I. Human dignity as a religious and ethical category
I. 1. The human rights theory is based on human dignity as its fundamental notion. This is the reason why the need arises to set forth the Church’s view of human dignity.
According to the Biblical revelation, God not only created human nature but also endowed it with qualities in His image and after His likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26). It is the only ground which makes it possible to assert that human nature has an inherent dignity. St. Gregory the Theologian, speaking about human dignity as related to the act of divine creation, wrote:
‘God has endowed all human beings so generously so that by distributing His gifts equally He may also show the equal dignity of our nature and the abundance of His grace’ (Oration 14 On the Love for the Poor).
The incarnation of God the Word showed that human nature did not lose its dignity even after the fall, for the image of God in it remained indelible, which means that an opportunity remained for restoring human life in the fullness of its original perfection. This is embedded also in the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church:
‘I am an image of thy glory ineffable, though I bear the brands of transgressions… O thou who of old didst call me into being from nothingness, and didst honour me with thine image divine, but because I had transgressed thy commandments hast returned me again unto the earth from which I was taken: Restore thou me to that image, and to my pristine beauty’ (Troparia from the Order of the Funeral of the Dead).
The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ assumed human nature in its fullness except for sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) shows that this dignity does not apply to the distortions resulting from the fall.
I. 2. In Orthodoxy the dignity and ultimate worth of every human person are derived from the image of God, while dignified life is related to the notion of God’s likeness achieved through God’s grace by efforts to overcome sin and to seek moral purity and virtue. Therefore, the human being as bearing the image of God should not exult in this lofty dignity, for it is not his own achievement but a gift of God. Nor should he use it to justify his weaknesses or vices, but rather understand his responsibility for the direction and way of his life. Clearly, the idea of responsibility is integral to the very notion of dignity.
Therefore, in the Eastern Christian tradition the notion of ‘dignity’ has first of all a moral meaning, while the ideas of what is dignified and what is not are bound up with the moral or amoral actions of a person and with the inner state of his soul. Considering the state of human nature darkened by sin, it is important that things dignified and undignified should be clearly distinguished in the life of a person.
I. 3. Dignified is a life lived according to its original calling laid down in the nature of the human being created for participation in the good life of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa affirms:
‘If the Deity is the fullness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good’ (On the Creation of Man, Chapter XVI).
Human life therefore lies in seeking ‘God’s likeness in all virtue so far as it is possible for man’, as St. John of Damascus says in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. The patristic tradition describes this elicitation of the image of God as deification.
The God-given dignity is confirmed by a moral principle present in every person and discerned in the voice of conscience. This is what St. Paul writes about it in his Epistle to the Romans:
‘The work of the law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another’ (2:15).
Thus moral norms inherent in humanity just as moral norm set forth in the divine revelation reveal God’s design for human beings and their calling. These norms are guidelines for a good life worthy of God-created humanity. It was the Lord Jesus Christ Who showed the greatest model of such a life to the world.
I. 4. A life in sin is unworthy of the human person as it destroys him and inflicts damage on others and the world around him. Sin overturns the hierarchy of relations in human nature. Instead of having his body controlled by the spirit, in sin the human person submits to the flesh – the situation brought into focus by St. John Chrysostom:
‘We upset the order and an onset of evil occurred so as to oblige us to follow the bidding of the flesh’ (Discourse 12 on the Book of the Genesis).
A life according to the law of the flesh is contrary to God’s commandments and it does not agree with the moral principle laid down by God in human nature. Under the influence of sin, a person in his relations with others acts as an egoist preoccupied with indulging himself at the expense of others. Such a life endangers the individual, society and the surrounding nature as it violates the harmony of existence and results in spiritual and physical suffering, illnesses and vulnerability in the face of consequences brought about by the erosion of the environment. A morally undignified life does not ruin the God-given dignity ontologically but darkens it so much as to make it hardly discernable. This is why it takes so much effort of will to discern and even admit the natural dignity of a villain or a tyrant.
I. 5. A special importance in restoring a person to his appropriate dignity belongs to repentance based on the awareness of his sin and desire to change his life. A repentant person admits that his thoughts, words or actions are not consonant with the God-given dignity and acknowledges his indignity before God and the Church. Repentance does not humiliate a person but rather gives him a powerful stimulus for seeking spiritual self-cultivation, making a creative change in his life, preserving the purity of the God-given dignity and growing in it.
For this very reason the patristic and ascetic thought and the whole liturgical tradition of the Church refer more to human indignity caused by sin than to human dignity. Thus the Prayer of St. Basil the Great said by an Orthodox Christian before the Holy Communion reads:
‘Wherefore I, although unworthy both of heaven and of earth and of this temporary life, even I, a wretched sinner who had given myself over to every evil desire, despair not of salvation, though I have been wholly subject to sin, a slave to passion, and have defiled thine image within me, who am thy creation and thy work; but trusting in thine infinite compassion, draw nigh unto thee’.
According to the Orthodox tradition, a human being preserves his God-given dignity and grows in it only if he lives in accordance with moral norms because these norms express the primordial and therefore authentic human nature not darkened by sin. Thus there is a direct link between human dignity and morality. Moreover, the acknowledgement of personal dignity implies the assertion of personal responsibility.