How Much Dignity Does a Maggot-sack Have?

The following paper was delivered by Dr. Joel Biermann at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on November 14, 2023.

There are few foundational axioms as pervasive and powerful as the declaration of human dignity and the corresponding affirmation of inherent human rights. The charter of the United Nations exemplifies this thinking as it declares in the second line of the preamble that just after the goal of “saving succeeding nations from the scourge of war,” it’s second driving objective is to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.”[1] Three years later, the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” doubled-down on the premise in its own Preamble declaring that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[2] The list of inherent rights was extensive, numbering into the dozens, including life, liberty, education, work, leisure, nationality, property, religion, medical care, education, and marriage—all as inherent human rights. People might quibble about what exactly qualifies as an inherent right—there are some who consider fast food served according to their expectations a fundamental right—but no one questions the basic premise of human dignity and human rights, not even Christians. Dignity and rights are a given, right?

In fact, Christians can even do better than the framers of the “Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Instead of a mere bald assertion of dignity and rights with no attempt at supporting the claim, Christians can actually name and honor a source for the dignity and rights they revere. Christians are confident that these great goods come from God who created all people in his own image and so endowed them with the inherent dignity and rights that have become the bedrock and guiding parameters of modern human society.

It is a powerful idea. It is uplifting and inspiring. It holds out a hopeful avenue for the resolution of conflict, the eradication of hatred, and the triumph of the universal brotherhood of man.

But it is not true.

As held in popular culture, the ideal is, in fact, nothing more than a sentimental assertion with no foundation in reality. To declare humanity’s inherent dignity and to create ever-expanding lists of universal human rights does not make it so. The glaring absence of any attempt to justify or ground the popular claim betrays the hard truth that the notion of human rights and dignity is just that: nothing but a notion. It is the hollow shell of a residual idea left over from the era of Christian influence, but without basis apart from Christian confession or some other religious assertion related to man’s origin and purpose. Beyond warm sentiment or wishful thinking and emotion, there is simply no reason any pure secularist can support a concept of inherent human dignity. In fact, as the world has witnessed firsthand, with examples numbering into the millions, the unflinching, hard realities of evolutionary theory and nihilistic philosophy actually demand exactly the opposite conclusion. It is ironic that such dehumanizing concepts that are rooted in and nurtured by the ideals of human worth, rights, and honor have ruthlessly undermined and subverted those very ideals themselves.

It had all started so well. Just a few years after the birth of Luther, the Italian, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, had exuberantly declared:

Man is the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, by the acuteness of his sense, by the discernment of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature, the interval between fixed eternity and fleeting time, and (as the Persians say) the bond, nay, rather, the marriage song of the world, on David’s testimony but little lower than the angels.[3]

This Oration on Human Dignity became known as the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” declaring man’s lofty status, but it relied on Christian assumptions and understandings to ground the argument. Those were kicked away as the Renaissance morphed into the Enlightenment; and while the axiom of dignity continued, the foundation was gone.

Before Christians scramble to take up the mantle, step into the gap, and busy themselves with reestablishing the foundation and reminding the world that inherent human rights and dignity can’t actually get along without some divine source, perhaps we Christians should pause and reconsider the axiom itself. Is it actually true that humanity possesses inherent rights and dignity? Rightly understood, Lutheran doctrine, I am convinced, seriously undercuts, indeed fully repudiates, the idea. Rights and dignity, merely by virtue of being human, is a notion altogether foreign to Lutheran confession.

Of course, Luther’s typically graphic and brutally blunt assessment of human worth in terms of worms and maggots is infamously known. One striking example among Luther’s many references to necrotic vermin, is found in his well-known rejection of the term, Lutheran, where he writes, “What is Luther? After all the teaching is not mine….How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?”[4] Luther knew how to capture the attention and imagination of his listeners and readers—right down to the present day. It’s hard to shake the vivid memory of the roadside possum or the chicken guts in the garbage, and the searing image of fetid rotting flesh writhing and crawling with revolting larval life that looks more like death. Maggots don’t exude self-worth, and a sack of them is anything but dignified.

