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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Why People Matter" (various contributors)

TITLE: Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance
AUTHOR: Russell DiSilvestro, David P. Gushee, Amy Laura Hall, John F. Kilner, Gilbert C. Meilaender, Scott B. Rae, and Patrick T. Smith
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, (240 pages).

It is often taken for granted that human lives are sacred. Although the practice of human rights and protections differ from country to country, it is generally accepted that people matter. What is not so clear is the reason behind the laws and policies. With the continuing debate over euthanasia, abortion, planned parenting, the death penalty, genetic engineering, hunger strikes, war, and so on, this is not a simple matter. Opinions differ. Many agree on the importance of people but disagree on how they are implemented. There are differences with regard to understanding 'human dignity,' 'human rights,' 'fair treatment,' and so on. Bringing together five different outlooks, the authors try to see these differences in the hope of helping Christians engage appropriately. It is better to be aware so as not to talk from a position of ignorance. At the same time, we can learn humility in recognizing the diversity of human interactions. If we learn to take the convictions of other people seriously, they are more likely to reciprocate.

The first is utilitarianism where the 'ends justify the means.' Gilbert C. Meilaender examines its proponent Henry Sidgwick, who teaches the purpose of life as to produce the maximum amount of happiness for people. In trying to gain the most good for the masses, he loses the unique distinctiveness of the individual. After all, if happiness for many is more important, what about the individual? Meilaender pushes back on Sidgwick by saying that utilitarianism undermines human individual dignity and we risk usurping the place of God. Gradually, he gives reasons as to why the Christian perspective of community and how it preserves the sanctity of the individual.

The second is collectivism, where the greater good to the greater number of people is preferred. The problem is the dependence on numbers and reducing the human person into a mere statistic. We are important only when we belong to the majority. What about the minority? We would then risk marginalizing the lesser in favour of the greater. Amy Laura Hall argues that we are not just a part but a significant whole among wholes. Every individual is significant in God's eyes. Without this view from above, we are vulnerable to narrow-casting in advertising; susceptible to being owned when we are in any particular group; and becoming manipulated in social science projects.

The third is the ever familiar individualism, where personal privacy and rights are to be cherished above all. This is the other extreme from collectivism. In a social media world, everybody has a right to their own opinions, choices, and personal actions. What happens when individual expressions clash with communal needs? What about the family's role when deciding how a sick member of the family decides on a radical medical decision? What are the boundaries of the power of individual choices? Russell DiSilvestro lists the appeals of individualism before raising up communal needs and the responsibilities of the individual to society at large. If utilitarianism is strongest when it is impartial, individualism is strongest when it is practiced with a sensitivity to community. He then presents both non-Christian and Christian critiques before giving six ways the Christian worldview can appreciate individual dignity without descending into individualism.

The above three are all based on perspectives on humanism. The fourth is based on naturalism which has to see life through the eyes of science. Here Scott B. Rae defines naturalism as that "all reality is subsumed entirely within the material world." Thus, it is difficult to assign the understanding of significance according to this worldview. One of the ways is through conferring, like a human fetus being declared as human at a defined stage of development. As far as humans are concerned, their ability to rationalize and to moralize set them apart from other parts of the world. Once again, Rae affirms the biblical viewpoint as the best way to see significance of the human person.

The fifth is transhumanism which sees humanness going beyond mere human beings. This crosses the domains of naturalism and envisions a future where humans are superseded by a new form. Patrick T Smith argues that this undermines the natural human significance that has been instituted by God.

John Kilner and David Gushee then give a theological worldview on the significance of what it means to be human. People matter because God has created and given them worth. They matter because God has conferred significance on them. All other views would have reduced the human significance in some way.

So What?
This is a very philosophical treatment of how the human person is seen from the five major worldviews. It may be a dry subject but is an important part of how we confer significance on the human being. IF we can understand the different perspectives and the underlying assumptions, we would be able to better appreciate why various parties do what they do or say what they say. For any dialogue or constructive engagements, we would need a fair platform for discussion. Talks often break down when the basic assumptions are too far apart or when parties do not bother to understand opposing viewpoints. We engage better when we understand the differences others have.

The book concludes with some powerful arguments for the Christian worldview. One does not need to totally abandon the other philosophies as long as they remember that it is God who is supreme over all. Otherwise, we end up elevating idols above God. Why should we read this book? Three reasons. First, it could help us in apologetics and the gospel witness. In a pluralistic world, the number of diverse opinions are many. We could choose the path of ignorance but that would result in isolated lives that would increase the level of individualism in society at the expense of the community. Some Christians may even end up interacting only with people who share their same views. If that is so, our gospel would be limited to like-minded people and we miss out on the Great Commission altogether. The various essays provide a way in which we can learn how to interact not only nicely but intelligently as well. The best courtesy we can extend to alternative views is to be able to define and explain their basic philosophies clearly and non-judgmentally. Second, it anchors us on the foundations of Christian theology. Believers in the world sometimes live in the world so much that they have forgotten what the Bible teaches. Instead, they let the world teach them, and they then introduces such teachings into the Church. If we are not careful, we give non-Christian worldviews a foothold into our houses of worship and threatens the pure gospel that we are called to preach and teach. This is a big reason why teachers, pastors, and leaders of any Church can use this book as a resource to watch and prevent any such syncretism. Finally, we come back to the basic title of the book that people matter and they matter in more ways than we think. The best way we can honour one another is through the eyes of God. We give one another our best because God has given us His best. We honour people because God has honoured us. It all begins with God and ends with God. Humans are most valuable to God because God loves all human people. In fact, God loves all of creation.

This is definitely a precious resource to give meat to our oft-touted framework about the sanctity of human life. May this book help us to love our neighbor more and more in thought, word, and deed.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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