It’s not so many words: “So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.” These phrases are restated, repeated three times, for emphasis, and to get our attention. But the words pass quickly, and are easy to miss if we are distracted.
They are just a few words in the context of the entire creation story, and when we get the whole picture, we are reminded that we are only a small part of a very big creation — and we come late in the day, as it were — after the separation of light and dark, ocean and sky; after the creation of the dry land, and plants, and animals. It is only on the sixth day that we are created and blessed by God. It’s worth remembering, in the interest of humility, that after God created US, he had to take a rest !
So, in the context of all creation, “in the image of God they were created,” may not sound that important. But they are — in fact I’ve come to believe that this little phrase is our key to the entire Bible, and how we are meant to live out our faith. From the very beginning, we are being asked to consider our lives in relation to God. In today’s gospel we hear what theologians term “the Great Commission,” when Jesus instructs his disciples to go out into the world and baptise people into the Christian faith. But the reading from Genesis constitutes another kind of great commission, because it is remembering that we are made in God’s image that we fulfill our calling as human beings. And it’s not easy. How many of us wake up in the morning and are able to look in the mirror and say, “I am holy, made in the image of God, and I intend to live this day remembering that fact, living this truth to the full.” It’s a tall order.
What does it mean, to live as if we are made in God’s image? The Trinity is the ultimate community, with each member acting to enhance the activity of the other. This means that our selfishness and narcissism must fall by the way, because God is three persons, not one, but living and working together as one. The God revealed as the creator is unbelievably generous; the God revealed in Jesus is selfless and forgiving; the God revealed in the Spirit never gives up, but keeps moving, motivating, and inspiring. With the Spirit, we are never without hope.
If we are made in God’s image, then, we need to nourish and tend our own capacity for generosity, for forgiveness and self-giving, for glad persistence and motivating. The scriptures remind us that these are God-given gifts, intrinsic parts of our human nature. It is good to remember the words of St Irenaeus, a second century bishop and theologian, that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
The Bible also tells us that God is love. If we are made in God’s image, then we are called to live out what love requires of us. Love is kind, Paul so memorably reminds us in First Corinthians; love is patient; love does not envy or boast; love is not arrogant; love does not insist on its own way; love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrong-doing (and certainly not in pleasurable gossip about the wrong-doings of others), but love rejoices in the truth. Love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
God IS love; so to be made in God’s image is to try to exemplify love, in all its aspects. To know the truth of our own temptations to envy, boasting, belittling, and selfishness, but to reject them as being unworthy, as not reflecting God’s image. To be fully human means to accept the responsibilities and daily tasks that love requires. In my 15 years as a caregiver for my husband and parents I learned something about that; any parent certainly knows what love asks of us.
But, as if this task weren’t enough, in the creation story we are also asked to reflect on God’s nature as authority; or in the words of Genesis, “dominion.” Authority and dominion are concepts that we resist — and they get a lot of bad press, mostly because authority is so often abused in our world. History — ancient and contemporary — reveals that people in power will do almost anything to maintain their power and control, no matter how many innocent people suffer and die. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the leaders of Syria and Libya are just some of our more recent, and tragic examples. People with authority must work very hard to exercise that authority in a God-like way, not as an overlord, or warlord, “lording it over” those who are weak and vulnerable.
The God of scripture is NOT this sort of “Lord.” Especially when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we see that the authority of God is inseparable from love, from serving others, and giving of oneself. The word “dominion” is related to the word for “domestic.” To have dominion is to manage a home, lovingly, and with hospitality. And God has entrusted us with all of this; mere human beings, susceptible to so many temptations, having authority and dominion over the world. No wonder God needed a break, that foolish act of creation!
Living out our call to live as if we truly believe that we were created in the image of God has never been easy. And in today’s world, when technology is making enormous advances in fields such as “artificial intelligence,” it is indeed a challenge. Prophetic films such as “Blade Runner,” even more relevant today than when it was made over 20 years ago, raise serious questions about what it means to be human in a world shared by “replicants,” robots created by corporations to perform specific tasks — nothing new there — but some have also been given emotion and memories. In an essay in the anthology from A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, the Cistercian John Eudes Bamberger asks us to look at our creation in the light of science. The monastic practices of prayer, contemplation, and “purifying the heart,” he says, need to be considered with some knowledge of “the neurological-chemical basis of the emotions, the dynamics of the passions, and the neurological pathways that relate perception to memory.” When it comes our understanding of what it means to be human, we can’t afford to let a materialist, reductionist science prevail, one that provides a glut of information, and new technologies, but offers very little in the way of wisdom.
St Paul tells us that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. I take refuge in that fact. And as a poet I am often encouraged by the knowledge that our words are far wiser than we are. I recently read an article on the origin of language, and this paragraph stopped me in my tracks. “It is being able to speak and be spoken to, a specific adaptation, a virtual organ, if you like, that is humanity’s killer app in the struggle for biological dominance. Once it arose, homo sapiens really could go forth and multiply and fill the earth.”
And so it was; and so we did. Words, and the word, came to us, and the human race experienced both Babel and Pentecost. One divided us, the other unites us. This is our call, and our challenge, as human beings: to speak, and be spoken to; listen well, and to respond. And do all of it with a full heart, and with love, simply because we are made in the image of God.