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Reflecting the Image of God

2011 August 23

In reading some of the responses to my last post Embodied Theology, I was reminded of an essay I wrote for a class last semester, so I’ve rewritten part of it as a blog post to help clarify my position.

Embodied theology is rooted in the doctrine of creation. Why did God create us? As some have proposed, God couldn’t not create or love us – it’s just part of God’s nature. As a relational giver and lover within the Trinity, God couldn’t help but be the same thing in relation with humanity. Who we are comes from God. We are not by nature sinful broken creatures, but creatures shaped in the very image of God.

There is a vital distinction going on here as to what we are at our very core. When we simply see brokenness all around us, it can be easy to assume that brokenness is what defines us and that our only hope is to escape that brokenness someday. But that assumes that there is a struggle in our inner-core between an identity of sin and an identity in God’s image. But God created us, we are fully of God. Even in our bodies here on earth, there is no other way to be.

There is of course brokenness in our world. Our nature in God’s image is distorted and obscured even as that core identity never changes. There is pain and suffering and injustice in this world. We don’t always clearly reflect God’s image. But, we are nevertheless still on the journey of becoming better and better reflections of God’s image that God created us for. Yes, we exist in time and space. We are human. And God deals with us as humans. So that means there is no magic God-wand that sprinkles pixie dust to make everyone instantly perfect like God is perfect. Adam and Eve tried to tap into instant Godlikeness in the garden and disaster ensued. Instead, we have to be embodied and relationally journey toward more fully reflecting the image of God as the finite creatures we are. That’s just the way it works. It’s a process. The journey isn’t something we hope to escape someday or something we can opt out of now, it is the core of our identity – the very thing we were created to do.

The world is hurting and because our very being is to reflect God’s image we are to love the world just as God loves us. Being called to Godlikeness means to participate in who God is. This isn’t just some inner warm-fuzzy that makes us feel close to God – it involves action. If we are moving closer to God then we will act like God and care for that which is made in God’s image – in short God’s creation. Not someday, but now – as the embodied humans we are. Hurting others, destroying the environment, being greedy, achieving at the expense of others – all these things don’t acknowledge our identity as being made in God’s image. Accepting who we are, our vocation as image-bearers, involves a responsibility to live for others and work for their good. God has blessed us abundantly, so by nature we are to bless others.

Rowan Williams has said that “being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art,” because we can see the results of sin and individualism all around us where instead of living in embodied relation with others we defend ourselves against having to ever even encounter others in relationship. We call ourselves image-bearers but don’t live up to the name as we pine for escape or withdraw from creation. It reminds me of that classic piece of theological reflection that my toddler has insisted we listen to on constant repeat every time we get in the car for the past few months – the Veggie Tales “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” In the song the pirates sing about all the piratey things they don’t do (like bury treasure, own a parrot). They then critique their fellow pirate for singing about the non-piratey things he doesn’t do (kiss chipmunks; throw mashed potatoes against the wall). They say, “we’re supposed to be singing about piratey things, what do mashed potatoes have to do with being a pirate? That’s just nonsense!” But of course the irony is that they too are not living up to what it means to be a pirate since they never do any of the pirate things they talk about.

To be created in God’s image and to be on the journey of becoming more Godlike means that we as bodily humans in the world must act Godlike. As Kathryn Tanner wrote, “Christ forms us but what is so formed is our action.” We live in community in relation with each other. We enact what it means to be Godlike in those settings. We give to each other out of what God has given us, always working to end the ways that sin prevents God’s love and blessing from being received by all. Sometimes it means having a prophetic voice within our communities to reform, rebuke, and purify the community that is not living in embodied creaturely solidarity, but however it looks, it involves action; being made in God’s image affects how we live.

So yes, the world looks broken and it can be hard to see God’s image amidst the brokenness and the pain sometimes. It can be tempting to want to escape it all by denying the world in various ways. But reflecting on what it means for us to be created in God’s image can move us past the negativity of assuming that we are at the core broken creatures into the affirmation that we are by nature reflections of God’s image who are on the journey of becoming ever more Godlike. Assuming brokenness can lead to despair and resignation that the world will never change – leading some to reject it all. Accepting our role as image-bearers leads us instead to loving action in community. We exist not just for ourselves but for all of creation. Living into that calling will make the world a better place for all.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Lamont Goodling permalink
    August 24, 2011

    Julie—

    You’ve taken a great approach to the idea of ‘God’s image.’ The pre-fall setting is about an idyllic, perfect place where all relationships are perfect. To be ‘made in God’s image’ then is to be created perfect, and to engage in relationships perfectly. In the post-fall setting (here and now), it is to imagine a better configuration than the one we live in now, a configuration rooted in ‘idyllic perfection.’ It is to imagine all of one’s relationships to be perfect, or at least better than they are now. It is to imagine that this idyllic, perfect setting, and those perfect relationships, are possible and available to all. And it is to act in the direction of this perfection; to engage fully as ‘image bearers’ and as ‘image-strivers’ and ‘image-fulfillers.’ We can be better than we are; we can do better than this; we can paint pictures of a better configuration.

