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A few days ago I introduced some thoughts I’ve been exploring around the concept of the imago Dei. I’ve done a lot of research on this topic over the past three months and the more time I spend reflecting on it the more I come to realize how much theological thought hinges upon it.

To give you an idea about how much rides on what is expressed and inferred from Genesis 1:26-28, let’s make a little list.

1. In my previous post I talked about Genesis 1 being categorized as myth. This classification either frightens you and sets up a slalom course down a slippery slope, or it opens up a broader horizon for engaging the biblical text. For a while now, scholars have viewed the first eleven chapters of Genesis not as history, but pre-history. Rather than seeing the biblical creation story as a revealed account of beginnings, it has been observed to parallel and reflect influences of other ancient Near Eastern stories of beginnings. Here is a blog post from Pete Enns that talks more about this. http://biologos.org/blog/genesis-1-and-a-babylonian-creation-story/

2. If the creation narratives in Genesis are myth, then how should they be interpreted and integrated with the Christian faith? This brings into question the notion of biblical authority. When the Bible is viewed as a historical document its consistency and intent are not muddied: what it says happened actually happened. When words such as myth (or other literary genres) are thrown into the mix it presents a challenge to interpretation; context, culture, history, and judiciousness are required in order to grasp the meaning and importance of the text, and static interpretive methods fail. This raises the question, “How do myths and ancient stories that are not historically true fit into our understanding of the Bible and faith?” The concept of biblical authority is one that progressive/liberal Christians like myself have a difficult time articulating. My mainline protestant friends simply say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” The issue then, as it relates to our topic, becomes one of deciding how to take a mythological story seriously.

3. Because Genesis 1 is used to support Creationism and the belief that God created the world in six days, this passage is an ideological battleground between science and religion. If Christianity were to concede that Genesis 1 is mythological in nature and that the universe may not have been created in six, twenty-four hour days, then the atheists and gays and China will destroy the United States and make everyone join Al Qaeda. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. Actually, it’s only speculation. But seriously, I don’t intend to mitigate the importance of the Bible for anyone reading this. I think that the Bible is indeed important and valuable, but not in a manner that requires it to be truly historical and always factual.

4. So if God did not create the universe as detailed in Genesis 1, are humans actually created in the image of God? The idea that humanity is created in the image of God (and everything else is not), despite its sparse biblical support, has been hugely influential in Western history and theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The notion of humanity ‘in the image of God’ plays no primary role in the Old Testament articulations of humanity; it does not constitute a major theological datum for Israel’s reflection on the topic.”[1] This is important because I find that the notion of being created in the image of God is an important sentiment regardless of where one falls on the theological spectrum. It is deeply valued by both conservative and liberal Christians. For example, is it honest to affirm evolution (as opposed to the biblical idea of creation), yet still maintain that human persons are created in the imago Dei?

5. Metaphorical language is embedded in the idea that humans are created in the image of God. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways in which metaphors are woven into our theological statements, and here reveals another example. When Genesis 1 states that God created male and female in God’s image, the text is using metaphor. Christians do not take from it that God is a gendered, physical being. Christianity has assumed it to mean something else, something non-physical and immaterial. That Christianity assumed the image of God to mean something spiritual rather than physical emerged via the influence of Greek dualism which draws a sharp distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual; the spiritual constitutes what is good and pure, and the physical represents what is weak and at odds with the spiritual. This has governed how Christianity has historically interpreted what it means to be created in the image of God: the imago Dei represents something invisible, spiritual, and essential to the human person.

6. Also entwined in this discussion about the image of God is the ways in which Christianity views non-human life. Because the image of God embedded in the human person is often related to the concept of dominion over animals and the earth, Christianity has often viewed the natural world as unimportant because it is physical rather than spiritual. Nature has often been deemed the backdrop of human history. Humanity is seen as distinctly separate from nature as opposed to something intricately related to and involved with it. The intellectual shift brought on by the Enlightenment further cemented this thinking in the West, viewing nature as something to be controlled and manipulated by humanity. According to Francis Bacon, the natural world was handed over to humanity by “divine bequest,” which gives humans the right to “establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race.” Thus, it becomes humanity’s duty to flex its muscle over the non-human world. This way of thinking deeply influenced Christianity and was used to justify colonialism and the misuse and abuse of non-human life and the earth.

You can see by this short list that there is a lot of theological thought and implications rooted in the Genesis 1 text. Theology is a tricky endeavor because of all the interrelated parts involved in any single concept.

What did I leave out of my list that you think is important to mention in relation to the text?

In the next post I will jump into the first of the major interpretations of the image of God, known as the substantialist model.

___________________

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 452.

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Remember learning about similes and metaphors in 5th grade and writing all sorts of strange sentences to practice the concept? Metaphors are actually more important than your 5th grade teacher led you to believe. Metaphors, and language in general, are really powerful. Metaphors spark our imagination and influence how we interpret and see people, places, and as I will demonstrate, God.

