Value and Vulnerability

An Interfaith Dialogue on Human Dignity

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Matthew R. Petrusek, Jonathan Rothchild
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , June
     512 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is it vulnerability that renders a thing valuable, or is something valuable, in part, because of its vulnerability? From love and oceans to Amur Tigers and life itself, value and vulnerability tenuously, but ubiquitously, coexist. Human dignity encompasses both of these traits, seemingly a potent idea and claim that demands protection, and yet remains fragile. While there are a number of excellent volumes on human dignity, Value and Vulnerability: An Interfaith Dialogue on Human Dignity, is a particularly noteworthy inclusion, especially because of its interfaith dialogue approach and method. In this volume, chapters on human dignity are paired among two faith positions, with either an editor responding to both pieces, or ideally, the authors from different traditions responding to one another. Part 1 thus consists of twelve chapters with perspectives and commentary on human dignity from Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Protestant, Orthodox, Islamic, and Humanist perspectives. The second part of the book includes chapters that focus on a specific case study investigating the value and vulnerability of human dignity; namely, gendered violence, religious violence, racial violence, criminal justice, immigration, ecology and religious peacebuilding. The volume is bracketed by an acute editorial introduction and afterword, which are guided by seven leading questions, including: “Is dignity inherited or attained?” (9) and “Is dignity vulnerable or invulnerable to moral harm?” (13).

These questions, filtered through an interfaith approach, showcase dignity as a “bridge concept” in interreligious dialogue (4), and, borrowing a phrase from John Rawls, “helps establish a substantive overlapping consensus” (487). Like any robust dialogue, distinctiveness and difference can flourish, but enough strands of connection and complementarity exist to highlight points of similarity and mutuality. That dignity is both vulnerable and invulnerable is one such strand, as is the need to formulate how and why dignity matters.

While all the essays are worth reading, I will briefly highlight a few stand-out pieces or useful terminology accrued from the chapters. The most engaging and interesting paired pieces were Elliot N. Dorff and Daniel Nevins’ essay from Jewish perspectives juxtaposed with Christopher Key Chapple’s essay from a Hindu perspective. Such pairings work, as evinced here, when both authors read the other’s work carefully and critically and not simply restate what has already been read but show how each has been challenged or their thought sharpened in the encounter. Among the essays in part 2, I found Nicholas Denysenko’s chapter on dignity in the context of religious violence to be inspiring and theologically courageous, drawing upon his Christian Orthodox faith while arguing for an open (350–351), inclusive hospitality towards all. Especially noteworthy is his contention that, for Christians, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist should not be a sign and symbol of separation, superiority, or negative judgement upon others, but how we are all servants of God. These hopes and claims are particularly poignant in light of his focus on the religious, political, and militarily fraught context of Ukraine (and Russia).

Helpful terminology in the book includes: David P. Gushee’s preferred term, “sacredness of human life” (173), Dawn M. Nothwehr’s highlighting of the multidimensionality of dignity (436, in her authoritative chapter on dignity and ecology), and Ellen Ott Marshall’s turning to American veterans from the Iraq War on the moral injury accrued from being a part of, committing, and experiencing systemic violence against another (478–479).

Dignity has its naysayers. In Darlene Fozard Weaver’s nuanced and pellucid account of dignity from a Catholic perspective, she evaluates (and rebukes) Steven Pinker’s oft-quoted description of dignity as “squishy” (45). I immediately think of totalitarian regimes that squash and eviscerate peoples and cultures. Again, dignity’s value, as noted above, is partly linked to its vulnerability. Sadly, there is yet no law, political mechanism, or religious injunction that successfully prevents violations of someone’s dignity. Does this make the concept useless or of minimal value? Whether from a yearning or state of power, greed, sadism, or paranoia—these and many other drives may justify or propel an individual or group to mistreat and sully the integrity and wholeness of a fellow human being. Saturated in cruelty and indifference, some human beings have not just trampled on others’ dignity, but have devised and implemented atrocious and nefarious methods and philosophies seeking to wipe out both the existence and memory of others. How, then can we speak of an inviolability or invulnerability to dignity?

In this volume, the editors argue that in any discussion of dignity, theology must be included, as questions of the origin of dignity inevitably involve grappling with questions of God (489). More importantly, they do not foreclose their argument by claiming an affirmation of God’s existence is required for a robust conception of dignity. Although William Schweiker’s chapter on humanism was lucid and informative, he ultimately advocated theological humanism. Thus, I would have preferred the additional inclusion from an atheist thinker like Andrew Fiala. Regardless, this volume’s interfaith and dialogical approach is useful to students and scholars across disciplines. It can also show how the faith traditions of the world, from humanism to Islam, value all human lives (and life itself). Through dialogue and encounter, the value and vulnerability of all participants are also highlighted, hopefully spurring ethical actions towards the most vulnerable and preventing atrocities. The concept of human dignity is essential for such realizations and hopes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is lecturer in theology and director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
August 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew R. Petrusek is an associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Jonathan Rothchild is a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. He is co-editor of Doing Justice to Mercy: Religion, Law, and Criminal Justice.



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