Civil discourse has changed dramatically over the last several decades. For years, when having conversations where there was disagreement our society was able to assume that both individuals at least agreed on the reality of objective truth. Today, however, many in our society reject the existence of moral truths that constitute the foundation necessary for constructive discussion. Before we can unpack how to have a fruitful conversation about human dignity in our current cultural climate, we must first understand the worldview shaping society and the state of the human heart. A 2016 study found that 57% of American adults believe that “whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” Nearly 75% of Millennials in the poll agreed, suggesting that the vast majority of young adults in America believe that morality and truth are relative to each person. But do people really live that way?
Relativism and Common Grace
To varying degrees, every American subscribes to some form of relativism, the belief that all truth is subjective and based solely on opinions and personal preferences. When protecting the right to abortion in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up this attitude well: “At the heart of liberty,” he writes, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.” As a result of relativism, some will look truth in the face, acknowledge it, and reject it. According to places like Romans 1 and Ephesians 2, these seared consciences are the natural state of the human heart; it is hard, dark, and in complete rebellion to God and His truth. Despite relativism’s impact on the way in which we understand the world, however, most people still have some shared sense of right and wrong. As Christians, we can find hope in having healthy conversations in a post-Christian society because of God’s common grace, or grace made available to all humanity. For example, a majority of people still believe murder is wrong and will continue to be objectively wrong no matter what. This common grace is what moves even non-Christians to fight injustices like abortion and racial discrimination. When we understand the role of common grace in our post-Christian world, we are still able to engage others in conversations about human dignity. To do so, let’s use three steps.
1. Listen and Build Bridges
When discussing the dignity of life with those outside the faith, Christians should start by empathizing with their feelings and positions, even when we disagree. How are their beliefs and positions shaped by their experiences? What are they ultimately believing about the world, God, and themselves? Have they been the victim of an abortion or abuse? Have they inflicted that pain on someone else? By extending a listening ear that sincerely seeks to hear and understand, we will demonstrate our care for that person. We will tangibly show we see them as a person and not a project. When possible, we should affirm any truth that exists in their reasoning or experience. Affirmation of shared beliefs builds bridges rather than barriers.
2. Speak with Grace and Truth from a Posture of Care
After taking the time to understand the other person’s narrative and reasoning, suggest ways their position may have flaws and discrepancies. Many people accept things as true on face value and may not have taken the time to reflect on why they believe what they do. For example, if a person believes that parents should be able to have an abortion because the baby cannot yet think rationally, it would make sense to lovingly show them that this position also means we can take the lives of newborns and some elderly people without remorse. Pray this realization will cause them to reflect on their position and seek a better alternative.
3. Demonstrate How the Gospel is the True Foundation for Human Dignity
A conversation about human dignity that never brings up the hope we have in Christ is akin to visiting a doctor only to discuss the symptoms but not a cure. As Christians, we should lead in our society by openly talking about how gospel values dignify all people. The Bible teaches us that what gives human beings their irreducible value is not their talent or merit but the image of God. He Himself placed on each and every one of us His very image as He fearfully and wonderfully knit us together. It is only through the gospel that we have reason to believe every human being is worthy of dignity, value and respect—from conception to the grave.
Relationships with people are not always easy. Because of sin, our relationships with one another have been broken and are difficult to build and maintain. However, Christians should continue to pursue others outside the faith not as projects but as people. It is only by His saving power that any of us can truly begin to appreciate what He has done for us and the magnitude to which He loves those He has created. Our posture as we enter into conversations should not be as superiors but sinners saved by grace - adopted sons and daughters committed to putting Jesus on display. Each person we connect with has a unique set of passions, hopes, fears, and beliefs that shape the way they think about themselves, God, and others, and by considering them we can better point them to the Author of Truth Himself. “Let your language be always seasoned with the salt of grace,” the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Colossae, “so that you may know how to give every man a fitting answer” (Colossians 4:6 WNT). It is only with the gospel - the world’s sturdiest bedrock for human rights - that we can help a post-Christian world understand, cherish, and affirm human dignity for all.
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.