Symposium Introduction

In Humanity in God’s Image: An Interdisciplinary Exploration, Claudia Welz interprets the theological notion of the imago Dei. She does this with innovation and grace, leading the reader through a multidimensional interpretation of what it means to be made in God’s image. Designed in a four-part sequence, Welz’s book questions not only how the state of being a reflection of God affects humanity but also how this reflection influences the perception of God.

The first section of the text traverses models of interpretation of humanity in God’s image. Here, Welz interrogates how something that is invisible or transcendent becomes visible. Next, she traces movements of revelation and concealment, adding depth to the juxtaposition of invisibility and visibility. This dichotomy, she purports, distinguishes the imago Dei from God’s self. The third section examines redemption against a back drop of suffering which demands acute attention. This move introduces a critical aspect of her book as it fosters critical thinking about what it means to be created in God’s image in the face of atrocity. As a result, the traditional and often obscure notions of the imago Dei and imago Christi become more nuanced. Last, Welz navigates the ethics of the imago Dei with what she calls “an eschatological proviso,” where the dichotomy of visibility and invisibility has no concrete resolution.

Over the course of this symposium, five authors will respond to Welz’s work. Each respondent draws attention to a critical thread in the book: the theological need to understand what it actually means to have dignity and to be created in God’s image in the face of human despair, tragedy, and traumas of human design. They grapple, alongside Welz, with the historical interpretation of imago Dei and imago Christi, pressing theological and ethical reorientations about human dignity. The authors are attentive. Each engages Welz’s work with respect, highlighting some of Welz’s core ideas and designating avenues for further research.

In the first response, Melissa Raphael explores how Welz’s negotiation of an invisible God’s visible expression challenges the second Genesis account of creation (2:18-24), which Raphael asserts is much older than the first (Gen.1:27). Raphael argues that while Genesis 1 ensures that “iconicity” is the claim of “every human being who will ever live,” Genesis 2 does not. In fact, Raphael maintains, Genesis 2 enacts “the first crime (of many) against the humanity of women.” She exhorts Welz and other feminist scholars to attend to this paradox, so that the “not-yet woman” of Genesis 2 remembers the woman made in the image of God in Genesis 1.

Stressing the importance of embodiment, Jeffrey Bloechl urges a need to attend to Jesus’s body in interpreting what it means to be made in the image of God. The focus on a corporeal, incarnate Christ, according to Bloechl, makes imitation of Jesus as the image of God possible. As a result, he critiques what he sees as a preoccupation with the face in Welz’s text. Through the lens of phenomenology, Bloechl contends with the dichotomy between the face as revelatory and the face as opaque, while asserting that the human is “already a revelation of what or who God is.” This leads his encouraging a robust consideration of Jesus’s body, as a historical reality, as a locus of suffering, and as a source of revelation that “[strikes] our senses.”

Next, Jennifer L. Geddes grapples with the concept of the unseen insofar as it applies to “sufferers and survivors.” Geddes pushes against, as she thinks Welz is doing, a “normative, counter-factual understanding of human dignity” that has the potential to lead to objectification. She also alerts readers to the possibility of difference between the imago Dei of a perpetrator and the imago Dei of a victim. To this end, Geddes supports the need for a nuanced vocabulary for what happens to the concept of the image of God in each, adjudicating an imperative against eliding the perpetrator and victim roles.

Illuminating a core concept in Welz’s work – human dignity – Andrew Benjamin leads readers through a discourse that explores the dignity of the corpse as it is explored in Humanity in God’s Image. Benjamin relates dignity to the “potentiality to be,” calling it “unconditional,” thus thinking through the concern that the human can be present in its absence. He asserts that dignity is a “quality that cannot be reduced to the body.” Attuned to the concept of the relational, alongside the demand to see the invisible, Benjamin contends that Welz’s hermeneutic and phenomenological approach works only when human life is dignified by the actualization of the “potentiality to be” understood, as Benjamin asserts, as appearing with others.

The final respondent, Shelly Rambo, returns to the imperative to reinvision theology post-Shoah. Rambo recognizes Welz’s innovation in her embrace of the imago Dei as flexible, not rigid. Challenging “the posture of Christian theology toward Jewish suffering,” Rambo’s diagnosis is one of perception. She identifies “Christianity’s distorted self-image” and its cultural formulations which privilege triumphalism, recognizing in Welz’s work a methodology capable of loosening such logic. Accordingly, Rambo advances a Christology in the shape of an embodied, synaesthetic experience that can break through doctrinal formulations based on triumph. Thus, the focus of attention shifts to the body and affects, “orienting us to suffering” and to what is not visible to the eye.

As evidence of the sophistication of Welz’s work, the contributors engage different discourses and aspects of the text. As a result, Welz’s contribution to theological discourse grows. This expansion will continue as readers of the symposium imagine the imago Dei differently, for example, envisioning it as a fluid concept that entails embodiment. I hope that the symposium invites readers to engage in the critical exploration of how theology responds to suffering while exploring of the concept of human dignity in a framework that entails more than human achievement but includes grace and relationality with others.

Melissa Raphael

Response

Was Woman Created in the Image of God, or Did God, in Genesis 2, Create the World’s First Idol?

A Jewish Feminist Response to Claudia Welz’s Humanity in God’s Image

Claudia Welz’s brilliantly innovative engagement with the history and future of theological anthropology moves almost seamlessly between its Christian and Jewish sources. It would be difficult for anyone to fully appreciate, especially aesthetically, what it means to say that a human being is made in the image of God without having read her book.

There is every good theological reason for Welz’s study to assume the normativity of the first chapter of Genesis where the divine image is conferred on humanity with astonishing indifference to prevailing social and ethnic hierarchies. In this text, women enjoy the egality of the same genus and moment with men: the two come into being face to face; beating heart to beating heart. I write this short essay, though, wanting to know how Welz’s account of how the invisible God appears in and through the visible might challenge the second (if probably older) account of the creation of the man and the woman in Genesis 2:18–24.

This seems important: the popular reception of this text, far more than Genesis 1:27, has shaped the perception and experience of every single Jewish, Christian, and Muslim woman on the planet. I want to suggest to Welz that while Genesis 1:27 promises iconicity to every human being who will ever live, Genesis 2:18–24 does not. Indeed, it can be interpreted as having attributed the creation of the world’s first idol, in the form of a woman, to God.

In Genesis 2, Ishah, woman, could hardly be more ontologically other to Ish, the man, who, from the outset, enjoys the form of a “living being/soul” (v. 7). Granted, Genesis 2 says nothing about Adam having been made in the image of God. Nonetheless, he comes into existence as an incarnation of the very spirit of God blowing through the earth (Gen 2:7). He, not she, makes visible the unconditioned, invisible God as one whose materiality is breathed by God into the four directions of unbounded, undetermined possibility, as dust drifting through warm air and glancing light.

By contrast, the woman is a walled thing. After a keyhole surgical procedure in which God removes a spare rib from the man’s anaesthetized body, woman is built (va’yiven, Genesis 2:22), a term variously interpreted by the rabbis as a fashioning or construction into a pyramid-like form that narrows towards a point at the top but which stands four-square on the ground (Ber 61a; Eruv 18a). God has to work quickly. She must be finished (in more ways than one) before the man wakes up. There can be no risk of his being repulsed by her still formless bloodied appearance (Sanhedrin 39a).

As the prototypical appearance of a woman fashioned from a piece of rigid, cracking, rattling bone, Ishah is a fixed, opaque likeness not an open, incomplete image that points beyond herself in the ways that Welz’s book so beautifully evokes. She is, in short, an idol not, as is the translucent man, an icon. Nothing is either revealed or hidden: she is bounded and exhausted by her figuration, which both precludes and occludes her possibility. In her, there can be no infinitely recursive recreative seeing of the face of God as it exists within and between people, as described by Welz (and also, recently, by myself and Stephen Pattison).1

Welz is right that the processes by which the invisible God is made visible in the human include “the specifically human ability to listen and respond” (264). But a woman born of man is the first untruth: a primary “disavowal of the maternal debt.”2 Thenceforth, a woman cannot be the truthful subject of her own experience. And as a work of art that resembles a woman, she cannot “step forth” (existere) from herself.

She cannot self-interpret as an image of God, as described by Welz in the second chapter of her book. Blind and silent, she cannot “enter into linguistic communion,” as Welz puts it (38), with the divine and human other. The dialogical “I” is impossible without a “Thou,” and she is neither an I nor a Thou because in some senses she is him: bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh (v. 23).

Welz knows that there is a dynamic “connection between Bild and Bildung, between being an image and becoming oneself in a process of formation” (38). But if the female “I” is not only the masculine “me,” but also his first tool or domestic appliance, hers is a state from which there can be no ontological promotion.

Leaving aside God’s apparent violation of halakhot that would proscribe the sculpting of three-dimensional full-body images of human beings, in this second version of the creation of humanity, the woman is in the world not because she is in the image of God (how else could anyone exist?), but because she is a base solution to the existential situation of the man: he is alone (and will remain alone if he does not propagate).3 Like any other doll fashioned from an objet trouvé—perhaps a peg or a stick—whose face may have been painted on as a nod to realism and a finishing touch, she is a make-believe generic woman for the man to hold at night to keep the lonely dark at bay. The woman is an antidote to loneliness after the cattle, wild beasts and birds (vv. 18–20) have proved unsatisfactory conversationalists. Her animation is a historical contingency: she would have been surplus to requirement if the dog, as it were, had in fact proved to be “man’s best friend.”

Far from being some kind of culmination of creation, as a number of commentators (including the second-wave feminist biblical interpreter Phyllis Trible) have suggested, her humanity is reduced even before she is created to an a priori idea of what will facilitate his.4 She is the occasion of his humanity. It is through her that he attains a new rank: he is now ish—the man (Gen 2:7). As R. Joseph Soloveitchik points out (uncritically) man must lose something of himself—his rib—to gain himself. For man in his solitude has no kavod (dignity/glory/gravitas). Human glory is only reflected glory and it is conferred socially in the assumption of covenantal responsibilities.5 Here, Judaism and Christianity are of similar mind: Karl Barth defines woman as one who completes the man. He sacrificed a part of his body to create her. She must return his sacrifice with the gift of her being. To be a woman “marks the completion of his creation, it is not problematic but self-evident for her to be ordained for man in her whole existence.”6

As a custom-made, mechanically reproducible “pure appearance” the woman is, like an inanimate idol, a rigid, silent, unhearing, unseeing caricature of a living agent. There can be no refraction to the divine image in this serenely invulnerable carved stand-in for a face.7 Whereas a man’s creation from dust and ashes signals both the freedom of his becoming and the pathos of his finitude, the woman sculpted from bone is already dead and if she cannot die, she also cannot live. She is nonexistent.

