The Image of God

Last week, I noted that Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, completed his wanderings through and reflections on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, allocating the remainder of his book to some general thoughts on the life of discipleship.  Following his lead, a week ago, I offered a short piece of my own on a topic Bonhoeffer, also, considered in that closing section, i.e., the body of Christ.  This week, I take up another topic Bonhoeffer considers in his closing section, i.e., the image of God. 

Over the coming week, we will address the image of God from a variety of angles.  During chapel, we will collaborate with a range of groups on campus to address mental health and its intersection with the image of God.  And, later in the week, we will turn to thoughts on the image of God as related to Earth Day and our need to become vigilant participants in the care of creation.  Given this latter, ecological turn, I offer this excerpt from a reflection I crafted a few years ago, navigating the intersection between the image of God and creation.  Enjoy.

Have a great week.  See you along the way. 

Seeing Creation Anew: 

A Theology of Ecology

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created humankindin his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 

–Genesis 1:26-27

In Christian theology, we regularly turn to biblical texts as the first stop in the long, creative process of articulating doctrine.  Often, we turn and return to particular texts, as those particular texts seem a rich resource, abundant in insights, informing divergent yet indispensable theological positions.  Many analyses of these texts and the positions they underscore are ancient, supplying the foundational claims for many central doctrines.  And, on those occasions when a tangential or new issue arises on which the church has less frequently or never definitively spoken, theologians will, again, turn to these seminal passages, extrapolating a new doctrine from ancient doctrines emergent from these primary interpretations. 

The above text from Genesis is just such a text.  Poured over and sifted through for the germ of such pivotal and ancient doctrines as the Trinity and the imago dei (i.e., our being created in the image of God), in more recent years theologians have turned to this text as a means to imagine how we might speak to issues of ecology.  Frequently at question is how to deal with our being conferred “dominion” over creation. 

Does having dominion mean domination?  Does having dominion mean humanity is justified in exploiting the environment for whatever (short-term) benefit might be gained?  Unfortunately, more times than can be recounted, the answer to these questions has been “yes.”  Yet, such a reading of the text is only a partial interpretation of the text.  The text, it seems, provides a balancing, additional source for theological guidance. 

Returning to those two pivotal and ancient doctrines possibly alluded to within the text (i.e., the Trinity and the imago dei), we find the governing concepts for what it might mean to have dominion.  If (1) the concept of the Trinity speaks to the character of God and (2) if the concept of the imago dei speaks to the derivative character of humanity relative to that character of God, then transitive logic suggests an indelible, essential correspondence between who God is as Trinity and who we are as persons created in that God’s image.

If, as many have understood the doctrine of the Trinity to suggest, God’s unique character is to be simultaneously both uniquely one while corporately many, then God is an essentially and intimately intertwined sociality.  In technical language, God’s character is expressed perichoretically.  In more accessible language, God is one while, also, many.  Moreover, if we are created in that image, then quite possibly, we, too, exist fundamentally as corporate individuals.  

Such a doctrinal notion places a great deal of significance on our sociality and the social systems generative of and created by our sociality.  Additionally, the care for those systems becomes paramount because those systems must exist in order that we exist.  Said more positively, such care seems a natural outgrowth of our own recognition that systems are essential to all life and that having dominion is more about responsibility for those systems and sustaining those systems than it is the exploitation of those systems.  Such exploitation would be out of character for a people who understand their very essence to be wrapped up in the sustained presence of systems. 

Because of this possible essentiality of systems within Christian doctrine, I have entitled this piece a “theology of ecology.”  Ecology is the study of systems; the study of the interrelatedness of various things.  Interestingly, if not purposefully, the word “ecology” derives from the same Greek root for our word “church,” oikos.  The church is understood to be a vibrant, diverse, dynamic yet singularly interconnected entity.  (The church is one body with many members, as Paul reminds us.)  In other words, while we discover the very essence for what it means to be church, we, also, discover what it means to be ecological.  This means that Christian theology’s interest in and passion about the environment should be a natural and inevitable outcome. 

All people, regardless of our faith commitments, would benefit from such a shift in emphasis away from dominion as domination toward an ecology of care.  If the excerpt from the creation story cited above narrates anything, it is the realty that we are, literally, in this together.  Our brothers and sisters in the Hindu tradition share an equally compelling and foundational description of this created connectivity.  The Ishavasya Upanishad reads:

This universe is the creation of Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all;
Individual species must therefore learn to enjoy its benefits by forming a part of the system in close relationship with other species;
let not the other species encroach upon the other’s right.

Creation care is our common concern.

If the church and institutions of the church like Young Harris College are to be faithful to our created imaginings, then we must be environmentally responsible, engaging proactively in social and political systems seeking to care for creation. 

 

 

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