Made in the image of God?
I ask the question because the first chapter of the book of Genesis boldly declares that we are made in the image of God. We human beings, that is; we are made in the likeness of God.
I'm not going to argue just how we get to be 'made'. Rather, I'd like to reflect on the main thrust of that fundamental idea in Christian culture. Whether we take it to mean that physically and literally our bodies have the shape and form of God, or whether we read it symbolically and poetically to mean that our nature and disposition as humans imitates and displays the very nature and disposition of God the Creator.
There are some immediate questions to consider. Who is the 'we' -- all human beings of whatever kind, ancient or modern? or just whoever claims the likeness of God for themselves? And what image of God, what kind of a God are we talking about? Is it God the old Father, the 'ancient of days', God the all-powerful, God the terrifying judge of sinners, or God as Jesus knew God, the all-comprehending love at the heart of the universe?
And if we human beings are made in the image of God, do we really bear from our conception and birth the taint of Original Sin -- that curse thought up by early churchmen to explain the obvious and widespread presence of evil and wickedness, the unlikeness to God, among many humans? Does the image of God contain original sin?
Now, if you think this is just playimg around with some theological abstraction, think again.
The idea that we are all made in God's image can lead to positive attitudes of respect, value and consideration for all human beings, including ourselves. Jesus urged us to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves. And in a remarkable sentence Hildegard of Bingen says, 'I am the delight and illumination of the love of God, the form of all seeking for God.'
But the same comprehensive biblical assertion has led to some appalling and destructive conclusions. Among other things, we have a bad history of exclusions from that general statement.
This Jewish creation story says plainly that all human beings, whatever their gender, were made by God in the likeness of God. This idea is repeated in the ancient genealogy of the human race that traces human history from Adam to Noah in Genesis 5.
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him. Male and female created he them; and blessed them and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.This genealogy goes on to say that Adam eventually died at the ripe old age of nine hundred and thirty years, but not before, at the age of one hundred and thirty, 'he begat a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name Seth.' No mention is made of a mother . . . perhaps we are to think that Adam conceived and bore this son without any need of a woman, because Seth is the first human described, in this strand of tradition, as begetting 'sons and daughters'. No Eve, no Cain, no Abel.
There exists in the second chapter of Genesis another version of the creation story (older actually) which says that God 'formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul'. This man creature was put in charge of the Garden of Eden, and all other living creatures were then made to assist Adam and keep him from 'loneliness'. Only Adam of all living beings was now unique in his kind so, to provide him with a 'helper', God first put Adam into a profound sleep then drew out one of his ribs and 'the rib which the Lord God had taken from man made he a woman, and brought her unto the man . . .'
Whether we read this alternative version as literal fact or symbolic fiction, it denies women equality with men, assigns them a subordinate role -- as mere helpers -- is silent as to whether they too are made in the full likeness of God, and implies that they lack 'a living soul'. (In fact theologians and priests were debating whether women had souls at all right down to the seventeenth century!)
In the beginning God created human beings in God's own image. O no, some said, only men are created in that image. Women are a second-best creation. We men may rule over them -- and, incidentally, deny that God could ever be thought of as female.
In the beginning, God created human beings in God's own image. O no, said the Christians; only Christians are created in that image. Heathens and pagans and heretics and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Confucians do not bear the image of our (Christian) God. And so we may attack and persecute and suppress and forcibly convert them. And even today, centuries after the raids of the Teutonic Knights and the military conquests in Spain and the Americas and the conflicts with Islam and the work of the Inquisition, some fundamentalist Christians hold the view that only the image of the devil is to be seen in millions of their fellow human beings who hold faiths different from their own.
In the beginning, God created human beings in God's own image. O no, said the Nazis; only Aryan men and women are created in that image. Jews and other races and ethnic types are an inferior creation. We may enslave and destroy them. Amen said the Christian Boers of South Africa.
In the beginning God created human beings in God's own image. O no, said the colonisers; only we Europeans are created in that image. Native peoples are scarcely human. We may displace and hunt them down like animals. At best we must 'civilise' them and replace their barbaric culture. And in modern Queensland lawyers for a white farmer who shot and killed an Aborigine were able to argue successfully that the farmer had inherited a 19th-century Government licence to kill Aborigines and that the law legalising such an atrocity had never been repealed.
In the beginning, God created human beings in God's own image. O no, said the so-called normal majority; only we are created in that image. Those who are physically or mentally deformed and disabled, those who are diseased and plague-stricken, those who are gay or lesbian -- all these have corrupted the image of God within themselves. They are to be punished or driven away, to preserve the purity and good health of our community.
In the beginning, God created human beings in God's own image. O yes, how true, said human beings; no other animal or creature bears that image. Therefore we may exterminate or exploit them, we may use them for our sport, our experiments or our food.
The Jewish creation stories, which we have assimilated into our thought and culture, propose an enormous gulf between ourselves and the rest of 'creation'. Are the Buddhists wiser, when they proclaim the sacredness of all life?
And is the claim that we are made in the likeness of God an inalienable truth about us, anyway? Does the abuser of a child, the violent home invader or abusive marriage partner, the serial killer, the drug seller, the rapist, the perpetrator of racial hatred, the militiaman in West Timor, the genocidal Hutu or Tutsi gang, the paramilitary terrorist in Belfast, the swindler, the ruthless exploiter of natural resources, the sweatshop owner -- do these show the face of God, or at least of any God we could recognise as God?
Today, modern science has raised other considerations which challenge the presumptions that lie behind that ancient Jewish scripture. We now know that the human race we think of as ourselves, Homo sapiens, 'intelligent or wise humankind', has evolved from a long history of natural selection. Once there were more than twenty human types of being; our nearest human relatives, the Neanderthals, were driven to extinction after 200,000 years of successful existence, by the invasion of their homelands by modern humans spreading out of Africa. We now enjoy a monopoly existence: unlike other animals we have no brother or sister species to share our world. Was the image of God not to be found in our ancestral species?
Finally, Richard Attenborough, at the end of his wonderful TV series on Life on Earth, closed his final chapter on ourselves (whom he called the 'compulsive communicators') with these words: 'This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This might give the impression that somehow humanity is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no other purpose than to put us on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view, and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaurs. The processes of evolution are still going on among plants, birds, insects and mammals. It is more than likely that if we were to disappear from the face of the earth, for whatever reason, there is a modest unobtrusive creature somewhere that would develop into a new form and take our place.' If that happened, would the likeness of God vanish from the earth?
We take too lightly and unthinkingly some of the big theological claims that are deeply embedded in the Christian religion and our post-Christian culture. These claims can make for a better life for all; but they can also be perverted and turned to our own use to oppress and destroy other humans and other creatures. We need to think out for ourselves their implications and test their validity, in the light of modern discoveries.
In the case of the claim that 'we are made in the likeness of God', we had better ask, 'what kind of God are we talking about?' and 'does my behaviour, my life, display or distort for others the image of the God I worship?'
© Colin Gibson