Divine love, human worth and Nicholas Wolterstorff

I spent Thursday and Friday last week at a conference in Oxford based around Nicholas Wolterstorff's new book Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2008). It was excellent and I got to spend my 40th birthday having a chat with NW about the musings below.

I have not read the book but my understanding is that NW argues that
* justice should be understood in terms of rights.
* some rights are conferred upon humans whilst others - inherent rights - are not.
* Inherent rights inhere in a certain 'worth' of a person.
* Human worth is grounded in the worth-bestowing love of God for humans. This means that even a human that lacks capacities that we value (e.g., a person in a coma, a person with alzheimer's) still has worth because their worth is ultimately grounded (in part) in God's love for them and not in their capacities.

This got me thinking.

Does God love me because I have worth?
Do I have worth because God loves me?

The problem with the first view is that it grounds my worth in certain features about me (perhaps rationality, my capacity to act in certain ways, etc). But if I lack those capacities then I lack worth and, on NW's account, lack rights. This lays some humans open to abuse.

The problem with the second view is that it seems to make God's love arbitrary. In part God sets his love upon humans irrespective of any worth that they possess. It is his love which confers worth upon them. But he could just as easily have set his love upon jellyfish or mushrooms. This seems wrong.

Does God's love confer worth upon us (so NW) or does God love us because he recognizes our worth?

I (tentatively) think (contra NW) that our worth is grounded in certain features about us as humans (NW does grant that some of our worth is grounded in such things).

But does this not fall prey to NW's concern that humans who lack those capacities lack worth and so lack rights? Well, it does in a secular framework but not in a Christian framework. Here is why - God has committed to bring creation to resurrection (obviously in cooperation with creaturely freedom). So whilst there are certain humans who might currently lack the qualities that give them worth God has committed to bring it about that they will, one day, possess such qualities.

So perhaps a human has value (and thus rights) partly because of certain properities that they currently possess and partly because of certain properties that they will, in the grace of God, possess. God's love then is not that which confers worth but that which brings it about that a creature has worth.

But that does not seem quite right either. Surely God glorifies/resurrects humans because he loves us. His love does not follow our having the properties that give us worth. He loves us even though we are not yet what we will be. So he loves the unlovely and we are back with the problem of his love being arbitrary.

Or are we?

Perhaps my worth now is grounded on the property that I possess now of being the kind of creature (i.e., a human) that God has created to share in his glory. I currently possess the potential for glory simply by virtue of being a creature of a certain kind. And I am such a kind of creature now even if I lack many or perhaps all the worth-bestowing properties that a perfect human would have.

So perhaps God creates humans to share in his glory. This capacity and potential confers worth on humans (and thus some basic rights) and makes them appropriate objects of non-arbitrary divine love. God's love does not bestow-worth on humans but recognizes the worth that is there by virtue of creation and its telos. God's love also perfects humans and enables us to realize our potential.

This is a very fuzzy, inarticulate idea that needs a lot of ironing out. But I think that it avoids the problems that NW is seeking to avoid with attempts to ground human worth in properties that we possess.

And yet ... I think it still needs modifying to factor in the graceful, undeserved quality of God's love.


Paul said…
Some fuzzier thoughts:
Surely God does love jellyfish and mushrooms. And they have worth as a result.

Maybe you would need to factor in some gradation of worth (since we are 'worth more than sparrows')? Following your idea -- all creation shares God's glory in a global way, but humans share it in a more intensified way?

Very fuzzy thought:
If God is love, is it possible to factor out his love from the act of creation, as if they are two distinct things?
Anonymous said…
I'm surprised that your discussion never mentions what is historically the key basis for Christian respect for humans--all humans: the image of God in the human.

That consideration gives cohesiveness to the entire discussion. We are valuable not because we have inherent worth as beings, but because God has imbued us with worth by placing His image in us. To respect the human image, then, is to respect the antitype, God Himself--and that is the purpose for all of creation, the glory of God.

This avoids the problem of seeing God's love as arbitrary; it is the considered expression of the recognition of the Good. And it rids the picture of the idea that God loves us because He is in some way impressed by what we are or what we do.

The concept of the inherent goodness of the human as in the image of God, of course, is tempered by the fact of his fall and the consequent marring of the image. That in turn leads to the Protestant distrust of man.
Unknown said…
I agree wit anonymous. however, i am wondering.. when God said "let us make man in our image" could this mean, let us make man a spiritual being? I think we tend to think about the body of the man being made in the likeness of God, however, I believe the likeness is the eternal spiritual being of man.

Adams worth entered his body as soon as God breathed life into him.

Honestly, I don't see any reason for doubting that each individual has worth. God "knit" us together in our mothers womb. This takes time, this takes the hands of God.. if God takes His time to make us, to breath in us, to love us, then our worth is bigger than we can ever humanly understand.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks. Whilst I did not use the phrase 'image of God' I think that this is precisely what I WAS talking about in the post.

But then it depends what you mean by 'image of God'. My view is that our image-of-God-ness is a functional thing - a calling to image God. But that calling is predicated upon certain features of our biological nature (e.g. the capacity to think, act, speak, love). It was these kinds of features that my blog was concerned with.

So I think that we are saying the same thing.
Dan Olinger said…

I'm anonymous. :-)

I suspected that we did largely agree; it just seemed to me that there was a much more efficient and cohesive way to couch the thought. But it also seemed to me that the way you posed the dichotomy implied that you were leaving out that key consideration.

FWIW, as you know, there are historically many views on what constitutes the image. you've mentioned the functional; C mentioned man's core spiritual nature. Others mention relationality--the fact of the eternal Trinity is the reason that "it is not good that the man should be alone." In my experience, contrary to C's, most reasonably conservative (American) Christians see the image as more spiritual than physical; however, I teach my seminarians that the image includes the physical as well, based on Heb 10.5 and the theological appropriateness of Christ's body as the antitype for Adam's rather than vice versa.

Enjoying watching the discussion. Best wishes.


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