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As an introvert, most of my thought processes struggle to achieve some form of articulation. Often, they just sit in my mind like a pot of old coffee. However, there are two things that have been simmering within me for a few weeks now, and both of which have recently found their way past my lips and become real to me. In a way, confessing them has given them an ontology.

1. I’m more fascinated and captured by what people do with God and sacred texts than I am by God. Faith has become increasingly difficult for me. I do not see this as a bad thing. My optimism urges me to say that this is a phase. Regardless, the ways that I have previously regarded the beliefs of my Christian tradition no longer feel genuine and honest. This influences the ways that I approach and participate in communities of faith. I am still figuring out the best ways for me to freely and truly be me in a church community without being disregarded as unbiblical and liberal, and stripped of my voice because of the way I read the biblical text. That’s a valid concern, right?

2. God doesn’t make sense to me outside of community. That is to say, the practice of Christianity is lost on me without a community to practice it with. I think this second realization is a good thing. I also think that this second realization and the first are closely related. I haven’t been a part of a believing community in about 7 months. Seven months is definitely not a long time in the scheme of things, but it is the longest I have ever been outside of a church community.

I thought that I could be one who could sustain my faith in a happy, post-church bliss. I can’t. Church is weird, and it’s difficult for me to get past that, but I am ready to try for the sake of community and for the sake of nurturing something that is so central to who I am. I’m torn between feeling like this is a twisted and dysfunctional relationship or something that marks some semblance of maturity and grace.

Thoughts? Have you recently returned to church? Still outside of a church community? How has your faith been strengthened or diminished apart from or outside of a church community?

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

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?

I don’t know you like I don’t know myself

But it’s not as if you don’t know me, your ungrateful child

I don’t know you and thus I fear you––your power, your mystery, your boundaries

Will you still have me?

 

But its not as if you don’t know me

Me who has turned away?

Will you still have me?

Me who has not embraced?

 

Me who has turned away.

I don’t know you and thus I fear you.

Me who has not embraced.

I don’t know you like I don’t know myself.

Station 12 – Jesus dies on the cross

From the planks of the cross Jesus quotes the psalmist’s lament, echoing the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the moment of his deepest pain and sorrow Jesus utters a lament of abandonment and disorientation. We cannot allow this cry to affirm that Jesus was ever forsaken, out of touch with the Holy, and left alone. When we do so we remove the presence of God from pain and claim that God is absent in the hurting of others and in the hurt that we experience ourselves. Nor can we leap to the opposite extreme and affirm that the death of Jesus was divinely demanded by God. The act of Incarnation planted the Divine deep within the soil of creation so that God experiences life with us in all seasons. Denis Edwards writes:

The Holy Spirit is with Jesus in his suffering and death, transforming suffering into redemptive love and bringing life out of misery and death. This line of thought can be taken further. I believe it is important to insist that the cross itself cannot be thought of as directly willed by God. God does not plan or want the evil act of crucifixion. This was an arbitrary, ugly, and sinful act performed by a number of human beings against one who was innocent. In this way it was like many other murders and executions then and now. God does not will any such horrors. This is why Edward Schillebeeckx can say that “first of all, we have to say that we are not redeemed thanks to the death of Jesus but despite it.” He insists that it is only in the overcoming of the evil, in its transformation by God that we can think of being saved through the execution of the innocent one. The Spirit of God transforms the brutal and wicked act of crucifixion into an event that brings healing and liberation. God brings new life, freedom, and healing through the cross, because the destructive act of crucifying Jesus is transformed by the power of the life-giving Spirit into the vehicle of resurrection life.[1] 

Prayer: May I never assume You have forsaken me. May I see you in the darkness and hear you in the silence. May my life be transformed by the act of suffering You endured on the cross. 

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1. Denis Edwards, Breath of LifeA Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004) pages 82-83

Station 11 – Jesus is crucified

We’ve followed Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and have made it to the top of the Golgotha–the place of the skull–where Jesus will find himself being executed between two criminals. The Gospel of Luke recalls the harrowing scene:

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine and vinegar and said, “if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

The mob mentality has carried the momentum of the violent procession from its inception at the sentencing of Jesus to its climax as soldiers hammer nails into his hands and feet, fixing him to the cross. Jesus became the scapegoat for the crowd. Richard Beck writes:

A Scapegoat for the collective misfortune was identified. And in that moment of identification, group solidarity miraculously reappears. Once-fractured individuals now stand together against the scapegoat. The violence of the group is brought to bear upon the One to save the Many, and the sacrifice occurs. And in the wake of the sacrifice the blood lust of the now-unified group is sated. Peace returns.[1]

It is against this backdrop which Jesus utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The Gospel accounts draw to a tense close with the delusional inversion of justice: the man who healed, empowered and gave life to many is broken, disempowered, and robbed of life.

