The imago Dei, Anthropology, and Why It Matters: Observations for Christians


The imago Dei, Anthropology, and Why It Matters: Observations for Christians

Jack M. Schultz, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, Concordia University, Irvine


You’re not going to like this essay.

It addresses a topic that the church has had difficulty acknowledging and that we continue to ignore, if not deny. I’m speaking about the human aspects of our Christian expression.

We like to think that our theological understanding is immune to biases. We assert that our orthodox positions are free of prejudice. We comfort ourselves with confidence in pure doctrine believing that we are lifted above the influences of context. It is my task in this essay, as an anthropologist, to make evident some of the powerful human forces that shape our day-to-day lives, and no less so, our lives as Christians. And this might make you uncomfortable, but such is the vocation of anthropology. As Clifford Geertz (1984:275) observed regarding the role of anthropologists: “it has been the office of others to reassure; ours to unsettle.” Culture, the powerful force which anthropologists examine, shapes us in profound ways. And while it is more comfortable to be unaware of how our culture affects us, it is the vocation of the anthropologist to explicate the often hidden social forces that direct our lives. In this essay, I am seeking to show that these human forces influence what we believe and how we believe.

It is telling that I have to go to a Reformer other than Luther to find an imperative for social science. John Calvin (1936: 47) observed:

True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts: the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves. But, while these two branches of knowledge are so intimately connected, which of them precedes and produces the other, is not easy to discover.

While Calvin wrote this almost 500 years ago, I’m afraid the church still hasn’t paid the attention to his observation that we need to. The importance of a consideration of the human dimensions when doing theology is difficult to overestimate. There is a dialectical interplay between “the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves” even when we don’t acknowledge it. And while I don’t assert that we need to recognize social science as an equal to theology, I will nonetheless maintain that an adequate understanding of the human is essential for a faithful theology, which may broaden an otherwise [potentially] parochial understanding of the infinite God. As “every civilization tends to overestimate the objective orientation of its thought and this tendency is never absent” (Levi-Strauss 1966:3), it is imperative to critically examine the cultural subjectivities of our orientation. For without an adequate knowledge of ourselves we may mistakenly conclude knowledge of God. That’s a strong incentive to investigate the human even when our aim is to understand God.

Properly Distinguishing: Theological Anthropology and Anthropology

Our Lutheran theological anthropology (De Anthropologia) is clearly asserted in our dogmatics (Pieper’s Christliche Dogmatik and Mueller’s abridged translation, Christian Dogmatics 1934): mankind is created in the image of God, fallen, immersed in original and actual sin, and in need of salvation found only in the redeeming work of Christ. I would expect the reader to be fully versed in our understanding (and see Schulz’ article in this volume for an overview. I will not dispute any of our theological understanding, but I do contend that our anthropology remains undeveloped. There is much that can and must be understood for a more full representation of the knowledge of ourselves and the knowledge of God. It is my goal in this article to bring observations from the academic discipline of anthropology to our discussion of imago Dei.

When I introduce myself as an anthropologist I often get a response such as “Anthropology. That’s interesting. What is it?” Anthropology is one of those obscure and often misunderstood disciplines.

Anthropology is “a comprehensive science of man” or “the science of human similarities and difference” (Kluckhohn 1964: 11, 12). It is an academic discipline committed to an empirical (and therefore, materialist) investigation of humans. It is usually understood to be a social science (empirical observations, empirical data driven, comparative), but as its subject is the human being it can also be more humanistic or artistic in its approach. Human phenomena are described and explained in empirical, naturalistic or materialistic frames, not spiritual ones. For believers, the conclusions reached by anthropologists are therefore accepted provisionally, as they are partial. Unlike theological anthropology which is based upon revealed knowledge, academic anthropology is based on observed knowledge. Because anthropology investigates human being “in all times and all places,” we have much to contribute to an understanding of being human.

By definition, anthropology is comparative. Its data are all people, all places, all times. Its approach juxtaposes one tradition with another. It is outwardly looking, engaging other peoples from other places (and times), and bringing others into the “great conversation” of “what is the right way to live?” Anthropology is critical, but not inherently criticizing. It introduces alternatives: variants, options, choices, “other ways of going on.”[1] By sympathetically investigating “other,” it challenges biological reductionism and ethnocentrism. It begins its investigation assuming that the people being described are fully human, inherently valuable, equally possessing all human capacities (i.e., intelligence, creativity, a soul, propensities for altruism and selfishness). For many anthropologists, their anthropology is applied: it advocates for “others” whose minority voices are usually underrepresented.

