Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Concept of "Gift" as Hermeneutical Key to the Dignity of the Human Person

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Concept of "Gift" as Hermeneutical Key to the Dignity of the Human Person

Article excerpt

One of the concepts cutting across confessional, ethnic, and even political lines is the concept of human dignity. In some real sense it is truly "ecumenical." At the same time, the power of this idea is such that it can galvanize individuals, groups, and even nations into conflicts that threaten the very reality of human dignity. This paradoxical nature of the idea is itself grounded in a more or less explicit understanding of what it means to be human and to have the dignity of a person. Our understanding of dignity is built on our understanding and our experience of what it means to be a human person.

The issue of human dignity is particularly difficult because there is something in human nature itself that allows two different individuals of the same human nature to have diametrically opposed experiences. We need to consider the kind of experience that allows for what can perhaps be called the "dialectic" that emerges in the conflicting accounts of human dignity. In doing this we will use the concept of the gift as what Pope John Paul II calls the "hermeneutics of the gift." (1)

We speak of the "experience" of the external world. Thus, we can experience a sunrise or a sunset. The sun presents itself to us as rising and setting. The experience in question shapes our very language. And then, one day, a discovery occurs: the facts of the case are that the sun neither rises nor sets nor does it move across the sky. It is stationary. It is the observer that is moving. We come to know the facts of the case. And yet, the appearance of the rising and the setting sun does not change. The distinction between fact and experience shapes the consciousness of "modern human beings." Things are one way; they appear in another way. Or, we could say, things are not what they seem. It is the task of the scientist to discover a reality that is hiding behind appearances. And so, we have the expert, the scientist, telling the uninitiated what the world is really like. Love, for the romantic, appears to be one thing, but in reality, we are told, it is an evolutionary mechanism assuring the survival of a gene pool. God, for the religious sentiment, is an omnipotent and benevolent being, but in reality, we are told that sentiment is the product of impotence and imagination.

As a result of this bifurcation of experience and so-called scientific knowledge, we have a devaluation of "subjective experience" that is subordinated to if not crushed by objective, that is, "scientific" truth. This has its consequences for the experience of one's own dignity. Self-affirmation, in the face of what appears an apparently relentless and dehumanizing progress of science and objective truth, almost inevitably brings with it, as a self-protective response, a spreading skepticism and relativism. It is as if the affirmation of one's own dignity required the rejection of objective truth, which binds the subject. Thus, outside of the sphere of the strict empirical sciences, we find a proliferation of theories supposedly affirming subjectivity but in fact establishing a subjectivism. (2) Frequently heard expressions of this are phrases such as, "The world is what you make of it," or "Existence is a state of mind," or "What is good for you may not be good for me," or finally, "Don't impose your opinions on others." A specific relativism, presenting itself as spiritual and mental pluralism with regard to truth, has emerged side by side with a legitimate cultural pluralism. Human dignity seems to require this. But the very understanding of human nature and personal dignity itself becomes a casualty of such relativism and pluralism.

In an attempt to recover the authentic dignity of the human person, we need to focus on experience of another sort. In this case, we move from the experience of the external world and turn to experience as the specific way in which we have our acts and perform them from "within. …

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