The Competing Grounds of Human Dignity

John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume 2: Virtue and Intellect (T&T Clark, 2015), 30ff.

A sketch of the history of how the notion of human dignity has been annexed to the larger project of free subjectivity cannot be attempted here; but the durability of that tradition (as well as its distance from the gospel) can readily be seen in an early and paradigmatic episode, Pico della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man,’ written in 1486 for a public disputation which was suppressed by Innocent VIII, and never published in his lifetime:

At last the best of artisans ordained that the creature to whom he had been able to give nothing proper to himself should have joint possession of whatever had been peculiar to each of the different kinds of being. He therefore took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus:

‘Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgement thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions that thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand we have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s centre that thou mayest from thence more ably observe what is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honour, as though the maker and moulder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgement, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.’

Notice, first, how radically Pico has reconceived the god who addresses himself to Adam. He is Pater architectus Deus, artifex, optimus opifex — the idiom is that of the producer of a free-standing reality which bears no continuing relation to its maker, and is neither moved nor governed by the maker’s presence and care: creation and providence are reduced to manufacture. Notice, further, how formless is the product of this god’s activity. Adam has ‘nothing proper to himself ’ and is ‘a creature of an indeterminate nature’; what gives shape to his being is not nature but ‘longing’ and ‘judgement’ — only from this do ‘abode,’ ‘form’ and ‘functions’ emerge. Adam is a being without law, that is, without quickening order or shape (for Pico, natural order is ‘limit’ and ‘constraint’). Instead, Adam is characterized by arbitria through which he gives himself shape as ‘the maker and moulder of thyself.’ And it is in all this — in Adam’s existence as ‘Proteus,’ as ‘our chameleon’ with a ‘self-transforming nature’ — that human dignity consists. But in this explication of dignity in terms of self-culture, there is little which from the gospel’s perspective can be considered a contribution to human flourishing, and much which serves to draw creatures from their well-being. What is required is a different account of the natures of God and God’s creatures, and a different teleology. These the gospel furnishes.

Human dignity is the dignity proper to creatures; creatures have their being within the situation and history for which they have been made by God and in which they are to discover and enact their lives. Dignity is not a correlate of human indeterminacy but precisely of our limitation, of the special, life-bestowing form with which we are blessed by God and to whose performance we are summoned.

What Christian theology has to say about human dignity is thus governed by a fundamental rule in theological anthropology: creaturely being is and is available to be known and lived out only within the grace of God’s relation to us. Like their freedom, the dignity of creatures is not a property or power anterior to the creature’s history with God; it is an element of that history, and in that history God is always antecedent. The epistemological corollary of this rule is that, because there is no standpoint which creatures may adopt outside their history with God, knowledge of human dignity does not arise within the self-enclosed circle of human reflection, but in the course of the attention to divine instruction.


I first encountered this quote in Webster’s third lecture in the 2009 Hayward Lecture Series (which I commend).

Lecture 1: God as Creator

Lecture 2: God and Creation

Lecture 3: God and His Creatures

My Audio Recording Studio

Having hosted podcasts for nearly seven years, I’m often asked about my studio setup. So I figured I would assemble the details in one place for the sake of convenience.

For several years my go-to microphone has been the Shure SM7B, a great little cardioid mic that has never let me down. It’s versatile and sharp. For fun I’ve experimented with slightly more expensive mics — specifically the ElectroVoice RE20, and once had a chance to play around with the classic NPR mic, the Neumann U87 — but I always return, more happy than ever, to my Shure SM7B, mounted to my right on a Auray BAE-2X broadcast arm.

The analogue mic runs directly to a Cloudlifter activator for a signal boost, digitized in a Scarlett 2i4 USB interface, and then into my MacBook Pro, and to my LG 34-inch curved ultrawide monitor, perfect for linear audio editing.

Software wise, my channel mapping is handled by Loopback to direct incoming audio from Facetime and Skype for recording. All recordings and edits are done in Adobe Audition CC.

I use Audio-Technica ATH-M50x studio headphones. And, finally, when I record, I set up some affordable acoustic panels around my setup.

That’s it. It may look complex on first glance, but it’s streamlined and dependable for what I need.

What do you use? And how can I improve my setup?

The Voice of God to the Silent Agony

In The Prophets, rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907–1972) makes a compelling case that God’s prophets in the Old Testament were not merely carriers of the inspired word, they were also agents of divine passion. To the degree that “the characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God” (298). Now that’s an overstated contrast, but you get the point. The message of the prophets exceeded what matter-of-fact language alone could contain, and this is because “the prophet hears God’s voice and feels His heart” (31). Thus, the prophets carry God’s word in God’s emotion. The two are inseparable.

Building from this pathos, Heschel addresses the nature of injustice that caught the attention of the Prophets and brought forth their prophetic ire —

The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshiping ‘the Queen of Heaven’? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation? . . .

Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice — cheating in business, exploitation of the poor — is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world. . . .

The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor. (3–6)

Above all, Heschel writes, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people. Few are guilty, but all are responsible” (19).