The Anthropological Approach: A Way of Investigating Culture

While anthropology is perhaps best known for its descriptions of exotic peoples in far off lands, it is most helpful to understand anthropology not as a body of knowledge, but rather as a perspective—a way of seeing. It is fundamentally concerned with cultures (i.e., the unique assemblages of ideas and behaviors distinguishing one group from another) and culture processes (explication of cultural differences and similarities, and explanation of culture change).

Culture is a complex, abstract concept which has many referents. The term has found its way into vernacular; however, anthropologists use the word analytically. For our purpose here, we may best understand it as the context in which life is lived. While all around, culture’s force is not immediately apparent. While it is immensely effective, it is generally hidden. Culture mediates reality—it stands between the person and reality. It is the lens through which reality is understood. Each cultural system is a meaningful and complete context for the individual to live out her or his life. Culture defines experience: it defines what counts as a problem, a purpose, evidence, common sense, and even “reality.” It is not an overstatement that “reality is always mediated through culture, never apprehended directly. We transform reality into an image of reality” (Herskovits 1973).

It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of culture in shaping our experienced realities. Culture is an explanatory totality. “There is literally no moment in the life of an individual when the influence of his culture is not felt” (Herskovits 1973:75-76). Culture is a human process, activity, necessity, and invention. The necessity of culture is attributed to the fact that as human beings we are born “incomplete.” Whereas animals are born with a remarkably complete set of instincts and physiology which determines their environment niche, humans do not have a species-specific relationship to an environment. We can, and do, live anywhere on earth (and in, and above it). Culture is that thing which completes us by guiding how we are to live. The “common sense” that we are born into becomes for us the basic interface we use to negotiate the world around us—that is, both the physical world and the social world.

One of culture’s primary functions is that it provides meaning. Deeply. The meanings our cultures provide for us are deeply ingrained within each of our experiences. Culture tells us “what’s what.” It tells us where we have come from, and where we are going. It tells us how to live and how to die. It tells us how to love and how to raise our children. It tells us what a good life is. It tells us what is worth dying for. In these profound ways culture shapes our experienced realities—individually and collectively. These cultures are systems of ideas and beliefs that guide our actions and interactions and allow us to interpret the actions of others.

Culture is a layer of self. We are both enabled and limited by our cultures, yet its force remains opaque. Culture is so difficult to see because it is itself what we use to see—it is difficult to examine a lens when that lens itself is required for viewing. We usually don’t notice our own culture until we are confronted by a different culture. We can then see that our “common sense” which is not shared by them, is common only among us. We may then begin to recognize that we are biased by our cultural experiences.

A cultural system is a delicate balance of a host of competing and cooperating factors. Culture is not a monolithic, homogenous entity, but it is fragmented and always in flux. It is imperfectly perpetuated, and constantly being contested (though some of its variants are generally seen as authorized and sanctioned). While recognizing that some aspects of a culture may be dysfunctional, a functioning culture is an integrated whole: a change in one area will affect other areas. For the anthropologist, unlike the layman, culture is not an explanation (as in, “that’s just their culture”). It is the thing which needs to be explained.

The Anthropological Approach to Religion as an Aspect of Culture

One of the important dimensions of any culture is religion. Anthropology has a rich history of analyses of religion. Religion is usually understood as the realm of the supernatural, beliefs and faith. As such, it is non-empirical and therefore out of the realm of scientific inquiry. However, there is also a human, social, material, and therefore empirical, dimension to every religion. These human dimensions are the scope of an anthropology of religion. Consideration of the human dimension can bring insight into understanding other’s religious expression as well as one’s own. Such a viewing of human aspects of religion is often difficult for people of faith to make. As believers, we are inclined to evaluate religions in terms of their beliefs and their doctrines. The anthropologist instead focuses on what people do with their religion and not what they believe.

Anthropologists assert that the best way to understand individuals and cultures is to view them contextually. Therefore anthropology insists on approaching all cultural phenomena as each relates to its context “relatively.” While cultural relativism is one of anthropology’s greatest contributions, it is also one of the most misrepresented. Cultural relativism is a directive to analyze all attributes of any culture contextually. It is the insistence to assess and interpret the phenomena within the system in which it occurs. To view things relatively means to view within a context. It is a recognition that each part functions within a whole. This hermeneutic approach is a relative approach. It is recognition that the whole can only be understood by examination of each part, but that each part is misunderstood if viewed in isolation. Each part functions to fulfill tasks and needs for members of those societies. Cultural features and traits are not simply the result of subjective preference—neither individual nor group preference. Rather, each feature and trait needs to be viewed in its contextual relationship with all the other features and traits. In this way one can understand the whole system by revealing the relationships. Relativism is, therefore, fundamentally a tool for understanding. It is not a value position or an evaluation. Those must come from elsewhere.