In fact, Jewish tradition shares some of my unease. It did not escape rabbinical notice that the biblical account of the creation of a woman lacks any reference to the infusion of a soul.8 Rashi and Maimonides had, among others, a theology of marriage that compelled them to translate tzela not as rib but “side.” For Eve to have been formed from Adam’s rib would have been an offence against the dignity of a man’s wife (and thereby a dishonor to himself). A bone-woman would have been something too much akin to what we in the twenty-first century might regard as a prototype for the robotic silicone sex dolls now being made in the pornographic likeness of a fantasy woman for the sexual satisfaction of men as shy and lonely as the biblical Ish. Were Eve, however, to have been taken from Adam’s side then she would have accrued enough ontological affinity with him to qualify as one-half of the one-flesh complementary union that is a marriage. As her husband’s “other half,” her interests would be protected; he would naturally care for her as he would for himself (BT Yevamot 62b).

It is a fundamental principle of Western ontology that when one thing exists for the sake of another (compare the words of Saul/Paul, the first-century diasporic, sectarian Jewish theologian, in his First Letter to the Corinthians 11:10) then it is inferior or subordinate to it. Certainly, a number of the rabbis, including Ralbag, interpret Genesis 2 as a warrant for female subordination. However, this is not to say that the fabrication of woman in Genesis 2 licenses a husband (in Hebrew, ba’al, master) to enslave his ezer. Abravanel (who has read Aquinas) denies in his commentary on Genesis that man has the right to use woman as a slave. That she is of his flesh entitles her to the respect due to him; that she is of neither his head nor his foot signals that she is neither his ruler nor his slave.

Clearly, Jewish interpretations of Genesis 2 are diverse and most commentators, ancient and modern, are far from insensible to the predicament of women. It is also the case that as ezer k’negdo the woman can be valorized by translating the phrase as a marital “pillar of strength in times of trouble” or “opposite number.” Yet I remain unpersuaded that the construction of woman in this canonical text is anything other than the first crime (of many) against the humanity of women. It is a crime against her image/ination by God.

Martin Buber drew Genesis 1 and 2 together with the phrase “In the beginning was the relation.”9 On the grounds I have outlined above, I think he is wrong on two counts. First, Buber’s own distinction between “being” (Sein) and “seeming” (Schein), knows that when the appearance of a person becomes the figuration of an ideology (as Genesis 2 narrates of women) their presence or face is reduced to mere propaganda, which is a symptom and cause of alienation.10 Second, Genesis 2 surely marks the beginning of the instrumental I/It binary: a male “I” being given a female “it” or a thing among things that renders her an existential vacuity.

In sum, I have suggested that neither Welz, nor the feminist theologians she cites who have noted that a woman bears the image of God only secondarily by virtue of her complementary marital relationship with a man, have paid sufficient attention to the theological anthropology of Genesis 2. Here, I suggest, woman is not made in the image of God at all. After the construction of her prototype in Genesis 2, a woman can be poured out into a mould that reproduces, rather than creates, her to the specification of the masculine project.

But the woman to come will not be a standard figment of the patriarchal imagination. The not-yet woman remembers the woman of Genesis 1 who was made in the primary image of the God whose name is “I AM”; I will be who I will be (Exod 3:14): the God for whom there is no likeness. This not-yet woman is a figure and voice of the messianic for when she exists, that is, when she appears at her own gate and steps forth from the four walls of her construction, incommensurable and irreducible to any other woman who has ever walked this earth, the other Others will come out in joy to meet her.


  1. Welz, Humanity in God’s Image, 108–12, 195, 255, 264, and passim; Pattison, Saving Face: Enfacement, Shame, Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 156 and passim; Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (London: Routledge, 2003).

  2. Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989), 120.

  3. As noted in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 12.

  4. The classic Jewish feminist text on the partial humanity of women is that of Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakah and the Jewish Woman,” in On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel (New York: Schocken, 1983), 12–18.

  5. “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 7 (1965) 22ff.

  6. Church Dogmatics 3/1, The Doctrine of Creation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), 302–3.

  7. My debt to Levinas’s essays “Reality and Its Shadow” and “The Prohibition against Representation and ‘The Rights of Man’” is evident. See, respectively, The Levinas Reader, translated and edited by Seàn Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), and Alterity and Transcendence, translated by Michael Smith (London: Athlones, 1999), 121–23, 128. Parts of this latter essay are cited in Welz, 207–8.

  8. Feminists have long been aware of this lack. In 1792, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a work underpinned by her own theological ethic, Mary Wollstonecraft protested women having been created to be the mere toy or rattle for the amusement of men at leisure (34, 44, 62, 80, 99).

  9. I and Thou (New York: Scribner, 1958), 18.

  10. In “Elements of the Interhuman,” in The Knowledge of Man, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and Maurice Friedman, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, New York, 1966), 72–88.

  • Claudia Welz

    Claudia Welz

    Reply

    Response to Melissa Raphael

    A heartfelt thank-you to Melissa Raphael, for her thought-provoking essay! She raises the question of how my account of humanity created in or as God’s image (Gen 1:27), and of the invisible God appearing in and through visible persons, might challenge the second biblical account of the creation of the man and the woman in Genesis 2:18–24. In Raphael’s eyes, Genesis 1 promises “iconicity to every human being who will ever live,” while Genesis 2 tells us that the woman is created as an idol, not as God’s image. Shall we follow Raphael in understanding the woman (ishah) as a fixed figure, an idol that cannot show us the face of God, while the man (ish), from whose bone she is built, alone is created in God’s image, as an icon that makes visible the invisible God?

    In my book, I have discussed Jean-Luc Marion’s distinction between the idol that subjects the divine to the measure of the human gaze, and the icon that saturates the visible with the invisible and thereby corrects one’s gaze.1 In this context, Marion addresses the dangers of projection, which visualizes the invisible in inappropriate ways. While the idol is nothing more than the object of your gaze, the icon looks back at you. You cannot grasp what you see; rather, your gaze is reverted when you see yourself seen. Unlike Raphael, I do not think that the icon is supposed to make visible the invisible God, for the viewer’s gaze becomes unbounded precisely by not making the invisible visible, but by respecting the secret of the unreachable that exceeds all possible vision. Whatever we can see, it remains in a provisional, tentative mode until, finally, the envisioned has arrived. Thus, my suggestion is to understand the imago Dei as unfinished. There remains much more to see than we can perceive right now.

    As Raphael reads Genesis 2, this text reports the establishment of an ontological difference between man and woman. The man is, from the outset, a living soul, while the woman is inanimate. Moreover, Raphael writes that the woman, as a work of art, can neither exist from herself nor be the subject of her own experience. I want to contest this view. In order to discover Eve’s vitality and subjectivity, we must not get stuck in the moment of her creation, but need to have a look at the continuation of the story. We are told, for instance, that “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25). Shame is a highly complex moral emotion, which presupposes self-other-consciousness.2 Furthermore, in saying to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’” (Gen 3:2–3),3 Eve demonstrates that she can see and speak and that she also could hear and understand God’s commandment. In nonetheless taking the forbidden fruit, eating it, and giving some to her husband (Gen 3:6), Eve shows that she is no less a responsible agent than Adam.

    Therefore, I do not share Raphael’s conclusion that Eve is blind and silent, that she can neither self-interpret nor enter into linguistic communion with the divine and human other. Concerted action like sewing fig leaves together and hiding from God together (Gen 3:7–8) requires at least a minimal communicative competency, and the biblical text also gives us, in Genesis 3:13, a dialogue between God and the woman. In fact, this verse—“Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”—makes explicit the dialogical “I” which Raphael denies that Eve can possess, since Eve, as bone of Adam’s bones and flesh of his flesh (Gen 2:23), in some sense is Adam. Fortunately, they are not identical, and the organic metaphor only shows the intimacy of their belonging-together. As their interaction indicates, Eve is much more and other than Adam’s first tool. She is his companion. Together they gained the knowledge of good and evil, and together they suddenly realized they were naked and mortal beings. Thus, I do not agree with Raphael’s statement that there can be no “ontological promotion” for Eve. Her formation remains implicit, but is nonetheless premised in the text, whose etiological tale informs us about the reasons for postlapsarian development of man and woman.

    Melissa Raphael suggests furthermore that the woman is nothing in herself, being a sculpture on the level of a doll designed only for one single purpose: to solve the problem of Adam’s loneliness. Yet again: an idol could not do the job—much less than the wild beasts and birds that she characterizes as “unsatisfactory conversationalists”! After all, Eve can speak and make herself understandable, which is impossible for a “doll fashioned from an objet trouvé.” If Eve were nothing but “the occasion” of Adam’s humanity, it would be unlikely that the two could converse with each other and do things together, which result in them leaving Eden and starting a family. For Raphael, Eve’s humanity is reduced. However, if she were not fully human, how could she then facilitate Adam’s humanity?

    Referring to Levinas, Raphael argues that the women is a custom-made, mechanically reproducible “pure appearance” and as such a rigid, unhearing and unseeing caricature of a living agent. If this were true, I wonder how she could be of any help to Adam? Moreover, if the woman sculpted from bone really were “dead,” how could she then become his counterpart and console him in his solitude? Anyway, for Raphael, she is “nonexistent.” If so, the same could be said about man who is dust and ashes without God breathing life into him. The dependency upon God’s ruah applies to both man and woman. This is, to me, one of the grounds for their equality before their creator.