Remarkably enough, though, the Lutheran rejection of inherent human dignity along with the corresponding list of inalienable human rights is not grounded in or even bound to the gruesome and inevitable fate of all mortal human flesh. It is, no doubt, true that the undeniable and awkward materiality of our humanity is often assumed to be the weak spot in claiming human dignity. This helps account for the enduring popularity of Platonic and Gnostic convictions in their endlessly adaptable, but utterly predictable forms right down to the present. But, in spite of all such efforts to escape the flesh, the unyielding corporality of our humanity is inescapable. It defines us not only at the end of life, but from the very beginning. The old Latin phrase, often—but apparently wrongly— attributed to Augustine, is quite right: inter faeces et urinam nascimur; we are indeed, born between feces and urine. Having a fleshly body that does all the embarrassing and unpleasant things that all fleshly bodies do, and that will, in the end, be reduced to a feast for vermin is the lot of us all. But fleshly bodies are not the problem. The incarnation utterly and eternally rebukes any squeamish repudiation of human flesh. The Second Person of the Godhead, the eternal Logos, joined himself to real human skin, muscle, guts, and bones and was born as all men are—yes, between feces and urine. Having human flesh is not what negates dignity.

I will confess that I came to this realization a bit later than I should have. As soon as I heard the theme for this annual meeting, I knew I had to make the widespread, indeed, as I’ve noted, universal, axiom of inherent human dignity the target of my paper. And what better way to attack the idea of human dignity than to invoke Luther’s maggot sack? But as I’ve worked more deeply into the topic, it is clear that human flesh, even human flesh tainted by sin, and doomed to rot, is not the problem. But don’t misunderstand; I am not backing off of my thesis. I am more committed than ever to my campaign against inherent human dignity and universal human rights; and I do still love my title—it does what titles are supposed to do, after all. It’s just that now I’ve come to recognize that it must be made clear that being a maggot sack is not in itself the negation of dignity, but a consequence of the loss. Maggots don’t steal my dignity, and it is not frail, fallible, faltering flesh that impinges on any claim I could make to basic human rights. Intrinsic dignity and rights are still wrong ideas, but the problem with them lies somewhere else than in our human flesh that is doomed to decay.

The inherent problem with inherent human dignity and rights lies in another unquestioned dictum: that of human autonomy which is, supposedly, made manifest in a person’s ability to choose and act on individual desires, or what we ordinarily label as “free will.” A commitment to the absolute necessity of free will goes hand-in-hand with the idea of human dignity. After all, to have dignity, people must be free; and so reciprocally and logically, since humans obviously must have dignity, then it is required that they have free will as well. Along with the commitment to inherent human dignity, the idea that humans must, by definition, enjoy the exercise of their free will or cease to be fully human, is also deeply rooted in the western experience, even among the most ardent Christians. It is simply taken for granted that people must have autonomous free will if they are to function as fully human beings. Luther, of course, disagreed. Or rather, Luther simply rejected outright the idea of human free will, and never gave much thought, at the time, to what this might mean to ideas of inherent human dignity.

In The Bondage of the Will, a work he himself considered one of his most important, and one that is, not surprisingly, widely read and applauded by Calvinists, Luther unequivocally renounced the idea of human free will. Basing his argument on Scripture, the church’s teaching, and even human experience, he declared, “Thus we find it written in the hearts of all alike, that there is no such thing as free choice, though this fact is obscured by the many arguments to the contrary and the great authority of all the men who for centuries have taught differently.”[5] And then later he concluded with even more zeal, “If, therefore, we submit the case to the judgment of Scripture, I shall win on all counts, and there will not be a jot or tittle left that will not damn the dogma of free choice.”[6] In his battle with Erasmus, Luther’s driving concern, certainly, was to allow nothing to sully or steal the reality of God’s gracious working of salvation for the good of his chosen people. No human element can be allowed to diminish the confidence, certainty, and joy that come to the child of God who knows that he has been chosen for no other reason than God’s gracious, eternal election. But Luther extends the argument, as he should, to emphasize the absolute dependence and utterly contingent status of every human. We are God’s creatures who exist only by his decision and design. We are not our own lords. We are not autonomous. We are not the self-sufficient masters of our own fates. We do not have free will. We do not possess inherent dignity. We are not endowed with inalienable, natural, human rights.