Anthropology maintains that cultural practices will be misunderstood when they are pulled out of the system in which they occur. Just like we would misrepresent a sport by taking a portion of it out of one context and judge it according to another (such as playing soccer using a bowling ball, or playing basketball in ice skates), so we misrepresent cultures when we take a foreign practice (such as polygamy) and try to make sense of it within our cultural context (imagining ourselves with multiple spouses). The sophomore learning a first foreign language tends to reduce translation to substitution of his or her word for their word for that language. Unfortunately there is an analog in the tendency to reduce culture variation to literal translation—understanding/expecting the terms “marriage,” or “economy,” or “religion,” or “morality” to apply as equivalents across cultural boundaries. However, the complexities these terms attempt to circumscribe are functionally different. For example, polygamy serves much different purposes for a society than does monogamy. To refer to both as “marriage” can obscure the differences.

Upon first hearing it, many will assume that “relative” implies “subjective” (as in the vernacular “it’s all relative”), but the term is used in its more literal meaning of “relatedness.” Religion does not stand alone in a society. Religion is related virtually to all other aspects of a group—its social arrangements, its economy, its laws, its politics, its subsistence—in other words, a society’s particular history. From this anthropological perspective one understands religion when one recognizes the role that religion plays within a cultural and social tradition and explicates how religion is related to the other aspects of the group practicing that particular religious tradition.

Even while religion “appears out of the blue” (Christianity in the first century, Islam in the sixth century), it finds itself immediately within a socio-cultural context: its application is to specific individuals with idiosyncratic stories and histories, its dogma is communicated in a particular language, using context-sensitive metaphors, its rules for living will assume a particular kinship arrangement and a particular governing politic. A relativist approach recognizes that religion involves a heavy influence of the human, which is knowable and empirical and often materially functional. Thus anthropologists ask such as, What are the social structures of this group and how is that reflected in their religious expression? Who controls the necessary resources, how does religion support and explain their control? What is their basic form of economy and how does their religion justify it? How does the religion explain the order of the world? What psychological and social needs does religion meet for these people? Are there differences in religion between people of different economic classes? Depending on the answers, other questions of universal truth and validity then take on new dimensions.

Relativism is a means to account for many of the human elements and products within religious traditions including responses conditioned by a particular historical context. Relativism explicates the web of humanity woven throughout a religious expression. As such, anthropology is a very useful tool to understand any religious expression. Useful, indeed, but far from complete. An anthropology of religion is not a complete understanding of religion—how could it be when anthropology as a discipline does not attend to beliefs and doctrine? Anthropology’s task, however, is to reveal how religion functions as part of a larger cultural system. It does this by explicating the cultural and social forces and factors that affect religious expression.

Applying the Insights of Anthropology to Ourselves

As a Christian I believe there is a religious understanding that some of us have which others do not. This understanding has been revealed to us. What we know is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the message that God is actually seeking us. It is God who desires and initiates relationship with us. The message points to the love of God made manifest and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ—the love that drove Christ to the cross to serve as an atonement for our sin and to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity.

Through the Word of God we learn that God desires to be known, that God initiates relationship with Him. As a Christian anthropologist I understand that when God encounters us through his Word, and He does it in a language we understand. God encounters us where we are (not to say that we will stay there or that God desires us to stay there). The language of God’s Word is the language of our cultures. Our specific locations are the fields for God’s action in our lives. Our institutions, our social structures, our economies are the specific arena of our sins, our needs, our hopes, our emptiness. Our lives with context specific sins, needs, hopes, and emptiness are the locations of God’s mercy. These are the fields for God’s action in our lives. Anthropology obliges me to recognize that even my religious tradition is a situated response. It is infused with values, ideas, practices and functions that are enmeshed with my current situation.

As a Christian anthropologist, I must also conclude that responses to the Gospel are also situated. Said another way, a faith response is expressed within a context (a specific space-time social context). For me, there is an intrinsic tension between recognition of this situated nature of religion and the claim of universality of the Gospel of Jesus. Yes, we have the Gospel truth, but we are also products of our own culture. I recognize that there is a powerful paradox here: the expression of faith is culturally situated while at the same time the Gospel of Christ transcends culture. We should embrace that inherent tension as the Church on earth by recognizing dynamic responses to the work of the Spirit.

