Review: The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future, by David P. Gushee.

[1] Sit down at a coffee table with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. Consider this topic: the sacredness of human life. In five minutes, outline how you would organize a book length discussion of life’s sacredness. Go.

[2] If you actually took the time to try this experiment, you discovered at least the following while completing it. First, it’s a rather vast topic. It’s hard to narrow the field. Second, it’s not quite clear whether it is a topic best approached from the perspective of philosophy, or theology, or politics, or history. Third, it’s a somewhat loaded topic, politically speaking. The sacredness of human life is often discussed specifically (even exclusively) in our ongoing culture war, the abortion debate.

[3] It is no surprise, then, that David P. Gushee admits to having taken a decade to write this book. It’s not so much the writing of such a book that takes so much time, as the bracketing that is required in order to discover how to write the book. What should be included? How should the discussion be framed?

[4] The book was originally recruited for use in a Christian bioethics series. However, when Gushee became immersed (prominently) in a national fight over the treatment of prisoners held by the United States government after 9/11 (see his “Five Reasons Torture is Always Wrong” in the February 2006 issue of Christianity Today), his approach to human life and its sacredness began to take on a broader aspect. When his own daughter almost died in a car accident, the topic became even more personal.

[5] Instead of focusing his project narrowly on the hot-button sacredness-of-life topics, he decided to come at the topic more broadly: “If any human life is sacred, every human life is sacred” (3). The sacredness of human life, in this construal, is not simply a religious conviction held only by Christians or certain kinds of philosophers. Gushee starts to realize, in conversation with archaeologists, that the sacredness of human life is simply an ancient conviction of most cultures, period. He writes, “So I join the intellectual archaeologists of our time, in my case to dig around in the history of the conviction that human life is sacred—a majestic moral tradition that is not only related to other ideas like equality and human rights, but was in fact the ultimate origin of these convictions as they developed in what was once called Christian civilization” (4).

[6] Because Gushee approaches the topic as an archaeologist (of sorts), what he discovers while digging around may come as something of a surprise. Three early chapters are rather straightforward. He examines the sacredness of human life in: (1) the Old Testament, (2) the New Testament, and (3) early Christianity. In these chapters, there is very little to surprise anyone. It is a worthwhile review of the literature but does not work much in the way of new territory.

[7] Gushee gets interesting in his read of the transition to Christendom. He admirably walks a fine line between traditions that lament the transition to Christendom (Hauerwas, Yoder) and those that lament the demise of Christendom (most of the rest of us, if we’re honest). In this period, he sees both advances and regressions for the sacredness of human life, and looks at how those play out through three case studies: Francis of Assisi, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and anti-Semitism. In his perspective, advances include the end of gladiatorial games and infanticide. On the other hand, regressions include Christian collusion with power, execution of heretics and schismatics, and the exercise of violence in the pursuit of “holy” ends. Gushee writes that during Christendom”Christianity’s life-revering vision was badly damaged. The question we now face is whether it even survived the transition to worldly power” (163).

[8] In his chapter of three case studies, Gushee does “Christian ethics as historical drama, rather than conceptual analysis” (164). As a reader, I found sections of this type immensely helpful. On the other hand, these chapters represent my one major concern with the book: I think Gushee tends to encumber his analysis with more extraneous content than is warranted. Sometimes his archaeological excavations wander into general analysis of historical drama that becomes untethered from the topic he has assigned himself. This makes the book unduly long. Similarly, his list of seventeen “puzzles,” mentioned in the beginning and then appended to the end of the book, though promised as integral to the book, instead simply add a lay of unnecessary complexity to an already lengthy analysis.

[9] Returning to the historical drama itself, Gushee’s next move is, at first blush, the most surprising. He explores Enlightenment transitions in-depth, culminating in an entire chapter on Friedrich Nietzsche. Given that the concept of human rights developed in the Enlightenment period, but was at least in part enforced with the use of the guillotine and other devices of torture and execution, Gushee shows considerable wisdom excavating this era in particular. Although the biblical and religious origins of the philosophy of the sacredness of human life are important, for better or worse it is the Enlightenment that established what we hold, by and large, as our contemporary sensibilities regarding life’s sacredness.

