Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Image of God

Sorry for the long delay in posting another blog. I have been working around the clock on a new book. One part of the book deals with ‘the image of God,’ which has a long and storied history of debate and discussion. For the most part in the West we have thought of the image of God in terms of the human mind, or our capacity for self-reflection and intellectual or rational thought. To be created in the image of God means that we are ‘rational’ creatures. Karl Barth, as he was want to do, opened a new world when he proposed that the image of God had more to do with being created male and female. Irenaeus, in the early Church, set forward a distinction between ‘the image’ and ‘the likeness’ of God, such that we were created in ‘the image of God,’ but were to grow into ‘the likeness of God.’ This distinction gives a real place for relationship and human personhood. The Greek Orthodox tradition has followed Irenaeus with considerable fruitfulness.

It would seem obvious that whatever it is that we believe about God will shape what we think about being created in God’s image. And here it gets interesting. Note this classic definition of God from the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 7. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection, all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

While one could find biblical support for each of these ideas about God, this definition is shockingly abstract and non-relational. There is no mention of the love of God, or of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, or of their communion together. It is, as T. F. Torrance says, ‘not essentially or distinctively Christian’ (The Mediation of Christ, p. 101). What would being created in the image of this non-relational deity look like?

In my study of John’s gospel, it has gradually dawned on me that whatever else ‘the image of God’ may mean, it surely involves being wired, as it were, relationally. If we start with the faceless, nameless omni-being, who watches us from the infinite distance of a largely judgmental heart, then our basic ideas of the imago dei will naturally follow suit. But, if with John, and the early Church, we start with the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, then to be created in the image of God means, at the very least, that we are designed to be relational, open, not closed or self-contained.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek preposition translated ‘with’ in John’s opening statement, ‘and the Word was with God,’ means far more than ‘with’ as we would use it today. We could say that we sat 'with' Heather on the train, but that only means that we were there, in the same place, side by side, with Heather. ‘With’ in John 1:1 means ‘turned towards, open to, face to face.’ So we are immediately thrown into the world of intimacy, fellowship, sharing, and communion. John ends his famous prologue by bringing us back to this foundational point, but this time with an even more intimate image when he speaks of the Son as being ‘in the bosom of the Father’ (v.18)

So John, in a deliberate play on the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created…” fills in the notion of ‘God’ with intimate, face to face fellowship. This sets our thoughts on a relational trajectory from the beginning. For John, the very being of God involves love, sharing and fellowship. To be created in the image of this God is thus to be designed for personal interaction, intimacy, and communion. We were never made to be isolated, self-contained, vacuum sealed like a coffee can.

The implications of this foundational notion are incalculable. But let me make a few quick points. First, at the deepest level of our being we are open, not closed. Created in the image of the Trinity means that we were designed to receive the life of the Triune God, and to share this life with others. Second, being wired for relationship, we can never ‘find ourselves’ in isolation from others. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit exist alone. As fellowship lies at the heart of the being of God, so life and meaning for us comes in relationship. But, so does the greatest pain. Since we are made for relationship, there is nothing quite as traumatic as a broken one. There is profound pain in being alone, isolated, cut off from others, whether by our own mistakes, or by the vicissitudes of life. To feel rejected hurts like hell because it is a violation of our very being.

Like it or not, we live between the ‘rock’ of being wired for relationship and never finding fulfillment without them, and the ‘hard place’ of giving ourselves to be known and possibly being rejected. I would hazard a guess that most of us compromise by presenting what we think will be an ‘acceptable’ version of ourselves, thereby securing something of the life that comes in relationship, without running the risk of being known and thus opening ourselves to possibly experiencing the hell of personal rejection.

The fellowship of the blessed Trinity is not based upon their achieving good marks against an external standard, which stands above the Father, Son and Spirit, keeping constant vigil on their behavior. The communion of the Triune God is rooted in the freedom to love. For us to move from being created in ‘the image’ into ‘the likeness’ of the Triune God, (or to become what we are, and thus experience life) involves our accepting that we are broken people. In being honest with our own brokenness, we are opening ourselves to hear (within the dark world the lie) the truth that we are known and loved as we are. We always have been, and always will be. This is the world of the Triune God of love. Knowing that we are loved and accepted as we are opens us to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, to care and to be cared for—intimacy, fellowship, communion, which leads to life and fulfillment.

Holy Spirit, help us to receive forgiveness, and take baby steps into the freedom of being known.