For the Christian thinker desiring to understand the imago Dei, we cannot dispense with an adequate “knowledge of ourselves.” And here anthropology offers some insight. It is necessary to recognize that humans are very plastic—there are lots of ways of “going on.” All people are cultured. All understandings, even of things eternal, are biased, incomplete, and relative (to time and place; they are contextual). Our understanding is an understanding. It is situated, within a self-sustaining system. We are producers of culture; we are products of culture. Culture effects and affects how we interact with reality (including the social). Our worldview frames a view of reality. This worldview permeates all dimensions of our lives. This is the context, or milieu, in which we find ourselves.

Our churches are gatherings of people who have experienced the grace of God. We gather around Word and Sacrament to worship, and are sent to serve and proclaim the Gospel of our Lord. But in addition to being the Body of Christ, our local churches are also human organizations and institutions, developed and maintained by human beings. People select paint colors for sanctuaries; parishioners elect synodical presidents who campaign (at least tacitly) for the office; people invent and maintain traditions; humans make decisions about spending mission dollars; members make budgets, solicit donations and write checks. Our churches are founded and maintained as responses to the activity of God—and those responses to God are varied, and context specific.

It is easy to see the effects of culture in people of other traditions—of course they have culture. It is much more difficult to see how culture affects us. But it does. Our context influences our understanding (both as an individual and as a society) of changeless texts and eternal truths. Our reads (even of unchanging, inspired texts) are prejudiced by our context. American Roman Catholics are a certain kind of people. Nigerian Pentecostals are a certain kind of people. LCMS Christians are a kind of people. We are inclined to certain patterns of thought, and certain assumptions. As I have observed previously (Schultz 2012: 161-162),

There is no such thing as a culturally neutral church or a culturally neutral theology. The LCMS is a “cultured” church. We have a way. We have an identity. We are not simply a group of diverse people gathered around the Word; there is a way we do things. When we bring others into our fold we expect them to make the adjustments and accommodate our conclusions and practices. It is not, as many of us understand, that we are “just regular” and the “others” are the ones with the accretions of culture. We, too, have characteristic ways to think and speak. We have a common sense. We privilege the head over the heart. We have our values (especially regarding work, education, and home ownership). We have our mores, and foodways (with regional iterations to be sure), and dress (I am told by non-Lutherans that we have a look; and once an airport shuttle driver picked me out of a crowd of 30 as the Lutheran). We have our traditional songs (some of which are only a decade old), and indispensable vocabularies. We have our recognized authorities. We know our heroes and our villains. We are prone to a slightly self-congratulatory ethos at our Reformation Festivals. We are mindful that the “mispronunciations” of Sy’nod and Con’cordia often mark those who were raised outside our church. We have a set of shared and unexamined institutionally supported assumptions. We have our gate-keepers and our institutions of enculturation and sanction (whether they be our seminaries, our Sunday schools, or doctrinal review). We have an underlying, organizing framework whose potency lay in its concealed ubiquity and assumed structures. And these traits we can explain theologically—but that does not preclude their being a contextual (cultural) expression that may not be the only acceptable theological manifestation of the theological truth. Even if denied or spiritualized, we still have an identity. This identity structures our social relations, provides social cohesion, perpetuates our systems, organizes our ways of acting and interacting, and distinguishes us from them. It is an identity that functions, in effect, as ethnicity.

Lutherans do things that attract some kinds of people and repel other kinds of people. We are currently politically conservative (mostly Republican), and middle-class. We were historically an ethnic church, and we are still 95 percent white.

Using a relative understanding, we can begin to explore how our cultural inheritance has worked its invisible fingers into our faith expression. We may unwittingly frame an issue in theological terms when it is better understood in cultural terms. It is then that we can carefully and slowly disentangle our universal faith from our particular culture without destroying either. To observe that culture affects our understandings is not to state that our understandings are wrong or in error. Rather, it is to assert that our understandings are contextual, therefore limited—and of course our doctrines are limited in comparison to the infinitude of God!

Discussion and Conclusions

These social forces I have been explicating project a kind of “cultural inertia” that make it feel for us that our relative context is “reality as it really is, plain and simple.” Without a critical sensitivity to expose the influences of culture, we will be oblivious to the influences of culture in our own Christian expression. We will remain insensitive to (and not be aware of) things that our (sub-) culture does not direct us toward. Because of the processes of socialization and internalization we will have difficulty seeing any differently than “we always have.” Then we would suppose that “we have always” believed and practiced “this way,” and reasonably conclude that our ways are universally applicable. We will mistakenly assume that we are “neutral” in our read of Scriptures. It will appear to us as “common sense,” and “simply what the Bible clearly says.” And we may assume that the renewed imago Dei being worked in us by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18) will be lived and expressed the same way in first century Corinth, 16th century Wittenberg, and 21st century St. Louis.