    Raphael quotes rabbinical interpretations of Genesis 2 that take the text as a warrant for female subordination. However, as ezer k’negdo, Eve is not necessarily subordinate to Adam, but can also take on the role of a partner on eye level. Whenever this happens, there is no reason to see the “construction” of woman as “a crime against her image/ination by God”; then it can rather be seen as an empowerment. Let us keep in mind that it was not a human being, but God himself who had imag(in)ed her. Otherwise she could never have become Adam’s opposite, but only his figment.

    Melissa Raphael criticizes Martin Buber for drawing Genesis 1 and 2 together. In her view, Genesis 2 marks the beginning of an instrumental relation between a male “I” and a female “it.” Further, she criticizes me for not having paid sufficient attention to the theological anthropology of Genesis 2, where—on her account—woman is not made in the image of God at all. In response, I want to call attention to the fact that there is a “we” in Eve’s speech that includes Adam and her (Gen 3:2). When speaking of a thing like, for instance, a chair, we normally do not say that “we, the chair and me, stood in front of each other,” for “we” is reserved for persons. Therefore, I am not in agreement about Raphael’s equation between the woman and a nonpersonal thing. Rather than pitting Genesis 1 against Genesis 2, I am interested in explaining how Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 go together in the canonical version of the Hebrew Bible. I think we need to read Genesis 2–3 in the light of Genesis 1 and vice versa. If we do so, the common quality of being created in God’s image is not denied, but becomes gender-specified in the course of the narration.

    It is important to note, though, that the imago Dei that someone represents might be at variance with the image someone else perceives, which poses the challenge of seeing more than we can see optically. The image content cannot be reduced to the image carrier, and that is why the impalpable image of God the creator remains irreducible to any gendered image that creatures can incarnate. If God surpasses anything that human beings can say about God, divinity also transcends the difference between men and women. While we cannot avoid feminine and masculine metaphors in our God-talk, it is also clear that God does not fit the gender binary. Likewise, the imago Dei, the image of God in which we are created, can neither be equated with a male nor a female body.

    In her new book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, Joy Ladin, who, as a transgender child, was tortured by feelings of alienation, recounts that she could draw comfort from the presence of a God who she believed could see her true self and never mistook her for the body others saw, since God, like her, has no body to make God visible. She insists that the image of God has nothing to do with sex, gender, human differences, or human bodies, but can serve as a reminder that we are all strangers: “Ladin’s insistence on God as the ultimate stranger underscores the inherent divinity of even—or especially—the most alienated among us.”4 This insight resonates with Melissa Raphael’s beautiful coda about the woman to come. Her words, which I endorse fully, shall have the final say: “The not-yet woman remembers the woman of Genesis 1 who was made in the primary image of the God whose name is ‘I AM’; I will be who I will be (Exod 3:14): the God for whom there is no likeness.”


    1. See Claudia Welz, Humanity in God’s Image: An Interdisciplinary Exploration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 163–65, referring to Jean-Luc Marion, “The Idol and the Icon,” in God without Being, translated by Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7–24.

    2. See, for instance, Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985); Claudia Welz, “Shame and the Hiding Self,” Passions in Context: International Journal for the History and Theory of Emotions 2, Atrocities – Emotion – Self (2011), 67–92, http://www.passionsincontext.de/index.php?id=774; Anthony Steinbock, Moral Emotions: Reclaiming the Evidence of the Heart (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014).

    3. All direct quotes are taken from the NIV.

    4. This is the last sentence of Shoshana Olidort’s article “Torah, from a Transgender Perspective: Joy Ladin’s New Book, ‘Soul of the Stranger,’ Explores Her Intimate Connection with God,” Tablet magazine, November 15, 2018, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/274802/torah-from-a-transgender-perspective.

Jeffrey Bloechl

Response

Philosophical Supplement to a Theory of Christomorphism

The believing Christian lives between the two great acts of God—between the creation by which we move and have our being, and the revelation by which we may understand what these things mean. As we learn from the Greeks, we do not require revelation in order to come to an understanding of ourselves in the natural world and might even ground that understanding in the idea of a divine creator. But then we are able to say only very little about the creator. In the Timaeus, a myth of the cosmos depicts the creator as a sort of craftsman who brings together preexisting form and what is otherwise formless matter (Timaeus 31b–48b), and the decidedly non-mythical progression of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (XII 7) arrives finally at the thought that God is always in the good state that we ourselves achieve only rarely, though we do strive after it according to the very dynamism of our being. But if faith in revelation enables the Christian to say considerably more about God, it also leaves her with all of the difficulties one easily anticipates when it is a matter of a finite being brought before words and images that express the will of one who is infinite. To be sure, the question that arises is not of their origin, but rather of their meaning.

The theology that accepts divine revelation suspends from consideration Feuerbach’s idea that our conception of God is born in anxiety and fashioned of our own experience. This does not mean that such a theology claims to fully understand the revelation, and does not rule out every suspicion that certain propositions about the revealed God may prove all too human. Theological reflection applies itself to the work of achieving a better understanding of what is revealed, and in its course addresses anthropomorphism as a circumscribed problem. Still, we ought not forget that a deformed understanding of revelation may nonetheless be a response to it, and ought not pass over the thought that revelation is thus received by consciences with uneven capacities for understanding it. We tend to think we know the difference between a weak and a vital understanding, but in truth the thought is unfounded until we have first worked out the more elusive fact that a God who transcends our very being can enter consciousness at all. As long as we hold fast to the idea that God is infinite and human beings are finite, the only possible answer is that God has already prepared a place in us for this to occur. And so, Christianity is a faith in which creation is interpreted in light of the possibility of revelation. God will have created us such that we live in readiness to hear or see divine revelation, and reflection on that readiness is a fundamental key to knowing what we truly are.

These few thoughts conclude just short of the point where Claudia Welz’s Humanity in God’s Image begins: in an exploration of the possible meanings of three passages in which Genesis states that we are created in, according to, or as the image of God (27–28). The implication is unmistakable: our human being is itself not only, as one might adduce from the metaphysics of creation, an expression of the divine will, but already a revelation of who or what God is. This opens a distinctive path toward understanding our place before God, but it also introduces a new complication. It is, after all, scripture, the revealed text, that enjoins us to approach our existence also as revelation. Or, if one wishes to avoid equivocal use of “revelation,” it is by what is revealed in scripture that we are to address ourselves as imagines Dei. Or again, from Genesis—and, to be sure, from other biblical texts—we learn that self-knowledge will go hand-in-hand with knowledge of God. Welz does not pursue this primarily as a matter of biblical exegesis. Taking up some of its conceptual possibilities, she instead appeals to a remarkable range of disciplines and discourses in order to draw them out. Thus, it follows from the most straightforward sense of being created imago Dei that we are dependent on God in our very being. The special difficulty of Welz’s theme probably arises already here, for it follows from this that it is not clear whether, even at our most vital and virtuous, we bring forth the presence of God and not in fact cover it.

The early chapters of her book marshal an entire series of concepts in response: human being is depicted as fundamentally deictic (chapter 1), the sense in which mimesis presupposes and requires a degree of resemblance is submitted to its differentiating function (chapter 2), and similarity and dissimilarity are carded from one another without complete separation (chapter 3). Now it deserves attention that all of this is organized around an association of the divine with invisibility and the human with visibility, not because this can be surprising when it is a matter of interpreting an imago but with a view to recognizing some consequences. Chapter 4 soon enough, though again unsurprisingly, begins to parse different senses of light and visibility according to the manner in which we inhabit them. It would seem necessary to admit a certain form of light and vision in order to conceptualize the bare possibility of ever recovering the imago Dei thought by some to have been present in the soul but lost from view due to sin (Irenaeus) or to even distinguish the powers of the soul which would operate in darkness were it not for God’s grace from that grace itself (Luther, Kierkegaard; see 123–24). And in turn, such thoughts easily rejoin the traditional association of increasing degrees of light and visibility with increasing degrees of elevation from sin, though bearing in mind that in the special case of God’s invisibility is not mere lack of light (God, it has often been observed, transcends the difference between light and darkness).

Everything thus suggests that the believer comes to know what it means that she is imago Dei not as the result of prolonged mental exercise or sudden insight but in the course of a life of discipleship, of commitment to what is offered and commanded by God. If it is not actually one and the same thing to live coram Deo and know who one truly is as God’s creature, then at least the same principles and practices lead toward both. But of course, for Christians discipleship is formed as a response specifically to Jesus Christ, and so as discipleship becomes prominent, Welz turns to Christology.

What are the prospects for developing a Christology within the topos of visibility and light? Let us not forget Welz’s expanded definitions of these terms: “visibility” is comprehension from a perspective, and “light” is availability for comprehension. Incarnate, here among us in this world yet also one with the Father, Jesus is both visible and invisible; he is available to be seen from a finite human perspective, yet more than any such perspective could ever grasp. For high Christologies of the sort recently promoted by Jean-Luc Marion, Jesus thus is gift, superabundance, excess of light pouring more into the field of vision than any perspective could receive, and in that way awakening us to the outline of the field itself (163–65). This would be a metaphysical (or donatological) approach to what the dialectical and relational theologies favored by Welz underline again and again: the possibility of faith arises at the initiative of Jesus, who is both human and divine. Jesus proposes a way of life that promises salvation, and that life consists in saying yes to this. But then the way of life, as a struggle against the darkness of sin, depends on the visibility of Jesus. Here, visibility carries significant weight: since, as everyone knows, Jesus’s proposal comes in the form of a teaching that models certain practices (humility, love . . .), the believer must be able to see Jesus as someone who can be imitated. It is in imitating Jesus that one will come to know him, and thus be brought before the Father as fully in his image.

