Book Review: Building on Sand

2 December 2009 by Wes Bredenhof

Building on Sand: Human Dignity in Canadian Law & Society, Mark Penninga, Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 2009.  Paperback, 131 pages, $10.00.

The vast majority of socio-political issues that concern Christians boil down to the question of how one understands the nature and place of human beings.  Whether abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, pornography, polygamy, and many more — they all have to do with what one thinks about humanity.  Mark Penninga’s first book, Building on Sand, is therefore a strategic and important contribution for those called to socio-political engagement.

Penninga is becoming a well-known figure because of his role as the director of the Association for Reformed Political Action.  Travelling far and wide across the country, he is passionate about promoting the involvement of Reformed believers in the political scene.  This book is partly based on a thesis that he did in for a Master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Lethbridge.

Chapter one consists of an overview of how human dignity has been handled in Canadian constitutional law.  While most of this chapter is descriptive, Penninga also lays out the implications and logical consequences of these positions.  In his second chapter, he traces how these perspectives on human dignity were developed.  He gives special attention here to philosopher Immanuel Kant.  The third chapter develops a Christian account of human dignity, particularly building on insights from Reformed theology.  In chapter four, Penninga applies that account to three important issues:  abortion, euthanasia and equality rights.  His concluding chapter explores how the Christian account of human dignity might be advocated and integrated into Canadian law.

Not being a political scientist, it is difficult for me to assess that aspect of this book.  As a “lay-person” in that area, all I can say is that it makes for interesting and informative reading.  I appreciate Penninga’s efforts to make a careful critique of the ideologies that guide our legal system and the history behind it.  As mentioned above, the book also tries to apply the insights of Reformed theology to the development of an account of human dignity.  Here Penninga works especially with the notion of human beings as the “image of God.”  While there is some imprecision here and there, for the most part this is a satisfying and helpful discussion.

I did put a question mark at one place in the discussion on the definition of a person.  Penninga quotes Gilbert Meilaender, “A person is someone who has a history, not something that has certain properties.”  I wonder if a definition such as that might run into problems with the unborn.  Do unborn human beings have a history?  A case can be made that they do, but I can see that there would be those who would vehemently deny it.  Furthermore, the use of the word “someone” in the definition is prejudicial, because it is synonymous with “person.”  Finally, the definition could be strengthened by the addition of a relational aspect.  Persons are individuals with whom one can be in a relationship.  This is also evident in the persons of the Trinity – we call them persons also because we may relate to them and they to us.

Very few books like Penninga’s have been published in our community – ever.  It’s not a light and easy read, but a thoughtful and careful analysis of an important issue.  We can be thankful that we have people like him who are thinking deeply about the issues and making efforts to provide leadership.  As mentioned, this is the author’s first book.  I hope that we see many more from his keyboard.


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