This means, then, that man did not lose inherent dignity when he sinned and forfeited the untainted, Edenic, image of God. Indeed, the Fall into sin did shatter the image of God in which he had been created, leaving us with only the jagged bits and pieces of what was once a glorious unity of structure, relationship, and purpose. But the image of God was never about dignity. Adam could not lose what he did not have, and he did not have inherent dignity simply by virtue of his being human, or even being made in the image of God. The imago Dei did not confer autonomy, rights, or dignity on Adam or his descendants. The fall certainly was disastrously cataclysmic, but not because it ended man’s dignity, but because it ruptured man’s relationship with God. And that spelled the end of any notion of dignity.

The fall was man’s rebellious rejection of God’s authority and dominion. It was man declaring his independence and refusal to live as God’s contingent creature. The fall brought an end to man living as a dependent, trusting, and obedient creature before God. By rejecting God’s plan, man rejected the only dignity he had—not dignity that was inherent, but dignity that was derived and dependent on his relationship with God— and man also lost the only possible means available to retrieve a semblance of dignity. Without a relationship of trust in God, there is no such thing as human dignity. This means that any lingering vestiges of the image of God that continue to shape and define us do not automatically grant the inheritance of inherent human dignity. To be clear, the fall did not negate human dignity because man lost “God’s image.” Whatever dignity man could arguably have enjoyed was never tied to the bare fact that he was made in God’s image; instead, rather counter-intuitively, his only dignity was that he was God’s contingent creature and not a self-determining, autonomous being.

To suggest or defend the idea of inherent human dignity and rights misses the point, and badly. It suggests that there is something about humans that is intrinsically worthy or valuable. Such is not the case. We have no intrinsic dignity or value, but we do have derived dignity and worth. We are valuable because God deems us so. This distinction is sharply outlined in the 28th thesis of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”[7] When humans make a claim to inherent human dignity, it is nothing more than man trying to love himself by finding in himself, by fiat if necessary, that which is pleasing and lovable and worthy. In reality, man has nothing in himself that could be named worthy or precious. The only value and dignity that may be attributed to man must be granted to him from outside. Human dignity comes not from inside, but from outside the man. It is not a given; it is granted. Indeed, it is all extra nos! has dignity only because God chooses to love and honor him. And what love he has! God’s love for man reaches the breath-takingly crazy height of God’s willingness even to join himself to human flesh and suffer the horror of hell itself for the sake of his worthless, rebellious creatures. Earlier, I noted that it is the incarnation that rules out any Gnostic rejection of the material world. And it is also the incarnation that delivers dignity to desperately corrupt creatures.

Toward the end of his remarkable work, Nachfolge, or The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer focusses on the enormous significance of the incarnation for our anthropology. It’s worth hearing him at some length:

Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.[8]

We matter only because we matter to God. We have dignity only because Jesus died for us. Of course, having such derived dignity is fantastically more significant than any manufactured and illusionary dignity purportedly based on our human nature or intellect or soul or any other anthropocentric nonsense. We do not have inherent dignity; but in Christ, we have dependent dignity. We do not have intrinsic worth, but loved by God in Christ, we have been given infinite worth.

Getting human rights right, follows a similar trajectory. There is no such thing as inherent human rights somehow granted simply by virtue of being a living human. To be clear, there is a right way to talk about rights. When a person is given a vocation to fulfill, he is also granted the prerogatives, or authority, or rights necessary to carry out that vocation or office. This is easy to see with a prince who is to govern and thwart evil and so is given the right of the sword. Similarly parents, and pastors in their vocations can be said to possess peculiar rights necessary for them to do their given vocations. But, these rights are strictly not inherent in their being, and they do not extend equally to all people. Rather, they are vocation-specific rights that are granted for the sake of accomplishing one’s vocational responsibilities. Rights granted by a government, such as the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights should be understood along these same lines—even if those rights were conceived by the Enlightenment framers as inherent human rights. Christians should know better, and should think and act accordingly by using the rights they have as gifts to be utilized and even exploited for the sake of fulfilling vocations and proclaiming the gospel, but not as sacred, eternal privileges owed to them simply because they are human.