All of this prepares one to expect from Welz a discourse on the living body of Jesus, as the necessary condition for an identification that makes imitation possible. In some pages entitled “Imitation through Identification” (153–54), she follows Bonhoeffer all the way “back,” as it were to the locus classicus for this topic, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, which Bonhoeffer read during his imprisonment. But Bonhoeffer understood imitatio as Nachfolge of Jesus’s efforts (156), and one must wonder whether this quite gets at the essential. The “efforts” that we are to imitate include prominent place for suffering, by which the claims of the world are defeated in favor of a higher good, but Jesus’s suffering, we should not forget, is physical no less than spiritual. And regardless of quite how far one is willing or able to go with this, the fact itself brings us to a point of some phenomenological importance: only a love that is given with the entirety of one’s being is able to call upon the entire being of the beloved. Declarations of love, fine preaching and entreaties are no doubt necessary, but they come closer to us, and feel more certain, if they are accompanied by physical evidence. I take this to be what Feuerbach has in mind when, in his book on Luther, he refers to Jesus as “the sensuous [sinnliches] essence of God.”1 The revelation that is God Incarnate can reach us, as it were, body to body, striking our senses no less than our imagination or intellect. It would be in and as Jesus that God calls to the whole of our being, making possible the only response adequate in faith, love for love. Moreover, just as the body of Jesus is an integral part of God’s call to faith, so is it the steadying focus for the believer’s response. In Christian faith, the body of Jesus—his physical body, as a historical reality—grounds the work of imagination and intellect, which to be sure are also engaged in discipleship.

I am puzzled, therefore, that in the illuminating tour de force that is Humanity in God’s Image there is no concentrated reflection on the human body of Jesus Christ. One might expect to find it in the long chapter on “Likeness to God in Love and Suffering” (chapter 5), but there the central matter is still the difficult relation between image as example (i.e., Jesus as Vorbild) and the limits of our identification and imitation, which for understandable reasons becomes construed as a fruitful way into reflection on nature, sin, and grace. One might turn with all the more expectation to a short section on “Christomorphism” (182–87)—a section which I consider crucial for the entire effort of the book. There the topic is the corporeal dimension of becoming Christ-like, and so the matter of Jesus’s own body is quite close. Indeed, there is close attention to the face of Jesus, of which it is said that it is “not merely a metaphor” and “a body part” (183). Yet these thoughts are parsed rather than integrated, so that there is, on one hand, reference to its unique capacity to admit glory into the world (“mediator,” “ideal image of God,” etc.), and on the other hand, at least a concession that, like any other body part, it may appear as “an opaque, ambiguous phenomenon” (183).

These passages strike me as overdetermined by the abiding concern with visibility and invisibility, and in two senses. First, I do not otherwise know how to understand the tendency to restrict attention to Jesus’s lived body only to his face, though I do agree that there are established reasons to define it by a reflection of divine glory. Second, I also cannot easily admit the apparent dichotomy opened, or almost opened, between the face as revelatory and the face as opaque, whether or not one decides to extend it to the other parts of Jesus’s body. But I do not know whether my phenomenological sketch of the loving encounter that gives rise to faith opens up a theological debate, or only adds to a work that has already said a great deal about many important things.


  1. L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Faith According to Luther, translated by M. Chelmo (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 64.

  • Claudia Welz

    Claudia Welz

    Reply

    Response to Jeffrey Bloechl

    I am grateful to Jeff Bloechl, for his rich and generous response to my book. Focusing on how the creation of the human being can be interpreted in light of the possibility of revelation, he suggests that the human being can be understood as “an expression of the divine will” and indeed as “a revelation of who or what God is.” Trying to understand our place before God, however, involves a hermeneutical problem: we can only address ourselves as images of God on the basis of ancient biblical texts which suggest that our existence depends on God; yet, to put it in Bloechl’s words, “it is not clear whether, even at our most vital and virtuous, we bring forth the presence of God and not in fact cover it.” I am not sure whether we at any time can bring forth divine presence, but by providential interposition we can make it appear in serendipitous moments, so that it can be felt among us. Still, it is not in our control to determine when and how God will reveal himself.

    In revealing himself, the infinite God, who cannot be pinned down optically at any particular spot, becomes “visible” in the sense of “experienceable.” If the visible is equivalent to the intelligible, invisibility, by contrast, means incomprehensibility. Bloechl attributes “an association of the divine with invisibility and the human with visibility” to me; however, what I want to highlight is the dialectics of “in-visibility” where the hyphen marks not just an “either/or” of visibility versus invisibility, but also a “both . . . and . . .” of simultaneous visibility (in some respects) and invisibility (in other respects). In my view, that dialectics applies to humanity and divinity, and that is the reason why I co-investigate human and divine “in-visibility.”

    The verb “to see” is equivocal. Taken in a narrow sense, the visible is that which can be seen with our eyes. Taken in a broader sense, “visibility” synesthetically unites the experience of all our senses. It might even include intuition and intellectual insight. As a result, “seeing” can in some cases be equivalent to “understanding”: “seeing something as something” can amount to “grasping or interpreting something in a certain way.” Thus, in its broadest sense, the relation between the visible and the invisible corresponds to the relation between that which enters and that which escapes consciousness (see 2–3).

    On the basis of this definition, I advance the complementariness of different approaches to humanity in God’s image. I appreciate that Jeff Bloechl invites me to elaborate on christological questions related to this topic. In Bloechl’s view, our struggle against the darkness of sin depends on the visibility of Jesus, and that is why he expected “a discourse on the living body of Jesus, as the necessary condition for an identification that makes imitation possible.” Let me, first, say a bit more about the in-visibility of Jesus Christ and then discuss the role of his body for the imitatio Christi:

    (1) Bloechl misses a concentrated reflection on the human body of Jesus Christ in my book. One reason for this omission is that I do not think that there is any direct availability of Jesus’ body in the sense that his body would be “visible” to everyone in its special quality. For those who looked at Jesus’ human body, it was not always apparent that this was the body of God Incarnate. Jesus’ body can only be seen as such by those who are enlightened by God’s Holy Spirit, and this divine spirit is not necessarily body-bound. Therefore, I do not want to reduce the imago Dei to an imago corporis Christi. The imitation of Christ does, for me, not amount to a simulation of Jesus’ physiognomy. Soteriologically relevant is not how Jesus looked like, but only the belief that God became flesh and disposed of a human body in order to convey his message to us. Thus, the details of Jesus’ human body do not seem important to me.

    Another reason why I have not discussed Jesus’ body in greater detail is that I wanted to avoid thorny gender issues like, for instance: why did God reveal himself in a man and not in a woman? I do not find this kind of questions fruitful, since they tend to open up a divide between male and female bodies, characteristics, and possibilities. My concern is to clarify points that are relevant for both men and women, and for this reason I have reflected upon Jesus’ body only insofar as it informs us about our common humanity, our shared conditio humana. My guiding questions were: what did Jesus show us about being human, what can we learn from him, and what exactly does it mean for us to follow him? These questions led me into a reflection upon specific ways of acting and about attitudes that can be practiced by everyone—whether male or female or transsexual.

    Bloechl observes rightly that I pay close attention to the face of Jesus, which, according to 2 Corinthians 4:6 and the Epistle to the Hebrews 1:3, radiates God’s glory. However, I have also expressed some epistemological reservations, which not only apply to our perception of the face of Jesus; they can also be transferred to any other part of his body. Let me quote from p. 183 of my book: “As a body part, Jesus’ face, too, was an opaque, ambiguous phenomenon, which did not in itself allow the glory of the Lord to shine through when Jesus walked around in Jerusalem and Galilee. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries saw in him not God, but demons hostile to God (cf. Mark 3:22).” Bloechl confesses that he cannot easily admit the apparent dichotomy opened between the face as revelatory and the face as opaque. For me, it is no dichotomy, but rather a paradoxical duplexity, which is not just due to the limits of human understanding, but also to the phenomenon itself. In line with Jean-Luc Marion’s concept of a “saturated phenomenon,” one could say that the excess of light that emanates from Christ overwhelms our capacity to receive it. So, for us, dazzling light has the same effect as deep darkness: we cannot see anything, or at least not clearly.

    Bloechl does not want me to restrict my attention only to Jesus’ face. Fair enough. It is true that I did not make explicit how other body parts come into play; yet my argumentation presupposes that his lived body is present as a whole. For instance, when arguing that God’s glory sometimes manifests itself sub contrario, in that which does not seem glorious at all, I explain why it is not a coincidence that God has chosen to reveal himself in a crucified, suffering, and dying person—namely, in order to give us access to a life force and vital energy that is capable of overcoming death.

    Notice that the risen Christ can walk through closed doors. This implies that he has no longer a dense material body, but has been transfigured into a “spiritual body.” According to the New Testament, we will once be transfigured in a similar way. In 1 Corinthians 15:42–49, Paul speaks of a “spiritual body” (sôma pneumatikón) that will appear when the perishable body in its unity with the soul (sôma psychikón) has been transformed; and he claims that, just as we have borne the likeness of Adam, the earthly man, so we shall bear the likeness of Christ, the man from heaven. The oxymoronic metaphor of the “spiritual body” combines the physical and the meta-physical in order to describe a post-mortal state of being. Neither “here” nor “there,” neither “before” nor “after” our death, the spirit can manifest itself without some form of embodiment. The spirit needs incarnation just as much as the body needs inspiration. Hence, focusing exclusively on the body does not seem appropriate to me.

    (2) Yet, without doubt, the body is needed if we want to imitate Christ. The term “Christomorphism” suggests that a person takes on Christ’s morphê: his shape or form. I have argued that this form is not the bodily figure of a person, but rather something a person does with the help of his or her body in order to resemble the deeds of Christ (182). In an imitatio Christi, a person becomes transparent to the glory of the One whose spirit “shines through” that which is visible of the human being. I go along with Bloechl in his point that we cannot imitate Christ without having some connection to his living body.

    Bloechl reminds us of the fact that Jesus’ suffering was physical no more than spiritual, and that he gave his love with the entirety of his being. I agree that this must have implications for how we describe discipleship. I also agree that Jesus’ “physical body, as a historical reality” grounds the work of imagination and intellect engaged in discipleship. However, I would not oppose a “body to body” revelation of “God Incarnate” to a revelation based on imagination and intellect. Jesus’ bodily presence has surely fueled the imagination of Christians throughout the centuries; yet, for “latecomers” like us, who have never seen Jesus physically, but can only draw on historical sources about him, there is—due to the time gap—only one way back to his physical historical body: imagination in tandem with interpretation. While Jesus’ body certainly was relevant for those who met him personally, not least as an instrument of communication, we should not separate his body from the spirit in which he lived. Today it is only through the spirit of the resurrected Christ that we can be in touch with the body of crucified Jesus. Therefore, I think we should ascribe equal importance to the body and the spirit.

