Humans vs. animals: epic imago dei throwdown

Over the past few months I have done a bit of research to explore what is meant and believed when Christians talk about the imago Dei. Generally, the image of God is applied to all human persons. That is, each human person is said to be made/created in God’s image. This sentiment is often used to add high value to human life. There is ethical mileage in this concept; if you and I are created in the image of God then there is a unique, divine something within us that makes us special and makes our lives important. This concept also implies respect. To recognize that each human individual bears some sort of mysterious likeness to God demands that you hold a certain level of respect, honor, and kinship for that other person. However, the Christian tradition has not been the most consistent in this interpretation.

This understanding of the imago Dei is formally referred to as the substantialist or structuralist model. Within the scope of this model, the image of God refers to something that is inherent to the human person and to no other species. The first creation story in Genesis 1 saves the creation of human persons for last, implying the superiority of the species. It is at this point that humans are said to be created in the “image of God,” a distinction absent from the rest of the creation. Because this qualifier is put on the primordial man and woman only, the Christian tradition has thus assumed that the image of God lies in the space between human and animal. In other words, the image of God is that which humans possess but animals and non-human life do not. Additionally, others sought to locate the image of God in human capacities that correspond to divine capacities. This approach attempted to proclaim how humans are like God rather than how they are different from animals. Historically, these lines of thinking have come to identify the image of God in such things as rationality, will, morality, and the soul.

J. Richard Middleton writes in The Liberating Image,

Most patristic, medieval, and modern interpreters typically asked not an exegetical, but a speculative, question: In what way are humans like God and unlike animals? Although various candidates were suggested for the content of the image, David Cairns can comment that, as a bare minimum, ‘in all the Christian writers up to Aquinas we find the image of God conceived as man’s power of reason.’ This notion of the rational, substantial soul mirroring its divine archetype––which is part of the pervasive influence of Platonism on Christian theology––is nuanced or supplemented in the Latin West by notions such as conscience, spirituality, immortality, freedom, and personhood and by Augustine’s famous proposal of various intrapsychic trinitarian structures (particularly memory, intellect, and will), which correspond to the triune nature of God (20-21).

So for the majority of Christian history, the image of God has been believed to correspond to one’s ability to reason. This rationality was credited to the soul, that mysterious and immaterial feature of humanity that bears a likeness to God. Rather than anything physical, the image of God is related to purely immaterial qualities. This approach to understanding the image of God not only makes statements about what it means to be created in the image of God, but about what it means to be human, as well as making statements about who and/or what God is. God is rational and moral, therefore humanity is rational and moral. It assumes an archetype and standard for being considered a human person based upon rationality and upon intellect and ability as essential qualities inherent in humans but not in animals.

This view is still widely popular in Christianity. One of my first encounters with a thoughtful explanation of the image of God was in Rob Bell’s Sex God (Zondervan, 2007). In the third chapter, “Angels and Animals,” he comparatively explores the nature of animals and the nature of humans.

The temptation is to ignore your conscience or sense of higher purpose, sacrificing what it means to be human. Which leads a person to act much like … an animal. Are we just the sum of our urges? Think about some of the phrases that get thrown around: party animal, we attacked each other, she’s a tiger, basic instinct. They’re all an acknowledgement of the primal, base nature of the person’s behavior (52).

A little while later, Bell asserts,

An angel is a being with a spirit but without a body. When we deny the spiritual dimension to our existence, we end up living like animals. And when we deny the physical, sexual dimension to our existence, we end up living like angels. And both ways are destructive, because God made us human (58).

Is this really how we want to go about this? Setting humanity in contradiction and competition with non-human life? Animal bad, human good, God better. One of the many problems with this model is that it devalues non-human life and negates any responsibility and ethic surrounding a care for our environment and ecosystems, privileging only the human species.

This model of interpretation operates on a scale. On the left end of this scale are animals. On the other end of the scale is God. In the middle, between the two, are humans. In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal claimed that humans “are neither angel nor beast.” Theoretically, if one were to truly inhabit and maximize their rationality and their spirituality, they may slide more toward the right as they become more like God. But what do we do when a biologically human person fails to exhibit the qualities said to make someone human? Say one’s rational capacity is not as developed as another’s and one does not possess the ability to consistently think critically and abstractly and falling below the archetype/standard of human personhood. Within this model, those people would be considered less human. The problem with a model such as this is that it essentializes particular characteristics that humans possess and creates a theology surrounding them. Therefore anyone who falls outside of the assumed norm is an outsider. Practically speaking, this model that locates the imago Dei within rationality/intellect/morality/will necessarily excludes persons with cognitive disabilities. On this scale, because rationality is the determining factor of humanity, persons with disabilities would be considered less than fully human. Many reject this model based on this downfall. Essentializing what it means to be human excludes those whom you are blind to and privileges the experience of the powerful and dominant community.

But wait, there is more! Because the structuralist/substantialist model assumes a particular interpretation of what it means to be human––in this case, historically decided by white European men––difference from the norm meant deviation from being fully human. This led to a logic of domination that enabled white Christians to enslave Africans and to exploit and kill “savage” Native Americans. The logic says, ‘If white male is fully human and most like God, then people of color are necessarily unlike God and unlike us.’ This is imperialism and it is wrong. Christianity must reject this kind of thinking at all costs. Additionally, the supremacy of rationality and reason within the human person was (and is) used to establish a supremacy of male over female, as women are accused of and derided for being more emotional and intuitive rather than rational. If you consider our scale above, this would move women closer to the side of the animal.

There is a lot of information in this post, so here is a recap of key points.

  1. Substantialist/structuralist view says that image of God separates humans from animals. It locates the imago Dei in the assumed differences between humans and animals––namely rationality, will, intellect, morality, self-reflection.
  2. Biology has less to do with being human in the image of God than does one’s mental capacity.
  3. God is ultimately a rational and moral being. Because the Bible says humans are created in God’s image, rationality + will + intellect + morality + self-reflection = human person
  4. This creates an essentialized view of humanity that makes anyone who falls outside of this understanding less human.
  5. Anyone who is less human is subject to those who are more human. Historically, the earth, animals, women, and people of color have been understood as less than human, leaving white males at the top of a hierarchical power structure because they are the most like God.

Thoughts? Did I get something wrong or misrepresent something? How have you been taught to understand the image of God? How does that relate to the way you view non-human life? Should Christians consider non-human life in our theological frameworks? How does this historically dominant view hold up to today’s scientific understanding of life? What implications does this model have on gender and sexual identity?

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