we give ourselves. In giving, we conform ourselves to the image of God that is constantly giving, and thus we receive the joy which comes from this communion with God who is the source of life. This is why we shed tears in appreciation of the beauty of a person who gives his whole life away in complete selflessness, such as Mother Theresa or St. Maximillian Kolbe (whose story I shall recount some other time). On the other hand, by refusing to give ourselves away, we distort this image and thus fall out of communion. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
This is true in friendships, yes, but even more so within a romantic relationship. To quote Wei-Yen again, often people go into relationships for selfish reasons:
“a) they are in the relationship for themselves
b) they are only willing to have the relationship if its fun, and not willing to do the difficult aspects of the relationship”
In other words, we ought to be in relationship not necessarily because it satisfies one’s desires, but because the selfless giving and taking itself is a beautiful and honorable thing, which also happens to be the most satisfying. The greatest pleasure in such a relationship comes when one is able to completely give to the other the whole of himself, and that love is reciprocated in return to the same degree. This is why a committed relationship of this kind needs to be exclusive, permanent and unconditional. Without these three conditions, which cultivates trust and therefore freedom to exchange one another, no real love could exist.
It is necessary at this point to talk about the “sex before marriage” issue. One of the greatest ironies today is that the Church’s general ethical stance on sexuality is seen to be anti-sex, while the society is seen to value it more because it promotes it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is that the society has cheapened love, sex, and the intrinsic value of human persons. Sex has become a cheap bait for selling products and attracting customers. Women are often used as objects to satisfy lust (and let’s face it, it’s mostly the guys’!). Promiscuity is seen to be normal and acceptable, prostitution has become legalized, and even polygamy is promoted in a national newspaper article. It’s no wonder that so many young women are disillusioned with guys, who are seen to be obsessive animals who only value their body and not for themselves. All this while, the intuitive knowledge about the intrinsic value of human beings has become tainted and abused while the society intoxicates itself in a self-gratifying orgy. It’s no wonder that the intolerable offense of abortion, the ultimate abuse of human life, has become an acceptable part of life.
It is impossible for an uncommitted couple to experience, through sexual union, the total giving, receiving and reciprocating, which is the fullness of love. The man is either afraid of being dragged into commitment, or else is selfish in pleasing his desires alone, and the woman is never certain about the man’s motive and is afraid of being used for his self gratification.
The Church, on the other hand, has always valued love and intrinsic value of human persons, and for this reason valued sex also. The Church know what the society does not; the awe inspiring sacredness of love making. It is not that the Church is anti-sex, as the popular culture would like to tell us, but that the society does not know how valuable sex is; it is beyond its wildest guess. The Church, in her wisdom, knows that such a sacred act requires uncompromising conditions which are, again, exclusivity, permanence and an unconditional nature – that is, marriage – in order that love and the persons may not be abused.
It is for the sake of love, also, that justice exists. Think about it, if there was never a violation of love, there would be no need for justice. Perhaps in this society the collective conscience has lost the sense of immorality once attached to such violations (especially in anything related to sex, toward which it has become desensitized), but Christ, perfect in love, knows how this effects the soul: “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:27-29). This is why we are all in need of Christ, the saviour, who rescues us from the consequences of such immoralities.
The importance commitment becomes even clearer as the Trinitarian image of God is seen in the relationship between a man and a woman who, in a way, image God as a couple (Genesis 1:27). The man giving himself entirely to to the woman constitutes, in a way, an image of God the Father (the initiator). The woman’s reception and reciprocation of the totality of this love constitutes the image of God the Son (the receiver and reciprocator). The product of this process, a baby 9 months later, is the image of the Holy Spirit (the love between the giver and the receiver). Hence, the family is a sacred unit, because God is a family. Because this giving and receiving within this family images the Trinity, John Paul II taught us that, “To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others”.
So, dear reader, if you take nothing else from this, I urge you to see the beauty and dignity inherent in a person, and in relationships between people, especially in a marriage, and in a family, including yourself and your own. Commitment to this requires nothing less than a full giving of yourself to the pursuit of truth, since only this truth can bind people together in harmony. It is also this truth that reveals infinite value of love, perfect justice which we all fail to satisfy, and mercy which is generously poured out for us – it is up to you to seek and receive it.
Afterall, Heaven is all about joining in the Triune communion. This is why God allowed the fall of man at all; in order that Christ, and therefore the Holy Spirit, may be sent to raise mankind to a new level of communion in Heaven (since the Church is the body of Christ, and the believers now the temple of the Holy Spirit). Heaven is a state where a soul participates in this infinite and eternal exchange of love, through the Holy Spirit, in Christ. This is why we are called to be self-less givers on Earth, so that we may be able to equally receive and reciprocate when we’re in Heaven.