Created in the [nebulous] image of God

The late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut made some observations about the shapes that popular stories would create should they be crafted into a computer graphic. Standing at a blackboard, he draws X and Y axes and indicates that the Y-axis (the “G-I” axis) moves upward from ill fortune to good fortune, and the X-axis (the “B-E” axis) moves left to right, from beginning to end, naturally. With this simple template for inputting the shape of stories and clever strokes of chalk that follow plot lines up and down along the axes, Vonnegut categorizes and deconstructs the most popular stories in Western culture, labeling them as drab, uninspired and boring. Vonnegut then contemplates whether the chart he has devised can evaluate literature based on the shape of the story, and begins his experiment with Hamlet. As he retells the story, Vonnegut points out that although Hamlet is an excellent piece of literature, it shares the same essential story shape as the fairy tale Cinderella, with similar plot line peaks and plummets. “But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece,” says Vonnegut. “It’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” For Vonnegut, to tell the truth about persons and about humanity in the form of story is art of great consequence. 

Thinking theologically about human persons from the perspective of the Christian tradition directs our attention to stories found in the biblical text. The question we then ask is, “Do the stories found within the biblical text reveal truths about human persons by which we can make theological claims?” Specifically, this discussion revolves around just one story, found in the opening verses of the Bible. What does it mean for human persons to be both intentionally created by and created in God’s image? For the limited space such an idea occupies in the biblical writings, there has been an awful lot said and written about this subject across the centuries. By limited space, I mean that it is explicitly mentioned only three times––Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1 and 9:6––and twice in passing in the Second Testament, in 1 Corinthians 11:7 (with a patriarchal twist that blends the two creation accounts) and James 3:9 [There are also deuterocanonical reference to the image of God: Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, Sirach 17:3 and 2 Esdras 8:44].

For reference, here are the three Genesis passages that explicitly reference humanity’s creation in the image of God, or God’s likeness.

Genesis 1:26-27

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 5:1-2

“This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.”

Genesis 9:6

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”

Of these three, the Genesis 1 text is by far the most cited, and is typically used to declare the presence or existence of something inherently special about humans that is not possessed by any other species or living creature. This notion of human specialness as the bearers of God’s nebulous image is generally linked with Genesis 1:28, in which the first humans are instructed to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Being made in the image of God, therefore, means that humans rightfully exercise an authority over all things non-human. These ideas serve as the fundamental beliefs about humanity, and lay the foundation for a Christian anthropology that attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

So as we begin thinking theologically about human persons within the Christian tradition our attention is directed toward a story. Many who study the Bible classify this particular story––and all the stories found in the first 11 chapters of Genesis––as myth. So for the creation story to be a myth simply means that it is a story that makes an attempt at explaining how things came to be. Every culture has such a story. Myths, like stories, function to communicate basic realities of the human condition or life experiences, or communicate lessons and morals. They attempt to capture something universal about life. When these stories can transcend the community and context in which they were created they have achieved something special. Stories are told, and find longevity, for the fact that they imaginatively capture something that continues to be true for each generation and inspires some kind of reorientation that grounds the hearer in the fundamental reality the story/myth describes. Stories take on a reality of their own, and shape values, lives and beliefs in powerful ways. I’m curious whether our particular origins story from Genesis 1 has lost its power to communicate something about the nature of humanity, non-human life, and the relationships between species and the earth. That is, does Genesis 1:26-28 tell the truth about humanity, in a way that Vonnegut claims is so rarely accomplished? What might it mean for humans to be made in the image of God in the twenty-first century? Is this an idea that still tells a particular truth and proves to be helpful and inspiring? Is it something that needs to be nuanced or re-imagined? Or is this a concept that we must move past and refuse to make theological claims upon?

Over the next few posts I’m going to explore some of the different ways that some have interpreted the imago Dei throughout the Christian tradition, and put these interpretive models to the test. Personally, I think that our understanding of the imago Dei needs to be reoriented and have its scope widened in order for us to make viable theological claims. How we understand the imago Dei does not only determine how we understand the purpose and nature of human persons, but also how we interpret and understand the character and identity of God, and how we then come to understand our relationship and responsibility to the earth and all its inhabitants. The next few posts will attempt to work toward an egalitarian, inclusive, and ecologically oriented method for understanding the imago Dei. 

What are your initial thoughts on this endeavor? Is the imago Dei something central and vital to theological discourse? Is it expendable? How do you understand the concept of the image of God?

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