But I have that within which passes show.Hamlet1
As an English professor, I teach my students that every work of art presents its reader with a microcosm, a carefully constructed world that runs in accordance with its own rules. Each of these microcosms is founded on a certain set of moral, intellectual, and aesthetic standards that gives it a distinctive shape, helps it to maintain that shape, and lets its inhabitants know when it is proper to laugh or cry, sing or dance, love or hate.
In order to understand these little worlds, we will often, as a class, draw up a list of the virtues and behaviors that each microcosm holds sacred. What qualities, we then ask, must a hero possess if he is to succeed and prosper in such a world? What must he do to achieve dignity and worth?
Achilles and Aeneas, Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, Beowulf and Bilbo Baggins: all renowned heroes must navigate very different microcosms that esteem different virtues. But they all must ask the same question: How do I know I have value?
The criteria for determining that value may shift, but the need to know one possesses value does not.
Equipment for Living
American critic Kenneth Burke has argued that the cultural function of literature is to supply its readers with “equipment for living,” with “strategies” for surviving in a world that is often hard to understand and even harder to control.2 Burke especially highlights proverbs as literary forms that embody certain views of life. Every nation and culture has its own rich store of proverbs that have shaped the opinions and experiences of its peoples.
Whether those proverbs come from the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, The Art of War, or Poor Richard’s Almanac, they offer strategies for achieving external success and gaining internal value. Proverbs, like culture itself, help to make life more manageable by setting down rules that everybody in the group agrees to follow and by helping its members to define their places within that group.
Whereas Achilles’s value rests on individual prowess on the battlefield and is shown in his collection of war prizes, Aeneas’s is more corporate: he must sacrifice his own happiness in order to transport the survivors of the Trojan War from modern day Turkey to the western coast of Italy. Hamlet’s value is grounded in avenging his father, and Bilbo’s found in his loyalty to his merry band of burglars.
A Solid Basis for Self-Worth
Still, though culture—and the proverbial wisdom that gives it shape—can offer guidance to those in search of value and worth, there is one thing it cannot do. It cannot assure people of their dignity as unique individuals apart from their ethnic, cultural, or religious group.
As conscious, rational, moral beings, we demand a more secure foundation for our individual self-worth. How can we know that we possess intrinsic value? Our culture teaches us to survive and even to be happy, yet we yearn within to know that we possess essential worth.
How do you know that you are of value? Some may respond to this with stock answers: I know that I have value because I have a high-paying job, or two beautiful children, or a great athletic career, or a well-disciplined mind.
But what if she loses her job, or his children die in a car crash, or her knee is shattered, or he contracts Alzheimer’s disease? Have these four people lost their value and worth as individuals? Surely not!
There must be another answer to this question, then—one that is more secure, that is built on a foundation that cannot be shattered by economic shifts or unexpected tragedies. There must be a more essential, solid basis for self-worth.
The Christian Answer
Many (though not all) religions ground intrinsic human value in the belief that we were created in the image of God. But I would argue that this answer is not, on its own, sufficient to secure our full dignity and worth.
For example, it is not enough for children simply to know the identity of their biological father. If they do not also know that he understands them, accepts them, and loves them unconditionally, they may doubt their own value and worth. Something more is needed—a deeper, more essential ground.
And that something is found uniquely in Christianity.
Beyond our desire—even driving our desire—to be accepted is the universal, transcultural need to be loved deeply, truly, and unconditionally. We all feel a longing to be accepted for who we are, to be judged worthy by the one who created us.
According to the Apostle Paul, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”3 The Apostle John stated, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”4 Jesus himself said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”5
Jesus died for us while we were sinners, while there was nothing in us to love. He took on the weight and consequence of our sins, and in his resurrection, Jesus overcame sin and death, opening the direct pathway to relationship with God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”6
God valued humankind so much that he sacrificed his only begotten Son, and Jesus willingly underwent tremendous suffering for our sake. Though we were unworthy, Jesus made us worthy by providing a system through which we can take into ourselves the very holiness of Christ and have a personal relationship with God. God’s love, his undeniable cherishing of his creation, I would argue, is the ultimate proof of human worth and value.
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York: Signet, 1987), 43.
- Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Critical Theory Since Plato, rev. ed., ed. Hazard Adams (New York: HBJ, 1992), 921–924.
- The Holy Bible, The New International Version © 1984, Romans 5:8.
- Ibid., 1 John 4:10.
- Ibid., John10:14–15.
- Ibid., John 3:16.
- Photo Credit: szefei / Shutterstock.com.