March 21, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.

The image of God

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

“God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27). This reference to the unique dignity of humankind over all other creatures is reinforced later in the book of Genesis, after the flood, when God offers every other creature to humans as food. Pre-flood creatures, animals as well as humans, are depicted as vegetarians (Gn 1:29-30), but God tells Noah and his progeny that “any living creature that moves about shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the plants (Gn 9:3). No blood from any human life, however, may be shed, “(f)or in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gn 9:6).

In what sense are human beings made in the image of God? These verses certainly declare the truth itself. Genesis leaves no room for ambiguity regarding the dominion of the human race over all creation, including all creatures within it. It is apparent that the image of God, given to the first man and woman, and reaffirmed after the flood, is the reason that no violent attacks may be made against human beings. It is this “image of God” which is the basis of the dignity of every individual so, in some sense “represents” God in the world, as the commentators have elaborated. But how exactly are we God’s image?

Here we encounter a question. God is more than an “individual,” albeit a Unity that is indivisible. In a mysterious way God is also a communion of three persons, a Trinity. Each Person is unique without losing all that divinity is. One Person is not less or more than the other. It is noteworthy that the revelation of the image of God in all humanity comes only after God created both sexes, male and female, so that the human race could continue by and through their united existence, through their mutual cooperation.

The generative nature of humanity reflects something about God’s own generative reality. The love between the Father and the Son eternally generates the Holy Spirit, which is in a sense not an image but the reality of that love between the Father and the Son. In marriage, any children that are generated share in the nature of their human parents, each different yet equal, as their children are also different yet equal in their human dignity. What this seems to tell us is that the “image of God” in human beings is more than their individual reflection of God, but also has something to do with their other-oriented nature, their generative capacity and their orientation toward communion or relationship.

I pose the question here as relevant to the times in which we live, where it seems that a culture of radical individualism has led us into an increasingly chaotic order in which the supremacy of every individual becomes almost a law unto itself, that sovereign rights are claimed not only to ownership of one’s own life and property but to exercise complete dominion over everything within the orbit of one’s body, including whether to accept or attempt to edit or delete the unchosen, unalterable genetic properties one receives at conception, the contents of one’s uterus, although it may contain a being as genetically unique as the host, and even to abort one’s own life at will under the claim of absolute bodily autonomy. I am not sure that our own United States Constitution does not ultimately permit such liberties, especially given the apparent anthropological views of our founders. Constitutional originalists seeking to find new grounds for broadening the definition of the human person beyond the somewhat arbitrary and outdated artifice of the authors of Roe v. Wade might consider that the draftsmen were deists. Although they believed in a creator God, they by no means affirmed a God who maintained a dynamic relationship to creation or its creatures, once the enterprise was started. In short, a Trinitarian, radically interactive and dynamic God who actually loves creation, especially humanity itself, was not their optic.

In conversations I have been a part of in both academic and informal circles, God is likewise not often viewed as much more than a force or power, an impersonal entity, at least in the sense that God is not actively, let alone passionately involved in our everyday lives. While this is clearly at odds with the God of Judeo-Christian revelation and, indeed, many other world religions, it may explain in part why the first impressions of “image of God” rendered when the question is posed tend to be abstract and intellectual. Words like “intelligent,” or “rational” are typically offered. God is like us, in other words, in that we both think or have wills.

None of these attributes are at odds with our faith, but they seem so short of any sense of a God passionately in love and active to the point of emptying the entire contents of his own life in a sublime sacrifice of love — as Jesus ultimately does. Not that this divine energy should surprise anyone who contemplates the dynamic and restorative mission of a God on earth who calms tempests, heals the blind and lame, and turns sinners into saints. 

I would propose that if we take it on faith that God is all these things that our Scriptures reveal to us, then we who are made in God’s image and likeness are so much more than little islands of individual autonomy, but rather radically connected to one another — as well as to this awesome, loving and most engaging God. We can also truly count on seeing something of the face of God in one another, united as we are by the same Holy Spirit, who is the love between the Father and the Son. God is among us as we are “among” God. We are never alone, regardless of how we may feel or have been left at any given point.

God is not an absentee landlord or a neglectful parent, although our own emotional scars or family of origin traumas may at times trigger such fears. “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you!” (Is 49:15). I realize that these reassurances come from the fountains of faith, but those waters certainly offer some solace for a thirsting soul seeking relief from the false and poisoned tonics this world offers that only leave us gasping for air. 

 Follow Bishop Ed @AlbanyDiocese.


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