In “Human value and the atonement: A Reply to Andy Bannister” I provided a critique of Bannister’s claim that human value is “determined by what God was willing to pay for you in the life of Jesus Christ, his Son.” I noted that my fifth and final objection was decisive:
“Bannister’s theory seems to have things backwards. We are not valuable because Christ died for us. Rather, Christ died for us because we are valuable. This value consists not in what we do but rather in the kind of beings we are: in the biblical language, we are bearers of the divine image and likeness.”
In short, we are valuable because God made us valuable in the beginning, not because God the Son died for us.
The Case for Value in Bonded Attachment
But is that the end of the story? Not necessarily. While I believe Bannister’s account of value is unsuited to sustain all the weight placed upon it, it might have some load-bearing potential. Could the atonement contribute to human value even if it does not exhaust it? That is an idea worth exploring.
Let’s consider a possibility: personal attachment and identification.
Think for a moment of Linus and his beloved blanket. Many blankets were manufactured which are identical to that owned by Linus. Nonetheless, if Snoopy were to go rabid one day and shred Linus’ blanket, he would not be consoled by an identical new blanket, and this for one simple reason: Linus has not become emotionally attached to that new blanket. For Linus, his shared history with his original blanket gives it a value above and beyond the bundle of properties exemplified by it.
Note, the claim is not that the blanket’s value is constituted wholly by Linus’ attachment. After all, that attachment would never have formed in the first place had the blanket possessed different properties like a prickly texture and a vomit-like odor. So while Linus’ personal history of attachment does not exhaust the value of his blanket, neither does the set of properties (e.g. the blue color and fuzzy texture) exemplified by the blanket. Instead, the blanket’s value is ultimately constituted both by the kind of thing it is and Linus’ attachment to it.
Could it be that the relationship of the human species to God is an analogue to Linus and his blanket? In the analogy, just as the blanket has value both in virtue of its inherent properties and Linus’ bonded attachment to it, so human value consists both in virtue of the unique and inherent properties of the human species (i.e. the image of God) and by God’s bonded attachment to that species.
In terms of reflecting on the value that results from this bonded attachment, it would be important to recognize that the agent who has this bonded attachment with the human species is the maximally perfect creator and sustainer of all. It would seem reasonable to view the value of the human species as being constituted in part by this divine bonded attachment.
Three levels of bonded attachment
I would suggest that we could think of this bonded attachment in three levels.
The first level is found in the simple fact that God loves you. It is interesting to note that when people struggle with their own value (e.g. in a fit of clinical depression), we naturally seek to reassure them of their value by pointing out that they are loved by others. Picture, for example, the man prepared to jump off a bridge to his doom. As the police officer talks him down, he emphasizes the people who love this man and would miss him: “What will your children do without you? And your wife? She loves you!”
In my view, the fact that a person is loved is not simply an indicator that they are of value. The dyadic relationship of love that we share with others is also constitutive of value. The police officer is not simply reminding the man of his own inherent value. Rather, he is also pointing out the additional value of his life and person in virtue of the relationships of love he shares with others.
Similarly, the fact that we are loved by God adds a degree of value to the human species above and beyond the value that is sourced in our natures as human. Of course, I believe God loves his creatures in every possible world in which creatures exist. But the lesson to draw is simply that in every world in which creatures exist, God’s love for them is in part constitutive of their value.
Second, in terms of God’s concrete demonstration of that bonded attachment, before we speak of the atonement, we should speak of incarnation. In Christian theology, God has so bonded with the human species that God the Son has voluntarily identified with this species by becoming forever incarnate as a human being. In other words, the Trinity consists of three divine persons, the second of which has voluntarily assumed a human nature. In Avatar Sully so identified with the Na’vi people that he became one of them. But Sully was just a human being. Imagine the significance of the creator and sustainer of all so identifying with a species that he becomes one of them.
Third, the act of atonement by which the incarnate God seeks to restore the human species (and indeed the entire creation) provides the final demonstration of this bonded attachment. It may be that God’s nature is such that in any possible world (i.e. any maximal possible state of affairs) in which there is a fall, he would love that fallen creation and act to redeem it. But in the actual world God acted to redeem that entire creation through incarnate and atoning identification with the particular species Homo sapiens.
In conclusion, it is reasonable to conclude that this personal history of bonded attachment between God and the human species is partially constitutive of the value of that species, even if it does not exhaust it. In the introduction to my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven I give the example of the Velveteen Rabbit, the famous story of a beloved toy becoming real through the love of a child:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”