[10] But the move to Nietzsche is striking. At first, as a reader, I was surprised. A chapter-length exploration of Nietzsche, though interesting in other contexts, seems too off-topic. Gushee even seems aware of this danger—”You will be quite glad to know that you will not be led on a guided tour of the entire body of Nietzsche’s works” (263). By the end of the chapter, however, Gushee has illustrated why direct and sustained attention to Nietzsche is warranted. Whether you love him or hate him, Gushee forces you to realize that the roots of whatever modernity is vis-à-vis the sacredness of humanity, Nietzsche is at its root, the prophet of what is to come. Nietzsche represents (and calls for) a revaluation of values. Nietzsche, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, was unwilling to preserve “the kernel of Christian morality while abandoning the husk of Christian theology… ‘when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality'” (301).

[11] Nietzsche is then willing to make claims like the following: “Perhaps a future survey of the needs of mankind will reveal [that] … in the interest of ecumenical goals, for whole stretches of human time special tasks, perhaps in some circumstances evil tasks, would have to be set” (300). Gushee recognizes that if Nietzsche’s project is to be carried out, “there was still more work to be done to accomplish the annihilation of the Christian God, and the rejection of Christian morality, in the name of ‘ecumenical goals’ such as remaking the nation, the world, and humanity itself. The twentieth century saw considerable efforts to that effect” (303).

[12] To wit, Gushee devotes the ninth chapter of his book to the twentieth-century desecrations of human life, especially the Nazi assaults. Here again it is the historical drama that matters to Gushee. It is not simply enough to describe Nazi atrocities and genocide. It is important also to Gushee to narrate how they got to that point, the political and cultural developments that allowed Hitler’s rise to power and the horror that followed. Gushee offers this quote from J.A.S. Grenville: “What these dictators had in common was the rejection of ethics, a contempt for the sanctity of human life, for justice and for equality before the law. They accepted the destruction of millions of people in the belief that it served desirable ends” (351).

[13] In addition to raising the issue of the relative value of teleological forms of ethics, Gushee believes the horrors of the twentieth century leave us with a fundamental question: “Which path will humanity take in the future—further and perhaps fatal desecrations, or a renewed commitment to consecrating life?”

[14] Having conducted this historical survey, Gushee finally, in the tenth chapter, gets to the twenty-first century challenges. It is somewhat unfortunate that readers have to make it through 350 pages of material to get to this point. This is an important chapter; in fact, it may be the kind of chapter most readers would expect to encounter at the beginning of the book, or even as the centerpiece of the book. Here, Gushee wonders if some of the tasks before us amount to rebuilding the moral order after World War II.

[15] Gushee takes up six issues facing us today:

  1. Abortion
  2. Biotechnological innovations
  3. The death penalty
  4. Human rights
  5. Nuclear weapons
  6. Women’s rights

[16] In the final chapter, Gushee takes up the question of whether or not God’s creation itself should be treated as sacred, and whether or not speaking of the sacredness of human life is in fact a really bad idea. Here, Gushee, while summarizing a wide range of philosophical approaches to the topic, contends that the sacredness of life paradigm can still function as an adequate organizing framework in an era of ecological crisis.

[17] Returning once again to biblical resources, this time from the perspective not just of sacredness of life but of creation-care, Gushee observes a widening and deepening of a theological construal of creation. Gushee offers a set of moral implications for what he then calls a sacredness-of-created-life ethic. The last of these implications is representative: “We must understand that ecological ethics is not one discrete area of inquiry but instead is relevant to all areas. What we might call ‘eco-sacredness’ reframes all human enterprises because all depend on the ecological systems that sustain life” (408).

[18] Although I believe a lot of readers will be disappointed, as I was, that the tenth chapter of the book does not make up the bulk of the work, nevertheless as an archaeology of the sacredness of human life, this work is helpful. It may be especially useful in college-level classes looking for a somewhat encyclopedic approach to the origins of the Christian commitment to the sacredness of human life. Paired with additional readings that focus not only on anthropocentric sacredness of life, but also ecological approaches (think Wendell Berry, Rosemary Radford Ruether, or Sallie McFague), or even Object-Oriented Ontology (think Graham Harman or Bruno Latour) and other ecological and life philosophies that critique overly biocentric of anthropocentric ethics, this could be a helpful volume.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at