18 December 2013

Made in the Image of God

A number of weeks ago in the book of Wisdom the author affirmed that we are made in the image of God and that we are, in fact, imperishable. Above all the writer wished us to be consoled and encouraged by these truths and our hope "be full of immortality".  He contrasted the shortness of our lives of suffering, the limitations in our seeing and understanding, the narrowness, that is, of our finite perspective with that of our Creator and Sustainer.  For the author of Wisdom, the symbols "imago dei" and "imperishabilty" are the symbols of our hope, but they function in this way precisely because they point less to us than they do to the unceasing faithfulness and love of God. My sense is that in the history of theology we have not always allowed them to do this as clearly or powerfully as we might. Two ways of looking at these things contrast in significant ways; thus, as we prepare for Christmas and the nativity of the One who will fully reveal what it means to be human as well as what Divinity truly is it is Jesus who shows us the nature of "imago dei" and real "imperishability". Because Jesus' revelation of both humanity and divinity accent relationality when we contrast a relational sense of both "imago dei" and the nature of our soul's imperishability  with an older and more substantialistic notion of these, we will find the former more compelling.

The Substantialistic Approach:

The first is a "substantialistic" way which tends to focus on human beings alone, gifted by God, yes, but still on the human being alone.  This way tends to be rather static and it looks at realities like imago dei or imperishability --- linked to an immortal soul --- as possessions we have --- fixed endowments or characteristics which exist in us. The most common of these have traditionally been identified as rationality, free will or volitionality, a moral sense, and a spiritual dimension or "component" (immortal soul, etc). As significant as these dimensions of the human being are this approach also has draw backs.

Sometimes they are seen as ends rather than means. They are spoken of to underscore our uniqueness and dignity but without a correlative sense of mission. They can be used to compartmentalize us and the idea of imago so that imago is linked to various dimensions within us but not to our humanity per se. Speaking of imago in this sense can tempt us to see ourselves as superior to the rest of creation and lead to a theology of isolated or estranged dominion over creation rather than of stewardship in collaboration. It can even lead to a theology where those who are more intelligent, more logical,  (or whatever the characteristic chosen) are seen as superior to those who are less intelligent, and so forth.

Another drawback is that this approach can make God seem to be the sum of certain human characteristics writ large. If we are rational, then God is supremely so; if we are a being, then God becomes a supreme being, and so forth. While it is true that God is rational, moral, etc in some sense, it is also the case that God is wholly other than these characteristics as embodied in human beings. God is their source and ground but he is not them merely writ LARGE. God is Being itself, rationality itself, meaning and beauty themselves; he is the ground and source of all of these but he is not A BEING, not even a supreme being. We cannot forget this. And finally, this approach to imago dei treats or tends to treat these elements or dimensions as possessions rather than as graces. Especially this approach tends to leave us speaking of imago dei as an entitlement and source of other entitlements rather than a vocation and mission to be lived for the benefit of creation.

With regard to immortality this same substantialistic approach treats our own imperishability similarly. We think of ourselves as HAVING an immortal soul --- a possession which, to some extent seems to us to be independent of God's continuing act of being God, God's continuing sustaining action. We think of our bodies as ceasing but our souls as continuing because they themselves are immortal. In the past this distortion of Scriptural theology has lead us to a dualism which demeans and discounts the human body or rejects the nature of human beings as embodied spirit; it also led to an at least implicit questioning of  the nature of and need for resurrection. (If our souls, which are the (supposedly) "really essential part of us", are immortal, then why do we need resurrection? If resurrection is merely a reuniting of body and soul, then how is it also an even in which death and sin are destroyed?). In turn this led to a whole host of difficulties including taking seriously life on earth, speaking rightly about the symbols heaven and hell, accommodating a Church and Gospel which are engaged in social justice, the problem of moving folks away from individualistic notions of spirituality focused on "getting (their souls) to heaven, " etc.

The Relational Approach:

But there is a second way of approaching both the symbol imago dei, and the reality of human imperishability or immortality. It is a relational way of seeing the human being as such, and therefore too, these two central dimensions of human dignity. It says clearly that we are made in the image of God only to the degree we are in relationship with God and it notes that our imperishability comes to us moment by moment and is entirely dependent on God's unceasing faithfulness and love for us.

