I am three days into the Context, Culture and Mission intensive course with Dr. Len Sweet at Southeastern University. I would be lying if I did not admit that my brain is hurting. Several years ago I had a conversation with Dr. Sweet where he remarked that Jesus did not come to make us more spiritual but to make us more human. I was looking after the Spiritual Formation area at my church so you can imagine the disorientation. Were we not trying to help people become more spiritual, and in some unspoken ways I guess, less human? And it has made me wonder ever since who should have the highest view of humans and the deepest commitment to human worth and dignity – Christians or atheists?
When I picked up Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West and read about his admission into the Theos Think Tank community around the peak of the New Atheist movement, I wondered what his tone would be in this battle. I found it to be respectful and curious and thoroughly Christ-centered.
In his essay “Saving Humanism from the Humanists”, Spencer gives a historical overview to the rise of humanism. Partly he concludes that those without a Judeo-Christian worldview have a difficult time explaining why humans are ascribed worth and dignity. They espouse human dignity and hold a high view of humanity (what else is there but us immanent humans?) but Spencer finds their reasoning and foundation for it to be vague at best. He also points to the human rights track record of non-Western nations as another possible correlation that something is faulty. Humanism without the infrastructure of being made “in the image of God” is tricky business.
But he goes further in his discourse with the three most common biblical definitions for the image of God and offers a caution. The “substantive” claim is that we share some of God’s characteristics or qualities and this is what it means to be made in the image of God. The “functional” definition refers to job we are given to do, that of stewardship as seen in the creation account. The “relational” explanation is that being made in the image of God is seen in our primary relationships and is reflective of God’s relational character.
Spencer calls all of these definitions “defensible” but warns that that they are all based on the ideal human behavior. And we all know that we often fail to act ideally and this creates a great deal of pressure. And then he makes a powerful statement:
“Human worth is dependent not on how loving we are but how loved we are.”
The Christian ethic stands the test of time and culture because ours is oriented more toward how good God is than on how good we are. Good news indeed.
The connection I discern with reflections on humanism and fast-paced church staffs is partly the following: our theology and cognitive schemas inform the way we treat those we lead. These implications are enormous for our interactions with those outside of the Church certainly – respect, dignity and honor. And it holds just as important implications for our ministry team members and lead volunteers. Staffs are not just tools or resources for God’s mission but actually are God’s mission. Once someone becomes a Christian and joins the team, they are not exempt from their dignified human status and should be held as one made in the image of God.
Obviously the orientation described above is not typical of all senior leaders; I am simply revealing my personal journey’s path and temptations. I believed myself to be solely a resource for God to use. And I felt the pressure to try to live up to the ideal and be good enough to earn God’s love. Of course I needed those I led to get with this moralistic approach to increase my chances of success. But I have learned that it is a great deal more about who God is than I thought. And He is much better than I previously believed. Consequently, the longer I consider why I am ascribed worth and value, the more I am changed and the way I treat others changes. I want to see the imago dei everywhere I turn.
I am grateful to spend part of my week with people that are curious, respectful and Christ-centered like Spencer, this cohort and Dr. Len Sweet, who said today that he believes that “Jesus is your best shot at being truly human. You may not believe that and that is your decision. I can still work with you, learn from you and respect you.”
 Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values [Expanded Edition], (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 65-73.
 Spencer, Evolution of West, 74-5.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 75.