For some years now I have had the privilege of teaching and leading undergraduate and graduate students who profess to be Christ followers. At Impact 360 Institute, many of our students come wanting to learn more about how their Christian faith is related to three of the most critical social issues of our day as articulated in the Manhattan Declaration. But not surprisingly, it isn’t enough to simply tell them “this is important, because the Bible and the Church say so and I’m telling you it is too.”
Who’s Your Authority?
Although many say they see the Bible as authoritative, they tend to be fairly selective as to what they are OK with their churches and pastors authoritatively and confidently proclaiming what the Bible says is the Truth with a capital “T.” This is much more the case for younger believers than for their parents and grandparents. At a minimum, this is what I’ve observed in Millennials and Generation Z’ers who have grown up in most evangelical Protestant traditions. Many churches still communicate in ways that are partial to the older generations, particularly with respect to key social issues. What this often looks like, if anything is said at all from the pulpit or elsewhere in the church about abortion, gay marriage, or religious liberty, is “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” That kind of answer might be satisfactory to their older family members, but young questioning minds often want and need more. Certainly there are some exceptions, and there are some churches who are intentionally changing their cultures so as to make it safe for people to speak up.
What is true of younger believers can be true of Christians of any age. We simply draw our conclusions based on our emotions—how we feel about how the issue and its discussion has affected us and our friends. We will often turn to their own spheres of authority—friend groups, social media, and pastors and theologians who validate our assumed view instead of helping us think critically and apply what God’s Word actually says and how it relates to his world.
The Nature of the Disconnect
On these critically important topics, the disconnect, I think, is one of depth perception, so to speak. That is to say, too often we suffer from a rather shallow view of human nature. We don’t think of ourselves as being “deep” in the way that we’re designed. This claim may strike some of us as all too obvious, but it isn’t at all obvious to others. Although we believe at some level that we are created imago dei—in God’s image—we still tend to view ourselves primarily through the lens of our friends and the media—as a mere bundle of matter, desires, successes, and failures, headed in a life direction that may or may not have meaning.
On this view, any one element making up the “bundle”—our human nature—will take a greater or lesser role in determining how we perceive ourselves (i.e., our nature) depending primarily on our experience. If I feel successful based on a recent job performance or good grade, then I am a “good” human. If my physical self is incapable of doing some things that others do, such as running, hiking, and physical labor, then I might perceive myself to be less human. One problem with the bundle theory of human nature is that the kind of thing we actually are can be more or less depending on our experience. There isn’t any “core” to me that keeps me the same through change, including my changing experience of myself and the world around me. There is no substantial basis for intrinsic worth on this view. Put another way, human dignity is utterly dependent on our experience of ourselves in some way. Scary. Is there an alternative?
A Way Forward
Our ability to see ourselves and others as inherently valuable increases dramatically when we learn exactly what a human being is from a classical substance dualist perspective. This is the view of human personhood held by most of the church fathers and Reformers, and it is probably the view that was assumed by the biblical writers themselves. It holds that human beings are a substantial self—not a bundle of characteristics to be highlighted and chosen willy-nilly depending on the situation. Ultimately, it is our non-physical yet very real souls that ground who we are. And, yes, our souls do a whole lot more than wait until our bodies die so that we can live for eternity; they actually animate who we are. My soul—indelibly stamped with the imago dei—is what grounds my dignity, regardless of what I’m experiencing at any given moment.
Being as convinced as I am that formal instruction on human nature from a substance dualist perspective is a must for all Christ-followers, I am happy to recommend this article in Salvo by Robin Phillips. Once people understand this view, I’ve found that their enthusiasm and clarity about the relevant ethical issues goes way up, because all of a sudden they can comprehend the intrinsic worth and dignity of human persons to a far greater degree.
Questions to consider:
- How much thought have I given to the question “What is a human person?”
- What is it that differentiates me from other living beings?
- How do I sometimes act as if human beings (myself or others) are mere “bundles” of characteristics?
- How does the substance dualist perspective help me think through some of the key ethical issues being discussed in today’s culture?
- How does this view change my “depth perception” of myself and others?
- Do we really have free speech?
- How is today’s political climate affecting religious liberties?
- How to engage culture with a perspective of hope!