The image of God both does and does not matter

I entered into this blog series on the image of God with a loose idea of how I wanted to reconstruct the image of God into a model. I was working with an embodiment model of the image of God that would offer greater inclusivity and instill an ethic of mutuality and care for one another that I find absent from traditional models of the imago Dei. It’s been difficult for me to approach this concluding post because I’ve been rethinking all of this stuff constantly. Because I want this blog to be a place where I can try things on, I’ll share my current and incomplete thoughts on the Genesis 1 language of the image of God.

It doesn’t matter. 

I’ve been going back and forth on whether the notion of humans created in the image of God even matters or holds meaning for us. Here is why. Given the many other places in the Hebrew scriptures that encourage care for neighbor, justice for the poor, radical hospitality, and a concern and care for all life, building an ethic of equality and care from Genesis 1 has not radically or even fundamentally changed our Christian practice toward others. Our image of God theologies have been predominantly used in two ways. The first way has been to establish human superiority over nature and others, and the second has been to establish the grounds for determining what it means to be human. An anthropocentrism and superiority-complex––appropriated by white, European Christians––has been built into what it means to be human. Additionally, one would think that if Christianity truly values what it terms the “image of God” within every individual, the Christian tradition would not be so littered with war, colonization, slavery, oppression and bigotry. What I’m saying is that if Christians need Genesis 1 to tell them that all are equal and beautiful and deserving of love and inclusion, then we have big problems.

On this assessment, I agree wholeheartedly with those who claim that we place far too much emphasis on the image of God given the relative silence on it in the rest of the biblical text. Beyond that, the emphasis that Christians have placed on it has not produced a consistently Christian ethic of inclusion and honor for God’s image bearers. I think that this is partly a result of the conflation between God’s image and superiority.

Whatever Christianity has said about the image of God inhabiting all, it has not made a difference.

It makes everything matter

Despite the differences between all of the previously explored models for the image of God and the positive developments that have emerged as a result, they all share a similar presupposition about God, humanity, and the whole of life: God is outside of, above, and apart from the world. This highly transcendent model of God as being distinctly over and above the creation has been emulated and emblazoned in patriarchy for millennia.

Jay McDaniel proposes that

“God is not ‘One-over-many” but rather “One-embracing-many” and “One-within-many” and “One-between-many.’ The many whom God embraces include other living beings whose ways of living may be strange by human standards yet beautiful by divine standards.” [1]

With this reframing of our understanding of God, the Divine exists within and at the center of all relationships, and power becomes democratized, rather than channeled through religious systems. The image of God, in this framework, is our empowerment to continuously incarnate God in every action and relationship. The image of God has nothing to do with exclusive capacities, with human superiority, hierarchically-based relationship, or with some type of royal function. The “One-within-many” and “One-between-many” is the God we see throughout the biblical narrative, leading up to the “One-embracing-many” that we see in Jesus.

If God is wildly present within and between us, everything matters because God is present in it all. It then reflects poorly for us to assert power over and above others in an attempt to image a God who dwells in and among creation and not above it. The whole image of God theology of Christianity’s past has presumed this hierarchical ordering of all things, with God on top. If God is wildly present among, within and between us, the image of God then becomes that with which we see that every common bush, beetle and birch tree is afire with God. 

What thoughts do you have? Can the image of God be redeemed within the traditional framework of God over and above? Do you think that image of God theology has a place within the tradition, or has it exhausted its usefulness?

Jay McDaniel, “A Process Approach to Ecology,” in Handbook of Process Theology, eds. Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 227.

  1. steveandkate said:

    Good blog buddy. I fall in the “It makes everything matter” camp. Here’s why: after spending lots of time in India I’ve come to see the importance of the image of God in a new light. The Dalit people are the lowest of the low. They aren’t even in the hindu caste system. They are taught that the aren’t even created by the same god as the rest of India. But when these Dalit people become enlightened to the message of the Bible that they were actually made in the image of God, it completely changes their entire identity. It gives them both an equality to other people, and a personal connection to a personal God. I never saw this importance until I talked with the Dalits (who, by the way, are coming to Christ in the millions).

    • peterjosephgarcia said:

      You bring something to the surface that I think is really important. When we do image of god theology from a place of power and privilege (whether we recognize it as such or not), we are going to have a skewed view of equality that we will not allow to threaten our power by passionately committing to equality. The image of god acts as a power which can be diminished by who else has it and what that means for us. That us what I meant by saying that if we need the imago Dei to tell us people are equal then we are in trouble. We have cornered the market on who/what God is so that the ‘Other’ can’t have our same God.

      On the other hand, doing image of god theology from below is where it holds the greatest power. The marginalized–the Dalit in your example–have everything to gain by learning and living out of the idea that they bear the divine image and are inherently worthy and good and beautiful. That actually transforms them. This is empowerment, and it is good.

      Thoughts? How can we begin to shift attention or focus on the image of god toward a balance or equality of power?

  2. jtower11 said:

    Hey Pete, enjoying the blog. After reading your post I came to the conclusion that while you don’t yet realize it yet, you are a Quaker and what you are advocating here is very similar to the doctrine of the inner light. which has serious egalitarian implications that really shine through in your writing… have you read much about what I am talking the doctrine of the inner light? if not you may enjoy its contributions in light of your process, feminist, pseudo Christian anarchist approach…

    • jtower11 said:

      I forgot to check the notifications box, so this post is just me doing that…lol

    • peterjosephgarcia said:

      Thanks, James.

      You know, I haven’t really engaged the Inner Light stuff that much. Honestly, it was probably only excerpts of Fox and Barclay assigned in Church History, but I remember being really excited by them. I’m open to any recommendations!

      • peterjosephgarcia said:

        Thanks for that. Hmm. I wonder if there are any Quakers who do theology from a physicalist perspective, and how they address the idea of the inner light.

      • jtower11 said:

        Actually I will have to look at Rufus Jones and D. Elton trueblood. They may be more relevant… I will have to get back to you when I have more time. They are kind of more like philosophers than theologians…

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