Imago Dei, or, the meaning of life

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 18 September 2005

Today is the first Sunday in Cityside’s season of Creationtide. This season invites us to reflect on the earth, on humans’ place in the earth, of the role of humanity, as both creatures and creators, in relationship to God, to each other, to this earth and its inhabitants.  These are big ideas, and I’m not a philosopher. However, I propose this morning to use one theological lens to approach them: the concept of the imago dei, that is, the image of God. This idea lies at the heart of Christian understandings of human identity, salvation, and purpose.

Genesis 1:27 –
  So God created humankind in his image
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

This is the first, but not the only time, that we read in the Bible that God created humanity in God’s image, or likeness. Theologians have spilled a lot of ink discussing exactly what this means. A very few take the word ‘image’ literally…to mean that we look like God…we share physical characteristics. Most affirm that being in the image of God means to possess certain innate qualities…such as the ability to relate, to think, choose, feel, and so on. Some stress this first quality, the relational capacity of humans, above all others.  And some see the image of God defined by the work that we are here to do…that is, to steward the earth. They would say that to the extent that we are carrying out this stewardship, we are image-bearers.

One of the things that I find most interesting about the imago dei idea is the picture that it gives us of God, as much as what it tells us about ourselves. The idea of humanity being made in the image of God wasn’t something that the ancient Israelite community made up and put into the book of Genesis. It appears in other Near Eastern religions, some of them older than Judaism. However, what does seem different for the Jewish creation account is who has the right to ‘bear the image’. In these other religions it is generally only the king or the priest who was said to bear the image of their god. The Israelite account has re-invented and democratised the idea. God is seen as a radical power-sharer…giving into the hands of all humans the role of working out God’s purposes on the earth, as image-bearers of the divine.

The statement that is being made here, I think, is that God is immensely generous, and trusting, towards people.  As history shows us, there’s a huge degree of risk involved in inviting humans to participate in the historical process, giving us the capacity to exercise our will, even if that means that we exercise it violently against one another. Some might feel that this is a bad mistake on God’s part. Shouldn’t God have retained all the power in the situation, and limited our capacities, thereby limiting the amount of damage we could do to each other and the earth? Maybe. But the assertion of the Bible is that such is God’s nature: in the generous overflow of God’s self-giving love we were all created, not as minions, but as image-bearers, people in the likeness of God, with all the potential for good and for destruction that implies.

As Christians, therefore, people who are hopefully becoming more like God, our model for action in the world is this trusting, self-giving, power-sharing model. How unlike the way that most groups and institutions function. How against the grain for those of us who like and need control. I was having a conversation the other day with some people who had worked in ‘Christian workplaces.’ We were noticing about how so many Christian organisations are lacking in trust, with their rigid hierarchies, and lectures on obedience, and the authority of the anointed leaders. I wonder if these workplaces reflect an assumption that people are somehow naturally lazy, incompetent or deceitful, rather than exhibiting the trust that God showed in us when creating us in God’s image and likeness.

The second thing that I find helpful about the imago dei concept is how it is a unifying image tying together the major events and symbols of Christianity: creation, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, human salvation, and the fulfilment of all things in Christ. For me, the idea of humans as God’s image-bearers is best considered in the context of the whole sweep of the Christian story, not just the creation account. Because at the centre of the Christian story is Jesus Christ, who was and is the ‘image of the invisible God.’ (Colossians) Our promise is that as we engage with Christ we are increasingly ‘transformed into the same image.’ (2 Corinthians) Just as ‘in the beginning’, God breathes the essence of God’s self into the human race, so ‘at the right time’ God comes to us in human form: walking and living among us, one of us, living the fully human life that it is in each of us to live.  This Christ is not merely a solution to the problem of sin, but is the means to the fulfilment of human life. To the extent that we are ‘in Christ’, the image of God is complete in us, and we share in the divine life. Every human being born on this earth holds this potential. Therefore, the image of God is ultimately a concept that has to do with our life’s task, as well as something we were born with. The image of God is something I’m growing into, as well as something I have always carried.

So, my task, my life as a Christian is simply to be ‘in Christ’, seeking unity with God by opening up more and more of my life to God’s Spirit, through prayer, worship, intimacy with other image-bearers, and actions that follow in the footsteps of the healing, loving, compassionate Christ of the gospels. As these things become my life’s habit, so the image of God will grow in me.

All of this has implications in our post-modern age, for the question of self, of the status and meaning of my individual identity. Throughout the last century the idea of an essential self collapsed and was replaced by the idea of a constructed self. That is, personal identity as an essence - a basic, inherent personality and meaning - got replaced by social identity, which means that I consist of the series of choices, influences, and meaning-making activities that I engage with. Put simplistically and somewhat cynically, this means: take away my car, clothes, education, job, friends, and my list of favourite restaurants and ‘I’ cease to exist.

I would like to opt out of the dichotomy of these two approaches to self, by returning to the biblical assertion of the imago dei.  Through this lens, I think it’s possible to say that my ‘self’, my identity does not just consist of external signifiers, either chosen or forced upon me by circumstances. Nor does it consist of some eternal, unchangeable essence. Instead, my identity is in my relationship to God and my relationships with other people. It therefore has a core (which is the life of God in me, and the personality God is forming in me), but it is also fluid, because it has a communal dimension. To some extent, I ‘am’ all of you, as we each have a share in each others’ lives. 