Metaphors are so deeply woven into our language and culture that we often fail to realize their presence and prevalence. Even the Bible is replete with metaphors for God, for humanity and for creation. Metaphors ignite our thoughts and emotions and help us to relate to other subjects or understand others. This is partly why film, art or poetry are so powerful. They express things through image or language that hold far deeper meaning than the mere words themselves. Words can hold immense power, and two or three words strung together can radically influence how you interpret something. Allow an experiment. The following list of metaphors make statements, but the statements are jam packed with assumptions, questions, beliefs, and biases.

1. The Bible is truth

2. This bread is the body of Christ

3. God is love

4. God is King

Far from an attempt at deconstructing these theological statements, it becomes apparent that our theological statements and beliefs are deeply entangled and even dependent upon particular metaphors. What does it mean, then, that the Bible is truth? What is truth and what does it mean to equate the Bible with such an idea? What does it mean that bread is the “body of Christ”? What is love? And what does it mean to equate God with it? Lastly, what is a king? Who are kings? How do kings function, and what does it mean to refer to God as a king?

This monarchical––and gendered––metaphor is a glimpse into the patriarchal language embedded into Christianity that dominates theological discourse, worship, the ways in which people relate to God, and even anthropology. Such monarchical metaphors may simply express a reverence for God, but the reality is that such reverence subtly speaks to our views of both men and women in ways that align divinity and power with men over and above women. Feminist critiques of Christianity have driven this point home for decades, but dominant Christianity has been unable to disengage its beliefs and declarations about God from its traditional, historical metaphors created by patriarchal cultures. In other words, Christianity has allowed imperfect images and language to determine the boundaries of acceptable ways to talk about God, humanity, and the universe. By imperfect images, I am referring to the ways in which our language always falls short of fully encompassing reality. This is no more true than within our language about God. What we say about God can never fully capture who God is, but are attempts at describing the Divine.

Here is a simple exercise in how this plays out and why we must rethink the ways in which we speak about God. Claiming that God is King assumes that God is male. Do you believe God is a man? Probably not. Do you believe God is a woman? Of course you don’t. However, you are likely to be far more comfortable relating to God as a man than as a woman because centuries of tradition, art and worship have declared God to be male, and for God to be more feminine than masculine would denude God of power. Consequently, this associates women with inferiority, weakness and a lack of power. Unfortunately, this is exactly how Christianity has treated women for the majority of history. This subtlety in language about God shapes a multitude of cultural assumptions and biases about men, women, power and equality that always tip the scales of privilege toward the male experience. Christianity must recognize this, resist it, and refuse to be constrained by a limited vocabulary, and in so doing begin to move closer toward mutuality and gender equality. Rethinking our language is a vital step in the process of rethinking our images, our identities, and who God is.

The powerful metaphors “God is King,” “Jesus is Lord” and “the Kingdom of God” are not only unhelpful, but damaging because of the assumptions they make about who God is, God’s relationship to the world, engendered power structures, and because of the problematic association with a hierarchical and royal relationship which is no longer relevant in the 21st century West and elsewhere.

So what do we do and where do we go from here? It is important to rethink how we speak of God. We cannot escape gender, but we can escape gender exclusivity in a way that matches our language to what we believe about who God is. While one option is to avoid gendered pronouns altogether (using God, Godself, etc.), I think it is important to make use of both male and female pronouns together. That means we need to get comfortable referring to God as She and praying to our Holy Mother. Next, we come up with better metaphors and images and language by which we capture and describe participation in the life of God that makes sense to and values all of our gendered bodies and experiences and reconcile them to Christ. It is through this movement that we will begin to reconcile ourselves to one another, living in mutuality, love, and honor for others.

Doing a Find/Replace on the “Kingdom of God”

Our language and the metaphors we employ to speak of God and what God does shapes us in ways we are often unaware of. This is something I’ve been working through the past couple of years. Where I used to embrace the language of the “Kingdom of God,” my journey away from patriarchal imagery for God and the movement of God through creation toward non-gendered, synergistic, and immanent language created a tension for me in that I could not navigate beyond. The “kingdom” language that streams through the biblical text and is even favored by Jesus does not resonate in our modern context and implies images of God that are easily misunderstood, potentially harmful, and echo themes of colonization. I’m over it. Rather, I find “the Presence of God” to be much more appropriate language. Presence implies an immanence while also implying the possibility of absence when we fail to embody God in our places. Presence removes the patriarchal nature of “kingdom” language and replaces it with language empowers us to participate with God continually. Responsibility is placed on us. I find this to be deeply incarnational, kenotic, and highly appropriate.

Thoughts? Critiques? Where does this metaphor break down or hit a wall? What non-patriarchal metaphors do you find helpful and useful?