Imago Dei

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion …” Genesis 1:26 (CEB)

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Geness 1:27 (CEB)

What does it mean to be human? What is my essential nature? What is yours?

The biblical answer is neatly summed up in the first chapter of Genesis—you and I are created in the image of God. Enough said! Or is it?

Enough said IF we fully comprehend the essence of God’s nature. Enough said IF we understand how that God’s essence is shadowed or mirrored in human beings. My ifs are conditioned by two lenses—the theological witness of John Caputo and the Orthodox view of the Trinity.

Caputo suggests that we don’t have direct access to the essence of God’s being. In fact, he goes so far as to say that God doesn’t have being (existence) as we normally think. God is not a being that exists out there. Instead, we have internal access to an insistence (nudge, invitation, call, desire) that comes in the name of God. Perhaps.

A key element of the concept of the Trinity, as viewed within the Orthodox tradition, is that God’s very nature is relational, conversational. God is an interactive process which we experience relationally. This understanding is caught up in the plural pronoun our in Genesis 1:26. Humankind is the conclusion of a creative, relational conversation.

Imago dei refers to our innate capacity to experience that insistence which comes in the name of God, to turn toward God and choose the good. Perhaps. The perhaps is important here. Just because we have an internal experience doesn’t automatically equate to God’s whispering in our ears. There is an interpretative task to be accomplished. That is where the conversation and relationship come in.

Many voices are sounded within us. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one way to describe those many voices. Transactional analysis suggests three clusters of voices—child (basic emotions and desires), parent (externally imposed rules, regulations, and expectations), and adult (the capacity to sort through the various voices and choose appropriate responses that move toward personal development). Theology tends to categorize the voices as either good or sin. However the internal cacophony is described, there is a need for a filter for discerning that which leads to personal wholeness. Imago dei is that filter.

“Male and female” suggests another set of voices that need to be considered. If God is understood as a relational community conversation, then human beings are not created for isolation, but for relationship. And relationship means many more voices vying for our attention. Television screams at us that we do not have enough, we need to buy more. Then, on our way to the store, we drive past the homeless vet with the hand-lettered cardboard sign asking for help. How are we to decide about investing our time, energy, and resources? Imago dei provides us with filters that help us discern and choose.

“Let them have dominion” adds a full array of additional voices. Imago dei affirms that the created order is our natural family. We are related to creation as much as to our birth parents. We have proven ourselves to have a remarkable capacity to mute the voices of creation. But there is always that reminder which we hear repeated at the funeral services of our loved ones—“You are dust. You have come from the earth; now you are returned to the earth, Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” That not so subtle reminder is one of the ways that imago dei insists upon us.

Donniel Hartman (Putting God Second) sums up the filtering nature of imago dei with one word—nonindifference. That which is insisted in the name of God (perhaps) is nonindifference to the needs that confront us through the voices of the human community and of the created order. Imago dei is the capacity to listen for and genuinely hear the many voices which call to us and then to choose a response that aligns with the nonindifference that comes in the name of God. Perhaps. Listen, hear, respond—the call to fullness of life by imago dei.


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