Jesus is the clearest model of what it means to be imago dei.  He demonstrates to us that imaging God is precisely what human beings are called to do. Throughout his life we are told that Jesus grew in grace and stature --- meaning that  through the grace (very presence) of God he grew more and more into a human being who exhaustively revealed God to and within the world. Throughout his life Jesus becomes more and more transparent to the One he calls Abba. (For Jesus and for each of us this is what it means to be human and to glorify God.) Throughout the Gospels we see him choose to let go of those things which are an assertion of self or otherwise are obstacles to revealing (in all three senses!) God clearly. Think especially here of his relinquishing of family (both primary and secondary) and claiming as his true Mothers and Brothers and Sisters those "nobodies" and "outcasts" who see God in him. Think of his time in the desert when he lets go of ambition, personal power, and  the limited security that comes from these to rely wholly on God; think of his continued clashes with Judaism or the surrounding honor/shame culture when he embraces the insecurity of one who trusts whole-heartedly and ultimately in God. And of course, consider his final trial, passion, and death when he becomes the epitome of human failure and shamefulness, and instead is and remains entirely helpless and exhaustively open to God being the sole source of life and meaning.

Throughout his life Jesus grows more and more into God's own counterpart. He reveals in his own humanity both what it means to be human and who God is. Where God seeks to love, Jesus allows it and lives from it so that we all might do  the same. Where God desires to enter exhaustively into every moment and mood of our world, including sin and godless death, where he seeks to turn a human face to us Jesus is open and responsive to this desire. Where of course Jesus shows us a capacity human beings as human have to reveal God he more clearly demonstrates to us that imago dei is a calling we are entrusted with and a mission we have been created to carry out in relationship with God. In Jesus' life it is the combination of human openness to God and God's love for his creation which together constitute the great grace we call the image of God. (Paul's version of this is summarized in 2 Cor 12:9 when he reprises God's self revelation, "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.") What Jesus models for is is the truth that imago dei is the call entrusted to human beings to be wholly transparent to God in all the ways God desires.

Immortality is also Relational

Just as imago dei is a relational term referring to the reality that comes to be when we are open and responsive to the love of God, so too is immortality a relational term. We are imperishable only because and insofar as God loves us.  Though he was speaking of something else at the time, Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam once said: "God sustains us like a singer sustains a note." I have come to understand this as an image of the nature of the human person and the human soul's immortality.  What is so striking for me in this statement is the way both human and divine are inextricably wed as well as how dynamic an image it is. There is no way our being becomes a static possession --- and neither is there any way we can understand humanity apart from relatedness to God. Similarly, our spirits or souls possess immortality because they are of God --- not in a kind of indirect or derivative way and especially not of themselves, but because they are his continuing, unfailing activity within us.

For the New Testament writers, and especially for Paul, death is a power which needs to be brought under complete subjection. Our hope is in the resurrection because it proves for us God's power over death in his commitment to us --- sinners whom he loves with an everlasting love. Any victory that death wins in this life is temporary --- for God will neither forget us nor cease from breathing us forth. We have immortality because God is immortal and because our own existence is wholly dependent on God. We are immortal to the extent we are in relationship with God --- and fortunately for us, God is at work in Christ reconciling us to himself so that that relationship will never cease.

Being What we Are Called to Be, the Counterparts of God

Christmas is about what happens when people accept God's invitation to be his coun-terparts in significant ways and especially it is about the birth of the One who would be God's counterpart in an exhaustive and definitive way. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, Anna, Elizabeth --- all of these persons allow God to speak through them in significant ways; they allow the breath of God to take form and expression in their very lives. They become these expressions, these words or language events. As a result we have births summoned out of barrenness, fullness of life called to be from virginity, muteness and paralyzing fear transformed into canticles of joy and hope, and human beings who become more and more transparent mediators of the very Spirit of God as they hearken to God's will to love them into wholeness and to bring the whole of creation to fulfillment through them.

The climax is the Word made fully incarnate in the man, Jesus who is God's counterpart in a way which is paradigmatic for the rest of us. In other words with Christmas we celebrate the stories of a God who seeks to find in his creation a counterpart, one who would be responsive to and share his love in every moment and mood of his existence. We also therefore, celebrate the stories of a chorus of people who themselves prepare for this event by allowing God to sustain and shape them as a singer sustains and shapes a note. The paean of praise that results, both individually and collectively,  is also the revelation of what it means to be imago dei and truly imperishable. In short, it reveals the vocation of every human being to be a Word event continually enlivened and empowered by the eternal breath of God.