Why People Matter

A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance

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Editor(s): 
John F. Kilner
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , January
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801049408.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

People matter. This is a simple proposition that the contributors to Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance argue most everyone can agree on. However, the discussion immediately changes when a simple follow-up question is asked: Why do people matter? Answering this question is a complicated process, and yet, the essays in Why People Matter argue that knowing why people matter is an urgent task for contemporary society. As one reads the first half of the book it’s clear that not all theories of human significance are created equal, thus the urgency.

The first half of the text does exactly what the subtitle promises: outlines and argues with five rival views of human significance. These rival views all claim to value human significance, but each of the first five chapters is dedicated to unmasking the places where each one fails to guarantee the significance it claims. Utilitarianism, collectivism, individualism, naturalism, and transhumanism, are the rival views that fall under the book’s critique. Each chapter begins with an overview of the rival philosophy. The logic of the view is set out in plain terms, and the first half of the book provides a nice set of introductions to these -isms. From there each author presses the logic to its breaking point. If necessary in its quest to create happiness for as many people as possible, utilitarianism will sacrifice the rights and dignity of a single person. Collectivism, the guiding philosophy of marketing and consumerism, indexes human identity according to consumer preferences. Individual particularity is lost in the need to promote, advertise, and sell. Each essay works to demonstrate how these rival views cannot provide as complete an account of human significance as Christianity.

A Christian account of human significance undergirds the first half of the book, and in the second half, John Kilner, the editor of the volume, articulates the latent Christian position of human significance. Kilner sets out to present a biblical view of human significance, which means that he discusses two core ideas: the imago dei and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Human significance comes from the biblical confession that people were created in the image of God. Kilner writes, “People, then, have a dignity, sacredness, equality, and unity that are grounded in their identity as created in God’s image” (154). The imago dei, Kilner argues, means that humanity may mirror God’s character in the world, albeit imperfectly. If recent history has you feeling skeptical about humanity’s ability to live out aspects of the divine character in human society, then Kilner’s discussion of Jesus of Nazareth should help to allay despair. We learn what it means to be in the image of God from Jesus’s life. Jesus is the divine image made flesh, and Kilner reads the incarnation as an act of divine condescension to help teach people how to live in a way that reflects Christ’s example. Kilner argues that living life in a way that honors and imitates God’s character is both a shared responsibility and the necessary foundation for an account of human significance. Why People Matter, then, ends up arguing that the value of human life is not something that people may define on their own terms, but rather, is a gift that God gives to humanity by creating it in God’s own image. Human significance comes to the world through grace, and thus there is a moral imperative to live in a way that honor’s God’s gift.

I hope it won’t sound like I’m damning Why People Matter with faint praise when I say that the book has a kind spirit. Each of the contributors works in earnest to draw attention to either the latent hypocrisy in systems of political and ethical thought, or the radical potential of the biblical account of why human beings should be treated with respect. This text would make an excellent introductory book for an undergraduate course, perhaps even in an ethics course for science majors if such a thing exists. Ecclesial reading groups would also benefit from reading this text for its excellent introduction to aspects of modern philosophy, business, and science that may be unfamiliar to them. Each chapter concludes with suggested reading to further discussion, so the editor clearly intends for communities to gather around this text for respectful debate.

Yet there were times that the volume frustrated me as a reader. Too often postmodern patterns of thought lurked as the source of evil in the chapters in the first half of the book. Yes, there are certain currents of postmodernism that are problematic, but there are also many Christian theologies built upon postmodern frameworks. Another frustration comes from the book’s assumption that Christianity is in no way affected by the –isms that it criticizes. The result is an us vs. them attitude in the second half of the book. Christian audiences will not find many challenges to their own perspectives in this book (though there are notable exceptions). Finally, while the authors speak to the innate dignity of every person, and carefully point to gender discrimination as incompatible with the biblical witness, sexuality is curiously missing from this volume. At no point, in my reading, does the book address the God-given dignity of the LGBT community or Christianity’s continued denial of full participation to homosexual believers. No book can address every issue that a reader may identify, but the failure to address this topic should not be ignored.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Isaac Collins is a graduate student in theolgy and the arts at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John F. Kilner is the Franklin and Dorothy Forman Chair of Christian Ethics and Theology, professor of bioethics and contemporary culture, and director of bioethics programs at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a senior fellow for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and has authored, coauthored, or edited over twenty books, including Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (winner of a Christianity Today Book Award) and Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life's Challenges. Kilner has been researching and teaching in the fields of ethics and bioethics since 1973 and has appeared on numerous major media outlets.

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