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Over the past few posts (here, here and here) I have tried to lay some groundwork for navigating how Christianity has historically interpreted and understood what it means to be human. The starting point for this conversation centers around the text of Genesis 1, primarily verses 26-28, holding the larger literary block of Genesis 1-11 in purview. If humanity is created in some kind of image/likeness of God,  the text is saying something about both God and about humanity.

Here I would like to explore the second dominant interpretation of the imago dei, the relational view. Popularized in the 20th century, this view is probably the most popular, and it is sometimes emphasized alone or explained in conjunction with the substantialist/structuralist view that I examined in the previous post. The two primary beliefs in this view are 1. The “let us” in Genesis 1:26 is a reference to the trinitarian, and thus communal/relational nature of God, and 2. the creation of humanity in both male and female forms implies a relationality that constitutes wholeness for the human species. In this view, the image of God is more about being something than it is about having something. Karl Barth was influential in establishing a connection between the creation of humanity as male and female and the relationship between sexes as saying something about what it means to bear the image of God. On the other hand, Phyllis Trible has noted how the creation of humanity in male and female reflects the transgendered nature of God as opposed to associating God with the male gender, which has historically been the default model for God.This just gives you a glimpse into the ambiguity of the text and range of interpretation in light of the Bible’s disinterest with defining what it means by claiming that humanity was created in the image of God.

In order to evaluate this view it is helpful to separate it into two spheres: theology and exegesis, or, what this means for our beliefs about God and creation and whether this is a good interpretation of the text.

Theology
Theologically speaking, the relational view of the imago dei is beautiful. It builds community and relationship into a theological anthropology. In other words, relationship and community are essential parts of what makes us human. When we are living in isolation, alienation, and apart from some sort of community, we are not experiencing the fullness of what it means to be human. Said another way, when we exclude others from community and relationship we are not valuing their humanity. The ethic implied here is one of inclusion, harmony, peace, and diversity. We mirror God most closely when we participate in love for others and allow ourselves to be loved by others and peacefully relate with them.

The relational view of the imago dei gets to this point by making a statement about who God is based on Genesis 1:26. “Let us make humankind in our image” is understood to imply the communal nature of God. If God is essentially communal in nature, then imitating God and attempting to carve our own lives in God’s likeness means emphasizing human community.

Douglas John Hall offers helpful insight into this view:

We do not possess any thing that could be called imago Dei. We are obligated––by our own tradition––to think verbally about all this. We image God, that is to say, if and when we and as we stand in a positive (responsive) relationship with God. 1

The whole intention of the relational conception of the image of God is to position the human creature responsibly in relation to the other creatures; not to demonstrate that this creature is higher, or more complex, or worthier, but // to designate a specific function of this creature––a very positive function––in relation to the others. 2

Positively, the relational view tempers the biblical injunction for humans to rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures. Loving relationship and harmony rather than hierarchy and power characterize the connections that humans extend to all of life. But how does it stack up exegetically?

Exegesis
The relational view of the imago Dei has been criticized by scholars for presenting a Christianized interpretation of Genesis 1 that does not allow the Hebrew text to be what it is. Put differently, the Jewish community that produced Genesis did not have a trinitarian view of God, so it is improper to project one onto Genesis 1. Rather, many believe that the “Let us” statement refers to some sort of divine council that included YHWH as its head. This assumption is in stride with what we know about ancient Near Eastern religious milieu, of which Judaism was a part of and shared some traditions and influences with. The relational view invents a meaning for the text that is not in keeping with the historical context of the passage. That’s an exegetical no-no.

As far as a connection between the distinction of male and female and the image of God, scholars note that the words used for male and female are biological rather than social.

Okay, so what now
So far I’ve ruled out the structuralist and the relational views of the image of God. The relational view, while flawed, presents a better direction than the structuralist view. So if the image of God is not some inherent quality that sets us apart from non-human life, and if it is not a relational/communal bent toward each other and the rest of life, what does it mean? Some questions I’ve wrestled with lately in approaching the Bible are do hermeneutics––how we get inside of and understand a text––become a matter of which interpretation does the least violence to a text? Or which hermeneutic provides the most inclusive (or least exclusive) reading? The most redemptive (as pointing to Christ) reading? In my treatment of Genesis 1:26-28, I have ruled out the structuralist view on the grounds that it is an exclusionary position in that it discounts the humanity of many persons based on a narrow view of what it means to be human. Presently, the relational view of the image of God has been ruled out based on doing violence to a text––steamrolling its historical context for a meaning that fits nicely with Christian doctrine.

So, deconstruction has been simple, but actually constructing a positive and inclusive view of what it means theologically to be human while remaining faithful to the text is tricky. This presents a new problem: When the text and scholarship provide no avenues for an inclusive and egalitarian reading, how do we respond to it? These are questions for another time, but relevant to this discussion and on my mind, so feel free to engage them if you will.

The next post in this series will look at the functional view of the imago dei, one which I think remains faithful the text, but fails theologically. Tricky!

How do you understand the image of God and how has it helped you relate to others and to creation? Does being created in the image of God change how you view yourself, others? What or who, if anything, is not created in the image of God?

____________________________

1. Douglass John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 107.

2. Ibid., 106-7.

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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?