I find it helpful to draw on the symbol of God as Trinitarian, which suggests that relationship lies at the heart of God. The relationship between the three, though, is not a social model (let’s meet up at the café at 3pm), but actually more of a sexual one, that of shared being, of union. The technical word for this relationship is ‘perichoresis’, the ‘indwelling’ of one with another, while remaining fully individual. And just as this is a description of how the persons of the Trinity relate, so it’s a metaphor for how God comes to live in us as human beings. Our identity is shaped by God, who ‘dwells in us’, while at the same time our unique individuality is maintained. We also shape our identity as we make our choices in the context of the communities we belong to. Parents of teenagers know the anxiety of hoping that their children make good friends, and not ‘fall in with a bad crowd.’ I think this anxiety isn’t just about influences to good and bad behaviour. I think it goes deeper than that. We know that friendship alters us inwardly…the people we mix with intimately become part of who we are. Our identity is to some extent formed by the people we know…especially those we ‘know’ in the biblical sense…and the more deeply we know them, the more we become like them.

That’s part of why the church, or Christian community, is so important to the outworking of an individual’s relationship with God.  The imago dei is revealed in the relationships of those who gather in community. My ‘self’ therefore consists of who I am in God, and also the community that shapes me.

Unfortunately, the church in the West seems often to only project the image of a successful, well-dressed, smiling God, by rejecting or simply ignoring those in society who are different, or weak, or struggling. Unfortunately, much of the history of the church and of society has been about defining who does and who doesn’t bear the image of God. Too often, the church has determined that those who are powerful in society are also those who most strongly carry God’s image. For a long time, the Fathers of the church taught that women weren’t made in the image of God in the same way as men. This doctrine led to all sorts of restrictions and suppression of women in the church and in life in general. White slave owners could only act in the way they did, I believe, because of a belief in the core inferiority of the blacks, as at best only partial bearers of God’s likeness. We have to be very careful, in society and in the church, whenever a person, or group of people start being referred to in a way that denies their basic humanity, or diminishes their dignity as people who carry God’s image.

There are so many people in our world today who think that they are worth nothing, because they lack wealth, voice and power…when in fact they are worth everything, because they are created in the image of God.  Who are the untouchables in our culture…those in whom the successful struggle to see God’s image? I would suggest in Auckland today they would be people who are homeless, lonely, disabled, depressed, or long-term unemployed.  How do these people get to experience the truth of their innate dignity as created beings? How can the picture of God we paint include the faces those who suffer? Let’s remember that Christ, our image of the invisible God, was acquainted with suffering, and grief. He was marred beyond human likeness, but still reflected the likeness of God.

Increasingly, people with money and agency will have the ability to enact their perfect society through genetic decision making. I don’t want to just to jump on the bandwagon of moral conservatism, and be knee-jerk and simplistic about medical technology. But we need to do some deep thinking about what makes a human being, what quality of life means, and how we value the contribution of others to our society. What, for example, does the doctrine of the imago dei have to say to the assumption that it’s better to abort a disabled child, than to bring them into the world? I think that the Christian community needs to be very clear that human worthiness comes not from the world’s opinion, but from the fact that we each come into the world bearing God’s image, and with the capacity to be increasingly transformed into God’s likeness through Christ. We may still want to say that some human lives are so wretched that it is better for them and for others if they do not live…but we need to be very clear on what basis, and with what set of values, we make that call.

God has invited all of us to the party that happens eternally in the Trinitarian self of God…opening up the dynamic of love and trust between the Creator, the Son and the Spirit, and inviting us to come in. Not only does God place something of God’s own selfhood within us, but Christ raises us into the relational life of God. This power sharing God is also a self-sharing God. God’s identity has room in it for us. God’s not closed, not ‘finished.’ God has a semi-permeable membrane.

If this is a model for how I am to see myself, how I relate to others, I need to ask myself the following questions: How do I make room in my ‘self’ for others? How permeable are the boundaries that I put around my sense of self, my life, my sense of safety and identity…or the identity of my group? How vulnerable and welcoming am I prepared to be to the ideas, opinions, and behaviours of others? To what extent am I able to see Christ, or my own self, looking back at me through the eyes of the immigrant, the mentally ill person, the uncool person …or even just someone from outside my specific subcultural niche?

I believe that the theology of the imago dei needs to be at the heart of the gospel that we live out. It tells us that to die to self doesn’t mean to die to our humanity. But that in Christ we get to be fully human humans, fully alive humans. The imago dei idea puts creativity right at the heart of our self-hood. As God moves outward in creation of the universe and this earth, so we move out into our world with the overflow of our love and creative expression. The dignity of our work and life as humans is to share with God as co-creators of history, of our world, of our selves. Our personhood, as followers of Jesus, should be fully alive, as we are in relationship with the source of our life, and identity. Desire is good, understood within the framework of God’s self-giving. In this context, desire leads to production, to creation, to action, not just to consumption. 

So, to conclude, I want to ask the question of all of us…if we truly recognised our inheritance as bearers of God’s image, being transformed into an ever more complete likeness, and if we were completely free to do what we wanted to do, without fear, or restriction…out of our best self, and empowered by God’s Spirit…what would that be, what would it look like? Given a blank slate of possibility, what do you have it in you to do and become? Because I think that that’s where belief in the imago dei gets us…it acknowledges our absolute unique worth, and says that God is both glorified and enhanced when I am most fully alive, and when I give fully of myself, the way God continues to give of Gods-self, within me.