So why does any of this matter, and what’s actually at stake, here? Simply this: Christians should live not as children of the Enlightenment, but as children of Christ. We know the score. Like Luther, we know that we are nothing: a bit of inconsequential flesh and blood; a fearful, prideful, sinful self; a lost soul; a meal for maggots. Yet we know that in spite of that bleak reality, we are loved by God, joined in the fulness of our humanity by the eternal Son, and ransomed from hell, and rescued from the worms by the perfect death and bodily resurrection of that incarnate Word of God, Jesus our savior and Lord. That’s a source of dignity and worth that endures and that always counts. Its foundation is not in us, but in Christ.

We do not need to jump on the inherent-dignity-bandwagon with the rest of the Enlightened world as the supposed firm foundation for universal human cooperation, kindness, generosity, peace, and altruism. The 21st century is proving to be every bit as problematic for the support of that false thesis as was the 20th, and every century before. As we all know from the brutal lessons of recent history: clinging to the idea of inherent human dignity does not increase love and cooperation in the world and it does not stem hatred or end genocide. The world’s hope does not lie in promoting the myth of inherent human dignity. It lies in Christ and Christ alone. Dignity does not derive from within us, and rights are not inherent in our humanity. Both are given only in Christ and Christ alone, and it is up to us to show and tell the world this great, foundational truth.

[1] United Nations. Charter, Preamble, 1945. Accessed on 11/7/2023 https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/full-text

[2] United Nation. UDHR, Preamble, 1948. Exported from Wikisource on October 7, 2022.

[3] Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Translated by Elizabeth Livermore Forbes, in Ernst Cassirer, et al., ed. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man: Selections in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, 223.

[4] Martin Luther. AE 45, “Sincere Admonition against Rebellion” 1522, 70.

[5]Rupp & Watson, 245.

[6] Ibid., 327.

[7] AE. Vol. 31, 41

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. Touchstone: New York, 1959, 301-301.

Dr. Joel D. Biermann is the Waldemar A. and June Schuette Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Tracy Pace January 25, 2024
    Reply

    ‘Christians should live not as children of the Enlightenment, but as children of Christ.’ We are all the children of Christ Dr Bierman, whether we know it or acknowledge it or not! What you call the ‘inherent dignity bandwagon’ is part of the ongoing evolution of humanity (the children of Christ) towards the Kingdom of God. One day there will be no divisions, no schisms, and I hope no undermining of the attempts of others to improve the world or help care for the lives of the sick, hungry, prisoner, outcast, ‘the least of these my people’. It was Jesus who pointed out the inherent dignity and worth of all people. He gave his life for it, insisting it was what God demands of us: ‘ love God above all things, your fellow human as yourself.’ You write a beautiful essay Dr Bierman,and it reminded me with reference to maggots of Montaigne’s assertion that ‘man is mad, he cannot create a maggot yet would create gods by the dozens.’ As you know, it was Montaigne who in the 16th century popularized the essay as a form of enlightenment, communication and educational process, but his life was soured by the deaths of his babies, and I am not sure I would be guided by his overall philosophy, necessary and thoughtful as it is. Yet we must remember that without pyrrhonism and questioning of an established dogma when it is called for we would not have Lutheran Churches or even Protestantism today. There are 30 articles which make up the Declaration of Human Rights, and many Americans (not all in practice) were already granted some of those rights via our Constitution, then it was the concept of extending human rights and dignity for all which brought about the civil rights movement for some of those excluded. You write an interesting essay Dr Bierman, but others could use it, I fear, to try to reduce the rights of and respect towards others, especially the phrase ‘As held in popular culture, the ideal is, in fact, nothing more than a sentimental assertion with no foundation in reality. To declare humanity’s inherent dignity and to create ever-expanding lists of universal human rights does not make it so.’ There is nothing sentimental about the UN Declaration of Human Rights and its framework of ideals are fundamentally important to the Christian. It was written when the full horrors of human warfare and cruelty had just become apparent globally. Will we struggle to all come together on all issues at all times? It seems so. What did Jesus say: we ‘strain at a gnat and swallow a camel’! But we must try, and we must not lose sight of human rights nor of God’s demand that we live with compassion.

  2. Timothy Roth January 25, 2024
    Reply

    This is so wonderfully well put! Thank you, Dr. Biermann, for this well articulated proclamation of the Truth.