    Neither can human likeness to God be thought without the body, nor can the body mirror God’s glory without the spirit that opens our senses for that which remains invisible in the midst of the visible, or hides in ambiguous phenomena. Since biblical anthropology is not dualistic, it is not merely the body that constitutes the tselem Elohim or the imago Christi, but rather the unity of an embodied and enspirited person. If we shall bear any perceptual resemblance with Christ, it cannot be a resemblance in our “outer” appearance. After all, the human face is not a portrait of God, and our imperfect bodies represent him no more than our error-prone minds. Rather, our likeness to God is a behavioral affinity, for instance a likeness in loving.

    Christ is, according to the Gospel of John 1:1, the Logos, God’s embodied Word. Through his Word, God has called everything into being, and through his word, God can transform his creation. Humanity in God’s image can become Christomorphic in, for instance, responding to God’s address just as Jesus did when he prayed to his Father in heaven, such that our human language resonates with God’s creative word. As images of Christ, we are not mute and deaf, but can speak and listen. The imago Christi might be darkened by human selfishness, but its splendor can also shine forth in faith, love, and hope, in humility and in our trustful turning to God, which involves our body and our mind, our soul and our spirit—the whole person in interiority and exteriority. Again, human likeness to God and, similarly, Christomorphism must be viewed as a holistic determination (cf. 125, 177–78, 181).

    Fortunately, we can use our bodies in order to express something that is larger than ourselves. Like a sign that points beyond itself, our bodily being refers to a surplus of meaning. As homines in-visibiles, we are located in the tension between visibility and invisibility. Seeing visible persons in light of an invisible potential for transformation means seeing creation in light of revelation and redemption. The loving divine-human encounter, which Bloechl has convincingly outlined as “a matter of a finite being brought before words and images that express the will of one who is infinite,” is the very key to Christomorphism.

Jennifer Geddes

Response

Questions about Humanity in God’s Image

Claudia Welz’s Humanity in God’s Image offers a rich exploration of multiple understandings of the imago Dei and what it means to say that humans being are created in God’s image. Further it seeks to grapple with that theological idea in the aftermath of the Shoah and other atrocities. What does human dignity mean, Welz asks, in a world in which humans are humiliated, tortured, and murdered? Welz pays sustained attention to both Jewish and Christian theology, making of the book a kind of interreligious effort. The sheer number and variety of interlocutors—of theologians and philosophers and artists and authors—that she draws into her discussion make the book particularly useful for graduate students and others trying to orient themselves within the vast body of contemporary and classical thought related to questions of the human, the image of God, dignity, and the like.

Welz offers insightful and innovative articulations of the dialectic between visibility and invisibility as both an either/or and a both/and, of the role of the imagination in bringing partial visibility to the invisible, and of the necessary indeterminacy of images that offer indirect access to that which cannot be accessed directly. Eschewing “every image that determines once and for all how someone is seen” (2), Welz explores multiple images of God and of the human made in God’s image, including even artistic self-portraits. Particularly powerful is her suggestion that we need a prohibition against making idols not only of God but also of each other, where the word “idols” suggests fixed images that inhibit rather than engage our dialogical engagement with each other.

Readers are made to consider many things anew by the provocative and productive juxtapositions, interrelations, and interpretations offered in her book. For example, in chapter 7, “Imago Dei and Crimes Against Humanity: Biblical and Post-Holocaust Perspectives on an Ethics of In-Visibility”—the first chapter in part 4: “Ethics with an Eschatological Proviso”—Welz takes seriously the idea that Christian theology must grapple with the events and aftermath of the Shoah, and grapple with them at its very core—its very understandings of God and of humans; the Shoah “provoke[s] a radical re-vision of Christian theology” (14). This is a much-needed effort, as all too many theological projects either neglect to engage the Shoah, or simply acknowledge the need to do so but then fail to do so at any level of depth. Welz asks: “Can we do anything for the restitutio ad integrum of the image of an invisible God? How, if at all, can we (if this ‘we’ includes Holocaust survivors and perpetrators) recognize ourselves and each other as having been created in God’s image?” (204). The chapter offers short excurses into the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Melissa Raphael, Walter Benjamin, and Avishai Margalit.

1.

One of the questions the book raised for me was the following: Is there a danger that the very effort to recover the image of God within the human might overlook the person, instrumentalize her as the location of God’s image, serving to buffer us from God’s absence? There are points in the book where the particular sufferers and survivors seem somewhat lost from view, in the background, unseen. While the idea of a normative, counterfactual understanding of human dignity—one that does not rest on the appearance or capacities of the individual person—seems crucial, I wonder if there might be a temptation to overlook the very real someone before me in my very effort to affirm her dignity and her being made in the image of God. Might the very ideas of human dignity and/or of being created in the image of God themselves, at times, function as objectified images of the other?

I think Welz is aware of this danger when she suggests that “the imago Dei is not a stable entity, but rather the result of a dynamic process of solidary inter-human interaction” (211–12) and states that “without imitatio Dei, the imago Dei disappears” (211). She seeks to hold together what she calls the mimetic and anti-mimetic interpretations of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God—the mimetic being based on humans acting like God and the anti-mimetic pointing to the uniqueness and transcendence of each concrete other, as God too is the absolutely other. Nevertheless, there seems to be room for more caution.

2.

My second question has to do with what it means to say that the imago Dei is distorted beyond recognition. Welz refers to the possibility of speaking of “the sad instance of an imago Dei being distorted beyond recognition” (207), “the restitution of the image of the invisible God when it has been distorted, degraded, and debased” (212), and uses terms such as reforge, recovery, and restitution as the modes in which the image of God might be made visible once again. How does Welz distinguish between what happens to the imago Dei of the perpetrator and what happens to the imago Dei of the victim? It seems as if the same vocabulary describes them both, and if this is so, I think we might need to revise that vocabulary to distinguish between what, to my mind, should be not be side-by-side. To elide the difference between perpetrator and victim in any particular injustice is to elide that injustice.

These questions are really ones of clarification for a rich, intellectually provocative study, undertaken with sensitivity and intellectual rigor. I learned a great deal from reading it and look forward to continuing to learn from it.

  • Claudia Welz

    Claudia Welz

    Reply

    Response to Jennifer Geddes

    I want to thank Jennifer Geddes for her perceptive response and for sending me some tricky questions that bring us straight to the heart of the matter.

    Geddes is definitely right in pointing to the danger that ideas and concepts can become “idols”: fixed images or thought instruments. If that happens, we deify our own ways of thinking, and our ideas turn into ideologies. Then we lose the critical sense by which we can correct ourselves and get back on track after having gone astray intellectually. The Shoah, crimes against humanity committed in this context as well as other genocides have shown how powerful ideologies can be. Their impact on human minds is immense, and there is only a small step from routinely using linguistic images of inhumanity—for instance by regarding certain people as “rats” or “vermin”—to exterminating those who have been such degraded. The dehumanizing effects of the Lingua Tertii Imperii (Victor Klemperer) and, more generally, the risk of enemy propaganda deforming the image of “the other,” have been proven sufficiently to let us be wary in the choice of words. Language offers navigational tools and norms of orientation, and therefore, it is utterly important to be careful in regard to how we view each other and conceptualize our respective images of humanity.

    (Ad 1) Jennifer Geddes’s first set of questions addresses the “danger that the very effort to recover the image of God within the human might overlook the person, instrumentalize her as the location of God’s image, serving to buffer us from God’s absence”; and Geddes wonders “if there might be a temptation to overlook the very real someone before me in my very effort to affirm her dignity.” She thinks that there are points in my book “where the particular sufferers and survivors seem somewhat lost from view” and asks whether “the very ideas of human dignity and/or of being created in the image of God” might fill in as “objectified images of the other?”

    I read Geddes’s questions as a reminder of the difficulties we are faced with when trying to universalize ideas in such a way that they apply to all particular persons. In this endeavor, we move away from the empirical basis of our ideas while, at the same time, intending to secure that they gain large-scale applicability in actual life. As for the Shoah, which is the concrete context of my discussion, the sheer number of six million victims is so overwhelming that the task to look at each of them individually is “mission impossible.” The problem of how we nonetheless can ascribe human dignity to everyone and even affirm the dignity of the dead is only intensified by these parameters. I do not feel any temptation to overlook particular sufferers, but rather capitulate to the proportions of suffering, which are beyond anything that could be handled by a single scholar.

    Yet, since I am not a historian or specialized Holocaust researcher, I do not understand my task as one of collecting individual testimonies of atrocity and survival. Instead, I want to discuss the ethical implications and consequences of different (religious and nonreligious) views of the human being. As a theologian, ethicist, and philosopher of religion, I take Geddes’s additional questions of whether the notion of the imago Dei in fact might gloss over God’s absence and whether the idea of human dignity might be nothing but an idol very seriously. Let us imagine that this were the case. What would it mean?

    I would—regardless of what someone has done or suffered—accredit a view of “humanity in God’s image” and of “human dignity” to this person, who cannot see him- or herself as the potential place of divine presence. This person might be offended if the word “dignity” is associated with certain existential situations or conditions in which dignity seems to be lacking. In other words, the use of these concepts could appear as being misplaced, unrealistic, or even escapist. However, as there is no empirical evidence for divine presence, for our being created in God’s image, and for a dignity despite appearances, there is neither any means to disprove these assertions. Their epistemological status is that of creeds or beliefs held in the certainty of faith. Their veracity cannot be demonstrated to disbelievers or sceptics.

    So, why should anyone be interested in holding such convictions? The advantage becomes obvious when we carry out a crosscheck and compare the two diametrically opposed views of the human being as either a detested subhuman animal or God’s cherished image: while the former view provokes acts of humiliation, the latter gives rise to interpersonal respect. The recognition that all of us are human beings on eye level with each other most likely results in civilized social interaction, whereas the idea that others are inferior can generate infighting or war. Thus, in the worst case, the notions of “human dignity” and of “humanity in God’s image” are harmless, but beneficial illusions; in the best case, their content is true even though we cannot bring this to proof.