On Good Friday we cannot afford to look away from the cross, but must stare into its brutality and recognize the depths to which God’s love will descend. We recognize our faces in the crowd surrounding Jesus. The mob takes the form of a culture addicted to consumption, to comfort, luxury, and entirely self-oriented. We idly stand by and watch the horrors before us, paralyzed in the face of power, collectively negating the pain because it is not our own. The cross as the center of the Christian faith demands that the darkness of our world be looked upon and brought into light. I don’t know how to do that, nor do I claim to be a light in such darkness. However, as we push back the darkness in our lives we reveal the light which we carry into dark places. We follow Jesus into the dark. This is terrifying and disorienting and difficult beyond belief. This is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There are many days that I do not have the strength or the will to do so.

Prayer: Jesus, may I see you in the darkness and approach you. 

___________________________

1. Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), page 96.

Station 10 – Jesus is stripped of his clothes

When the procession finally reached its destination, Golgotha, Jesus’ humiliation continued as he was stripped of his clothes. The dehumanization embedded in this act reaches beyond Jesus and grasps at the hands and ankles of everyone surrounding the scene. It is often difficult to imagine the brutality and cruelty involved in the torture and execution of Jesus. Beyond that, our aversion to stare into the face of pain causes us to jump over the suffering of God, or justify the suffering by elevating it to become the will of God and a necessary component of the carbon, human Jesus; we tell ourselves that he had to suffer in this way to mend the chasm and rift between humanity and the Divine.

As crowds amassed around the hill where Jesus would be put to death, the onlookers were stunned and struck with fear at the power of the authorities. This was the price for acting out, for speaking up, for protesting, for siding with the under privileged and unprivileged. In the face of injustice, I am constantly stunned and numbed and unsure of what I can do to make a difference. Often times I resign to ignorance and pretend that I am unaware so that I can continue in habits of consumption that are damaging to people and the earth. This is the way in which we cope. I am an onlooker and a participator in oppression to the extent that I prefer to consume and satiate myself rather than serve others and risk my status and reputation and comfort and luxury for the sake of others and for the earth. 

The mob mentality struck Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was murdered. The thirst for violence and the quest for a scapegoat took over. Upon the ones whom it did not completely take over, a paralyzing silence and numbness fell over them. We remember Veronica who bravely stepped out into the procession and wiped Jesus’ face. This simple act was one of desperation that signified her resentment of reality and was a small action of protest demanding great courage.

As we reflect on Jesus encircled by crowds who do nothing to stop the violence unfolding, I am torn by the memories of the news story from Richmond, California that made national headlines. On October 24, 2009, a fifteen-year-old girl was brutally beaten and raped by a group of men outside of the homecoming dance at her school. This act of inhumanity, cruelty and depravity lasted more than two hours. Police and news reports state that there were as many as 10 men involved in the attack and another two dozen people stood on the sidelines and watched. One of the young people who witnessed the event made this statement:

“They were kicking her in her head and they were beating her up, robbing her and ripping her clothes off; it’s something you can’t get out your mind. I saw people, like, dehumanizing her; I saw some pretty crazy stuff. She was pretty quiet; I thought she was like dead for a minute but then I saw her moving around. I feel like I could have done something but I don’t feel like I have any responsibility for anything that happened.” [1]

The eyewitness account is heartbreaking and disturbing. The indelible imprint of violence shakes, stuns, and disrupts us. The events that took place that night completely disrupt our senses and elicit outrage. In light of Jesus entering into humanity and suffering alongside us, we must say that Christ suffered tremendously on October 24, 2009, and we must also say that Christ suffers tremendously with all victims of violence (as well as with the perpetrators of violence). What is our reaction to violence? Does it disrupt and disturb us? Does it do so more if the victim’s skin looks like ours? If they were one of us? How does the cross influence the way we look at violence?

The suffering of Christ on the cross demands our attention, as does the suffering all around us. It can often be difficult to relate to and be moved by the idea of Jesus dying on the cross. It is not real to us. It has been spiritualized and has lost the capacity to disgust and disrupt us. But when we look into the depth of humanity’s oppression and violence and ability to remove any shred of humanity from another, we look into Christ crucified.

Prayer: May I not be numbed and ignorant of the injustice and suffering of my neighbors, but see, weep, and wage peace with my life.

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1. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/east_bay&id=7111732