The Christian imagination invites us to recover a more complex vision of who we are as humans. This moral vision energizes us to better understand ourselves and to cultivate healthier relationships and public life. Its “complexity” means that it braids together seemingly opposite truths that reflect the actual state of our reality and cultivate wisdom for living together. My late PhD adviser Professor Jean Elshtain called this a “moral anthropology.”
On the one hand, human life is infinitely precious and worthy of cherishing. We know this when we hold a baby in our arms and look deeply into the faces of our loved ones.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, and many others agree that we are created and loved by God. Genesis 1 teaches that we were designed in God’s image and invested with divine value. This means that God created each person as an embodiment of God’s own dignity with a calling to care for God’s world.
This vision of humanity stands in marked contrast to ancient myths like Enuma Elish and contemporary ideologies that devalue human life. Enuma Elish taught that the gods created by killing one another and making humans out of the bloody remains. Kings and priests ruled at the top, guarding temples with lifeless images representing their violent lords. Everyone else was a servant at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Genesis 1 dared to see creation differently: the whole world is God’s temple, and every human is God’s living, breathing embodiment. The old hierarchy of kings, priests, and “ordinary” people was overthrown. Through Genesis’s eyes, to see another person as less than oneself or worthless is to be blind to one of the most astonishing wonders of the world: the divine value of every human person.
Thus, human life is to be held in awesome reverence and treated with radical care (Genesis 9:6).
But on the other hand, human life is deeply fallen and fallible (Genesis 3-4). We make mistakes, intentionally and unintentionally. What we consider to be most right and good for ourselves and others sometimes proves to be seriously flawed and badly destructive. Our wisdom is often unwise or even evil.
The practical implication is profound and disturbing: the pious moralities we construct are often veiled attempts to privilege ourselves and to attain power over others. Ironically, many of the greatest evils in history — from American slavery to the Nazi Holocaust — were entirely legal and propped up in the name of “God.” When we “strip off the deceptive veils” as St Augustine wrote, human culture is rightly held in suspicion and only tentatively accepted.
As fallen, fallible creatures, we require accountability and limits to our power in order to avoid mucking things up. Our attempts to be like God, beyond the counsel and critique of others, is often when we are most dangerous and destructive.
Taken together, this is a complex moral anthropology that braids together seemingly contradictory truths: human life is infinitely precious and also deeply problematic. Our lives are invested with priceless value, and we also hum with misleading desires that fuel evil deeds with disastrous outcomes.
This complex vision of humanity leads to a complex posture toward our selves, our leaders, and our societal systems: people should be approached with radical reverence and also healthy suspicion. When we truly see one another, we catch glimpses of God’s dignity and creativity — an uneraseable, irrevocable preciousness, even in our enemies! But we also see that when we try to be more than the finite, fallible creatures that we are, we often unleash misery on one another, the world, and ourselves.
A discerning dance is required to be human: cherishing and critique, trust and suspicion, confident creativity and real accountability.
Notice what happens when we lose this dynamic, in-tension-al moral complexity.
When we fail to see the God-given preciousness of human life, our existence is reduced to a meaningless struggle for power. The bonds between us are cut and the intrinsic value of being with one another is gutted. We lose relationships of reverence, love, and trust. Things like money, status, and self-centered pleasure and power come to dominate our lives. We slide toward demonizing others and draining them of all value, until we see others as worthless. Our society drifts toward us vs them camps that mirror one another in their hate. This is the root of murder and genocide.
We know that we were made for so much more than this.
And when we ignore or suppress the reality of our fallibility, we fall prey to a naive idealism or romanticism. Our expectations for ourselves and our leaders become unrealistic and unfair. We underestimate the role of power in human desire, and thus we operate with a gullibility that easily gravitates toward error, abuse, and abject evil. We get seduced into cults of personality, deny painful realities, and find ourselves fervently devoted to lies. We uncritically trust human-sized gods. Promises of salvation leave destruction in their wake.
We know that ignoring this painful reality is unwise and dangerous.
The ancient biblical vision of humanity invites us to embrace our humanity with this profound moral complexity. We are infinitely precious — made and loved by God, embodying glimpses of God’s goodness in a world full of wonder. We can and should be loved. Even our worst enemy is still an image-bearer of God; demonization must be rejected. But we are also deeply imperfect — prone to abuse power and often most dangerous when we claim to be most virtuous and destined for greatness. Divinizing people must also be rejected.
The wisdom of love guides us in this delicate dance of being human. Cherishing one another is the only right orientation to our lives. And this cherishing leads to a care that embraces our vulnerability with honesty and courage. When we know that we are loved, we needn’t hide from our weaknesses and failings or pretend that they are unreal.
With this moral anthropology, a wisdom develops in our lives that braids honesty and integrity, intimacy and accountability, cherishing with the courage to confess, grow, and change in relationship.
Stop and think: Is there a person or group in your life that you’re tempted to see as less or more than human — to demonize or divinize? How would your relationship change if you recommitted to seeing them as fully human, both precious in value and capable of evil?