Monday, May 10, 2010

Image of God

Finally getting back to some philosophy. The last post was on the soul.
Thus far in the chapter we have looked at the human person from four different angles. We started with those who have viewed us as biological machines. From a Christian standpoint, this much is true, but it is not nearly the whole picture. Then we looked at the extent to which human identity is "socially constructed," that is, the degree to which we draw our identity from the social groups and contexts in which we grow up and live. Again, Christianity would historically see more to human existence than the mere constructs of particular societies. Further, Christianity's understanding of salvation has set us on a trajectory that tends to transcend visible social groupings and group-embedded identity. Since being a Jew or a Greek, a male or a female, a slave or a free person--or any visible indicator--cannot tell that a person is part of the people of God (Gal. 3:28), the usual external indicators of identity become quite inadequate. [1]

The third angle was that of personal choice, existentialism. Existentialism focuses on the potential for each of us to create our own identity for ourselves, to make ourselves into anything we want to be. Again, while Christianity can certainly accommodate a view that sees individual choice as essential to becoming a Christian, we would not believe that truly authentic existence is something anyone can create from any direction in life they choose. We believe that there are right and wrong choices, no matter how much you might invest yourself in the choices you make.

Finally, we looked at the traditionally Christian view that we have souls or spirits within us that survive death. Although the idea that the soul might be the primary container of our identities largely dates to Descartes, Christians have long associated the soul or spirit as the part of us that survives death until the time of the resurrection when we are reunited with a transformed body. In the last section, however, we saw that much of the work the soul is made to do in modern Christian thinking is itself largely a modern innovation that at least can be questioned from a number of different angles, including that of the Bible itself.

In this final section of the chapter, we want to consider if thinking about how humans as the image of God might stand at the heart of a Christian view of human beings. Yes, we are biological machines whose self-understanding derives significantly from our social context. Yes, a privilege of Western society in particular is the freedom to determine who we are in many more respects than people at other times and places. Yes, whatever the mechanism, we believe all humans continue to exist at death and that they will eventually be re-embodied. But more than anything else, a human is a reflection of God. A human person is an image of God.

Just like the soul, the idea of the image of God has also shifted somewhat over the centuries. As Western culture after Descartes became more individualistic, so the image of God more and more became something inside of me as an individual. [2] This was a crucial shift. Prior to Descartes, the image of God was something about me that reflected the divine order of things. What humans are reflected in part what God is. God is ruler of the universe. So God created humanity as His image to rule the created order. [3] Other aspects of us as humans that were often thought to reflect characteristics of God and the order of the world were our rationality and our potential for moral righteousness.

[textbox quote: The image of God in Wesley: natural, political, moral]

The Reformers from the time of Martin Luther increasingly looked at the image of God as something almost completely destroyed by Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. [4] It became something we largely do not have in the present but that Adam had in the past. They focused primarily on the "moral" image as something completely lost in the Fall of humanity. Yet another current view focuses on the image of God as something greater than anything Adam had in the past but that we are destined to have in the future, at the time when God restores all things.

All of these views go well beyond anything in the Bible. Genesis is not very specific as to what the image of God in humanity might be, although in 1:27 it seems to relate to men and women governing the world. Paul and others in the New Testament seemed to relate this position of honor in the creation to Psalm 8, which the NRSV translates,

"what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas" (8:4-8).

As His image, God has granted humans a position of honor in the world that is a reflection of His own honor. Here is no sense of human rationality or even morality. We simply reflect God. The place He holds over all is the place He has assigned humanity in the world. A man should not cover his head when he prays because his head reflects God (1 Cor. 11:7)--to see the honor of a man is to see the honor of God. Similarly, one should not harm an innocent human because you are harming the image of God (Jas. 3:9). These are all pictures, but we can easily synthesize them into a Christian way of thinking about what we are as human beings created in the image of God.

First, even if one only looked at humanity as biological machines, we are clearly the dominant beings on the planet, at least as far as we can see. [5] The idea that humans "rule" in the animal kingdom--even if we are poor rulers at times--seems beyond question. We hold a position of honor in the created order that does reflect the role God has in relation to the entire creation. Part of that high position does include a higher rational and moral capacity than the rest of the creation, which reflects our sense of God as the perfect thinker and absolute standard of goodness. In this sense, Christian thinkers throughout the ages have fastened on legitimate aspects of what we are as humans, even if they read much more into the image of God than any biblical author was thinking.

However, what is perhaps more important for us today is to recognize that humanity in the image of God is intrinsically valuable and meaningful. Prior to Descartes and the Reformation, the value of humanity in general was a reflection of the very order of things, of the world. Meanwhile, the value of an individual human might be a matter of the social class to which they were born. There was no sense of development. It was assumed that a person who turned out to be great must have always been great.

After Descartes, thinkers no longer simply assumed an intrinsic order to things. A person's choices might show them to be great, and a person might start from nowhere and rise to greatness. The late 1800s saw Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and the birth of psychoanalysis, where events in a person's childhood were seen as formative influences that combined to make a person what they became. The nature/nurture controversy began, which would eventually become the question of whether what we are is more a function of our genetics or the environment in which we grew up.

Nevertheless, we can to a great extent return to the thinking of the Christians of the ages by thinking of how God thinks of humanity. If humanity--if indeed all the creation--is important to God, then it becomes a moral offence to mess with any of God's "stuff" and especially with humanity, which Scripture has declared to be the image of God in a way that the rest of the creation is not. This fact of God's perspective toward us makes us intrinsically valuable, despite the fact that we might also be biological machines that think and make moral choices.

[1] Although to be sure, visible Christiantity soon developed its own set of visible indicators so that group-embedded identity has continued to dominate the history of Christianity as well, another indication that homo sapiens is a herd animal.

[2] I am highly dependent in what follows on Charles Taylor's The Sources of the Self.

[3] This would seem to be the primary sense of the image of God in Genesis 1:27.

[4] The late Stanley Grenz spoke of a shift to a "relational" view of the image of God in the Reformation, followed by a more "dynamic" view as something God wants to restore in us at the time of Christ's return. See Theology for the Community of God, **, 168-73.

[5] Leaving out of consideration the spiritual realm for the moment.
As a side note on Steve Deneff's sermon this past Sunday:
Pastor Deneff made an interesting contrast between contemporary Westerners who are more "performance" based and the Bible world that was more "identity" based. This laborious chapter I've been hammering out in bits and pieces for months says similar things but in different terms.

First, what he is talking about is part and parcel of the ancient world, indeed I consider it the default of the human animal everywhere. His "identity" is really a function of a collectivist and honor-shame culture, as discussed previously.

Second, it is a pre-Descartes view of a person that sees who we are as a function of orders outside ourselves, an order to the world that is out there, as discussed previously and above. I think it can be recovered (as above) by seeing our truest identity as what God thinks of us. But the "performance" view--I am what I do--is one possible perspective as a result of the Cartesian slide, IMHO.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems that you have sought to understand the "human" as reason (biological machines), experience (social construction) and tradition (social identity) has "developed".

As there is medicine that can "fix" problems with the biological, counselling that can "fix" the social, why is tradition necessary, in the traditional sense? Isn't our modern construct of identity the "citizen" and not the Imageo Dei?

Anonymous said...

If one do literally view the 'WORD of GOD', see his own 'soul', and taste the loving 'Breath' of the Holy Spirit, that's the image of God.