    The danger in this understanding (I think) is that there was once a perfect configuration, that ‘God’s image’ once existed, and that our striving is to restore that configuration. Or that God will restore that perfect configuration at a future time without any involvement from us (our call is not to assist in the restoration, but merely to align our selves with the results).

    This is why my beliefs about the future come from science fiction and not the meta-narrative of salvation history. Imagining perfection, or at least a better configuration, rooted in the satisfaction of an idyllic setting available to all, and with one’s relationships as healthy and rich as possible, is not a bad place to begin one’s actions. But if God is going to restore this imagined perfection, then our actions to improve things become rather pointless. This is the danger in thinking salvation history builds our beliefs about the future.

    Lamont

  2. August 24, 2011

    Great article and I agree we should take actions to be more like Christ and that those actions will help make the world a better, more Godly place; and enlarge the Kingdom of God (on earth as it is in heaven).

    However, almost all christians agree with this. The huge gulf is between those who think that we should use the community(government) to help with this and those who think it’s only a call to individual, not societal, action.

    So, I’d love to hear more about whether, and if so how, you tie all this to your view of what christians should advocate in the public square. Is advocating for public programs that assist the poor part of your christian worldview? I suspect it is, and it is mine as well, but I’d like to hear more about the theological basis for that.

    Thanks for the writing you do.

  3. August 24, 2011

    Julie, these two posts are just awesome. May I borrow them? I am often asked by my students and those who read my blog if I am the only person who holds these views. I frequently quote others back to my classes, not the least N. T. Wright. These two statements of yours so succinctly state, both broadly and in the situation, the contrast between the standard world-flight theology and a biblical, redemption of creation understanding of the great story.
    I will, of course, attribute you and link back to your blog. Please let me know, yes or no, at studiesingrace.tj@gmail.com.

  4. August 25, 2011

    Lamont – I think the idea of striving to be perfect like God is perfect does not necessarily imply a static state in the past or in the future where we were actually perfect. As I understand it to be created in the image of God is relational identity. Even before the fall how we related to God, growing closer in relationship every day, was an ongoing process. It’s like C.S. Lewis’ image (to resort to sci-fi/fantasy as well) of “heaven” being always a moving “farther up and further in.” We were not created as statues that were broken and must be repaired. We were created to grow closer to God, sin has just made that process more difficult. The Kingdom of God is not a perfect world that will suddenly someday appear. It is more like the realization of of God’s ways in the world – true reflections of the image of God as it were. It is already here and it is yet to come as we live into lives that embrace our identity as reflections of the image of God.

    Mo -Good question. To be blunt, I don’t think anyone can ever exist as just an individual. Like I mentioned above, we were created to be in relation. As a community we form the body of Christ. When we look at the Old Testament conception of what it means to be this people of God, it was rooted in society. The prophets speak to the entire community telling them that God withholds his favors because they are not helping the poor or caring for the sojourner in their midst. Even their spiritual leaders confess to God their communal sins knowing that the actions of the entire culture define them as a people. There is not of this isolated individualism that rejects the relational nature of our identity that we somehow have embraced in the North American church. It is more like the African concept of Ubuntu – believing that we are people only through other people. It is our communal identity that defines us. So what the community/society do to each other is just as important as what any one person chooses to do. So for Christians to say that our culture has no responsibility to work for a better world is to either deny our relational identity, or to assume that the culture of government is so utterly God-forsaken that there is no hope for it. We can’t claim to be a Christian nation in any form if we assume that our culture and government can act Christian. If we assume that there is no Christian influence in our culture, then like the early Jesus followers we need to be subverting that culture and living in drastically counter-cultural ways to show that or allegiance is not to a pagan government. But I don’t see either happening. People have bought into the culture of America and define themselves by its philosophies and consumerism, but at the same time don’t want to hold the culture they embrace to the standards of scripture. We’ve given up our identity as the people of God.

  5. Carol permalink
    August 25, 2011

    Julie,

    That was burden lifting to me. I met you at a retreat close to Oregon Illinois a few years back. Your tender and loving faith is a balm to my bruised faith of shoulds and brokeness. Peace to you

  6. Lamont permalink
    August 26, 2011

    Julie–

    What’s your take on parousia and eschaton, and how do they fit in with your understanding of the kingdom of God?

    Lamont

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