Human Nature and the imago Dei
Western philosophy and its nurturing culture have been tangled in an on-going, lengthy and difficult debate that has no small amount to do with the topic at hand, “the image of God.” Does reality govern conceptual thought and language or is it the other way around? Do we “see” what we expect to see because the prevailing patterns of cultural adaptation and description shape our vision and values? What shapes those controlling patterns? Is it at all possible for the individual to access an objectively neutral intellectual/rational stand point from which to survey and decide? Any student of the history of philosophy can trace the debate through the labyrinth of thought from Descartes through Derrida. Any student of theology can pinpoint the source of the problem embedded in the promise of the ancient enemy, “You will be like God, able to determine for yourself good and evil.”
What is “good” comes from the Lord alone, from his creative word and his gifting. Evil is ultimately and always the distortion of the Lord’s generosity in life fostered by the father of lies. Human conceptions of the patterns and purposes for humanity within the creation can well serve to be pragmatically valid in the hurly-burley of the left-hand kingdom. But any such vision cut loose from the word of the Gospel that shapes an entirely different logic is doomed to twist the creation to our own purposes. We end up adding but our own stanza to the sad litany of Romans 1 and hastening the judgment. Case in point—21st century America.
When the self-concept of humanity is heady with its own hubris, is it really any wonder that culture disintegrates and society comes unraveled at the seams? When human beings are reduced to biological phenomena under scientific materialism, how are we surprised that we harvest the organs of unborn infants for our own purposes? When economic encomia appraise everything in dollars and cents, how are we surprised that there is vast and growing disparity in our wealth? When communication becomes disembodied, torn loose from personal encounter and shared history, how are we surprised that civility deteriorates and neighbors and friends are driven to despair and self-destruction by cruelty? When radical individual self-concern becomes the avant-garde in the exploration of liberty, how are we surprised that roving bands of highly lonely and angry people are desperate to secure some sense of commonality and community—usually in terms of their mutually nurtured hostility toward a perceived enemy?
“And God made man in his own image.” That phrase lurks throughout the biblical narrative and in our own feckless fumbling in a fallen world. We’ve wrestled with it in the disciplines of both the kingdoms of the right and left. We’ve accorded it the notion that we “look like God” (I think not), that we think like God (remarkable for us Lutherans who as a group eschew rationalism!), and that we once were and ought to be holy and righteous like God (closer, I think, especially when righteousness is only recognized in relationship). But I think these all fall short because they all look either to our common created-ness or our common brokenness to find a clue to “the image of God.”
Just how do we comprehend and assert the image of God? In the history of Christian thinking and writing, the fathers devised a word “perichoresis” that was an effort to capture the inter-relatedness of the persons of the Trinity. It’s arguable that the Lord’s actions to create and redeem flow out of this core dynamism among the Triune persons, and that their inter-relatedness becomes the paradigm for the meaning of “image of God.” All of creation, especially human society, properly appraised and experienced, would then evidence this divine dance of giving and giving way, of love and obedience. But such harmony is entirely dependent on the Lord of the dance (with a tip of the hat to the 1960s). Once we’ve lost the measure of the steps and the heartbeat of the music, we are reduced to the mechanical rigidity of a line dance or the gaudy embarrassment of a strip tease.
Can it be that Jesus’ life and ministry lived out on the stage of history so interrupted our invented noise and notions of identity, good, and evil that we had to crucify him lest we have to question ourselves far too uncomfortably? Can it be that the preaching of the incarnation of the Son of God is the Lord’s ongoing interjection into the noise of this world? Can it be that in a world of faint images and shallow imitations, the image of God is restored only as the image of the invisible God is proclaimed, shared, and then practiced among us? If so—and I think so—then the “image of God” comes off the printed page and becomes living and active in the life of the Church and the life of the world.