Michael Horton (The Christian Faith) contrasts biblical anthropology with materialist/Decartes/enlightment understanding of the self on one side and a (neo)plantonic/Gnostic/pagan understanding on the other. Descartes, “arrived at his concept of the autonomous res cogitans (thinking thing) by abstracting himself from the world and his mind from his body in contemplative solitude” (379) [granted Descartes was not an absolute materialist in the strictest sense]. The materialist “locates human origins in primordial violence in the apparently meaningless lust for survival”. It reults in a sovereign, “a sovereign moral legislator and constructor of reality” (380).
The (neo)Plantonic/Gnostic worldview tends to pantheism (or panentheism) whereby human life follows from some break with a higher ideal, some sort of “primordial falling away from being caused by embodiment” (380); wherein the divine spark will make its way back through some means — such as secret “gnosis”. The body exists as some sort of tomb which must be escaped.
Few persons actually hold a consistent philosophical position. The worldviews create various tensions and points of contradiction, and thus most people hold their positions loosely and move between the poles as needed. Thus, someone like the “material magician” (perhaps Anaxagoras would fit the bill) mentioned in Screwtape Letters. A friend used the phrase “California Buddhism” to capture the reincarnation as a means to continued selfishness paradigm of California.
Tony Reincke in Lit! writes, “First, it’s important that we understand that each person’s worldview is assembled from many composite details….The worldview of an author – no matter how complementary or contradictory it appears – is informed by a collection of elements. This explains why at many points the Christian worldview can and will agree at times with the ingredients in a non-Christian worldvew” (58).
What these various worldviews hold in common “is what Charles Taylor calls disengagement — the tendency of modern anthropology not only toward individualism but toward a sense of selfhood that is inward and independent not only of God but of the world in which it lives. This trajectory toward the disengaged self surely begins already in the Platonic myth of the divine immortal soul striving to ascend above its imprisonment in the realm of appearances” (380).
This contrasts with the biblical worldview: God created Adam (the human being) into a relationship. The human being exists with a created spirit and body, a human being which partakes of the image of God, but is not a small bit of divinity (neo)Platonism, nor bare matter (materialism): “[T]he Bible places human beings in a dramatic narrative that defines their existence as inherently covenantal — fully engaged with God, with each other, and with nonhuman creation. Instead of drawing us deeper within ourselves, a convenantal anthropology draws us outward, where we find ourselves responsible to God and our neighbors. Since we were summoned into being by the powerful Word of the covenant Lord, this covenantal relationality is essential to our being human. There are not first autonomous individuals who then may (or may not) enter into covenantal relations” (380).
It is on this basis that Christians contend that certain moral standards exist independently of one’s determination to accept those standards are not. Meaning, ethics, exist inherently in the nature of the creation and are no more a matter of consent than gravity (Rom. 1:18; 2:15, 3:23, etc). Horton writes, “It is not, therefore, that unbelievers are no longer related to God…However faint, the sense of belonging to a covenant of creation is natural, a verbum internum ….”(385).
The Christian thus responds to the other human as one born with rights and obligations inherent in being a human being. The dignity which a Christian must confer about another human qua human derives from one’s bare existence. But such dignity derives from relationship of one as born into a status of relating to God and to man and to all Creation.
(The contention that such a statement is an “imposition” fails when given by a claimed position of autonomy: one’s “autonomy” can claim no knowledge beyond one’s immediate preference or taste. Moreover, by merely stating the position, the Christian does not “impose” anything.
One may assert that the Christian is position is “wrong”. As a Christian, I would unquestionably assert that any other comprehensive worldview is “wrong”. However, the autonomous self, which seeks a position of not being “judged” cannot claim that the position is correct.)
Horton draws out an interesting implication of one’s covenantal status by fact of Creation:
So every human person is born into this world as an image-bearer of God, installed into an office that, from conception, one holds as a traitor.…Because every person is created in God’s image, he or she is a dignified bearer of rights and a responsible moral agent, accountable before God for his or her response to his command. This why human rights do not derive from the authority of the individual, the majority, or the state, but from God alone. (385)
An implication here is that rights cannot be taken from an individual by any institution. This relates to the Reformed doctrines concerning freedom of conscience (a matter which took a substantial time to work out).
In addition, by depriving another being of the responsibilities inherent with existence in the status of an image bearer of God, the State (or other institution) dehumanizes another. I expect little from my dog and less from my fish than I do from my son, because my son is a human being and my fish is a fish. To expect less is to demean.
Commenting on the command to Adam to “work and keep” the Garden, Horton notes that the command is given to Adam to care for God’s creation. The command of dominion in Genesis 1 & 2
is not an autonomous exploitation or violent domination but a mandate ‘to work …and keep’ (Gen. 2:15) the sanctuary [the Garden] in its holiness, driving the serpent from the Garden and extending God’s reign of righteousness, justice, and peace.
Because the creation is neither divine nor demonic, neither something to be worshiped nor something to be despised and destroyed, violence of the human vice-regent against creation can be understood only as an alliance with Satan. To say that ‘earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof’ (Ps. 24:1) is to say two things: that the earth is not God and that it is not ours (399).
Revelation 11:16 promises that the Lord God [the Creation title of God in Genesis 2] will “destor[y] the destroyers of the earth.”