As we necessarily engage with changing social standards (contested and relevant phenomena such as sexual and gender identity, justice and equality, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of life) we must discern contextual biases (both those that are for and those that are against; ours as well as theirs) or we will suppose that we are approaching each social phenomenon with detached objectivity as we determine what is the right way for Christians to respond. We will assert that we are giving all (relevant) Bible passages equal attention and, without realizing a judgment is being made, we will favor some texts, some translations, and some word meanings over others.

Within our church we have available the theological categories of “the left-hand kingdom” and “adiaphora” to assist us in the distinction between cultural imperatives and binding Christian imperatives. And these theological tools have helped us negotiate some difficult terrain. However, when viewed critically, the determination of just what is left-hand and adiaphora is not as clear-cut as the categories imply. I’ll assert that we have been neither consistent nor logical in our determinations, nor have we an explicit process for such determinations. I’ll provide some examples from LCMS circles (and other readers can consider how these characterizations may apply to their own church bodies) allowing that not everyone in the LCMS is equally committed to the following characterizations.

We have concluded that Paul’s directives regarding women’s head covering and hair cutting (1 Corinthians 11:6), and the directives for women not to wear braided hair, gold or pearls (1Timothy 2:9) are cultural, or contextual, imperatives and not binding on all Christian women everywhere. But Paul’s directive for women to be silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:34) is understood as a binding prohibition against women’s ordination. In the 1960s, our church leadership determined the civil rights movement a “left-hand” issue, and we didn’t get involved in the movement as a church body (though certainly many LCMS individuals did). We have not made that same determination regarding gay marriage, and our church leadership has issued several responses against it. In spite of the many prohibitions our Lord made against the practice of divorce, as divorce and remarriage has become an accepted cultural practice in our society so within our church it is no longer scandalous.

Let me be clear: I am not challenging our stance on women’s ordination or gay marriage or various understandings of the Bible’s divorce texts. What I am challenging is our inconsistent and uncritical acceptance or rejection of social and cultural practices without an expository understanding of how we reach these conclusions. Certainly choices are being made, but what underlying criteria direct them? And from my position, qua anthropologist, we need to consider what underlying and invisible social forces (institutional inertia, power relations, privilege, gate-keeping, and hegemonic ideologies) are at play. In other words, how have we reached these conclusions? How do we know which is cultural and which is universally binding? What criteria are used to determine whether the phenomenon is cultural (adiaphora) or universal (“binding one’s conscience”)? Without a proper consideration of the “knowledge of ourselves” we may erroneously conclude “knowledge of God.”

I warned you that you weren’t going to like this essay.

Comfort with and certainty in human expressions of religion should not be mistaken for faith. Faith is the connection that believers have to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. We have faith in Christ—He is the object of our faith (Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2). It is not faith in our doctrine or positions, not faith in the Bible, and not faith in the church which saves us. Only Christ saves us. We have complete confidence in the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6), the One “who is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). We are confident that Christ, God incarnate, fully understands the human condition and the social forces which permeate our being. I can’t imagine that He is intimidated by diversity. I don’t think He is impressed with narrow-mindedness or naiveté. How does our Lord desire us to live out our faith in 21st century America? Perhaps a more developed “knowledge of ourselves,” might assist us and the theologians in answering this question. I’ll readily admit that “knowledge of ourselves” is only a part of a proper consideration of imago Dei—a very necessary, and historically neglected part, but still only a part. There is so much more that needs to be explored. And as we go about seeking to apprehend the imago Dei, I urge that we do it humbly. We are not the only humans on this planet. Our culture is not the best way for all people to live. There are many genuine ways to live out responses to the Gospel of our one Lord.


Calvin, John
1936    Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Allen, trans. Philadelphia.
Geertz, Clifford
1984    American Anthropologist. 275.
1986    The Uses of Diversity. In Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 7. Ed. Sterling M. McMurrin. pp. 251–275. Cambridge and Salt Lake City: Cambridge University Press and University of Utah Press.
Herskovits, Melville, J.
1973    Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. New York: Vintage                        Books.
Kluckhohn, Clyde
1964    Mirror for Man. Fawcett Publications, Greenwich.
Levi-Strauss, Claude
1966    The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Mueller, John T.
1955    Christian Dogmatics. Concordia Publishing House. St. Louis.
Schultz, Jack M.
2012    “Dealing with Theology Culturally: A Response to Leopoldo A. Sanchez,” Missio Apostolica. Vol. XX, No. 2 (40), pp. 164-171.
[1] “Other’s beliefs, values, ways of going on, are seen as beliefs we would have believed, values we would have held, ways we would have gone on, had we been born in some other place or some other time than that in which we actually were” (Geertz 1986).

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