    Of course, the flesh will rage and rebell, scrambling to find dignity and autonomy for itself apart from Christ. People will twist and misread what you say because of that. People will even quote Scripture about “caring the least of His,” completely blind to the fact that the reason we are called to care for the least is because *they are His.*

    Yet as you said so well, our only worth comes from Him for whom and through whom all things were created. I try to teach those entrusted to my care that when they look at someone, no matter who they are, no matter what they believe, “that is someone for whom Christ died, for whom Christ spilt His precious blood.”

    Thank you for this paper. It will definitely help me articulate this fundamental truth as I continue to teach and preach about the surpassing worth of Christ and what He has done for us!

  3. Justin January 25, 2024
    Reply

    Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.

    Yes, your life has inherent dignity and rights because God made man in His own image, which means the life of a man was made with an inherent quality of being worthy of respect by man and with a moral entitlement to that life from being taken by man. It is that understanding that undergirds Lutheran theology, such as the explanation of the Fifth Commandment in our catechisms or the authority of the state to wield the sword to punish evildoers.

    I understand that Biermann may want to create a foundation to further advance his argument put forth in the Large Cataclysm that a man who kills in defense of his own life would be sinning. It, therefore, is not surprising that he has put forth this bafflegab arguing that man does not have a moral entitlement to be secure in his life from men who would take it. It is equally not surprising that this paper would be delivered at something like the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

  4. James Gibbs 28 days ago
    Reply

    “Luther’s many references to necrotic vermin” are disgusting, period. Luther had great achievements, but he could be a disgusting pig when it comes to how he talked, and we Lutherans need to stop glorifying that side of him by saying he was “blunt” or a “truth-teller.” No wonder some of the most cruel and disgusting comments I have read online have come from fellow Lutherans–good Christian folk. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a direct response to Nazi atrocities, and it ill behooves us Lutherans (many of us of German descent) to be knocking that Declaration in a time when neo-Nazism, fascism, and fascist-adjacent politics are on the rise, here and abroad. Human beings do have inherent dignity and natural rights because God has given us those things–Mr. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” So how does “People have no inherent rights or dignity, but God gives us those things in Christ” differ from what I just said? And if people don’t have free will, then why does God hold us responsible when we sin? How can “loving God” mean anything if we are just God’s puppets? If everything we do is dictated by God’s omnipotence, how does that not make God the author of evil? I perceive that I have free will, the power to make choices. I do this every day, all day long. Why should I trust what Luther wrote when it runs so contrary to my personal, direct experience? Why would God create me with the perception that I have free will? Why can’t we just say free will is God’s gift? If God offers me the free gift of salvation, and I accept it (using God’s gift of free will), how does that make it not a gift still? And please stop knocking the Enlightenment. I don’t want to live in a time when kings did literally whatever they wanted, slavery and torture were accepted, and women were utterly at the mercy of men. I hate reading in publication venues of my Synod (and I have been LCMS for 64 years) that concepts I have accepted my entire life, as a Lutheran and as an American, are not true, because “reasons.” “AKshully, what you always thought was true, isn’t.” Actual examples: human rights and dignity are a myth. Feminism is 100% an evil, anti-God movement. The government shouldn’t have the power to require vaccination, even for kids in school. Public education pushes the “religion” of secular humanism. Family planning is a sin, even by married couples not using the Pill or IUDs. “Household voting” is a great idea. Taking organs from a brain-dead patient to save another’s life is tantamount to murder. I am tired of this!

  5. Tracy Pace 28 days ago
    Reply

    Dear James Gibbs, never tire of doing good or caring or speaking out. Yes, some of Martin Luther’s writings may be crude, and the words of his own contemporary Johann von Eck warned him: ‘Martin, there is no one of the heresies which have torn through the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretation of the Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments.’
    But Jesus reiterates from the psalmist ‘‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…’
    The hymn-writer tells us:
    ‘God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm.
    Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sov’reign will.
    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.
    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.
    His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow’r.
    Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan His work in vain;
    God is His own interpreter,
    And He will make it plain.’

    (William Cowper, who was driven to attempt suicide by his passion to free slaves and yet his ideas, so ‘subversive’ and ‘radical’ of his time, few American Christians would question such social change today)

    • James Gibbs 21 days ago

      Tracy Pace, I appreciate your encouragement. I’m not tired of speaking out. What I am tired of is seeing more and more “far-out” ideas being promoted in the LCMS.

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