    Another worry is that these notions might become blasphemous if they take the place of God himself. Yet, this worry does not seem to be that weighty for Geddes. In any case, she affirmatively delineates my attempt to formally disassemble conceptual idolatry with the help of a twofold strategy: firstly, regarding the imago Dei not as a stable entity but rather as a dynamic, unfinished process of vision and re-vision, which, secondly, leads us to see more than what is before our eyes and to transform our self-understanding in ever new ways.

    (Ad 2) Jennifer Geddes’s second question concerns instances of God’s image being distorted beyond recognition: how can we “distinguish between what happens to the imago Dei of the perpetrator and what happens to the imago Dei of the victim?” Geddes proposes to revise the vocabulary in order to elucidate the difference.

    This difference is crucial. It affects our actions and reactions in our relations to others. In my book, I make recourse to classic theological distinctions. Martin Luther, for instance, introduced the distinction between the imago Dei and the imago diaboli. However, is it recommendable to personify evil in the devil and then to hypostasize its effect on human beings by inventing a counter-image for the corrupted image of God? The “image of the devil” is just as difficult to pin down optically as the “image of God.” It can only be surmised, not detected, in a person’s perverted ways of speaking and behaving as well as in contrast to the moments in which the non-corrupted image of God “shines through” a human being.

    Moreover, Luther’s move contains the danger of demonizing people. In her book on Eichmann, Hannah Arendt developed the notion of the “banality” of evil precisely in order to avoid that evildoing becomes attractive because of a grandiose portrayal of accomplished villains. Rather than characterizing the Nazi mass murderers as monsters, she wanted to accentuate their (no less frightening) “normality.” To put it in Geddes’s words, in Eichmann, Arendt “found an efficient bureaucrat who routinely sent thousands to their deaths and considered it a day’s work.”1 Here atrocity is concealed under the veil of everydayness. Nonetheless, on the basis of different persons’ deeds or misdeeds, there must be phenomenal and conceptual differences between what happens to the perpetrator’s versus the victim’s imago Dei.

    For me, the main difference consists in the fact that the imago Dei of the perpetrator is distorted because of his or her own doing, while it is not the victim’s own fault if he or she is no longer recognizable as an embodied image of God. The next question is: who can decide whether the imago Dei is recognizable or distorted beyond recognition? There are differences in perspective: what is seen depends on who looks at it and how. Both the victim and the perpetrator might tend to deny the image of God in the respective other or be unable to find it in themselves. The imago Dei is not tangible and, au fond, not at our disposal. It “appears” only if the situation allows us to discover it in one another; otherwise there is no phenomenological basis for experiencing human likeness to God. In a post-Holocaust world, it is difficult to believe in an undestroyable imago Dei and inalienable human dignity. Yet, we need to differentiate between experienceable phenomena (which might be perspicuous only in their absence) and counterfactual notions that can function as normative signposts precisely because they reorient us in referring to the nonempirical ground and final fulfillment of our vulnerable lives.

    Moreover, we need to draw a distinction between an ethical approach to the imago Dei, which addresses our own contribution to the preservation, restitution, or distortion of the imago Dei, and a theological approach, which addresses that which God has done to us. Insofar as all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, the imago Dei is God-given, granted gracefully to us. Insofar, however, as we can shape our individual and social life, it is up to us whether or not human likeness to God is recognizable in our existence, which is always shaped by our coexistence with others.


    1. Jennifer L. Geddes, “Banal Evil and Useless Knowledge: Hannah Arendt and Charlotte Delbo on Evil after the Holocaust,” in The Double Binds of Ethics after the Holocaust, edited by Jennifer L. Geddes et al. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 119–32, here 123. On this topic, see also Jennifer Geddes, “Evil,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought, edited by Nicholas Adams et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 213–31 and my article “Facing the Problem of Evil: Visual, Verbal, and Mental Images of (In)Humanity,” Scandinavian Jewish Studies 29.1, special issue, The Problem of Evil and Images of (In)Humanity (2018) 62–78.

Andrew Benjamin

Response

The Presence of Dignity

Notes on Claudia Welz’s Humanity in God’s Image

1.

The object of these notes is Claudia Welz’s engagement with dignity in her recent book Humanity in God’s Image. The book itself is one of the most sustained, significant, and original works written on the topic of the imago Dei in many years. Welz herself is a prolific and important writer whose work—particularly in chapter 8 of her book—takes place at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and legal theory. She is a thinker whose activities are central to the current preoccupations of the humanities. Rather than comment on her project as a whole, the task here, as already noted, is limited to her discussion of dignity. Dignity is not an arbitrary concern. On the contrary, the broader context is provided by one of the claims made by Hannah Arendt at the beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s argument is clear. After the “totalitarian,” almost as the demand bequeathed by its actuality, human dignity needs what she terms “a new guarantee.”1 The continual presence of war, famine, and enforced austerity further underscores the exigency of her position.

Accepting this need as the point of departure necessitates that a number of remarks concerning dignity be made in advance. There is, of course, an important discussion that would involve developing a genealogy of “dignity.”2 At the outset the Latin dignitas which, at its most elementary can be described as involving a contingent quality of human existence, is transformed in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In the latter dignity is linked to the interplay of autonomy and freedom. Hence the famous formulation:

We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer (in quam malueris tute formam effingas).3

What is important here is not just that dignity is connected to freedom and thus to self-fashioning. A sense of freedom is indicated by the self-fashioning (effingas) having been linked to what is wanted or wished for (malueris). In other words, there can be the expression of a preference within the process of self-fashioning. The form is not determined in advance. More significantly, it is a preference that is always to be realized. Hence the important modal point. Capacity and freedom are the inscription of an always already sensed futurity into and as part of the present. What marks the singularity of this particular interplay of freedom and capacity, once it is interarticulated with the identification of an end as the expression of a particular preference or want, is that when these elements are taken together they can be understood as identifying the presence of a potentiality that is intrinsic to human being. There is therefore the inscription of potentiality whose presence is integral to the being of being human. Potentiality entails forms of activity. Being human therefore has to be thought in terms of activity. The activity in question is life. However, this is not just the life of the body. It is rather that human being—human life—is defined in terms of the actualization of what can be called the potentiality to be. The possibility of defining life as having no end other than itself is a possibility that has to be thought in terms of potentiality (the concept of “potentiality”). While it may be possible to attribute a sense of the epigenetic to natural development, the presence of disequilibria of power within human relations—and moreover the necessity to understand human history in terms of the unfolding of those relations—means that the potential to be, is the potential to “fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer” is not actualized of necessity. Its taking place is the actualization of a potentiality whose possibility of that actualization is itself contingent. Consequently, the refusal to allow it to occur and thus for the potential to remain unactualized, means, in the case of the latter, a diminution in what is entailed by (and for) human being. Potentiality to be endures as unactualized. The significant point here is that dignity cannot be separated from either the potential to be and thus, in terms of its negative determination, from the possibility of that potential remaining unactualized.

The claim here is not that Pico argues for such a position. The claim is that once centrality is attributed to a capacity for self-fashioning—and that this capacity identifies a locus of freedom—dignity is allowed a fundamental reformulation. Dignity loses its merely moral status by having acquired an ontological force. (Hence what emerges is a fundamental and original coincidence between the ethical and the ontological.)4 Dignity has to figure therefore within a philosophical anthropology that is orientated by a concern with human being. Dignity cannot be separated from the being of being human to the extent that human being is understood in terms of a potentiality to be. These opening considerations open the path to a more direct encounter with the presence of dignity. Or, to the question of what is the presence of dignity? Can there be a phenomenology of dignity? (The final question is central to Welz’s project.)

2.

While Welz’s engagement with dignity in Humanity in God’s Image is not limited to her argument—one repeating the opening line of the German Grundgesetz—that dignity is “inviolable,” such a claim plays a fundamental role in her engagement with the topic (233). Any argument concerning either the nature or the location of human dignity cannot escape the problem of definition. Hence the question: What is the force of the claim that dignity is inviolable if it is not clear what this quality actually is? What is it that is inviolable? It would seem that without a definition of dignity it becomes impossible to advance any claim concerning its nature. There is a complex problem here. What would “definition” mean in such a context? Dignity, were it to be in fact inviolable, would have to pertain even at those moments in which its absence was the most evident. In other words, in such instances it would be the apparent invisibility of dignity—its absence at any one moment—that allowed it to be present. And yet, what is it that is absent? What is not there is that which is still, in fact, there—there in its violation. Attention may be called to a face that bears the marks of cruelty. Those marks are seen. They are visible. What they manifest is the violation. And yet, while there is an important connection between invisibility and manifestation—and these terms are central to the development of any phenomenological account of dignity—what of the face cannot be seen? What of those whose circumstances are such that they are literally invisible? Those who have had possibility of recognition stripped from them. There is a straightforward answer to these questions. They are not seen because they are not able to appear. They are not seen therefore because they are not able to enter spaces in which recognition occurs. They will be a range of possible reasons for this form of non-presence. However, what is significant is that a certain set of actions have brought it about. A result that will need to be secured and thus policed. Invisibility as non-presence is a state of affairs that isolates. That isolation will often need to be sustained. The important element here is that this general account pertains as much to groups who, because of certain defining elements (race, religion, ethnicity, etc.), have been isolated, as it does to an individual whose treatment, even within a domestic setting, enforces forms of separation. In all such instances isolation closes down the possibility of any form of recognition that is defined in phenomenological terms. Appearance is the very precondition for being an object of experience—let alone of relations defined in terms of intersubjectivity. The possibility of experience will have been excised. The individual—be it the individualized group or the individual person—subject to such processes will have become anonymous. While the actualization of this possibility has to be understood as a sustained activity—one that can be described as rendering anonymous—anonymity closes down the possibility of experience.

