Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Imago Dei

Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram . . . (Gen 1, 26)
Let us make man in our image and likeness. . .

Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam. . . (Gen 1, 27)
And God created man in his image. . .

I used to play chess with an old man by the name of Joe B, one of the last of the WWII Flying Tigers. Although he had been a working man all his life, he had an intellectual bent and liked to read. But like many an old man, he thought he knew all sorts of things that he didn’t know, and was not bashful about sharing his ‘knowledge.’ One day the talk got on to religion and the notion that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Old Joe had a long-standing animus against the Christianity of his youth, an animus probably connected with his equally long-standing hatred for his long-dead father.

Recalling some preacher’s invocation of the’ image and likeness’ theme, old Joe snorted derisively, "So God has a digestive tract!?" In Joe’s mind this triumphal query was supposed to bear the force of a refutation. Joe’s ‘reasoning’ was along these lines:

1. Man is made in God’s image
2. Man is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.
3. God is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.

But that’s like arguing:

1. This statue is made in Lincoln’s image
2. This statue is composed of marble
3. Lincoln is composed of marble.

Joe’s mistake, one often repeated, is to take a spiritual saying in a materialistic way. The point is not that God must be physical because man is, but that man is a spiritual being just like God, potentially if not actually. The idea is not that God is a big man, the proverbial ‘man upstairs,’ but that man is a little god, a proto-god, a temporally and temporarily debased god who has open to him the possibility of a Higher Life with God, a possibility whose actualization requires both creaturely effort and divine grace.

In Feuerbachian terms, the point of imago dei is not that God is an anthropomorphic projection whereby man alienates his best attributes from himself and assigns them to an imaginary being external to himself, but that man is a theomorphic projection whereby God shares some of his attributes with real beings external to him though dependent on him.

Which is true? Does man project God, or does God project man? Note first the following asymmetry. If God is an anthropomorphic projection, then God does not exist. It would be absurd to say that God exists as an anthropomorphic projection when it is built into the very nature of God that he be a se, from himself, i.e., incapable of any kind of ontological dependency. But if man is a theomorphic projection, then man exists to a degree greater than he would exist if there were no God. For if man is a creature of God, and indeed one created in the image and likeness of God, then man has the possibility of a Higher Life, an eternal life.

The paradox is that when atheistic man tries to stand on his own two feet, declaring himself independent of God, at that moment he is next to nothing, a transient flash in the cosmic pan. But when man accepts his creaturely status as imago Dei, thereby accepting his radical dependence, at that moment he becomes more than a speck of cosmic dust slated for destruction. Thus Jean-Paul Sartre had it precisely backwards in thinking that if God exists then man is nothing; it is rather that man is something only if God exists.

Is "image and likeness" a redundant phrase, or does it mark a distinction? Arguably the latter. To be created in God’s image is to be granted the potentiality for sharing in the divine life, a potentiality that may or may not be actualized and is shared in equally by all human beings without their consent. Likeness, however, results from man’s free actualization of that potentiality. Whereas the image of God is imposed on man, likeness to God is not, but requires the free cooperation of the creature. (Cf. Harry Boosalis, Orthodox Spiritual Life, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1999), pp. 28-29.)

Well, does God exist or not? Before one can answer this question, one must understand it. In particular, one must understand that it cannot be dismissed as one the answer to which is obvious. To wax Continental for a moment, one must restore the question (die Frage) to its questionableness (Fragwuerdigkeit), where ‘questionable’ means not only able to be questioned, but, as the corresponding German term suggests, worthy of being questioned, of being raised as a question. And for that it is necessary not to take phrases like imago Dei in a crude materialistic way in the manner of old Joe and so many others.

One must see that there is nothing obvious in the Feuerbachian suggestion, even though the weight of our culture favors this obviousness; one must see that the opposite suggestion, according to which man is a theomorphic projection, is just as reasonable.