In the first instance invisibility occurs within a directly phenomenological setting. Even if the question of dignity remains, at this stage, only partially answered, it would nonetheless seem self-evident to argue that those subject to cruelty or forced into starvation, or those who are the victims of violence, have to live lives that have been stripped of dignity. And yet, to the extent that dignity is an intrinsic quality of human being, thus to the extent that dignity is in fact inviolable, then it is present in its absence. Invisibility pertains here therefore to that which while absent can still be experienced (experienced as absent). The other sense of invisibility pertains to those who have been subjected to radical acts of exclusion; e.g., forced exile, internal segregation, forms of profound indifference. It is important to note this divide within invisibility. The experience of the invisible points to the presence of that which while being an object of experience does not demand literal presence in order that it be experienced. As a result, there has to be an account of this form of presence. Dignity in this context can be said to attend the empirical and the pragmatic. It is thus immanent within empirical pragmatic acts without ever being reducible to them. What is created as a result is a space that will always hold between that which attends—immanent presence—and any one determinate instance (and therefore determinant instances in general). That space allows for the presence of that to which a call can continue to be made; a call that in the end takes on the form of a judgment. It can continue to be made—thus judgment attends as an always already present possibility—precisely because that to which the call is made, that which grounds judgment, is held apart from any one determinant instance.

It will be this invisibility that can also be deployed in responding to the position and states of affairs created by processes of rendering anonymous. To be anonymous is to be without a name. To be rendered anonymous is to have either a sense of identity taken away or to be ascribed an identity or name that orients the named in ways they cannot control. Such names or identities cannot be affirmed by the named. More significantly, the ascription of a name is to have been named in such a way that the named need no longer recognize themselves within the name. To claim a name, or to resist and refuse either the processes of rendering anonymous or the ascription of name, is not simply a claim that is self-referring, it is a claim, to deploy the discussion orchestrated above, to actualize the potentiality for “self-fashioning.” It is thus a claim for freedom. This is not however the freedom of a subject. Rather it is to allow for the possibility of becoming a subject who acts freely. It is the demand therefore to appear. Appearing does not occur in isolation. Appearing always occurs in medias res. Appearing occurs with others who also appear. Appearing is therefore always relational. Appearing within relationality—where appearing is equally constitutive of relationality such that singulars are individuated by relations—calls on judgment to the extent that appearing is either allowed or disallowed. Appearing is of course inextricably bound up with the actualization of the potentiality to be and thus where the continuity (though equally this discontinuity) within modes of actualization are indicative of different forms of life.

3.

Welz’s approach to dignity is described as “phenomenological” (230). In other words, what has primacy at the outset is the possibility of the experience of dignity, and the limits of possible experience! As has been noted, integral to her engagement with dignity is its inviolability. What always has to be confronted however is the continual violation of this inviolability; i.e., brute actuality. However, inviolability is not a mere token. Indeed, she goes on to suggest that this “inviolability” is “the root of all human rights” (233). (While it cannot be pursued here the difficulty with this claim is that what is left out of consideration is what Arendt describes as the “right to have rights.”) As the argumentation develops, the position being advanced depends—rightly it should be added—on the claim that “dignity remains invisible to the human eye” (236). Hence the importance of the question of what counts as the “expression” of human dignity? It cannot just be a subjective observation. On the contrary for Welz visibility “is not a visual appearance but a hermeneutical one. Human dignity becomes visible in being understood. To ‘understand’ human dignity means to recognize it, and to act accordingly” (238). While the hermeneutical is sustained insofar as literal seeing is continually called into question, she still concludes the chapter with the claim that “the recognition of human dignity . . . demands of us that we try to see the invisible” (254). The problems posed by how “seeing the invisible” is to be understood will continue.

After arguing for a move from visual appearance to the hermeneutical, dignity is then described as an orientating norm. As though what occasions the move from the purely visible to the hermeneutical is the presence of such a norm. The mode of perceiving that emerges in the move from literal visibility to the hermeneutical is argued for in terms of recognition. In this regard, the working hypothesis is that “the acknowledgement of one’s right to exist and to be respected as a human being and the equal value of all human beings—is fulfilled and denied in and through an exchange of looks with others” (241). Looking connects the hermeneutic and the phenomenological. This position is worked through Kierkegaard on love and Sartre on shame. The argument in regard to Kierkegaard is that while love is important and that seeing with “a loving eye” may secure the other’s dignity, the question is “what happens when someone feels exposed to the loveless gaze of the other?” (243). A limit is reached. This is the point where shame and shame’s link to the gaze emerges. The problem with shame, for Welz, is that if a subject feels shamed as a result of the other’s look then there is “the risk” of a loss of self-worth and thus of dignity. In the end Kierkegaard’s work on love as mode of looking becomes the more productive precisely because it allows—through the loving gaze—for the possibility of a form of unseeing of that which may threaten dignity. Actions can be seen through. And yet there still needs to be more. At the limit of seeing there has to be the recognition, not just of the other’s presence, but that dignity is “owed in all circumstances” to the other (249). Dignity is there as a yet to be fulfilled demand.

This opens up the question of the presence of dignity after death. There is more to this question than is present in the book. The corpse demands dignity. But why? On the one hand the relation to God—were there to be one—would also have to obtain post mortem. Were the human to be there as the image of God in life then this would have to be a state of affairs that would also hold after death. At work, here is a form of transcendence that is there with the body and equally with God. Where this leads Welz is to the argument that “dignity can be regarded as an ‘inherent’ property of the person only if it is a property that is at the same time ‘abroad’ in the sense of being independent of human judgment” (252). While this description is accurate the complexity lies in what “independent of human judgment” actually means. If it is truly independent then dignity cannot be a norm for the precise reason that it is not difficult to identify norms—and even laws—that have been or still are destructive of dignity. Dignity cannot even be an orientating norm. It is rather that a concern with dignity must itself be orientated.

The corpse makes demands because it cannot remain purely anonymous. Even the unnamed corpses that lay on battlefields are commemorated as the Unknown. The now present ubiquity of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier acknowledges these deaths. While the names may have been forgotten such tombs are a stand against pure anonymity. This is a tradition already evident in Pericles’s Funeral Oration in which even “the missing” (τν φανν) are provided with a form of commemoration and thus presence.5 Dignity is preserved through recognition and thus with the refusal of anonymity. What is named is a quality that cannot be reduced to the body. Moreover, what is named is that which is in excess of any norm. (And as such is able to orientate norms whilst at the same time allowing for the judgment of their content.) In naming the corpse, in refusing anonymity, there is the affirmation of dignity in the precise sense that what has been given to the corpse is the quality of having had a life. Life is of course more than having been alive. Life is appearing with others. While Welz invokes a sense of relationality insofar as she argues at one point that “dignity is about being-subject-for-others” what is left out is that dignity involves living a life with others.6 And yet, what endures is the problem of definition. Hence the question: What is dignity? Welz is right to argue that “the recognition of human dignity . . . demands of us that we try and see the invisible” (254). This is however not enough since there are further questions. What is it that is “invisible”? On one level the answer is straightforward it is an inherent or intrinsic quality. If actuality involves violation then the inviolable cannot be reduced to the domain of brute actuality. And yet what content can be given to the inviolable?

Welz’s recourse to the interplay of the phenomenological and hermeneutic is the right approach. However, such an approach can only work if dignity, rather than having a yet to be named essential quality, could be descriptive of human life. A dignified life would then be one in which there was the continuity of the actualization of the potentiality to be. In other words, dignity is neither a contingent predicate nor a mere intrinsic quality. Dignity, as a term within a philosophical anthropology, is invisible insofar as it is the immanent presence of the potentiality to be. The experience of its affirmation, or its refusal, is the experience of the acting out of human being within the public realm. Dignity continues as an unfulfilled call within the present, and for the future, because the presence of dignity—now thought as the actualization of the potentiality to be—is of necessity unconditional.


  1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I have discussed this passage by Arendt in my “The Problem of Authority in Arendt and Aristotle,” Philosophy Today 60.2 (2016) 253–76.

  2. Though it needs to be recognized that even in their own historical context words such as dignitas had an inherent complexity. Their imbalance allowed them to be deployed in different perhaps event in antithetical ways. To this end the discussion of dignitas in Joy Connolly, The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 111–12.

  3. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary, edited by Francesco Borghesi et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 115.

  4. I have tried to trace some of the implications of this “coincidence” in my Virtue in Being (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016).

  5. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.34.2

  • Claudia Welz

    Claudia Welz

    Reply

    Response to Andrew Benjamin

    I want to thank Andrew Benjamin for his exciting commentary on chapter 8 of my book and, above all, for his tripartite outline of a phenomenology of human dignity. Benjamin builds on my attempt to relate phenomenological, legal, and theological levels of argumentation, but he also challenges my approach and tries to enhance it in some points that he thinks need to be rectified.hehas given me a lot of food for thought. In what follows, I will successively go into each of his commentary’s three sections.

    (Ad 1) In his opening considerations, Benjamin first refers to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she argues that human dignity needs a new guarantee, and then to Renaissance humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s treatise De hominis dignitate (1486), where humanity is conceived in an evolutionary sense: since the human being is created as a being whose form of life is yet undetermined, this being can shape its own nature in freedom. As molders and makers of themselves, human beings are creative sculptors and shapers of their lives. According to Pico, they can fashion themselves in whatever form they prefer. It is in their power either to degenerate into lower, brutish forms of life, or to be reborn into higher, divine orders. This capacity for self-fashioning is essential also for the ways in which human dignity is displayed.

    In chapter 7 of my book (see 212–16), I have compared Pico’s view of the human being as a self-transformer to Arendt’s notion of natality as put forward in her book The Human Condition (1958). Natality, our being-conditioned through birth, contains the capacity of beginning something new. As conditioned beings, we cannot give life to ourselves, but we can change our starting conditions at least to some degree. We can take initiative and set something in motion. We are free to start new chains of action and to invent something that hitherto has not been there. Arendt’s view of the human being as a creative creature differs from Pico’s advocacy of unlimited freedom and self-determination in that Arendt takes our mortality and the limitations of choice into account.

    Taking his point of departure in the human capacity for self-fashioning endorsed by Pico, Benjamin raises the question: “What is the presence of dignity?”healso asks whether there can be a phenomenology of dignity, so he does not seem to be convinced that this is the case.hepoints out that the capacity for self-fashioning is not always actualized. If Benjamin is right in claiming that human dignity cannot be separated from our “potential to be,” there is the negative possibility that this potential remains unactualized. Nonetheless, he calls attention to an “ontological force” associated with human dignity and potentiality—for, regardless of how someone “performs” or “practices” his or her dignity and regardless of whether others recognize or refuse to recognize this person’s dignity, the potential to be is “intrinsic to human being” and “endures.” On this basis, I assume that Benjamin’s own answer to his first question is: the presence of dignity is precisely the potential to be, even though this potential may not always be apparent.

    This predicament leads us to Benjamin’s second question regarding a possible (or impossible?) phenomenology of human dignity. I would like to suggest that, in this context, the presence of human dignity is not to be understood as something static and endurable, but rather as a becoming-present to someone by entering this person’s consciousness. If a person is not aware of his or her own or other people’s human dignity, it is not “given” or “present” to this person’s experience. Let us assume that human dignity is indeed a potentiality whose presence can only be hypothesized as long as it has not yet manifested itself in any concrete actualization. Then the notion of human dignity is richer than the dimensions that are already given to experience because it also embraces dimensions that are not yet experienceable.

    Provided that the full-fledged notion of human dignity contains more dimensions than those that are currently accessible to us, a sound phenomenology of human dignity must also include dimensions that transcend the limits of our experiential scope at a given point of time. That is why I, on the one hand, have developed “a phenomenology of the genesis of individual self-respect and mutual recognition,” which describes “the subjective and intersubjective constitutive conditions of personal dignity” (231) and, on the other hand, have focused on the notion of human dignity as a legally relevant term, which emphasizes that respect is due by law to the other person as a legal entity and that dignity is inherent in everyone, although it cannot always be experienced or empirically detected. In my opinion, the relation between the dimensions of dignity that are accessible to experience and the dimensions of dignity that elude it, can be properly accounted for only if a human being’s claim to legally owed respect is maintained regardless of the factual regard or disregard given to him or her. While human dignity cannot be anchored argumentatively—and thus guaranteed juridically—in that which is “visible” or experienceable between human beings, it can manifest itself in human interaction.

    (Ad 2) In the second section of his commentary, Andrew Benjamin turns to the legal level of argumentation for human dignity. With reference to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (1949), according to which human dignity is “inviolable” (unantastbar), he asks: “What is the force of the claim that dignity is inviolable if it is not clear what this quality actually is? What is it that is inviolable?” I have argued that the phrase in question is to be read as an imperative: human dignity shall not be violated (see 234). It must not be violated, even though this does happen in many countries. Here we run into a tension between normativity and factuality, which is reflected in the normative determination of human dignity as an essential feature of human beings, on the one hand, and a consequential assignment, on the other: the task of respecting it and of reinstating it in cases of transgression. I consider the alternative of either understanding dignity as a necessary “fact of being” or a contingent norm created by human beings to be a fallacy, since it pits the historicity of human culture against some seemingly unchangeable essence of human nature. And in my view, it is not a flaw, but a boon that human dignity is not defined by any characteristics of human beings, because if this were the case, we could be stripped of our dignity should we lose these characteristics—for example, through illness or accident. In other words, human dignity is inviolable in not being a matter of attribution, but in being owed in all circumstances.

    Now, Benjamin describes the factual violation of dignity as the victim’s becoming invisible in becoming unable to enter spaces in which recognition occurs. What follows from this is “isolation” and “anonymity” that “closes down the possibility of experience.” I do not agree with his last-mentioned claim, which would be correct only if the subject of experience was gone. Yet there is another possibility: that the subject of experience is still there, but is ignored by others or, alternatively, is ascribed an unwanted name that conflicts with the identity of the victim. Here human dignity can still be experienced, though as truncated and endangered.

    However, Benjamin’s claim is more radical.heclaims that human dignity, in this case, can be experienced only “as absent” because the possibility to appear with and for others is disallowed and, as a consequence, the victim’s “potentiality to be” and to become a subject who acts freely cannot be actualized. Dignity that is experienced “as absent” is not experienced at all. It strikes me that Benjamin here makes the presence of dignity dependent on its being recognized by others. Of course, it is very difficult to preserve self-respect when one is not respected by others, yet I do not want to follow Benjamin in declaring mutual recognition as the sine qua non of human dignity.

    In my view, human dignity can be present even when no other human being acknowledges its presence. If we bind our dignity to other people seeing us in such a way that we can accept ourselves in their gaze, we risk losing our sense of dignity. Doubtlessly, the inviolability of human dignity cannot be anchored in an inaccessible event of respectful seeing, let alone in loving glances. It can be preserved only, despite unfavorable looks, if it is an unconditional demand. This demand may remain unfulfilled, but in this case, dignity lives on at least teleologically: in the form of an aim that has not yet been achieved.

    (Ad 3) In the third section of his commentary, Benjamin discusses my hermeneutical argument that human dignity becomes “visible” in being understood, which means that it is recognized, and that the recognition of human dignity demands of us that we try “to see the invisible,” since the normative notion of dignity as an unfulfilled demand remains invisible to our eyes.

    I am grateful to Benjamin for putting his finger on the following difficulty: if the inviolability of human dignity is taken to be the highest of all basic values and the root of all human rights, “what is left out of consideration is what Arendt describes as the ‘right to have rights.’” In chapter 9 of The Origins of Totalitarianism (“The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”), Arendt argues that the right to have rights cannot be expressed in categories presuming “that human rights spring immediately from the ‘nature’ of man,” whether this nature is visualized “in terms of the natural law or in terms of being created in the image of God, whether it concerns ‘natural’ rights or divine commands.”1 In contrast to Arendt, I do not think that being created in the image of God automatically means that human rights can be derived from “the ‘nature’ of man.” As already indicated, I do not want to identify human dignity or likeness to God with specifically human characteristics or capacities like autonomous reasoning because this would imply that injured or disabled people are no longer in the image of God and have lost their dignity. According to Arendt, “the right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself”; yet she admits that it is “by no means certain whether it is possible.”2 In my opinion, the imago Dei is not to be treated as if it were purely human; rather, it must also be regarded as a divine gift preceding human action. Thus, in contradistinction to a “substantive” account, I prefer a “relational” account that is not grounded in human “nature” but rather in God’s creative, self-revealing and redeeming presence in our lives. Due to the sanctity of all human life created in God’s image, the biblical imago Dei motif suggests that human dignity is permanent.

    Human rights derived from that dignity must neither be made dependent on interhuman relations or misrelations. If humanity in God’s image is to function as an appropriate category, then human rights must be granted independently of others’ recognition or contempt. Instead, human rights can, for instance, be grounded in the belief that every human being is God’s creature and God’s child—which entails the idea of fraternity. Although human beings can try to verbally disqualify their fellow human beings from being regarded as dignified persons with certain rights, human dignity must be taken to be universal if it shall count as a concept that “grounds all of our rights.”3 And I would like to add that it needs to include both the living and the dead. Even the corpse demands dignity because the God-relationship, which is due to God’s initiative, will persist post mortem if it is true that God maintains the relation to his creatures both in life and after death.

    Benjamin criticizes my argument that “dignity can be regarded as an ‘inherent’ property of the person only if it is a property that is at the same time ‘abroad’ in the sense of being independent of human judgment” (252). In what sense is it independent of human judgment, he asks. My answer is: in the sense that a person’s dignity is “real” even though someone else might deny this person’s dignity. Benjamin continues: “If it is truly independent then dignity cannot be a norm,” not even an orientating norm; rather, “a concern with dignity must itself be orientated.” Benjamin here seems to suppose that norms are always set by human persons or institutions, that they are self-posited, due to human judgment and legislation (in Greek: νόμῳ) rather than part of a naturally inherent (in Greek: φύσει) normativity that shapes our world. Arendt’s abovementioned caveat speaks against the latter option if (and only if) human rights are tied to a narrow definition of human “nature.” Yet, I wonder whether there is a third way.

    I have learned a lot from Benjamin’s trenchant description of our “potentiality to be,” which he assumes is intrinsic to human being and which can create “a fundamental and original coincidence between the ethical and the ontological.” I like Benjamin’s thought that dignity cannot be separated from being human to the extent that humanity is understood in terms of this (not always actualized) potentiality to be. Provided that human dignity is ontologically rooted in our potentiality to be, why not deriving the right to have rights from this potentiality by understanding dignity both as being “integral to the being of being human” and as being a normatively charged constitutional principle?

    The constitutional principle of all human beings’ dignity—which, by the way, plays a central role also in the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)—can function as the source of human rights and protect them effectively only if it is valid as a norm that orients our judgments about how to act in particular situations without itself being dependent on these judgments. Invisible, “inviolable” dignity is then understood as belonging to us by birth, whether we acknowledge this or not, and as remaining present in spite of its violation: as a still to be actualized potential. Thus, dignity points beyond its factual “absence”—to its future “presence” or reappearance. The latter requires that the normativity inherent in dignity is “higher” than our subjective self-assessment and our judgments of each other.

    In the final two sections of his commentary on my book, Benjamin cites from p. 246 (“human dignity is about being-subject-for-others”) and comments: “What is left out is that dignity involves living a life with others.” For me, this is implied in the phenomenology of shame and love—emotions that cannot be felt without others evoking them. Benjamin then explains why naming a corpse is important: “What is named is a quality that cannot be reduced to the body: having had a life together with others. Moreover, what is named is that which is in excess of any norm” and, as such, it is “able to orientate norms.” I agree. Dignity as the orientating unconditional norm must exceed any contingent self-posited norm. The next question is, again: if dignity shall be descriptive of human life, what content can be given to the inviolable? The inviolable is that which remains even if a person is no longer able to speak for him- or herself and defend his or her dignity. Since that which remains cannot be “the continuity of the actualization of the potentiality to be,” which ends together with human life, we must look for something that transcends our finite lives. I have suggested to look for the infinite source of life, and that is why my account of human dignity includes a theological level of argumentation, where dignity is understood both as a gift and a task. Being created in the image of God, we are called to live a dignified life together with others. We do not always succeed. How can our dignity, then, nonetheless be inviolable? In my view, this is possible only if human dignity is more than a human achievement.


    1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1985), 297.

    2. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 298.

    3. Jeremy Waldron, Dignity, Rank, and Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 17.

Shelly Rambo

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February 25, 2019, 1:00 am

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